As Uganda approaches another contentious election during which President Yoweri Museveni will seek to extend his 31-year reign, resentment among the youth is rising to fever pitch. Where does this place the US, Museveni’s chief ally? The death and brutality surrounding the arrest, release, then re-arrest within minutes, release on bail, airport arrest and forced hospitalisation last month, of insurgent Ugandan opposition figure- cum legislator, the singer Robert Kyagulanyi (known as Bobi Wine), who has become something of a lightning rod for youthful discontent in Uganda, has all the makings of a future American foreign policy quandary.
This is not the first such incident. A few weeks earlier, the volunteer bodyguard of another well-known opposition figure was fatally shot during another eventually victorious by-election campaign. Kyagulanyi himself was snatched along with more than 30 other activists, including five other legislators.
Uganda teeters on the brink. The jobs-and-contracts patronage system, a key tool in President Yoweri Museveni’s regime’s three decades-and-counting longevity, is very close to saturation, and the ordinary population also strains at economic breaking point.
Every violent electoral event – these recent ones included – takes the population another step away from having any faith in voting, and one step closer to mass unrest. The fundamental downside of being in charge for a very long time is that one runs out of plausible excuses for why things are not working, and of credible scapegoats on whom to place the blame. This is where Uganda’s rulers now find themselves.
President Museveni, described by the writer Helen Epstein as “the key US strategic ally in Africa’s Great Lakes Region” has his excuses at the ready. He presents an epic tale of a region historically plagued by roiling conflict. “It is, actually, only in the last 31 years, especially after 2007…that Uganda has had peace for the first time in the last 500 years. Before colonialism, we had endless tribal wars; during colonialism…[a] lot of bleeding…after colonialism, there was chaos and collapse.”
All this was finally only brought to an end when “the National Resistance Movement [his ruling party] restored stability to the whole country about 10 years ago”, but at the cost of forestalling economic development plans.
Critics are a lot less panoramic in their blunt assessment of the failures. “The bubble has burst” is how Abdu Katuntu, a long-standing opposition legislator, puts it. By this, he means both the ‘liberator’ aura that Museveni and some of his key cohorts have long traded on, and the cash binge brought on by the asset liquidation of a previously largely state-controlled economy.
Entrenched ethnic cronyism
Uganda was the first sub-Saharan African country to turn away from the sacred cow of post-independence state planning, and become a trail-blazer in the implementation of very wide-ranging neo-liberal reforms, egged on by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. For a while, it was indeed the poster child of the ‘new’ economic thinking on the continent.
The effects of this range from the visceral and immediate to the deeply structural. Economic privatisation and liberalisation birthed an entrenched ethnic cronyism driven by a level of venality not previously known in Ugandan public space.
Structurally, many economists point out that in the African context of a very large non-formal economy, the removal of the role of the state as a guarantor of total first-instance buying of agricultural produce was only ever going to bring ruination to widely-practised smallholder farming, and create an indigent and insecure population.
This helps explain the now mandatory violence in any electoral activity: the average voter is young, unskilled, unemployed, anxious, and enervated by an awareness of how bountiful the economy – as now seen in private hands – actually is.
We now have a country where 80% of the population is under 30 years, and 70% are unemployed; where economic growth has shrunk in the last few years, while the currency has depreciated 134% against the US dollar over the last decade.
This should worry all sober minds, and given that particularly large ‘youth bulge’ present in the increasingly restive Ugandan population, a real remedy is needed fast.
US foreign policy tied in knots
As with the dilemma of whether to swallow a hot potato, or spit it out, the US can afford neither to lose this relationship nor ultimately, to keep it. Yet to countenance a Uganda without President Museveni, in the absence of a replacement that delivers as he has done – and all such possible candidates were hounded out of the ruling circle long ago – has left US foreign policy tied in knots.
Uganda’s president, who has been making official trips to the White House since the late Reagan era, famously stepped in basically uninvited, to pick up the baton in Somalia following the Clinton administration’s withdrawal after the 1993 Black Hawk Down debacle, and US cash has kept the Uganda-initiated military peacekeeping mission in place ever since. Uganda has also sided with the US on contentious geo-political issues: it backed the American positions on US cotton subsidies at the WTO; US-led global protocols on GMOs; and during the long duel with northern neighbour Sudan, during the War On Terror.
At present, Uganda may be about to send troops in support of the US-Saudi efforts in Yemen. As a result, Museveni’s regime has been the recipient of nearly $900m in US aid between just October last year and September this year. This is for a country of under 40m people – not that they necessarily see the money.
Such a closeness serves mainly the needs of the US Department of Defense, but creates an image problem for the US State Department, which now struggles to maintain the appearance of dealing with a partner respectful of human rights and the law.
Time may be running out. The next general election takes place in just 17 months. The removal of age restrictions on presidential candidates, amid violent scenes in Uganda’s Parliament, late last year, lifted the last legal barrier to President Museveni once more presenting himself as a candidate.
Given the historical accumulation of media reports, court rulings, and leaks from former regime insiders which have made it clear that President Museveni’s party may never have actually won any election since
electoral revival in 1996, the die is now cast. America may then find itself married to another intractable and violent crisis.