Bored of the Big Man

20150618-MuseveniI wrote this article for The Economist, based on my Ugandan trip.  It can be seen in the paper here.

THE buildings stormed by Israeli commandos in 1976 still stand on Entebbe airfield. Now they are joined by the occasional C-17 Globemaster of the United States Air Force, part of an American presence trying, among other things, to hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army. Over the years, Uganda’s allies and foes have chopped and changed.

But one fact stubbornly endures: since independence from Britain in 1962, Uganda has never experienced a peaceful transition of power. In the coming year though, opponents of President Yoweri Museveni think they at last have a chance to unseat him at the ballot box.

In 1986 Uganda’s current ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), emerged victorious from a protracted civil war that had started with the ousting of Idi Amin in 1979. Mr Museveni, as the NRM’s head, has been president ever since; 80% of Ugandans have known no other leader. Many Ugandans care less about past glories than the frustrations of the present, especially over corruption, jobs and housing. But a divided opposition has provided no plausible alternative and, in any case, removing Mr Museveni through the ballot will be difficult. The NRM is woven into the fabric of Ugandan society and has a long reach. Opposition parties may continue to find it hard to compete against it, even if many Ugandans are no longer enthralled by Mr Museveni. Even so two recent events raise the possibility that an election due next year may offer a change.

On June 9th the main opposition parties and civic leaders came together to form the Democratic Alliance (DA). Similar groupings have emerged before but have failed to dent the NRM. This time lengthy consultations and a wide acceptance that only unity can lead to change have created a more resolute collaboration, says Zac Niringiye, a former Bishop of Kampala. “I do not hate Museveni,” he says, “I love him because he is a human being. But he is the source of all instability and needs to go.”

Another development is the declaration on June 15th by Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister and chief thorn in Mr Museveni’s side, that he will fight for the NRM’s nomination as presidential candidate in place of Mr Museveni at the party’s convention on October 4th. As a leading NRM figure he hopes to win support from party members thirsting for change. But Mr Museveni knows a thing or two about holding on to power. The NRM is full of bigwigs who owe their positions to the president. Challenging from within the party is a risky strategy.

Should the NRM stick with Uganda’s longstanding president, Mr Mbabazi says he may talk to the DA. But having been at the hub of power so long, he may struggle to win over the anti-NRM vote. Whether he is the man to offer it or not, change is needed, especially at the top.

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A new King of Scotland?

20150614-amamaSacked Prime Minister challenges Ugandan President’s 29-year rule

Kampala. 15 June 2015.

The former prime minister of Uganda has declared he will challenge the president at elections due next year. Amama Mbabazi was sacked from the government in 2014 after criticising the president, Yoweri Museveni, who has been in charge for 29 years.

Mr Mbabazi, 66, told me there is a “climate of fear” in the country and that change is desperately needed. He accuses Mr Museveni of centralising power, intimidating the press and misusing public funds to ensure re-election.

Launching his presidential bid on June 15th with a slick social media strategy, he hopes to reach out to the youth of Uganda who feel ignored by the country’s increasingly authoritarian president. 80% of Ugandans have only known one leader.

Mr Museveni, 70, has been in power since 1986 after he led a resistance movement to victory in Uganda’s protracted civil war, which started with the overthrow of dictator Idi Amin in 1979. Amin, who called himself King of Scotland to highlight his anti-English views, ruled the country from 1971 and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

Since gaining independence from Britain in 1962 there has never been a peaceful transition of power in Uganda. Mr Mbabazi hopes to overcome widespread voter apathy in a country that has only known multi-party elections since 2005. Uganda has no Presidential term limits and Mr Museveni has taken advantage of a disparate and weak opposition to remain in charge for so long.

He had promised to stand down after winning the 2011 election, but went back on his word. In February 2014 at the annual convention of the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), Mr Museveni declared he would stand unopposed at presidential elections planned for early 2016.

In a rare display of independence, the party’s Central Executive Committee ruled the president’s comments unconstitutional and said other NRM members should be able to stand. But with widespread cronyism Mr Museveni has been able to dissuade serious challengers.

Mr Mbabazi has long been a thorn in Mr Museveni’s side. As a member of the NRM since the days of the bush wars and having previously held positions including Defence and Security Ministers, he has credibility within the party and has been at the centre of power for many years.

He therefore thinks he has a good chance of securing the party nomination at the next convention, due on October 4th this year. He says Mr Museveni has “overstayed his welcome…and this has many dangers.” He promises that, if elected, he will serve a maximum of two terms.

In a separate development on June 9th, Uganda’s main opposition parties and civic leaders announced the formation of the Democratic Alliance (DA). Previous collaborations have proved weak and no match for the NRM party machine.

But this time discussions took place over two years and there is an acceptance that only by unifying can Mr Museveni be ousted. One member of the group is Zac Niringiye, the former Bishop of Kampala. He has been a long-standing critic of the president and believes his life has been threatened in the past for his outspoken opposition. He only drinks in one hotel in Kampala where he says, “I know the coffee is not poisoned”.

“Museveni has deceived the people and the West into thinking he is the bulwark against terrorism,” he says. “But really he is the source of instability in this region of Africa.”

The Bishop alleges Mr Museveni deliberately tolerated the existence of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a brutal rebel movement in central Africa, so as to appear strong for the West. Likewise, Uganda’s efforts against al-Shabaab in Somalia are part of a strategy to win over international support.

The United States has a military presence in the region and planes often fly out of Entebbe airfield, scene of the famous Israeli commando raid in 1976. Bishop Zac says Mr Museveni uses such international influence to lend legitimacy to his tenure.

“I do not hate Museveni,” he says, “I love him because he is a human being. But he is the source of all instability and needs to go.”

It will be the youth of Uganda who decide the election. For them corruption, jobs and housing are more important than former military glories in the bush wars. Uganda has the second largest youth population in Africa, after Chad, and a climate favourable to food production. It therefore has potential as an exporting nation, but suffers 83% youth unemployment.

In the Budget on June 12th, the government prioritised 1.6 trillion Uganda Shillings ($0.5billion) for security and defence, instead of the economy. Mr Museveni said that agriculture would benefit through “forward and backward linkages”. Many think the money was pledged to shore up his position. “How can there be so much unemployment,” asks Angelo Izama, a journalist with The Monitor in Kampala, “when there is so much work to do?”