Tag Archives: Uganda

Uganda – Long anticipated, the battle over presidential age limits has begun

Twitter and WhatsApp are abuzz. Posters screaming “Youth Against Dictatorship” cover Kampala. Activists planning a mock funeral for the President are under arrest.

The furore comes after the announcement in the Uganda Gazette that a Constitutional (Amendment) Bill is soon to be published, paving the way for it to be tabled in Parliament. Among other provisions, the omnibus bill is expected to propose scrapping article 102(b) of the Constitution, which sets a presidential age limit of 75 years. Once the bill is gazetted, a Constitutional Review Commission will be appointed to gather citizens’ views on the proposed amendments, although it is unclear to what extent the Commission could influence the fate of the crucial, age limit article. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, in power for over three decades, will be turning 76 ahead of the next elections in 2021, making him ineligible to run unless the age limit is dropped. The latest proposed constitutional change comes after Museveni already saw through the removal of presidential term limits in 2005.

Opposition to the age limit amendment has come from all quarters. Four-time opposition presidential contender Dr. Kizza Besigye has made a series of statements, taking to Facebook to declare, “The people of Uganda are definitely closing in to take back their power and embark on a TRANSITION to a new dispensation.” The opposition Forum for Democratic Change, Democratic Party and Conservative Party have condemned the move while youth from the three parties are behind a pro-age limit campaign dubbed Nchi Yetu (“our country” in Swahili).

Somewhat less predictably, members of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) youth league have also rallied around a campaign against the proposed changes, leading to their hasty arrest. More concerning still, from the President’s perspective, is the opposition to the age limit amendment amongst his own rank-and-file MPs. A survey of parliamentarians conducted last year by the civil society network CCEDU with the support of NDI pointed to high levels of unease over the then anticipated move to scrap age limits. Of the 185 respondents (from a randomly selected sample of 196), 73 percent said they would not support a constitutional amendment on age limits. This included a large majority of NRM MPs (65 percent) while Opposition and Independent MPs were overwhelmingly against (97 and 81 percent respectively). Interestingly, MPs from the NRM’s traditional strongholds, the Western and Central regions, were most likely to oppose an amendment. A more recent and less systematic effort to survey MPs spearheaded by the independent Observer newspaper reveals an enduring, lukewarm attitude towards the proposed changes within the NRM.

The various pro-age limit campaigns now emerging, including those supported by a range of civil society organizations, have no intention of letting legislators off the hook. Activists have been circulating the phone numbers and emails of legislators, imploring voters, “Tell them we [want] the clause to remain intact. That one call, that email, that text message may be key in defining the destiny of our country.”

Yet however strong the pushback, it is also clear the President’s camp has its own plan. Indeed, whereas Museveni has repeatedly insisted he was “not interested in age limit talk”, his supporters launched a series of semi-coordinated actions shortly after the 2016 elections, the aim being to cultivate an appearance of grass-roots pressure for Museveni to stay. A number of NRM district conferences passed resolutions calling on MPs to lift presidential age limits. An NRM MP also tabled a private members bill in Parliament calling for the removal of age limits for judges. This was widely seen, though, as a ploy to start a debate during which the issue of presidential age limits could be introduced.

It remains part of the government strategy to present pressure for a constitutional change as originating outside of State House. In an article entitled “Don’t distort constitutional amendment debate”, the government spokesman affirmed, “the issue of age limit has been raised in various forums with many people openly urging President Museveni to stay on and complete what they deem unfinished business.” Even as Museveni enacts the role of disinterested bystander, though, internal manoeuvring continues to intensify.

The plan to introduce legislation to Parliament was apparently adopted after a proposed constitutional referendum was deemed too risky.[1] Charged with mobilising their colleagues is a small group of loyal MPs who have been actively advocating for the proposed amendment in the corridors of  Parliament. There are also plans, according to one MP, “to go district by district, convincing councils to pass resolutions, which the MPs will be compelled to support.” This “convincing” will not depend on the NRM leaders’ powers of persuasion alone. Reports are filtering through that the police and military will receive more equipment to crack down on popular protest. At the same time, a large campaign war chest has been amassed, leading NRM heavyweights to jostle over who will act as campaign coordinator and thereby control associated patronage resources. Some of the money is already reportedly earmarked, including: (a) for NRM MPs, who will receive USh3m (roughly £650) per caucus meeting, although there are also rumours in Parliament that MPs may demand a total of as much as Ush300m each;[2] (b) for as yet unpaid members of the NRM Central Executive Committee, who will start receiving a salary USh25 (£5,400) per month, close to that of the highest paid civil servants and larger than the total pay package of an MP; and, (c) for members of the National Executive Committee, who will receive USh9m (nearly £2,000) per month.

Through a combination of coercion and money, Museveni’s camp still seems likely to succeed in pressuring Parliament into removing presidential age limits. The extent of opposition along with the elaborate and costly plans to overcome it nevertheless speak to Museveni’s increasingly strained hold on power. In 2005, it took a one-off, Ush5m bribe to get MPs to scrap term limits, a move which was at the time shocking and now seems almost pedestrian. The campaign to remove term limits was also fraught, but it came before the rate of patronage inflation reached the current, dizzying heights.

Hovering above the current struggle is the question of what will become of the NRM’s legacy, and thus what lies in Uganda’s political future.[3] After first seizing power in 1986, Museveni promised “fundamental change” and later oversaw a constitutional review process, which was at the time praised by many. The accolades have long since petered out, leaving prominent figures like Kizza Besigye to denounce the increasing personalisation of power under the NRM, quipping, “President Museveni has turned himself into the Constitution.” Museveni’s own supporters are hardly reassuring on this point, with one MP insisting, “The person who has managed to build all [the] institutions is Museveni. If he has built the institutions, which have ensured that the country is stable, why should he be denied the chance to continue leading the country?” It is unclear what exactly is distinctive about “institutions” when they are presumed to come from—and seemingly also to depend on—a single individual.

Ultimately, given the kind of political order Museveni has cultivated, it is now easier to imagine a scenario whereby the age limit is scrapped and he continues as President than it is to imagine the alternative. Should the age limit remain, the ensuing succession battle could easily fracture the NRM, as has happened to numerous other dominant parties.[4] Opposition contenders, most obviously Besigye, could have another go at winning an election in 2021. But it is hard to picture Museveni—or, crucially, the military upon which he has focused so much of his energy—accepting a Besigye win. Indeed, as has proved the case in Uganda’s past, should Parliament resist executive pressure, the balance of power would likely lie with the security forces. But then they too contain their own internal factions.

In short, Museveni’s Uganda is one where, paradoxically, there would be far more political uncertainties introduced if the Constitution remained intact with age limits preserved. That’s in the short-term, of course, as lifting age limits only postpones the inevitable succession. Meanwhile, the many young Ugandans who have only ever known a Museveni presidency will, again, see their dream of a change deferred. And, to borrow a line from Langston Hughes, what happens to a dream deferred?[5]


UPDATE: On July 13th, the government surprised MPs by tabling in Parliament a Constitutional (Amendment) Bill, which unlike the promised omnibus bill, addresses only one issue, and not age limits but land. As explained by the Deputy Attorney General, the amendment will enable the compulsory acquisition of land for “development” with government compensating private land owners and taking over the land immediately, thereby circumventing what is now a lengthy process of negotiation over what compensation is due. This proposed amendment is extremely controversial in its own right, which explains why it has remained stalled on the government’s to-do list since the 1990s. What’s more, the government has by no means given up on its aim to introduce an omnibus bill. The Deputy AG made it clear that the much-awaited bill, containing an amended Article 102(b) on the age limit, will come to parliament later this year.

[1] This comes after last year’s election results were hotly contested amidst allegations of rigging. A 2017 Afrobarometer survey, moreover, had 75 percent of respondents declaring they would prefer to see presidential age limits maintained.

