How Museveni has shifted from reliance on military force to coerce political support to the use of money to rent it
My article, “What keeps Museveni in power” (The Independent April 12-18), attracted the most intense debate on our website. Apparently, most critics of President Yoweri Museveni place disproportionate importance on the contribution of violence to his ability to hold power.
That may have been the case in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s but not anymore. Over the years, violence has lost its effect and increasingly become counterproductive. Yet, the opposition has been able to see that if they are ever to get a chance to defeat Museveni, they need to force the president onto a violent path.
Ironically, Museveni shares a similar attitude with his critics. Whenever he has felt a serious threat, he has retreated to violence. This may be so because Museveni came to power through a violent rebellion and relied on brute force to suppress attempts at various attempts at a violent power-grab earlier on in his presidency. However, Uganda has been changing and so has been the basis of Museveni’s power.
Economic growth has created a scramble for riches, thus increasing the attractiveness of corruption. The accumulation of wealth has created hostility to violence, as the middle class need a stable political order backed by a civil political dispensation. Thus increasingly, each time Museveni employs violence, his opponents have become more emboldened while his supporters have tended to abandon him.
The most violently contested election in Uganda under Museveni was the 2005/2006 elections. This is when government arrested Forum for Democratic Change President Kizza Besigye and charged him with rape and treason at the High Court and terrorism at the General Court Martial.
This generated some of the worst mass demonstrations in Uganda. Besigye became headline news on radio, television and newspapers. He also became the talk in bars, buses, taxis, markets, offices, street corners and restaurants. That is the stuff every presidential candidate would crave for – regardless of how it comes.
Unknown to Museveni and his advisors, they had handed Besigye the strategic initiative. From the date he was arrested up to the election, Museveni was constantly on the defensive. This state of affairs sold Besigye’s candidacy across the country and increased his name recognition. But most critically, it demoralized many of Museveni’s supporters who felt their candidate had become rogue; so they kept away from the polls. It also motivated many to punish Museveni by voting for Besigye.
Consequently, while Museveni had in 2001 gotten 5.1m votes and 69% of the total vote, in 2006 his absolute vote fell to 4.0m votes and to only 58% of the total. Museveni was actually 630,000 votes away from a re-run. Indeed, opinion polls had placed Museveni at 53% and Besigye at 42%, meaning the president most likely had a rigging margin of 5%.
All this was in circumstances where Besigye had just returned to Uganda from exile and had no time to put in place a campaign structure, raise money and mobilise his supporters.
In 2011, Besigye seemed to have all the cards. His party, FDC, had been in existence for five years. It had enjoyed greater freedom to organize than Reform Agenda and its successor, PAFO ever had. Besigye had spent five years building FDC, claiming he opened a party in each of the 25,000 villages in Uganda. He also claimed to have built voter protection brigades in every village.
So, 2011 was really Besigye’s year to win the presidency. Instead, his absolute vote fell by 600,000 from 2.6m in 2006 to about two million in 2011; his percentage declined from 38% to 26%; whie Museveni’s vote count grew from 4m to 5m and his percentage from 58% to 69%. Besigye was even routed in his traditional stronghold in the north.
What had changed? A big slice of the answer lies in Museveni’s civility in 2011 compared to 2006. The Museveni of 2011 may have been corrupt – spending tons of public money on his personal campaign – but he was not violent. This restraint sucked air out of Besigye’s candidature, denying him a strategic asset in form of public sympathy. It also denied him media coverage and toned down his cause.
And it immobilized enthusiasm among his supporters. Through the skillful use of rap music, social media, robo-calls and money, Museveni was able to cajole and bribe to win. It seems many Ugandans are willing to tolerate Museveni the ‘corrupter,’ but not the Museveni who wields violence.
Indeed, immediately after the elections, Besigye launched the Walk2Work campaign and Museveni again unleashed unprecedented violence on him. In just under a month, Besigye who had seemed a dead political force after his resounding defeat, re-emerged as a potent contender for the presidency. Had the election been held at the height of the violence of Walk2Work, Besigye’s vote count would have been much higher – with a real possibility that he could have won.
Uganda has changed. The constituencies to be cowed by violence have declined. Those that are emboldened by it to resist have grown. This has been achieved through two processes: political education deliberately promoted by the NRM to undermine Idi Amin and Milton Obote, has demystified violence; the other is the structural change that has increased the size of the educated middleclass.
Each time Museveni tries to retreat to violence as a means of control, he finds fewer allies even inside NRM. Indeed, during walk2work, Amama Mbabazi, Aronda Nyakairima and David Tinyefuza all came out openly to criticize police brutality against Besigye, showing how difficult it is to promote state terror even within NRM.
The opposition in Uganda loses elections largely because it is poorly organized, poorly financed and lacks a serious policy agenda. It also lacks a critical mass of elites with social capital (reputation) and political skills (for organization and mobilization) to effectively challenge the NRM at the grassroots. This has led them to rely almost entirely on negative legitimacy i.e. highlighting the failures of NRM as opposed to articulating an alternative vision to gain and sustain the support of the masses.
Under such circumstances, the opposition only stands a chance in elections if Museveni is excessively violent towards them. State-orchestrated violence is therefore their asset and Museveni’s liability, not vice versa. But they cannot see it. But how has Museveni mastered the votes? I will return to this next week.