08:35 pm
27 October 2016

Game on between Uganda’s former liberation war allies

This 2016 election in Uganda is likely to be closely contested, with personal animosity seeping into the bigger political questions. Having removed presidential term limits in 2005 and, over 30 years, engineered a system in which he sits at the apex of decision-making, President Yoweri Museveni is not keen to leave. But the ‘Old Man’ will have to beat out his former doctor, Kizza Besigye, and former prime minister John Patrick Amama Mbabazi to cling onto power. By MAGNUS TAYLOR for the INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP.

First published by the International Crisis Group.

John Patrick Amama Mbabazi (known as JPAM), the former prime minister and secretary general of Uganda’s ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), is tired. He had an early meeting and then, indignity of indignities, he got stuck in traffic. We’re in Crested Towers, the high office block from where he used to run government business. Now it’s home to his nascent presidential campaign. The cause of the traffic jam was his estranged political partner, President Yoweri Museveni, whose convoy has the habit of causing chaos on the streets of the capital, Kampala. This is just one thing that Mbabazi, who recently switched from regime stalwart to opposition insurgent, is going to have to get used to.

When I last visited Uganda in March 2014, Museveni and Mbabazi were at each other’s throats. Mbabazi, the second-most-powerful man in the country, had been accused of developing parallel support structures within the ruling party to become its flag-bearer in the 2016 presidential election (he still denies this). Museveni, having removed presidential term limits in 2005 and, over 30 years, engineered a system in which he sits at the apex of decision-making, was not keen to leave. (His favoured eventual replacement would be his son, Muhoozi.)

Museveni responded to Mbabazi’s ambition by sacking him as prime minister, appointing a new secretary general of the NRM and announcing a plan for a ‘Single Candidacy’, that is, no one would stand against him for the party leadership.

On 14 June 2015 Mbabazi announced that he would run for the presidency. He would first try to muscle his way into the NRM leadership primaries. If that failed, he would compete as an independent and try to take his supporters in NRM with him. At the height of the internal struggle, NRM was said to be split down the middle between the president and the prime minister. Whether Mbabazi can retain this network following the loss of political office is as yet untested.

After declaring his wish to take his campaign on the road, Mbabazi challenged the inspector-general of police to stop him: “He may put a mamba [armoured vehicle] at my gate … If he puts a mamba [there], I will jump over it”. On 9 July, JPAM got beyond the gate, but not much further. He was detained for several hours when attempting to travel to eastern Uganda to meet with supporters in Mbale to hold what the Ugandan system technically calls a “voter consultation” in the pre-campaign phase of an election. Police stopped him before he even crossed the Nile at Jinja (two hours from Kampala).

Also on 9 July, Kizza Besigye, a three-time opposition presidential aspirant who is running again in 2016, was arrested leaving his house for a meeting at the US embassy. Mbabazi tells me Besigye was “collateral damage”, caught up in the real game surrounding his own temporary incarceration. It is his candidacy, not Besigye’s, he says, that is “the biggest ever threat to Museveni’s leadership of Uganda”.

Besigye was Museveni’s doctor during the Bush War (Uganda’s liberation struggle) and is a far more established opposition figure. He stood against Museveni in 2001, 2006 and 2011, gaining 27%, 39% and 32% of the vote respectively, despite Museveni’s enormous financial and organisational advantages, which go beyond those normally associated with incumbency. For the opposition to force a run-off against Museveni it must gain 50% plus one vote (a simple majority) in the first round – something it has never been close to achieving. Could Mbabazi win enough voters unhappy with Museveni’s long tenure but unwilling to vote for Besigye to deny the president a first-round victory and push him into a head-to-head fight with one of his old comrades? Kampala is buzzing with speculation over the likely outcome of Mbabazi’s campaign; Red Pepper – a tabloid-style newspaper and regular source of political gossip – ran a story as recently as 1 October saying the NRM had postponed its party primaries for fear that Mbabazi was preparing to insert his own supporters into key positions within the party.