[2] Such astronomical payouts seem unlikely to materialise, although some form of bribe-for-votes will be necessary. And this despite the NRM Chief Whip’s strident claims that, “You can’t survive if you approach me to say I give you money to do your work to which [sic] you were elected. […] You imagine, unless this is something else not parliament, to approach the chief whip and say, ‘unless you give this much – Shs300m for us – we’re not going to Kyankwanzi [location of NRM Caucus retreats]’. How?! How can you tell me such nonsense? It is criminal, it is illegal, it is unethical, it is unwise.” The Office of the Chief Whip is known to routinely dole out money, however, making these principled objections somewhat less credible.

[3] Beyond Uganda, the push to strip away any remaining fetters on presidential power fits in with a regional trend. Rwanda recently scrapped constitutional term limits for President Paul Kagame. An NRM delegation more recently went on a fact-finding mission to Burundi where President Pierre Nkurunziza’s ill-fated efforts to circumvent term limits led to a spike in violence, adding to the number of internally displaced people and refugees. In a kind of authoritarian-style “benchmarking” exercise, the aim of the NRM delegation was to learn from Nkurunziza’s mistakes and to avert a similar outcome in Uganda.

[4] For instance, KANU in 2002.

[5] Langston Hughes poem, Harlem (“What happens to a dream deferred?)

Uganda – President Museveni’s term of “no joking around” takes a dramatic turn

President Yoweri Museveni, recently re-elected for the fifth time, continues to pursue his term of “no joking around” in spectacular fashion. After adopting the new slogan, using the Swahili phrase kisanja hakuna mchezo, Museveni has remained unusually hyperactive, doing everything from transporting water on a bicycle in a demonstration of drip irrigation techniques to personally editing routine government communiques.

In recent weeks, though, Museveni upped the ante still more, taking a direct hand in snaring two civil servants and a minister in high-profile bribery cases. On March 28, the Police’s Flying Squad Unit encircled the Ministry of Finance and arrested two Ministry officials on suspicion of soliciting bribes of over Sh15b (£3.2m) from Chinese investors looking to establish a phosphate plant. This dramatic intervention came after said investors reportedly complained directly to the President, who in turn advised them to comply with the officials, the idea being to ensure the police could catch the wayward public officials  “red-handed”.

A second, strikingly similar incident occurred less than two weeks later. This time, the Minister of State for Labour, Herbert Kabafunzaki, was caught by security operatives from police and Special Forces Command allegedly in the act of receiving a Sh10m (£2.1k) bribe from the prominent Sudan-born businessman Mohammad Hamid. The exchange occurred during a meeting at Kampala’s five star Serena hotel while not only security but also the media—tipped off in advance—lay in wait. Again, the story was that Hamid had personally phoned the President after Kabafunzaki demanded a bribe to ignore complaints of sexual harassment from workers at the Pearl of Africa Hotel, owned by Hamid.

These two Hollywoodesque operations have fuelled a heated debate. Museveni insists both interventions were aimed at rooting out corruption in the civil service and Cabinet, which he likened to a den of “thieves”. Some observers accepted this narrative, arguing that anyone soliciting bribes should be punished. Others remained more sceptical, questioning the President’s personal involvement when Uganda has an alphabet soup of anti-corruption agencies. Still other commentators argued that the entire sequence of events was stage managed to provide an opportunity for the President to perform his role as anti-corruption crusader.

These more critical appraisals have considerable merit. We can take the analysis a step further, though. Indeed, kisanja hakuna mchezo not only appears superficial and performative. It is also being skilfully manipulated to further entrench—as opposed to challenge and uproot—the constellation of, yes, often corrupt interests upon which Museveni’s regime rests.

To understand this point, it is worth taking a step back and revisiting Museveni’s original speech, in which he introduced his new “no joking around” mantra. In June of last year, shortly after his re-election, Museveni delivered his address to a gathering of Cabinet ministers, Permanent Secretaries and top-level members of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM). He used the occasion to outline a 16-point plan aimed at “fast-tracking industrialization and socio-economic transformation”.

Despite the ambition of the title, the points themselves were familiar. They centred on the need for industrial expansion through foreign investment, which Museveni argued could be encouraged through special tax breaks, the installation of industrial parks, and the suppression of wages. It is a cocktail consistent with Museveni’s past embrace of IFI-backed policies. It is also a policy orientation that—perhaps contrary to the IFI’s own expectations—has helped sustain Museveni’s government in power.

Observer’s interested in the political economy of NRM rule have long noted the President’s cultivation of a pro-regime business constituency composed notably of foreign investors, who despite their wealth cannot themselves pose a political threat to the regime.[1] For Museveni, favouring foreign investors is thus both good politics and good economics.

The President’s characterization of corruption—its causes and would-be solutions—also speaks to this strategic interest. Of the myriad forms of corruption that have emerged in Uganda under his watch, Museveni chose to focus on a very narrow subset in his speech. He thus stressed the need to “banish corruption so that the parasites that increase the costs to our investors are eliminated.”

Fast-forward a few months and we see Museveni following through on his aim to flush out the “parasites.” But of more concern than the alleged efforts to solicit bribes is perhaps the ability of people like Hamid Mohammed to make a personal phone call to the President, and to get the assistance of the Special Forces Command by way of a response. Hamid is certainly not a struggling new investor just trying to make good. He was first introduced to Museveni in the mid-2000s, after which point the President allocated to the businessman 15 acres of prime land in Kampala to construct a grandiose Hilton hotel. The project is still unfinished despite being years overdu, but rather than distancing himself from Hamid, Museveni has issued warnings to media outlets following negative reporting of the businessman’s dealings.

Investors like Hamid are not the only regime-aligned individuals who are receiving renewed support during kisanja hakuna mchezo. The Inspector General of Police (IGP), Kale Kayihura, is also among those whom the latest operations appear specially orchestrated to benefit. Kayihura has long served as one of Museveni’s closest lieutenants, yet he has come under increasing pressure amidst rising crime rates, allegations of police infiltration by organized gangs and, most recently, accusations of being complicit in the murder of the former police spokesman, Andrew Kaweesi. Museveni has nevertheless sought to shield Kayihura, tasking him with overseeing the arrest of the two Ministry of Finance officials and then praising him for the intervention. Earlier this week, the President reappointed Kayihura for another term as IGP.

For a President who has remained in power for over three decades, it is not surprising that Museveni should be doubling down, protecting the interests of his close allies. It is also not surprising to see the promise of renewal through “no joking around” come undone. What is perhaps new, though, is the somewhat more brazen effort to dress up as an anti-corruption crusade what is, in fact, the exact opposite, namely an attempt to protect insider interests.

In this business of “no joking around”, it may be that the joke is on us.

[1] See for instance Roger Tangri and Andrew Mwenda’s 2013 book, The Politics of elite corruption in Africa: Uganda in comparative African perspective.

Uganda – Done with one election, on to the next

After allegations of vote rigging in the February polls, Uganda’s President of 30 years—Yoweri Museveni—has adopted a placating tone, promising that this term “hakuna michezo” (no games, no playing around).

The rhetoric is certainly ambitious. Three years ago, Uganda launched Vision 2040, which projects that the country will reach lower middle income status by 2032 and upper middle income status by 2040. Now that timeframe has shrunk remarkably; President Museveni’s new wish is for Uganda to reach middle income status by 2020.

But despite the promises, politics is once again getting in the way. With the presidential elections only just concluded, attention has already shifted to the next round. The main preoccupation is how to ensure Museveni’s name stays on the ballot.

Vision 2021

In 2005, Uganda’s Parliament amended the constitution to eliminate presidential term limits, thereby freeing President Museveni to contest for a third term. Museveni is now set to run up against a second constitutional hurdle. By the 2021 general elections, he will have exceeded the age limit of 75 years.

