Tag Archives: President Yoweri Museveni

Uganda – Museveni in a Muddle

This year, President Yoweri Museveni has been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Three developments in particular have undermined his legitimacy both at home and abroad. First, he orchestrated the removal of president age-limits (having previously done away with term-limits) so that he can stand for election for a sixth time in 2021. Second, his government’s horrendous abuse of opposition (or more accurately independent) leader Bobi Wine, most notably his torture while in detention, led to widespread condemnation. Third, Museveni’s threat that he can “do away with parliament” may have intimidated some of his legislative opponents, but it has also called into question the legitimacy of his regime. Taken together, these developments suggest that the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government finds itself in a particularly difficult moment – and faces pressures that are likely to get worse before they get better.

Let us start with the government’s reaction to the challenge posed by the musician turned politician Bobi Wine. The heavy handed state response suggests that there is a growing recognition within the NRM that the president’s efforts to prolongue his stay in power are not without costs. By forcing through a removal of constitutional age limits – despite fist fights in parliament, violent protests outside, and a population that supports presidential term-limits – Museveni has made it clear that he both intends to rule until his dying breath and is becoming increasingly insensitive to popular sentiment.

This is a dangerous strategy in at least two ways. First, it signals to other leaders within the NRM that their own presidential ambitions will come to naught until Museveni leaves the political scene – which gives them little reason to wish him good health. At the same time, it has made the president look increasingly out of touch with popular opinion – a risky move in an era in which even old school nationalist leaders such as Robert Mugabe have fallen by the wayside.

The Bobi Wine controversy must be understood against this backdrop. In another year, in a different context, the government might have responded to Wine’s (successful) efforts to help another independent candidate to win a parliamentary by-election in the Arua municipality with a more subtle strategy. But in this particular political moment, Wine represented a more significant threat to the NRM’s authority than usual, and so triggered a more brutal response. As a “youth leader” of 36, Wine is less than half Museveni’s age. Consequently, his campaign has thrown the president’s gerontocracy into sharp relief. At the same time, Wine’s popularity in urban areas stands as a powerful reminder that Museveni’s rule is premised on his control of the rural vote. Over the last decade, the opposition has steadily gained control of towns and cities.  Shorn of the ability to use traditional leaders, patronage and coercion to mobilise support, the NRM typically loses out to Kizza Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change. Put simply, if Uganda was an urban country, Museveni would have lost power some time ago.

While the government’s unacceptable treatment of Wine led him to flee the country – he is now in the United States recovering from his injuries – it has not undermined his influence. Indeed, if anything it has turned a local politician with limited resources and resonance into an internationally known martyr for the opposition cause. As a result, someone that was previously thought of as an independent member of parliament is now being talked about as a potential future presidential candidate.

If the government’s response to Bobi Wine is likely to generate unintended and unwelcome consequences, what of Museveni’s threat to do away with parliament? The first thing to note in this regard is that, as with his response to Wine’s growing popularity, Museveni’s statement is an indication of his mounting frustration – in this case at the number of MPs within the legislature that have called into question government policy over recent months – rather than a symbol of his authority. The second is that the president is unlikely to follow through with his threat. There are three main reasons for this:

  • First, as Michaela Collord has pointed out, Museveni has made similar statements before and they are usually part of a strategy of brinkmanship – to date, the president has yet to follow through on such a threat. Thus, as Nicole Beardsworth has suggested, it is unlikely to happen.
  • Second, as Sam Wilkins has argued, the NRM regime relies on the hard work and political mobilization of Members of Parliament, who provide a crucial link to the grass roots. Shutting the legislature would be counterproductive, “alienating hundreds of people on whom he [Museveni] relies”.
  • Third, shutting the legislature would undermine the myth that Uganda is a democratic regime. In addition to highlighting the authoritarian foundations of the NRM government, it would make it almost impossible for the country’s international partners – who have done their best to overlook Museveni’s failings thus far – to continue providing financial support.

All told, these points suggest that Museveni’s situation is more constrained than it first appears. The threat of an authoritarian crackdown may well force the NRM’s critics on to the back foot, but the president cannot actually follow through with all of his threats without simultaneously undermining the platform on which the legitimacy of his regime depends.

Significantly, leaders who come to rely on making empty threats suffer from a fundamental weakness, namely that they become ever more vulnerable to someone calling their bluff. As Micheal Mutyaba has argued, the conditions now exist both for greater opposition to Museveni’s rule to emerge, and for the president to adopt increasingly authoritarian strategies to maintain political control. The likely consequence of these two tends is growing contestation and a new era of political confrontation. Such a development would be particularly dangerous for Museveni, because it would undermine his claim to be able to deliver peace and order – a claim that has undermined the NRM’s legitimacy ever since it took power in 1986.

Back then, the critical reference point for domestic and international audiences was the incompetent and unstable regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Thirty years on, Ugandans are starting to ask for more, and the NRM is struggling to deliver.


Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and the founder of www.democracyinafrica.org

President Museveni and Uganda’s intervention in South Sudan

Shortly after conflict broke out between government and rebel forces in South Sudan last December, Uganda intervened in support of the South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. While the Ugandan military operation was ostensibly aimed at protecting Ugandan civilians in South Sudan and keeping the peace, on January 15 Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni confirmed suspicions that the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) was involved in offensive combat operations.