On Monday 7 September, Mbabazi finally made it to Mbale. The plan was to conduct further supporter meetings in the east, at Kapchorwa and Soroti, unprepossessing towns in the politically marginalised eastern region. Mbabazi’s team felt sure he would get adequate support there to give his campaign some momentum. The first two of the three sessions went off without a hitch. The police presence was unobtrusive and JPAM seemed to be warming to the task. He wore local dress and smiled. Crowds – supportive and curious – thronged the venues. All received a free soda, and the atmosphere was party-like.

In Mbale, JPAM was presented with a large golden key, intended to represent his imminent installation as the custodian of State House. But politically, as well as geographically, it’s a long way from Mbale to Kampala.

By 9 September, something had shifted in the political firmament. Whether the result of a directive from the leadership or simply hot-headed local policing, a crowd in Soroti was, with limited provocation, tear-gassed, and a planned meeting in Jinja was cancelled, with the electoral commission releasing a statement that Mbabazi is not allowed to hold “rallies”, only “consultations”, until the campaign has formally begun. The distinction is, at best, academic. Mbabazi’s crime was clearly one of excessive popularity.

Jinja police released their own statement, saying the hall Mbabazi was going to use for his meeting was booked for the whole month, and there was no other venue. Mbabazi says his team booked and paid for the hall long before. But he can’t win the argument. The Jinja trip is off. It was never really about the hall.

JPAM returned to Kampala amid more tear gas. His supporters and onlookers, in the mood for some anti-NRM excitement, surrounded his car. Game on.

While Mbabazi was out east, the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) was gearing up for the campaign. It first re-elected Besigye as its flag-bearer. But Besigye’s view on running again has, for the past few years, been at best ambivalent.

When he lost heavily in 2011 Besigye decided to take a back seat in the FDC and let former army chief Mugisha Muntu take over the leadership. Muntu has a solid track record and is a better organiser, but he lacks Besigye’s charisma on the campaign trail. Besigye has name recognition but his reputation is divisive, that of a dangerous radical who abandoned the liberation movement instead of working within it.

After 2011, Besigye seemed to conclude that it was pointless to run against Museveni unless the electoral system was reformed; within the current rules, Museveni, who controls state resources, the electoral commission and security services, is unbeatable at the ballot box. Museveni agreed, asserting in 2011 that he would chew up anyone who stood against him “like a samosa”. An electoral reform bill, which includes clauses intended to make the electoral commission more independent, has been submitted to parliament but is stuck in committee and highly unlikely to progress before the elections.

Since his last electoral defeat, Besigye has changed tack, seeking to highlight the impact NRM’s poor economic management is having on ordinary people. He linked up with Activists4Change, a civil society coalition formed to launch “Walk to Work” protests; covered in detailed in Crisis Group’s 2012 Uganda report“Uganda: No Resolution to Growing Tensions”. The plan was to draw attention to the plight of those suffering under cost of living increases, notably a 50% fuel price jump, which had forced many to resort to the only form of transport they can now afford.

The protest was a clever idea, based on the premise that Museveni could not object to Besigye simply doing what many poor Ugandans do every day. He was wrong: his own journey to the office attracted thousands of followers, and the police intervened with tear gas and beatings and arrested Besigye, who was also shot in the hand with a rubber bullet and, in a separate incident, a video of which was widely viewed internationally, tear-gassed in the face through the smashed glass of his car window.

While Besigye, for the reasons described above, remained distinctly sceptical about the utility of running against Museveni for a fourth time, the opposition movement as a whole decided this year that it would attempt to unite around a single candidate and form The Democratic Alliance (TDA), essentially the FDC and some smaller parties. This was a bold symbolic step but one likely to have a limited impact at the ballot box, where the non-FDC opposition won only about 4% of the vote in 2011.

Some wondered whether the professional coordination of the TDA launch suggested the hand of Mbabazi. If he played a significant organising role, he was keeping his cards close to his chest, initially refusing to be drawn on whether he would be a candidate for the alliance’s leadership. After missing an initial deadline, Mbabazi eventually presented his credentials. This precipitated an argument within the movement over whether it would be best served by his crossover appeal or Besigye’s electoral experience. A Mbabazi/Besigye ticket could attract more overall support, journalist Andrew Mwenda wrote recently in The Independent, a Ugandan current affairs magazine: “The salvation for the opposition … is to have both Besigye and … Mbabazi in the race …. Mbabazi can eat into Museveni’s vote and appeal to many independents uncomfortable with Besigye”.