The leadership of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) now appear to be testing the waters, gauging the response to a fresh constitutional amendment. In July, the NRM District Conference in Kywankwanzi passed a resolution urging Members of Parliament to move a motion lifting presidential age limits. Museveni later met with a group of MPs supportive of the reforms during an NRM party retreat before convening another meeting with district leaders shortly thereafter.

In late August, an NRM MPs went ahead and tabled a private member’s bill in Parliament, calling for, among other issues, the removal of constitutional age limits for judges. However, observers judged that the real focus of the bill had little to do with age limits for judges. Once parliament initiates a debate on a particular constitutional amendment, members are free to recommend additional change, for instance to eliminate presidential age limits. The MP responsible for tabling the bill, Kafeero Ssekitoleko, is seen as close to the First Family. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how else he might come to benefit from a new security detail apparently linked to the Special Forces Command, a military unit headed by Museveni’s son.

If the bill was in fact introduced to test the waters, it revealed that the time is not yet ripe for an amendment. It divided ministers when discussed in Cabinet and was opposed by both NRM and opposition MPs in Parliament. On 14 September, the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, threw it out, declaring it was not for MPs to start playing with the constitution.

While many believe Parliament will eventually pass an amendment, more political spade work is still needed.

Priming Parliament

Above all else, elimination presidential age limits will be expensive. While the NRM may seem hegemonic and Museveni like the linchpin of the party, this should not distract from the often tense bargaining needed to retain the status quo. And Museveni’s number one tool for maintaining loyalty is money.

A key strategic focus for Museveni’s largesse is Parliament, whose members are ultimately responsible for waving through any constitutional amendments. Whereas MPs received Shs5m to remove presidential term limits in 2005, the price will be considerably higher this time around.

Already he has acquiesced to rising levels of parliamentary patronage. Over the past several parliamentary sessions, the legislature’s budget has more than quadrupled. The cost seems increasingly difficult to justify, not least when key sectors such as agriculture—which employs an estimated 40 percent of Uganda’s workforce—are only barely keeping pace (see Fig 1).[1]


Public opinion is certainly at odds with this increase in spending. Earlier this month, activists from a group going by the name Jobless Youth released piglets outside of Parliament, painted with party colours and labelled with the names of MPs singled out as amongst the worst offenders. This action was spurred notably by news of MPs using public funds to finance seemingly unnecessary trips as well as luxuries such as iPads (Shs 2bn/USD 590k) and cars (Shs 84bn/USD 24m).

The Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, continues to defend Parliament’s spending, returning to what is becoming a recurring theme, namely that Parliament should get the same perks as the President: “If the public wants MPs to buy vehicles for themselves, let us first see President Museveni driving his personal vehicle […].” Kadaga has displayed an independent streak in the past—opposing measures backed by Museveni—and is believed to harbour presidential ambitions of her own. Given her latest move to scrap Ssekitoleko’s private member’s bill, she is an important figure for the President to win over.

In addition to Parliament’s more routine spending, rumours abound that the President—notably through his brother Salim Saleh—is distributing money to certain MPs in Parliament responsible for mobilising cliques to back government measures. These include Ssekitoleko as well as Muhammed Nsereko and Barnabas Tinkasiimire, both ‘rebel’ MPS previously expelled from the NRM but now seemingly back in the government’s good books.

Earlier this week, Museveni cast the net a bit wider. He invited all surviving Members of Parliament—past and present—to an awards ceremony where each was given a medal and a generous “transport refund.” Museveni also issued a vague promise to the 1,162 legislators present, indicating that, “On the issue of the welfare of former MPs, we have been thinking about how to solve this issue. […] We are going to sit down and discuss.”

What about “hakuna michezo”?

Despite Museveni’s promises to knuckle down, Uganda’s economy is moving at a lacklustre pace.

The latest blow came with the World Bank’s decision to suspend new lending due to “outstanding performance issues in the portfolio, including delays in project effectiveness, weaknesses in safeguards monitoring and enforcement, and low disbursement.”

The lending freeze is stoking fears of more domestic borrowing, which would drive up already high interest rates and lower credit growth.

Sadly, Uganda’s middle income dream is looking very distant indeed. Meanwhile in the political arena, the games never stopped.


[1] Data sourced from Approved Budget Estimates for FY 2009/10 through 2016/17, available at: http://www.budget.go.ug/

Uganda – President Museveni buying loyalty of newly elected MPs

Uganda’s elections concluded three months ago, and yet political tempers remain high. Most obvious—and perturbing—is the continued state-led repression of the opposition, including most recently the treason charges levelled against opposition leader Col Kizza Besigye. All is not well within the ruling party itself either. As parliament convened this week, the National Resistance Movment (NRM) leadership were scrambling to stave off a rebellion over the party’s official candidate for the position of Deputy Speaker. While seemingly minor in and of itself, this incident shows that President Museveni has his work cut out for him handling backbench MPs. And already he has had to resort to his trump card: money.

Shortly after the February elections, the race to be House Speaker erupted in controversy. The outgoing Speaker, Rebecca Kadaga, faced a challenge from her then deputy, Jacob Oulanyah. Both NRM heavyweights organized campaign teams, and started inviting their fellow parliamentarians to meetings with promises of up to Shs200k ($60) in ‘transport’ allowances. Kadaga, a Speaker with a reputation for being independent-minded, won the support of well-known dissident MPs. She attacked Oulanyah for being new to the NRM—he used to be a member of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC)—and for showing undue ambition. Oulanyah, in turn, questioned Kadaga’s loyalty to the ruling party.

With the parliamentary caucus fracturing into rival camps, the NRM Central Executive Committee (CEC) intervened to settle the dispute. CEC opted to preserve the status quo, recommending that the NRM parliamentary caucus nominateKadaga as the official NRM Speaker candidate and Oulanyah as Deputy. This move restored a degree of calm, and the NRM caucus approved both names to be the official NRM candidates ahead of a vote in the full House.

The twist came when one of the other contenders for Deputy Speaker, Mohammed Nsereko, refused to pull out of the race. Nsereko won his seat in February as an Independent. This come-back came after he was first expelled from the NRM, along with three other MPs, for disloyalty in the previous parliament. Ahead of the 2016 elections, President Museveni sought to mend fences with these four ‘rebel’ legislators, two of whom ran again on the NRM ticket, and all of whom were re-elected. After the elections, even those who remained Independents were invited to join NRM caucus meetings.

Nsereko’s‘rebel’ background made his refusal to withdraw his candidacy all the more provocative. Even more troubling for the NRM top brass was Nsereko’s apparent popularity within the caucus. He also showed his financial muscle, outspending both Kadaga and Oulanyah by rewarding supporters with Shs500k ($150) at campaign meetings.

With the very real threat of an embarrassing upset in the election for Deputy Speaker, President Museveni rushed to convene the NRM caucus on Sunday 15 May, four days before the parliamentary vote. He used this meeting to discipline Nsereko, who was escorted out by security after (again) refusing to withdraw his candidacy. Museveni then adopted a softer touch with the remaining MPs.He suggested he might reimburse their inauguration expenses, as many newly elected parliamentarians planned expensive parties for their supporters. He also promised to reconsider his decision to block the Income Tax Bill, which sparked a public outcry after MPs exempted their own allowances from taxation.

Seemingly fearful that money might not speak loudly enough, Museveni took a further, unprecedented step. On Thursday 19 May, he attended the parliamentary session, arriving shortly after Kadaga was elected Speaker and just as voting began for the position of Deputy Speaker.

After such an aggressive campaign, it was no wonder when Oulanyah won 300 out of 413 votes. But this clash between Museveni and the NRM caucus promises to be one of many as the 10th Parliament gets underway. It is in line with a recurring pattern in Uganda. At the start of a parliamentary term, a fresh cohort of NRM MPs—59% new in this parliament—arrive having fought a bruising and expensive election battle.  For many, loyalty to the NRM is conditional at best, leading President Museveni to buy MPs’ support at a seemingly ever more inflated price. This year the tug-of-war between Parliament and the President has started earlier than ever before.

