Uganda’s Slow Slide into Crisis

Executive Summary

Uganda suffers from inefficient patronage politics and a downward spiral of declining governance, poor economic performance and local insecurity. President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, in power since 1986, appears unwilling to step down; supporters and detractors alike expect him to rule until he dies or engineers a handover to a close ally or family member. He will be 77 by the next election in 2021 and is poised to amend the constitution’s 75-year age limit, despite objections from the opposition, civil society and some in his own party. The president undoubtedly retains support, particularly in rural areas, not all of which is patronage-based. He is credited with bringing stability after the 1980s civil wars and eventually defeating the Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion, though his autocratic drift and systemic corruption risks wrecking this legacy. With political and institutional reform, there still is time to avoid such an outcome.

The decline in governance has ripple effects across the system. It stymies attempts to improve core services – particularly infrastructure and agriculture – that are strained by the demands of a rapidly growing population. Urgent infrastructure projects and the long-anticipated start of oil production have suffered delays, further depressing international investment. New government initiatives, nominally aimed at stimulating the economy, typically take the form of handouts, particularly to under-employed youth, designed to secure political support. The likewise politically-motivated creation of new administrative districts has not improved local services, but instead increased the size of the public sector, straining an already overwhelmed public purse. New districts also contribute to communal tensions, particularly when delimitation reallocates control over natural resources and land.

The security sector, particularly the police, is emblematic of these problems. Police officers carry out functions that are nominally intended to preserve public order yet in reality function as the president’s first line of defence against rivals. They spend much of their time disrupting opposition activities. Allegations of criminal activity within the police undermines its legitimacy; officers are reportedly involved in protection rackets, organised crime and turf wars. Violent crime, including murder, is on the rise as police ability to carry out regular duties declines. The rise of informal security groups, most notably the Crime Preventers (a non-uniformed youth militia that mobilised pro-government votes and intimidated its rivals during the 2016 election), has blurred lines, further eroded accountability, politicised policing and weakened the influence of better trained and disciplined career officers.

As crime has risen, particularly in urban areas, local governance has deteriorated. The local council system remains the bedrock of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), but the government has not held village or parish council elections since 2002, due partly to their cost but also reportedly to fears of the outcome. Local administration has withered and become increasingly dysfunctional.

Disputes over land, administrative districts and the government’s recognition of “traditional” authorities – another form of patronage – likewise prompt communal and ethnic violence, problems Ugandans doubt the state can resolve. Clashes are on the rise between the authorities and locals forcibly removed from newly demarcated wildlife reserves or who feel that ancestral lands are being grabbed by rapacious businessmen. The forthcoming land reform bill – a constitutional amendment that would ease government purchase of private land for infrastructure projects – provokes fears of more land-grabbing.

The lack of opportunities for youth plus tensions surrounding the presidential age-limit amendment and controversial land reform bills are fuelling the rise of new political actors – notably the musician turned-populist MP Bobi Wine – and increasing the risk of popular demonstrations that could provoke a violent crackdown.

Uganda is in urgent need of political and administrative reform to prevent a slide toward an increasingly dysfunctional, corrupt and insecure system. In order to mitigate longer-term dangers of civil strife, donors should be more sensitive to the political impact of their assistance by avoiding projects that contribute to ruling party patronage. For its part, President Museveni’s government should:

  • Hold a credible National Dialogue: This should be done by revisiting plans to which the ruling party itself had agreed after the February 2016 election. Such a dialogue should be broad-based and focus on popular consultations with Ugandan citizens to discuss issues associated with the presidential succession and reduce fears that it might end in violence.

  • Take steps to professionalise the police and improve its leadership: To stop the decline in police operational capacity and address criminality within police ranks, the government should re-institute a merit-based system of promotions in the senior command and investigate and prosecute alleged crimes by members of the force. It also should end or reduce use of informal, non-uniformed groups, particularly the Crime Preventers.

  • Improve local governance: Hold local council elections to re-legitimise grass-roots administration while imposing a moratorium on the creation of new administrative districts.

  • Consult widely on land reform: Complete consultations with the population at the local level (in local languages) in association with civil society to understand main concerns before embarking on any land ownership reform. Reforms should give local leaders – including elders and elected council leaders – a say in matters such as land allocation. The government should shelve the upcoming constitutional amendment on government land acquisition and instead prioritise reforms and anti-corruption measures within the lands ministry.

These proposed steps will not be easy. But President Museveni should recognise them as necessary to avert dangerous drift and limit the risk of damage to his legacy.

I.Museveni for Life?

President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has led Uganda since 1986 and seems determined to remain in power. Over time, his rule slowly has shifted from broad-based and constitutional to patronage-based and personal, with his family at the centre. The president controls key institutions, including the army and police, that guarantee his political survival. His ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party dominates all levels of the state. Established opposition forces, whose populist messaging often appears to resonate during election campaigns, lack the organisation, money and political space to win at the ballot box. Despite some dissent around the 2016 election, Museveni also has neutered internal NRM opposition and remains entrenched as party head. The longer-term significance of emerging political leaders and new forms of protest remains uncertain as does the potential mobilisation of discontented youth. However, taken together these factors arguably now pose the biggest current challenge to President Museveni.

A.Survival at the Ballot Box

Although the president largely has been untroubled by opposition parties – including the main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) – there are signs he is losing some popularity. In the February 2016 presidential vote, he triumphed comfortably despite two apparently strong challengers: former ruling party heavyweight Amama Mbabazi and perennial opposition leader Kizza Besigye (representing the FDC). Still, Museveni’s official margin of victory over Besigye, while comfortable (60.6 to 35.6 per cent), was roughly 8 per cent lower than in 2011.