Polling conducted in July 2015 by Research World International into a possible three-horse race found 55% support for Museveni, 18% for Besigye and 14% for Mbabazi, with 13% “undecided” or “don’t know”.

These numbers show that a Besigye-Mbabazi electoral alliance would not necessarily improve on the 2011 opposition performance. But what such a poll doesn’t reflect is the potential the opposition may have to build further support once it starts campaigning and gains greater attention from an often politically apathetic public.

Godber Tumushabe from the TDA explains why it is, despite the numbers, optimistic about 2016: “For [Museveni] having spent five years campaigning, 55% is pretty bad”. He also raises a point many others touch on; for Museveni, the exercise of government is first about staying in power. This is not to say that NRM has no significant achievements; it has presided over a massive expansion of the state and, for the majority of Ugandans, an increase in prosperity. But the narrative is shifting increasingly toward the efforts required to keep the ‘Old Man’ in power and preserve the patronage-driven system developed to achieve this end.

In contrast to the lack of change at the top, Ugandan politics is highly competitive at the local level. It still hugely favours the nationally embedded structures and deep pockets of the NRM, of course, the only party able to field candidates for every parliamentary seat. But dissent is expressed more obviously through constituency battles and NRM primaries, rather than at the presidential level. As journalist Angelo Izama writes here, there is about a 50% chance of a legislator losing if he or she chooses to run again at the next election. Coupled with a lively media and civil society, there is potential for opposition politics to gain traction, certainly in the urban centres (as Besigye’s relative success has proven).

The unknown potential of the opposition alliance may be why Mbabazi has been so obviously obstructed in his attempts to conduct even his innocuous sounding ‘consultations’. Museveni fears him. And he is specifically alarmed that Mbabazi is not running with a party behind him, but rather as a representative of ‘the original NRM’. Mbabazi’s plan after winning the presidential poll would be, quite evidently, to reinsert himself into the NRM architecture as a compromise or ‘change’ candidate.

It’s difficult to find a serious, non-partisan commentator who thinks Mbabazi will win. But is this analysis simply the conservative instinct of the ‘incumbency matters’ reading of African politics? Did Muhammadu Buhari’s victory in Nigeria this year usher in a new era of possibility for opposition parties across the continent? There is some cause for optimism among the Ugandan opposition – particularly the pressure placed on Goodluck Jonathan by international actors to respect the results – but Nigeria’s fight against insurgency in its north east (the spark which ignited the Buhari campaign) is more obviously a preoccupation of voters than Uganda’s slow drift toward authoritarianism. Museveni can also reasonably claim that, unlike Jonathan, he defeated a religious-based northern insurgency (although it took 20 years).

There is also widespread scepticism about Mbabazi’s chances in part because he does not cut a convincing opposition figure. He was a leading player in the regime until 2014 and as prime minister ushered through legislation such as the Public Order Management Act, which will likely now, in an irony not lost on Ugandans, be used against him to break up political meetings that have not been specifically cleared by the security services. Uganda’s parliament has officially exonerated him from an alleged association with a high-profile corruption case. Mbabazi has moreover never been particularly popular with the public; he was respected for his abilities as a political operative in concert with Museveni’s power and charisma but not loved.

Perhaps more significant still, Yoweri Museveni has not spent 30 years in power without finding ways to entrench his position. Most obviously, he has built up the security services and kept them occupied and loyal. First this was with the long-running war against Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army). More recently they have been deployed in the profitable African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) – the Ugandan deployment to Amisom receives training and salaries from the European Union and the US – with no sign of withdrawal despite recent heavy losses.

Using his army to carry out challenging tasks in Mogadishu has helped Museveni, who has long styled himself as the indispensable “Bismarck of East Africa”, to build Uganda into a crucial player in the region. As well as contributing the largest and longest-deployed contingent of troops to Amisom, Uganda has 3,000-4,000 troops in South Sudan, who were instrumental in shoring up the government of Salva Kiir after the outbreak of civil war there in December 2013. Uganda, whose business interests and migrant population in South Sudan are considerable, has also been a crucial, if controversial, factor in the recently concluded peace talks, including a rapprochement with Sudan and President Omar al-Bashir.