Sensing, at least for now, that parliamentary independence is in vogue, newly elected Deputy Speaker Oulanyah urged his fellow MPs to “choose national interests over party allegiance.” Whether the irony was intentional is anyone’s guess.





Ugandan Elections – No surprises as President Museveni wins again, but just how much support does he really have?

This is a post by Michaela Collord

In Uganda, domestic and international observers are on the same page: last week’s elections were anything but free and fair.

Tensions were already riding high as voters headed to the polls on 18 February. Only days earlier, the leading opposition candidate, Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), was detained after a clash with police that left one opposition supporter dead. A country-wide deployment of up to 150,000 military and police officers only added to the sense of unease.

Voting itself got off to a rough start. Social media platforms and mobile money services were blocked from early in the day. Serious delays, especially around the opposition leaning capital city, Kampala, and neighbouring districts fuelled frustrations. Many suspected a conscious effort to disenfranchise voters. Reports of further delays, incorrect ballot papers, and ballot stuffing also flowed in from across the country.

The Electoral Commission announced presidential election results on Saturday even though votes had yet to be tallied from over 1000 polling stations, allegedly located in opposition strongholds. The official results attribute 60 percent of the votes to incumbent President Yoweri Museveni of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), thereby extending his 30-year rule by another five years. The runner up and four time challenger Besigye received 36 percent of the vote while former Prime Minister turned Museveni rival Amama Mbabazi, once considered a potential threat, collected less than two percent.

Besigye and the FDC criticized the polling process from the start, and resorted to a parallel vote-tallying exercise. Rumours that the FDC was on the verge of announcing its own version of the presidential election results prompted police to encircle the party headquarters and arrest a number party officials, including Besigye. To date, the beleaguered candidate has been arrested four times in eight days and is now under house arrest.

In response, Besigye released a statement denouncing a ‘creeping military coup’ while the FDC party President, Mugisha Muntu, flatly declared, ‘We believe that this was a stolen election. Absolutely.’[1] Museveni has dismissed these remarks as ‘rubbish,’ adding that ‘in the next five years the opposition will be wiped out. […] They are liars.’

International election observers are less dismissive of opposition concerns. The US, EU and Commonwealth observer missions have all criticized the election proceedings with the US mission denouncing irregularities ‘that are deeply inconsistent with international standards and expectations for any democratic process.’

The profound mismanagement of the elections raises broader questions, namely how much support do Muesveni and the NRM actually have? What tools are needed to ensure Museveni retains his strong lead in the polls?

It is still highly likely—as suggested by pre-election opinion polls—that Museveni would win the elections even in the absence of any suspected electoral manipulation. As political analysts note, however, his electoral support rests on an increasingly precarious foundation; in many regions of the country, Museveni’s apparent popularity is not rooted in any deep-felt ideological attachment to the NRM but rather depends on the continued manipulation of the electoral playing field.

Winning through intimidation

The mounting security presence ahead of these elections has attracted considerable attention. Previous elections in Uganda, notably in 2001 and 2006, were marred by violence. While the 2016 polls have proved largely peaceful, the threat of state-orchestrated violence was—and still remains—pervasive.

The heavy military and police deployment ahead of elections was a clear sign of this threat, as was the pre-election recruitment of a vigilante force of ‘Crime Preventers’. While the opposition has also recruited its Power-10 group, this effort is dwarfed by the NRM Crime Preventers.

Statements from top military and police officials prior to the elections also sent a strong message. Days before the polls, the Inspector General of Police, Kale Kayihura, proclaimed that the police could not ‘hand over power to the opposition to destabilise the peace we fought for.’ Kayihura was referring to the NRM’s involvement in a five year insurgency before seizing power in 1986, thereby restoring stability across much of the country.

Following Thursday’s election, the intimidation has continued. Besigye’s rejection of the results and his calls for a ‘campaign of defiance’ have elicited a strong rebuke. Museveni did not mince words, warning that anyone who causes trouble would be put in a ‘deep freezer’, adding that ‘the whole army and police force are mobilised [to see] who will bring violence.’ Security personnel were indeed deployed around Kampala over the weekend, with the city in an eerie calm according to some residents.

The NRM has long claimed, in keeping with Kayihura’s statement, that it is the guardian of peace while the opposition brings only unrest. Perhaps doubting voters’ continued faith in this message, the pre-election deployment and clear warnings seemed designed to persuade voters that a Museveni win was both inevitable and the best way to ensure security—even if it meant security from a police crackdown. Besigye is now calling on supporters to protest his house arrest, but the continued deployment around Kampala suggest any street demonstration would come at a cost, as many learned during the post-election ‘walk to work’ protests in 2011.

Money, and lots of it

Intimidation aside, the NRM has continued to spend lavishly on elections while also promising coveted development projects in order to boost their vote margin.

In 2011, NRM election spending broke all records and fed into a post-election surge in inflation rates. This time around, Museveni again outspent his rivals by as much as twelve to one. His rallies were a chance to get free drinks a T-shirt, or to see your favourite pop star.

Museveni also used a by now well known claim that a vote for the opposition was a wasted vote; only districts that vote Museveni get the government projects they require. Studies of voting trends in the 2011 elections suggest this argument helped Museveni win back opposition strongholds, such as Teso sub-region in eastern Uganda as well as parts of northern Uganda.

An interesting twist in the 2016 campaigns came when opposition supporters started giving gifts—anything from petty cash to livestock—to support Besigye at his rallies. This was a symbolic coup for the opposition, and even prompted some staged gift-giving events at Museveni rallies. It also helped the cash-strapped opposition bankroll the campaign, raising in total 100m Ugandan shillings or roughly USD 30,000. But at the end of the day, that is a far cry from Musevein’s estimated seven million gathered from a few wealthy donors.

Gaining an institutional advantage

The partisan Electoral Commission (EC) in Uganda is another bonus to Museveni. The long-time chair of the EC, Badru Kiggundu, has repeatedly condemned Besigye’s ‘defiance’ politics. On the eve of elections, he also implied that opposition politicians—the so-called ‘doomsday advocates’—were planning to stuff ballot boxes.

The opposition has called for electoral reforms, not least to ensure an independent EC, but has remained largely unsuccessful.

The opposition has the right to petition the Supreme Court over the election results. Besigye took this route in 2001 and 2006 but, on both occasions, the Court declined to annul results while nevertheless admitting to election irregularities. Besigye’s own legal team, those who argued his case in the past, remain highly sceptical about the potential for the Court to rule in their favour this time, particularly in light of recent, partisan appointments to the bench. Even as Besigye considers his options, his house arrest as well as the police surveillance of the FDC headquarters are undermining efforts to gather necessary documents and evidence.

The police are justifying Besigye’s house arrest in part through reference to the controversial Public Order Management Act, passed in the wake of the 2011 protests. They claim that should Besigye enter Kampala, this would lead to an unlawful procession and therefore they cannot allow him free movement.

What to make of the parliamentary election results

The recourse to intimidation, patronage and institutional manipulation suggest uncertainty—even paranoia—about Museveni’s popularity in Uganda. Ensuring a wide margin of victory is also important to retain the impression that the President is unshakable. Even so, Museveni has lost nine percent of votes relative to his 2011 score.

Results from the parliamentary election leave a mixed impression. The NRM has retained its huge majority in parliament, although final results have yet to be announced; however, because of Uganda’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the large seat share conceals a rather less impressive share of the vote (around 50 percent for NRM parliamentary candidates in 2011).

One potential blow to the NRM in this election is the defeat of party bigwigs, including 19 ministers. Among them were several ‘historical’, NRM members whose support dates back to the 1980s war.

Museveni was quick to reject any suggestion that his ministers’ electoral defeat might reflect poorly on his government. Instead, he flipped the situation around, claiming it was a sign of a robust democracy.