The presidential bid of Mbabazi – a former prime minister and NRM secretary general who ran as an independent – reflected discord within the ruling party, particularly around the issue of who will succeed Museveni. Without an inspiring message, Museveni relied largely on patronage and alleged vote buying, massively out-spending his opponents. The security services, particularly the police, suppressed opposition activities. The FDC rejected the results, claiming Besigye had won 51 per cent, and launched a “Defiance Campaign” which failed to gain much popular support. Besigye himself was imprisoned – he has already served time in jail several times before – on a treason charge, which served to keep him and his followers off the streets.

To ease post-election tensions, the government, in consultation with a coalition of civil society groups, agreed to a National Dialogue that would develop a roadmap for political transition and encourage public debate about the country’s future. A civil society working group proposed a four-track process, including a constitutional review process and direct talks between Museveni and Besigye. But as the defiance campaign floundered and the opposition continued to insist on an audit of election results, the government’s interest in such a dialogue waned. Still, a credible dialogue would be a worthwhile concession ahead of potentially difficult 2021 elections and boost Museveni’s flagging international legitimacy.

B.The Age-limit Bill

Museveni still enjoys personal goodwill for having led the country out of the civil wars that wracked Uganda during the 1970s and 1980s. He is widely expected to be the NRM’s candidate in 2021 and many believe he intends to rule until he dies. But to do so the president, now 73, must remove or negotiate his way around a constitutional provision barring presidential candidates older than 75. Museveni has remained largely silent on lifting the age restriction, though his supporters have started the amendment process in parliament. Despite opposition protests and donor disapproval, the effort is expected to succeed given the ruling party’s dominance and the legislature’s tendency to rubberstamp presidential priorities.

In early October 2017, an NRM parliamentarian introduced a bill to remove the age limit, prompting wide protests, particularly by students, and a police crackdown. Supporters abandoned a motion that would have allowed a parliament member to take a leave of absence to prepare the bill – the first step toward its adoption – after a brawl broke out between opposition and pro-government parliamentarians, aided by members of the Special Forces Command who had entered the parliament building.The bill eventually passed its first reading on 3 October. About two weeks later, police fired live bullets to disperse a crowd in the western town of Rukungiri, reportedly killing two protestors.

Prior to the bill’s introduction, the government promised to establish a constitutional review commission to address, among other things, electoral reforms on such issues as district boundaries. Many saw this as an attempt by Museveni to compensate for the controversial age-limit cancellation by instituting more popular reforms, such as restoring presidential term limits, which had been removed in 2005. Thus far, however, the government has neither established the commission nor tabled a comprehensive constitutional reform bill. Instead, separate bills have been advanced on land reform and the age limit that include electoral reform measures falling far short of opposition expectations.

C.Managing Interests and Expectations

Although lifting the presidential age-limit is unlikely to present a major political challenge, Museveni still will need to manoeuvre skilfully, not only to fend off opposition in the courts or on the streets, but also to keep his own party in line. The NRM is a force bound not by ideology or policy but essentially by ambition and patronage. With five terms in office, the dominance of Bush War veterans in the government, party and army is ending. Instead, more youthful cadres are vying for power; those defending the president and party with greatest zeal have risen furthest. At the same time, these younger politicians – who have yet to consolidate power – seem to recognise the current political order is in its twilight, spurring intense competition among them.

Among other swathes of society, expectations regarding a potential succession also run high. Many Ugandans, particularly from marginalised regions, project their hopes to redress historic injustices and overcome underdevelopment onto a post-Museveni era. As yet, however, there has been no broad conversation about what a transition might look like. The combination of marginalised groups’ expectations, potential intra-elite jockeying for spoils and the absence of a clear succession roadmap, means that the incumbent’s unexpected death potentially could prompt violence.

Fuelling these concerns is the lack of an obvious successor. The president has not groomed an heir – at least not openly. Nor does his family, which likely will seek to control succession politics, appear to be united.Many see Museveni’s son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, and wife, Janet, as the most likely contenders.

Museveni was rumoured to be grooming Muhoozi when, in 2008, he put him in charge of the newly created Special Forces Unit – a powerful subdivision within the army that has now grown into a third service (alongside land and air forces). This did not sit well with many older military officers, whose opposition triggered a reshuffle that moved a number of veterans, including long-time chief of Defence Forces, General Aronda Nyakairima, into civilian positions or administrative posts. In January 2017, Museveni moved his son from head of the special forces to senior presidential advisor, which allows the president to better protect, prepare and control him. Muhoozi has consistently denied eying the presidency.

His mother, Janet Museveni – a former parliament member and current cabinet minister – apparently has not ruled the presidency out. She has crafted a powerful network of allies and a reputation as a savvy political operator. Yet neither the first lady nor her son enjoys much popular appeal or establishment support.

The public appears to have little confidence that Museveni’s departure will be followed by a constitutional transfer of power. Many expect that groups left out of power will confront the government. In response, the military might step in, most likely in support of the NRM establishment. How the police and army rank-and-file would react to a contested transition is unclear. Although the president and ruling party enjoy a firm grip over the police top command, lower ranks suffer poor pay and living conditions, which has fuelled divisions and encouraged corruption.

D.An Opposition in Disarray

That few Ugandans believe political change will take place via the ballot box, a popular uprising or a credible National Dialogue is unsurprising, given the state of the political opposition, suffering from funding shortages, infighting and regime co-option. Recent attempts to form an opposition coalition, as occurred prior to the 2016 election, have run aground over disagreements regarding who should lead it.