While Uganda’s drift towards authoritarianism, coupled with the high-profile introduction of legislation to criminalise homosexuality (not yet passed) and regulate the operational environment for nongovernmental organisations (progressing through parliament), may not win approval from Western actors, Museveni has embedded himself to the extent that the internationals accept his military contributions with one hand while wagging a censorious finger with the other. His actions may not always be approved, but he has made Uganda a serious player in the region, one that cannot be lightly dismissed or sidelined.

Museveni has integrated his family and key supporters into the main security organs, making an unplanned change in leadership all the more unlikely. First, he has built up his son Muhoozi to become commander of the Special Forces Group, with authority over the best-trained and equipped troops in the country, including the elite Presidential Guard Brigade, whose loyalty is virtually assured.

Secondly, in 2005 Museveni appointed a hard-working army commander, Kale Kayihura, as his inspector-general of police and increased his budget to recruit both greater numbers of conventional officers and large numbers of civilians, who have been deployed to assist police operations temporarily during past elections and will likely be so used again next year.

In 2011, 5,500 of these Special Police Constables were added to the force. The idea originated in donor-funded community policing programmes that sought to more effectively connect the country’s stretched police resources with the communities they served. Plans in 2015/2016 are much more ambitious. Kayihura is training hundreds of thousands of ‘Crime Preventers’ (some say as many as 5-million, but that figure hardly seems credible). As Fred Golooba-Mutebi wrote in The East African: “Every time an election is coming up, for some reason the government somehow remembers that crime is a big problem.”

Crime Preventers were originally the idea of Blaise Mugisha, a student at Uganda’s premier university, Makerere. Following a highly reported incident of rape on campus, Mugisha met Kayihura and suggested a “National Youth Crime Preventer Programme” to empower young Ugandans to take control of their own security through training provided by the police. Kayihura may have hoped to greatly increase his local manpower with a cheap, if possibly unreliable, force. Secondly, it may have looked like a way to bring Makerere, previously an opposition stronghold, “on board” by empowering a section of the student community keen to improve its own prospects through cooperation with the regime.

The Crime Preventers programme now channels attempts by self-empowering youths to find a place for themselves in the patronage world of NRM politics. Mugisha, a personable and intelligent young man, tells me the programme is about “people solving the problem” so they can “benefit economically and create productive units”. But he and his comrades are being used by the NRM as the front for a project that is more about keeping the older generation in power than building a society able to gainfully employ their own generation.

It’s questionable, however, how much effective election management Crime Preventers might be able to contribute, given their desultory three-week training and lack of salaries. The concern is that they may be inserted in a disorganised fashion into closely fought local races, causing mayhem, or take the opportunity their new-found status may afford to extort fellow citizens.

The debate about militias intensified further when ‘presidential adviser’ Major Kakooza Mutale, a grizzled Bush War veteran,announced that he was training his own group, the Kalangala Action Plan (last seen entering the fray during the 2001 elections), and would “do anything” to make sure Museveni remains in power. Erias Lukwago, lord mayor of Kampala and a Besigye supporter, countered that announcement, saying he too would have his own group, Trust and Justice Solida.

Mbabazi describes Mutale as “a clown”, and most people doubt whether Lukwago’s group will actually be formed, but Ugandans are conflict shy, having long memories of what came before the NRM. Research World International’s poll illustrates this well. According to its figures, 45% do not believe political power can change peacefully through elections; 61% don’t think Museveni can peacefully hand over power if defeated. The inference is: “Don’t cross the Old Man at the ballot box”.

It is, however, becoming accepted that politicians will have their own private bands of heavies to deploy when the political debate moves beyond the ballot box and the debating chamber into the streets. And political debate is more commonly moving to the streets, as questions of transition and reform loom larger in the public imagination.

This election is likely to be closely contested, with personal animosity seeping into the bigger political questions. As Museveni sees his former doctor and former prime minister preparing to face him on the campaign trail, perhaps he wonders: “Who next?”