While many ministers lost out, the three so-called ‘rebel’ MPs expelled from the NRM in the last parliament all bounced back as independents. They are among a growing cohort of independents elected to parliament, many of whom are NRM leaning but lost out in the party primaries, which were marred by irregularities and allegations of vote rigging.

The opposition has suffered its own losses with the FDC losing a number of veteran legislators. At the same time, though, the FDC as well as the Democratic Party gained new MPs from Northern Uganda, which swung in favour of the NRM in 2011, as well as western Uganda, an NRM stronghold.

Where to now?

This election has proved anything but conclusive. While Museveni and the NRM have declared a resounding victory, there is still tension in the streets. Ugandans will also be returning to the polls Wednesday, 24 February, to vote for local councillors. With reports coming in that FDC members are being harassed and detained across the country, the outlook is not positive.

Beyond elections, though, Museveni and the NRM must confront the reality of their own fading support. They can continue with their usual strategies to tilt the field in their favour. But at the end of the day, they will need to find some way to appeal to Uganda’s growing population of young voters. Education and a job are what many voters want. So long as both remain in short supply, the NRM is in trouble.


[1] Mugushi Muntu speaking on NBS talk show, Uganda Decides, 22 February.

President Museveni unlikely to leave power any time soon in Uganda

President Yoweri Museveni has been in power for thirty years, and his determination to stay in office shows no signs of dissipating.  Having removed presidential term-limits, rumours abound that if he wins the presidential elections – schedule for 18 February – he will look to remove the age limit the constitution sets for presidents, which currently stands at 75 years. Museveni is currently 71, so any effort to remove the limit would be clear evidence that he intends to stand in the next but one election, scheduled for 2012.

That, of course, all depends on Museveni defeating his long time rival Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and his newest rival, Amama Mbabazi of the Go Forward movement. Initially the candidacy of Mbabazi looked like it might generate a fresh challenge for the incumbent. Having been Museveni’s right hand man up until very recently, Mbabazi was said to have vast financial resources, and to have lined up a number of heavyweights within the ruling party who were waiting for the fight moment to defect.

But the Mbabazi effect has yet to materialise.  The anticipated flood of defections turned out to only be a trickle, and even that has now dried up. Go Forward has also struggled to match the expenditure of other parties. According to the Alliance for Campaign Finance and Monitoring, the NRM was responsible for 88% of all campaign related expenditure in November and December; by contrast, only 1.1% was attributable to the Mbabazi campaign. Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that a number of opinion polls have found that he is trailing well behind the other two candidates, on somewhere between 5 and 15% – although all such surveys are controversial in Uganda.

Significantly, the evidence of campaign spending collected by ACFIM suggests that, despite his protestations, Mbabazi may be aware that his race is over and have decided to keep some of his resources back for another day. In contrast to the NRM, whose expenditure increased by 72% between November and December, and the FDC, which ramped up its outlay by 25%, Go Forward reduced its monthly spend by 23%.

Of course, this does not mean that President Museveni is assured of victory. Besigye remains a formidable opponent and has been mobilizing vast rallies across the country, particularly in urban areas. Moreover, turning established practice on its head, Besigye’s supporters have started to give him money at rallies. Although the sums involved are fairly small, their symbolic importance is considerable.

However, despite Besigye’s broad popularity, Museveni remains the favourite. He controls the security forces and has a reasonably effective state apparatus at his disposal, including the “Crime Preventers”, a volunteer force recruited and managed by the police that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have argued should be suspended for the elections to allow for a free and fair poll. The NRM can also afford to outspend the other parties 9 to 1. And, of course, Museveni appoints the electoral commission.

In the absence of a level playing field, it seems likely that Museveni will “win” another commanding victory. Whether this is fairly earned or not, the margin of victory is likely to play an important role in shaping the presidents attitude to his future, and that of his country. If he is seen to have comfortably defeated not only his old rival but also his newest challenger, the president is more likely to feel that he can force through another term in office. However, this would not be a popular move with many Ugandans. According to the Afrobarometer, 85% of Ugandans want president term-limits to be reintroduced.

Uganda – President Museveni and the NRM slated to win in the coming elections, but at what cost?

Campaigns ahead of Uganda’s February 2016 general elections are heating up. The presidential race kicked off last month. President Yoweri Museveni of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) is running against his long-time opponent, Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), as well as  his erstwhile close political ally and former Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi, who is standing as an independent.  Nominations for parliamentary candidates closed yesterday with an expected 10,000 aspirants for just over 400 elected positions, or roughly 25 contenders for every seat.

With this array of candidates, the coming elections look to be the most heavily contested—and costly—ever witnessed under President Museveni’s 30-year-old regime. Bookmakers have Museveni and the NRM down to win by a large margin. But even with a sound victory over the opposition, the expense of handling intra-party factionalism may make it a pyrrhic one. With Mbabazi’s decision to vie for the presidency, the amount of money needed to keep the NRM house in order has risen sharply. This elite rivalry has made an already existing situation much worse, and all but guarantees more financial and political trouble after the elections are done.

The ‘commercialization’ of politics in Uganda

Museveni’s and the NRM’s long stay in power has come with an ever bigger price tag. Elite cohesion at the highest levels has been purchased by allowing Uganda’s ‘aristocracy’ to take advantage of government positions to amass personal wealth. The regime has meanwhile maintained local support through a combination of patronage, public services and coercion. The creation of new districts, each with its promise of lucrative jobs and more sate resources, has proved a particularly expedient but expensive method of bolstering the NRM’s popularity.

Pressure to extend more patronage to local areas has steadily risen throughout Museveni’s rule. This is a result of competition between the NRM and the opposition parties but also of growing competition within the NRM itself. Around elections, this pressure reaches a fever pitch. After losing ground to Besigye in the 2006 polls, Museveni started touring the country a full two years before the 2011 election, distributing money and issuing presidential pledges along the way.

Pressure on MPs is also high. Ugandan legislators report spending more on routine constituency visits than their counterparts in 15 other African country surveyed, bar Nigeria.[1] This spending rises precipitously during election campaigns. For MPs from the ruling party—who make up over 70 percent of legislators in the current parliament—the hardest test is often not the general elections but the NRM party primaries. In 2010, the first time all NRM party members had the right to participate, the primaries were marred by allegations of extensive vote rigging, bribery and fraud. The party emerged bruised. Many NRM-leaning legislators entered parliament as independents after losing in the primaries while NRM MPs openly wondered what their party had done for them. The losers, either in the primaries or the general election, were left to stew, with many calling on Museveni for compensation.

Frustration with the 2011 elections and how they were handled by the party contributed to later divisions within the NRM parliamentary caucus. Faced with an unusually rebellious legislature, Museveni had to make an effort to subdue MPs, something he achieved notably through offering them bribes for votes or support to help them manage their debts.

Beyond the political challenge, the economic consequences of the 2011 elections were unprecedented in Uganda. Since the 1990s, the government has built up a reputation for its prudent macroeconomic management, reflected in overall low inflation levels. Yet after the 2011 polls inflation rates soared, fueled to a large extent by excess election spending. The Governor of the Bank of Uganda later admitted that he had been called on to essentially print money.

Mbabazi’s bid – more factionalism, more money

Amama Mbabazi, now Museveni’s presidential rival, is very much a member of the NRM political aristocracy. He previously served Museveni as Attorney General, Defense Minister and finally Prime Minister starting in 2011. He was also elected NRM Secretary General in 2009. Over the course of his stay in government, he built up a personal fortune. He was repeatedly listed in high profile corruption scandals, but always benefited from political cover. For a long time, many saw Mbabazi as Museveni’s heir apparent with the possibility of a succession in 2016.

But shortly after 2011, it became clear Museveni was still planning to run again. Moreover, he appeared to be positioning his son, wife or son-in-law to take over after him. This seeming desire to keep the presidency as a family business has stoked tensions among the NRM’s top elite. This frustration is particularly noticeable among certain long-serving members of the party’s Central Executive Committee (CEC). Observers have argued that corruption levels in Uganda are reaching unprecedented levels in part as a result of the growing challenge of keeping the NRM top brass in the Museveni camp.

