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The Ugandan protests and why Museveni will not be joining Ben Ali and Mubarak anytime soon

7 May 2011

Jonathan Fisher is an ESRC-funded Postdoctoral Fellow at IDD. His areas of interest include the politics of aid in Africa; African foreign policy and the role of international donors in East Africa.

Tunisia, Egypt, Libya…Uganda? This has been the rallying cry of many Kampala residents since anti-government protests broke out in the Ugandan capital in mid-April. The likelihood of ‘Egypt-style’ uprisings imperiling the continued tenure of the Museveni government has also been talked-up by a number of journalists, in the West and in Africa, particularly now protests have spread beyond Kampala to Entebbe, Mbale and other Ugandan towns. On the face of it, there is much to be said for such comparisons.

Museveni election posters, January 2011Photo credit: Zoom Zoom

Museveni election posters, January 2011

Important contextual differences between the Arab Spring uprisings and the Uganda protests, however, will likely mean that Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, will survive this challenge to his authority. Firstly, Uganda remains, unlike Tunisia, Egypt or Libya, one of the poorest countries in the world and its rapidly-expanding urban youth population has had limited access to higher-level education in contrast to many of the graduates who occupied Tahrir Square in January. While the Uganda Law Society has attached itself to the protests since 3 May, most of those involved over the last few weeks have been taxi drivers, boda boda riders or unemployed youths who have little familiarity with Facebook, Twitter or any other medium for organising a national insurrection. Breaking the resolve of this angry but disparate and, in some cases, starving group, therefore, will perhaps not be as difficult for Museveni as it was for his Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts. This is particularly so because the personal loyalty to their president of Uganda’s security forces, one of the most organised and well-trained militaries south of the Sahara, is beyond doubt. An Egypt-style declaration of army neutrality is almost completely inconceivable in Uganda; where Mubarak was merely a product of his nation’s security forces, Museveni has been the creator of his. A Uganda without him is a far more concerning prospect for many security personnel than the repercussions of firing live bullets at civilians.

Secondly, the political agendas of opposition figures, most notably Kizza Besigye, may well play into the hands of Museveni who will now pursue (however disingenuously) ‘inter-party dialogue’ as a means to slow the protests’ momentum; certainly this has been his public stance since late April. Besigye, leader of Uganda’s Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), and other opposition leaders originally inspired the protests through leading a ‘Walk to Work’ campaign which encourages Ugandans to peacefully ‘walk to work’ in protest at rising petrol and food prices. Making common cause with the economic grievances of their fellow citizens, these politicians have played a much more central role in the protests than did opposition figures in Egypt or Tunisia, albeit primarily as sources of inspirational, rather than organisational, leadership.

Their motives for doing so, however, are based more on a desire to improve their own political prospects than the economic circumstances of Ugandans. Unlike the protests in Egypt or Tunisia, those in Uganda are, to some extent, the fallout from a controversial and contested election – that of February 2011 which Museveni and his NRM party won by a wide margin. Throughout the electoral process, opposition figures made clear that they would not accept the result of the polls owing to, what they (and many observers) perceived to be, an unlevel playing field, a pro-regime Electoral Commission and an abuse of state resources by the incumbent. When the Commission declared Museveni the winner, therefore, Besigye and others encouraged Ugandans to join them on a set of peaceful protest marches calling for ‘fresh elections’ under a new Electoral Commission. These calls were largely ignored and, thus, the precursor of ‘Walk to Work’ was stillborn.

Uganda election February 2011Photo credit: Gabor Basch

Uganda election February 2011

The opposition’s involvement in the current, seemingly economic-based, protests must be seen, therefore, in this more political context.  As such, if Museveni is able to convince Besigye et al that inter-party ‘dialogue’ may lead to greater political influence for them, they are unlikely to continue to lead protest marches or to press for his resignation. This separates them from the ‘leaders’ of protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya where the departure of the national leader has been the sine qua non of protestor demands.

Finally, Uganda’s major Western donors (particularly the US and UK) are far more inclined to, at most, push for a negotiated end to the violence rather than for Museveni’s departure. This is significant because, unlike regimes in Libya and Syria, for example, the Ugandan regime still depends on aid from donor countries to fund over a third of its spending.

There are a number of reasons why donors might take this approach. Firstly, they have long cultivated (and been cultivated by) Museveni as a regional security ally (note, for example, Uganda’s presence in the US/UK-backed AU peacekeeping mission in ‘terrorist haven’ Somalia since 2007) and the recent discovery of oil in eastern Uganda has also made the preservation of good relations between London, Washington and Kampala a greater priority for Western policy-makers than in the past.

Secondly, Western diplomats in Kampala have long expressed deep misgivings about the ability of Besigye and Uganda’s opposition to govern the country. They see the FDC chief not only as a less impressive version of Museveni (Besigye is a former NRM cadre) but also as a potentially dangerous figure who, in past elections, has raised the spectre of violence in response to flawed electoral processes. In addition, donors see no-one from within the NRM who could plausibly take over from Museveni, mainly because the president has consistently thwarted attempts by colleagues to set themselves up as his heir. For the international community, therefore, there is no Ugandan equivalent of Mohamed ElBaradei or Libya’s Transitional National Council to turn to as an alternative to the ailing status quo. Chastened by memories of the chaotic dictatorships of Idi Amin and Milton Obtote, donors remain extremely reluctant to ‘take a chance’ on a post-Museveni Uganda until it is forced upon them by events.

Finally, donors have neither the resources nor the energy to focus their diplomatic efforts on Uganda while events in the Middle East continue to dominate the international agenda. This will likely persist either until the extent of state violence in Kampala reaches levels which Downing Street or the White House cannot ignore or until global media outlets give higher priority to covering the Ugandan protests. With NATO operations in Libya still underway and Western policy-makers and journalists focused on Syria and the fallout from Osama bin Laden’s death, it seems very likely that the Museveni regime’s behaviour will largely escape high-level international attention; certainly very few donor officials outside of Kampala have commented upon it thus far. The Ugandan leader will therefore feel much less pressure to step down from the outside world than Mubarak or Gadaffi.

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