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