And even so, that challenge has clearly not been met. Rumors that Mbabazi—tired of waiting—was planning to challenge Museveni spread around the end of 2013. Museveni dropped him as Prime Minister in September 2014 and shortly thereafter orchestrated an extraordinary NRM delegates’ conference to change the NRM constitution and effectively strip Mbabazi of his role as party Secretary General.

Both Museveni and Mbabazi spent lavishly in efforts to build their support throughout this period, and have continued to do so since, targeting various groups—and notably youth—with patronage. As the elections season got under way, the pressure on Museveni to buy off politicians willing to auction their support to the highest bidder has also grown. In May, for instance, a group of NRM parliamentary flagbearers who lost in the 2011 elections approached Museveni asking for help with their debts. Any candidate who loses a parliamentary election on the NRM ticket automatically becomes the party chairperson in their area, thereby potentially retaining considerable power to mobilize voters for or against a presidential candidate of their choosing.

Mbabazi has repeatedly offered financial support to both opposition and NRM MPs. The prospect of Mbabazi bankrolling their campaigns was among the primary reasons why opposition parties, briefly united as The Democratic Alliance (TDA), considered adopting him as their joint presidential candidates. Opposition MPs were reportedly particularly drawn by the prospect of his support. After the TDA dissolved and Mbabazi went on to stand as an independent, certain opposition parties including the DP stuck by him, again partially for financial reasons.

The NRM party primaries have offered a new set of opportunities for Mbabazi both to campaign and decampaign certain candidates. As was the case in 2010, this year’s primaries, completed last month, were heavily contested and fraught with allegations of foul play. At one stage, two top-ranking NRM leaders, both of whom had a long-standing personal antagonism with Mbabazi, accused him of fronting rival candidates in their constituencies. One then went on to lose the primary election in a major upset.

Throughout the primary process, the newly appointed NRM Secretary General claimed the party would not tolerate failed NRM aspirants running as independents. This threat quickly proved hollow, though. Shortly before the official nominations were due, over 60 incumbent MPs who lost their NRM primaries met with Mbabazi’s sister-in-law and were offered financial backing in exchange for supporting Mbabazi. Museveni then invited the 60 MPs to a separate meeting at State House, at which he declared the NRM would not decampaign them should they run as independents.

As was the case in 2011, this tolerance of independents is resented by official NRM flagbearers. It keeps the elections tight in many areas where it would otherwise be easy, and forces candidates to keep spending after already going through costly primaries. This outcome ultimately undermines the NRM’s ability to consolidate as a political party capable of encouraging cohesion or imposing discipline among its members; rather, the current set-up is more akin to a kind of ‘no-party’ system beset by costly intra-elite rivalry.

What happens next in an aging regime?

Mbabazi’s presidential bid is, to some extent, highly predictable.  Subduing elite political ambitions through patronage and a high tolerance for corruption—the Museveni strategy—has its limits. Similarly, in a ruling coalition already fraught with internal divisions, albeit lower down the hierarchy, it is not surprising that the top level jockeying between Museveni and Mbabazi is fuelling more demands for pay-outs from below. Yet as patronage spending soars, the dangers of further economic instability looms large. One only has to think back to 2011, and then multiply. Museveni may also face additional trouble from his parliamentary caucus, which at the very least, may find ways to extract more costly patronage in exchange for support.

Finally, increased violence is another clear possibility for when patronage becomes unsustainable, or no longer works. Museveni has been most careful to consolidate his support within the military and police force, and has also overseen the formation of new militias ahead of the election. Mbabazi and Besigye have repeatedly clashed with security trying to prevent them from traveling or holding rallies. The militias pose a different, in some ways more ominous threat. In past elections, especially 2001 and 2006, they were used to intimidate the opposition—as well as NRM members who’d fallen from grace.

While Museveni is still far and away the most likely winner of the coming elections that does not mean that Mbabazi’s challenge is insubstantial or that Museveni’s regime is strong; rather, as intra-party contestation intensifies, his ability to exert control comes at an ever higher price.

[1] These results are form a survey of 16 countries conducted by the African Legislatures Project.

Uganda – Rival to President Museveni announces bid for top job in 2016 elections

On Monday 15 June Amama Mbabazi, long-time heir apparent turned political rival of President Museveni, declared his intention to run for president in a video released on youtube. The much anticipated announcement triggered a media storm and widespread speculation about what this development could mean for the 2016 presidential race. While the implications for the election itself are uncertain, the Mbabazi bid is already fuelling runaway campaign spending, exacerbating a trend that continues to threaten Uganda’s political and economic stability.

An announcement long in the making

Late last year, Mbabazi was dropped as Prime Minister and pushed out of his role as Secretary General of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) in a series of moves designed to stymie his alleged presidential ambitions. More recently, Museveni and his close allies in government have mixed conciliatory personal overtures with more authoritarian efforts to suppress dissent in hopes of discouraging an Mbabazi candidacy.

Many political observers, meanwhile, remained uncertain about Mbabazi’s strategy and intentions. The erstwhile ally of Museveni revealed very little of his plans, leading some to speculate he was discouraged by the NRM’s heavy handed response. Mbabazi’s silence appeared to have a dampening effect on some of his supporters, notably among a break-away faction of the NRM youth league, many of whom were brought back into the fold following personal invitations to visit Museveni’s private ranch.

Ultimately, pressure from within the Mbabazi camp may well have precipitated Monday’s announcement. In particular, prospective campaign donors reportedly wanted Mbabazi to go public in order to gauge the response and therefore the merits of backing him as a candidate.

The opposition view – Mbabazi the hero?

Mbabazi walked a thin tight-rope in his five-minute declaration, balancing between, on the one hand, a renewed affirmation of his allegiance to the historic ‘values’ of the NRM and, on the other, a call for something akin to regime change. Seemingly picking from an opposition playbook, Mbabazi asserted, ‘It is abundantly clear that what Ugandans want now – what you want is not simply change in leadership but change of system. A change in order.’

The response among leading opposition figures has been largely positive, if cautiously so. Perhaps most enthusiastic are a number of former NRM MPs, expelled from their party for indiscipline in 2013. They heralded Mbabazi’s bid as the ‘birth pangs of democracy’ while insisting that ‘for the first time, Museveni is going to have an election.’ Veteran opposition politicians were also sanguine in their response. Nadala Mafabi, Secretary General of Uganda’s largest opposition party Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), commented, ‘When President Museveni wanted power, he opted for the gun, but Mbabazi has decided to use the ballot. This is good for democracy and as Opposition, we welcome Mbabazi’s candidature.’

There is little love for Mbabazi personally. Despite the encouraging statements, the expelled, ex-NRM MPs could, until recently, be heard denouncing Mbabazi as the man who oversaw their ejection from the ruling party. The opposition, meanwhile, has weathered numerous direct confrontations with Mbabazi, notably during his days as the implacable Leader of Government Business in Parliament responsible for, among other things, ensuring the passage of the opposition-baiting Public Order Management Bill. Mbabazi’s considerable personal wealth is also seen as an indication of his involvement in a string of corruption scandals.

Mbabazi the man aside, what opposition sympathizers do welcome, as the above statements imply, is the opportunity an Mbabazi candidacy offers to reset the political chessboard. The initial optimism associated with Uganda’s 2005 return to multiparty politics quickly faded as successive elections have left the opposition with an ever dwindling share of the vote. Some opposition leaders, including former FDC President Dr Kizza Besigye, even advocated boycotting the 2016 elections, arguing they are a futile regime-legitimating exercise with a predetermined outcome. Viewed from this perspective, Mbabazi’s presidential bid is a breath of fresh air; it can at least guarantee an ‘intriguing’ election rather than yet another rerun.  As such, anything with the potential to shake Museveni and the NRM’s hold on power is a positive.

