Uganda moving toward ‘dictatorship light’?


Like many African leaders, Yoweri Museveni preached democracy even as he was seizing power through the barrel of a gun, writes FT analyst David Pilling:

In his stirring inaugural speech of January 1986, three days after his National Resistance Movement stormed Kampala, Uganda’s new leader spoke eloquently about the cycle of coup and counter-coup despoiling Africa’s political landscape. “We have had one group getting rid of another one, only for it to turn out to be worse than the group it displaced,” he said. “The first point in our programme is the restoration of democracy.”

Thirty years after those rousing words, Mr Museveni is still in charge. Barring a violent upheaval of the sort that propelled him to power all those years ago, he will remain so for at least another five years following deeply flawed elections that culminate at the ballot box on Thursday. After a campaign marred by intimidation, Mr Museveni will be duly returned for a fifth term. He has already amended the constitution once to scrap two-term limits. If he can do so again, this time to end an age limit of 75, then Mr Museveni, already 71, may be able to carry on as leader of Uganda well into his eighties.

That is quite a feat for someone who once said that the problem with Africa was leaders “who want to overstay in power”.

Analysts and opposition politicians say Mr Museveni’s tactics are indicative of the way he has maintained his grip on the nation, particularly in recent years, reports suggest:

His government has created a 150,000-strong volunteer force, called Crime Preventers, to help uphold peace and security. Opposition politicians describe them as a state militia who intimidate anyone who does not support the president and the NRM.

Uncivil society

Are the Crime Preventers simply volunteer citizens organized by the government to battle petty crime and safeguard the exercise of democracy? Or is their true purpose to crush any election-related protests? The New York Times asks.

The political bent of the Crime Preventers, more than 100,000 citizens who have been deputized to control crowds, arrest suspects, guard ballot boxes and gather intelligence, is no secret, Jeffrey Gettleman writes:

Zereth Adio, a Crime Preventers zone coordinator, said her group was preparing for trouble from “those opposition guys.” When asked which candidate most Crime Preventers supported, she said, “the Old Man” — the name many Ugandans use for Mr. Museveni. All four other Crime Preventers present said they would vote for the Old Man.

“This is what I worry about,” said Professor Kabumba, who spoke from behind his desk in a dimly lit office in central Kampala. “Just beneath the facade of democracy is a real military government. The chance of a peaceful transition of power is slim to zero.”

The buildup to Saturday’s election has been punctuated by repeated calls for peace during and after polling by political, security, religious, cultural and civil society leaders, as well as media organisations, The Guardian adds.

“We have noted with grave concern some of the animosities among the aspiring candidates from the different political parties in Uganda. If such situations are not handled with great care by all the key stakeholders in Uganda, we are all going to witness a politically motivated violence situation before or during or after the 2016 general elections,” said a newspaper advert published on Wednesday by the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative.

The temptation is to see strong leaders — the right ones, of course — as the best solution for weak and troubled states, the FT’s Pilling adds:

Nic Cheeseman, an academic and author of Democracy in Africa, says that the prerequisites of democracy are generally taken to be “a coherent national identity, strong and autonomous political institutions, a developed and vibrant civil society, the effective rule of law and a strong and well-performing economy”.

If that’s the case, then, sadly, most African countries need not apply….To be fair to Mr Museveni, his tenure has not been all bad. In his first decade, he presided over a period of political stability after the horrors of Idi Amin. Growth was brisk. Infrastructure was repaired. And Mr Museveni did better than most of his peers — some of whom were shamefully neglectful — in tackling the Aids epidemic head on….

While villains and kleptocrats cling on because they fear reprisal, he says, better leaders stay in power because they genuinely believe no one else can do the job. Without their firm hand, they imagine, the state will slip back into penury or chaos. But holding on means hollowing out the institutions on which the future must be built. That is what has happened in Uganda.

Yet the problem with successful leaders, says Mr Cheeseman, is that “they start to believe their own hype”.

“Dictators love elections,” Busingye Kabumba, a law lecturer at Makerere University in Kampala, tells the Times:

The days of overt one-party states in Africa are over, analysts say, but the earlier pressure for genuine multiparty democracy seems to be fading.

Leaders across the continent who have been in office for many years feel the need to hold elections and even to go through the motions of campaigning, but the outcome is rarely in question. Many of Africa’s recent elections were actually less fair than the ones of just a few years ago.


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