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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