The NRM view – Mbabazi the hypocrite

Those close to Museveni have responded to Mbabazi’s bid by labeling the erstwhile Prime Minister a ‘hypocrite’ and resorting to vitriolic attacks. The government’s media centre boss, Ofwondo Opondo did not mince words, hammering, ‘[Mbabazi] is really finished and we shall frog-march him to the delegates conference should he present his candidature.’

Mbabazi’s video launch was also accompanied by a formal letter sent to the President’s office, which earned Mbabazi an invitation to speak with Museveni personally on Monday. While all sides insisted the meeting was ‘cordial’, it failed as a last ditch effort to dissuade Mbabazi from contesting.

Mbabazi’s supporters have also had to contend with an aggressive counter-offensive. Campaign coordinators convened launch ‘parties’ across Uganda on Monday to coincide with the video release. These were rapidly suppressed by the police while many Mbabazi supporters were arrested.

These arrests are in line with the tactics used by the NRM regime against the opposition to date. Mbabazi and his supporters will undoubtedly face heightened police retaliation in days to come. Mbabazi may also have to handle renewed criminal investigations and corruption charges.

Mbabazi’s attempt to launch his bid from within the NRM seems particular irksome for those close to Museveni. Minister for Youth, Evelyn Anite, sought to remind Mbabazi that he signed the NRM parliamentary caucus resolution endorsing Museveni as sole presidential candidate in the 2016 elections. Anite was herself responsible for proposing that resolution, which helped catapult her into a youthful cohort of NRM MPs who now serve as Museveni’s close ministers, advisers and NRM campaign strategists. Frank Tumwebaze, the Minister for the Presidency, similarly called Mbabazi out for criticizing a government of which he himself was until very recently one of the main architects.

An Mbabazi candidacy – what can it achieve?

It is too early to tell whether Mbabazi’s bid will have much of an impact on the coming elections, or even whether it will succeed in exacerbating tensions within the ruling NRM party, as many opposition supporters hope. There is at least one effect that is, nevertheless, already influencing this year’s election cycle, and with potentially destabilizing implications for Uganda both politically and economically: Mbabazi’s campaign is driving up the inflated cost of elections.

Election spending in 2011—much of which involved redirecting funds from the Treasury—is credited with fuelling a post-election spike in inflation, a collapse in the value of the shilling and a steep drop in GDP growth. These, in turn, helped propel the opposition-led ‘walk to work’ protests, which saw Kampala streets filled with tear gas for several weeks. The 2016 elections promise to be no better. The fears over an Mbabazi bid have pushed spending up a notch. Already the NRM is reported to have invested hugely in a special NRM delegates’ conference convened in December 2014 in order to amend the party constitution and replace Mbabazi’s elected secretary general position with an appointed bureaucratic post. Mbabazi also has money to spend and is believed to have used at least 50m ($15,000) to facilitate Monday’s launch parties alone.

The added financial pressures involved in countering an Mbabazi campaign will further stretch the ability of the NRM to use its financial muscle to hold members together while avoiding post-election economic shocks. MPs in particular have been calling for some kind of compensation from Museveni for their role in spearheading the sole candidature agenda. These dynamics raise the prospect of record spending in 2016 with serious consequences for an economy already reeling from a weak currency. Whether or not Mbabazi achieves his short-term goal of winning the election, which seems highly unlikely, his candidacy looks set to exacerbate and expose the vulnerabilities of the political system upon which the NRM relies.



President Museveni of Uganda moves to quell ruling party dissent

President Museveni’s refusal to stand down after almost thirty years in power has exacerbated tensions within the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM). Aspiring political leaders are frustrated that their own ambitions are being blocked by Museveni’s determination to stand again in 2016. Having removed term-limits in 2005, the president has already gone on to serve ten more years that the previous constitution allowed. Now, President Museveni has moved to reconcile with some of the leaders that he previously alienated in a bid to maintain the unity of the NRM.

One of the more prominent leaders to let his disappointment be known in recent years is Amama Mbabazi, a long-serving NRM minister and the president’s former confidant. Despite appointing Mbabazi as his Prime Minister in 2011, Musveni became increasingly fearful that his former ally planned to challenge him for the presidency. In response, sacked Mbabazi in September 2014, denying him a public profile and access to state funds.

Recently, however, it has been reported that President Museveni has become increasingly worried that if Mbabazi decides to contest the election outside of the NRM it could split the ruling party, leaving Museveni more vulnerable to defeat. In early May, the president thus initiated a fresh dialogue designed to persuade the former prime minister to abandon his presidential ambitions. According to The Observer [Kampala] newspaper, Museveni has proposed a power-sharing model in which Mbabazi would be guaranteed the vice presidency and “a shot at the presidency in 2021, the year in which President Museveni has promised to retire.”

The proposals included a promise to change article 108 of the constitution to upgrade the position of vice president to that of deputy president, with expanded executive powers, along the lines of the Kenyan model. However, Mbabazi is understandably wary of accepting such a deal, because he has no way of ensuring that the president will keep his word – and Museveni has broken similar deals in the past. According to local reports, Mbabazi informed the president that “The deal would be okay but you’ll still retain the powers to sack” – meaning that even if Museveni kept his word and made him a deputy president, he would still serve at the presidents pleasure.

It is not yet clear whether a second proposal, which would see Mbabazi rejoin the NRM in return for being allowed to contest primary elections for the right to be the party’s candidate in the 2016 contest, will be more successful. It is thought that this option is more appealing to the former prime minister, but that he remains concerned that the primaries would be rigged in favour of the incumbent. There is also the small matter of the fact that the NRM has already officially endorsed Museveni’s candidacy, and previously resolved that the president should be relieved of the need to contest party primaries.

Despite the ongoing uncertainty, the government is already in campaign mode, and the Ugandan media has been ordered to increase its coverage of the president. In a thinly-veiled attempt at intimidation, the Uganda Communications Commission, a state-controlled regulator, informed domestic broadcasters that they are subject to “licensing conditions issued by the commission, whereby all broadcast stations are expected to provide live coverage of major national events and addresses [by the president]”. According to the Commission, such coverage will be closely monitored, and “non-compliant stations will be penalised”.

However, such stories have not always played to Museveni’s advantage. In June 2014, NTV Uganda, a television station owned by the Nation Media Group, was shut down after it showed footage of the president sleeping during a session of parliament. According to NRM spokespersons, the president was meditating and not sleeping and so the coverage was misleading. As a result, they temporarily suspended NTV’s coverage of the president, accusing the broadcaster of a “lack of professionalism and biased coverage”.

More confrontations between the government, the media, and the opposition, are likely as the polls near.

Uganda – The ouster of a top NRM cadre reveals President’s struggle for control within the ruling party

Uganda’s ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) is undergoing what may turn out to be its biggest internal battle since it came to power in 1986. At surface level, the dispute revolves around one high ranking party cadre and his alleged presidential ambitions. But this political affair lays bare two broader issues: first, the weak institutionalization of the NRM party—which has multiple, conflicting implications—and second, the determination of President Museveni to further consolidate his power and that of his immediate family circle

The current conflict exploded across newspaper headlines on September 18 when President Museveni sacked his Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi, in a one off cabinet reshuffle. This initial fall from grace left Mbabazi with his position as NRM Secretary General intact. On October 18, however, the NRM Central Executive Committee (CEC) pressured Mbabazi into taking a ‘temporary leave’ from his duties as SG, pending a meeting of the NRM National Delegates Conference scheduled for December 15.

Mbabazi’s rapid decline was all the more remarkable given his status as a long-standing ally of President Museveni. The two men have known each other for over 40 years. Mbabazi helped oversee resource mobilisation for the National Resistance Army during the 1980s ‘bush war’, which brought Museveni to power. He later served the President as Minister of State in the President’s Office, Attorney General, Minister of Justice, Minister of Defence, and Secretary General, a position he has held for the past nine years. When Museveni appointed Mbabazi Prime Minister in 2011, many began speculating that the President—in power since 1986—was lining up his successor.