Since this revelation, calls for the withdrawal of Ugandan forces from South Sudan have multiplied, both at home and abroad. However, thus far President Museveni has proved remarkably adept at subduing—or at least delaying—criticism of Uganda’s involvement in South Sudan.

Criticism at home

Domestically, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government has successfully outmanoeuvred parliamentary opposition, at least for the time being.

On January 9 the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, received a letter from President Museveni requesting that Parliament be recalled from recess so as to retrospectively approve the UPDF’s deployment on humanitarian grounds. The letter came a day after the Speaker wrote to the Minister of Defence, declaring her intention to take the initiative in recalling Parliament. The President’s letter was, however, dated December 24, prompting accusations that it was backdated in order to undermine claims that the President had deployed troops without the constitutionally required parliamentary approval.

The UPDF Act (2005) does allow the President to deploy troops abroad for peacekeeping purposes in an emergency. After repeated assurances from government Ministers that the UPDF was limiting its activities to the evacuation of civilians and other humanitarian aims, Parliament passed a motion authorizing the UPDF’s deployment on January 14.

When shortly thereafter President Museveni revealed the UPDF was engaging in combat with rebel forces, NRM and opposition MPs joined together in criticizing the government for misleading parliament.

Tensions between parliament and the executive reached their height on January 23 when committee members expelled the Minister of State for Defence, Gen Jeje Odongo, from a meeting and instructed him to return only after locating a formal letter allegedly sent by President Kiir requesting Uganda’s help in South Sudan.

This show of parliamentary opposition nevertheless came too late, after the legislature had already approved the UPDF’s role. President Museveni also used the subsequent annual NRM caucus retreat to further rally ruling party MPs to the government position. At the retreat—where MPs dress in military fatigues and attend classroom lectures delivered by the President—Museveni implied the UPDF intervention in South Sudan is apiece with Uganda’s overall aim to secure its geopolitical position within the Great Lakes Region, thereby abandoning any pretence of humanitarian priorities.

International criticism

While the NRM government has successfully stymied domestic opposition for the moment, international criticism of Uganda’s role in South Sudan is on the rise. It comes, however, only after a significant delay. This slow response is indicative of the extent to which international actors—notably the United States and the UN—have grown dependent on Uganda as a guarantor of regional stability.

Analysts commenting on the fighting in South Sudan questioned Uganda’s involvement from the start, emphasising Museveni’s historically close ties with Salva Kiir, noting the UPDF’s obvious deficiencies as a neutral peacekeeping force, and condemning Uganda for obstructing a political solution to a conflict that has cost thousands of lives and displaced more than 800,000 people.

Despite these grounds for legitimate concern, the initial response of international actors was to turn to President Museveni for support. During a phone conversation in December, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called on Museveni to mediate a political solution between the opposing parties in South Sudan.

The United States, which was a key supporter of South Sudan in its quest for Independence, has taken a keen interest in the conflict and reportedly consulted with Uganda and Ethiopia about orchestrating a military intervention in an effort to prevent rebels from seizing Juba.

Admittedly, some regional actors, notably Ethiopia, were quicker to question UPDF involvement. For the most part, however, it was only after a first ceasefire was agreed on January 24 and a second round of peace talks scheduled to start on February 10 that the international pressure on Uganda to withdraw from South Sudan increased significantly.

In late January, the ambassador of Norway, a major donor to Uganda, declared it was “now important” for Uganda to start withdrawing troops. On February 7 Jen Psaki, US state department spokesperson, called for a “phased withdrawal” of “foreign forces”, without mentioning Uganda directly.

The Ugandan government has so far rejected the US appeal, insisting the UPDF will remain in South Sudan until the country is stable.

The current standoff could be interpreted as a sign that, despite successfully delaying criticism, Uganda has now overstepped the mark, risking alienating major donors who are now adopting a more assertive stance.

An alternative analysis, however, suggests that the Ugandan government, and above all President Museveni, still have the upper hand. The initial delay means that pressure from the US and other international actors now appears somewhat contradictory and unconvincing. These same international actors were content to see—and may even have approved of—the UPDF intervention until a political solution to the conflict became a more distinct possibility.

What is more, the UN and US are not in a position to sanction Uganda given their continued reliance on the UPDF in Somalia, where the Ugandan force has played a pivotal stabilizing role.

Uganda’s incursion into South Sudan may not significantly alter the status quo. Domestically, Museveni has avoided a messy conflict with parliament while internationally, Uganda has secured enough agency through its strategic positioning as a regional stabilizing force to withstand international pressure.

As stated by Henry Okello Oryem, the Minister of State for International Affairs, “Uganda will not jump just because another country says so, including the United States.”


Further reading

For an analysis of Uganda’s success in ‘securing agency’ vis-à-vis Western actors, see:

Fisher, J (2012)  ‘Managing perceptions and securing agency: Contextualizing Uganda’s 2007 intervention in Somalia’, African Affairs, 111 (444), pp.404-423 (July 2012)