That was clearly a misinterpretation. Indeed, it was Mbabazi’s perceived desire to succeed Museveni that led to his undoing.

From ‘loyal cadre’ to presidential rival

The relationship between Museveni and his close ally took its first hit when Mbabazi refused to relinquish his position as party Secretary General after being appointed Prime Minister. Museveni argued this dual-mandate was untenable, but Mbabazi maintained that, according to the NRM constitution, the SG position was not a bureaucratic one and therefore did not require a full-time commitment.

Museveni’s concern nonetheless deepened after the NRM lost a string of bye-elections in 2012, leading many to point a finger at the SG’s poor mobilization efforts. At the same time, rumours spread that Mbabazi was using his position to enlarge his personal support network and thereby prepare to challenge Museveni ahead of the 2016 presidential elections. At an NRM National Executive Committee meeting in 2013, intelligence reports alleged that Mbabazi smuggled 78 people who were not party delegates into the meeting to speak in his favour.

In February 2014, when the NRM parliamentary caucus enthusiastically adopted a resolution endorsing Museveni as the sole NRM candidate for the 2016 presidential elections, this action was widely interpreted as a thinly veiled effort to pre-empt a potential Mbabazi candidacy. Far from stifling a latent conflict, however, the caucus resolution led to fresh concerns after it triggered a widely publicized schism in the NRM youth wing, a number of whose leaders declared themselves in favour of Mbabazi for president. A few leaders were briefly jailed, charged with soliciting signatures from NRM members to force the party leadership to call a delegates’ conference. Leaked intelligence recordings later revealed that the Inspector General of Police Kale Kayihura had been interviewing NRM youth about Mbabazi’s mobilisation work out of fear that the SG would be able to marshal enough support at an eventual delegates’ conference to win the party presidential nomination.

A further mark against Mbabazi came after an NRM parliamentary caucus select committee, charged with investigating the botched 2010 party primaries, interviewed Mbabazi only to learn that the SG kept the party register at his private office and refused to hand it over. Mbabazi’s daughter, Nina, who led a group of volunteers responsible for compiling the party register, refused to meet with the committee. Mbabazi’s wife, Jacqueline, had already laid her cards on the table when she compared the parliamentary caucus to a group of ‘fascists’ in the wake of the Museveni sole candidacy resolution.

As Prime Minister, Mbabazi is also alleged to have used his position as chair of Cabinet meetings to marginalise ministers close to Museveni. In early September, youth dressed in Mbabazi T-shirts also started making an appearance at the national football stadium.

Museveni’s counter-mobilisation

Museveni began his effort to undermine Mbabazi long before dropping him as Prime Minister. Many describe the President’s frequent tours around Uganda, which he uses to distribute gifts, as on a par with pre-election campaigning. Some claim that Museveni is also working to ‘neutralize’ Mbabazi economically. The Central Bank closed Mbabazi’s bank, the National Bank of Commerce, under uncertain circumstances while companies associated with Mbabazi have begun losing government contracts. In another strategic manoeuvre, Museveni has appointed a cohort of youthful ministers to act as his new go-to partners in government, thereby side-lining his erstwhile favourite, Mbabazi. Among these new ministers is Richard Todwong, Minister without portfolio charged with political mobilisation, who is viewed as a de facto Secretary General.

There have also been efforts at counter-mobilisation among the youth, led primarily by people in the army and police force. Commissioner for National Patriotic Education, Lt Col Henry Matsiko, is championing ‘patriotism’ lessons in schools while Inspector General of Police Kayihura rallies university students to become ‘crime preventers’, the aim being to ensure 50 crime preventers per district.

Shortly after Museveni sacked Mbabazi as Prime Minister, the NRM party caucus recommended that a group of Ministers tour the country ostensibly in order to monitor implementation of the NRM’s 2011 party manifesto. The group Museveni appointed—led by the younger generation of Cabinet favourites—has been using the tour to peddle the Museveni sole candidacy resolution while de-campaigning Mbabazi.

The meeting of the NRM Central Executive Committee, which led to Mbabazi taking his ‘temporary leave’ as SG, was a further step in Museveni’s drive to push out his political rival. While a success on many levels, the meeting did not go entirely according to plan. Museveni’s claims that Mbabazi had been campaigning to stand as President led Jacqueline Mbabazi, head of the NRM women’s league, to accuse President Museveni, who is also NRM party chairman, of hypocrisy. She argued that nothing bars an NRM member from campaigning for the party nomination, as indeed Museveni has done himself. What’s more, she rejected the parliamentary caucus’ sole candidacy resolution on the grounds that the caucus is not the party organ vested with the constitutional power to designate a nominee. That power lies with the National delegates’ conference. Although a majority of those present at the CEC meeting appear to have sided with Museveni, a number of prominent NRM cadre showed sympathy for the Mbabazis, revealing a rift in the NRM leadership.

The weakness of the NRM

The Mbabazi-Museveni saga is far from over, but its wider significance is already becoming apparent.

First, the current tensions highlight a contradiction within the NRM itself, which raises serious concerns about party cohesion. This contradiction stems from the contrasting implications of the NRM’s weak party institutionalization.

On the one hand, the NRM’s continued failure to develop strong party structures at the local level—a legacy of when the NRM ruled under a ‘no party’ system—is a major contributing factor to the current party malaise. The fact that the Mbabazis—Amama and his daughter Nina—were able to maintain the party register like a piece of private family property attests to a more fundamental lack of organization within the ruling party. This is not a situation that can be resolved simply by ejecting Mbabazi, nor will it be remedied once the NRM changes its constitution to introduce a technocratic SG, as is currently being proposed. Rather, as was concluded following the above-mentioned investigations into the chaotic 2010 party primaries, the NRM needs to restore confidence among its members by undertaking critical reforms. These touch on everything from membership registration to candidate nomination to primary election management through to clarifying the party hierarchy in order to ease high-level party decision-making. Short of this, the party will continue to suffer from embarrassing internal conflicts, time consuming legal suits, low morale and disaffection among elected members, not to mention electoral defeats. Meanwhile, in the absence of reliable party structures, the state security apparatus is likely to become ever more present in routine political mobilisation processes, as is already the trend.

Although weak institutionalization at the lower levels of the NRM makes party discipline and control more unpredictable, there are nevertheless clear signs that Museveni views this institutional weakness as desirable at the higher levels of the party decision-making structures. Indeed, he is perfectly happy to use the NRM parliamentary caucus, where he can more easily manipulate pliant MPs, as the supreme party decision-making body. Lately this has proved more expedient than relying on the Central Executive Committee full of party Big Whigs, many of whom view themselves as his peers rather than subordinates. Museveni has, moreover, repeatedly tried to disregard the party constitution (at one point claiming he would assume the powers of SG), but this disregard has met with staunch criticism from his opponents within the NRM.

To recap, there is a fundamental contradiction emerging within the NRM organisation at the moment. While the party would benefit from strong institutions throughout, notably at the lower levels, the ever increasing identification of the party with a single individual—Museveni—encourages a personalization of power at the top, which overrides existing institutional structures.

This observation leads to a second, and final, point arising out of the Mbabazi affair: the focus of NRM party reform has never been primarily about ensuring party endurance, like say is the case for the far more institutionalized CCM party in Tanzania; rather, the NRM has remained a personal vehicle for Museveni. Previous reforms, for instance in the run up to the major constitutional amendments of 2005, have focused on securing Museveni from rivals and on ensuring more discipline of party dissidents. Party members have been content to ride the presidential coat-tails, so long as Museveni can continue to orchestrate NRM electoral victories. This continues to be the case today, although with increasingly worrying implications as the President looks beyond the civilian structures of the NRM party towards the security forces to do the political work.