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Hall of infamy: Yoweri Museveni

Uganda
STEFAN ROUSSEAU/PA IMAGES/ALAMY
STEFAN ROUSSEAU/PA IMAGES/ALAMY

JOB: President of Uganda

REPUTATION: Ageing fundamentalist autocrat

Uganda, one of Africa’s most beautiful and fertile countries, has been ill-served by its political class for many decades. That it stands out in this regard, on a continent similarly ill-served, is noteworthy. The country was once the stomping ground of the genocidal tyrant Idi Amin and the notoriously corrupt Milton Obote, whose brutal rule over two terms bookended the nine years (1971-80) of Amin’s clown-like performance. Hardly a promising legacy, especially when combined with a pampered officer corps forever lurking in the wings, awaiting opportunity to seize lucrative public office.

Yoweri Museveni’s rise to power from among the competing armed factions, following a coup against Obote, was at first viewed with great hope. The fact that his two predecessors were responsible for the killing of tens of thousands of Ugandan citizens meant the bar for political success was set pretty low. His poverty-stricken roots in Bantu southern Uganda and his youthful Marxism led to expectations on the Left. His pragmatism and willingness to wheel and deal were encouraging to the business community and Western Cold Warriors obsessed by the country’s instability. Museveni himself proclaimed: ‘This is not a mere change of guard, it is a fundamental change,’ with all the usual promises of a vigorous democracy and rooting out corruption.

Indeed, the guard has not changed now for 35 years and Museveni has combined a certain political guile with falling back on the repressive apparatus of the state to ensure his rule no matter what Ugandans want. Notable early successes – such as in dealing with the HIV pandemic, stabilizing the economy and improving women’s education – have since faded. Museveni enjoyed US favour for a number of years, shaking hands with Ronald Reagan and George W Bush in the Oval Office and becoming a reliable partner in that indiscriminate campaign known as the War on Terror. Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, referred to Museveni as a ‘beacon of hope’ who runs ‘a uni-party democracy’ (whatever that is).

There are other even less palatable US connections with the Christian fundamentalist organization known as The Fellowship. Museveni seems, since the turn of the century, to have drawn his core beliefs from the embrace of Pentecostal Christianity and his rigid moralism has buttressed his campaign against homosexuality and other forms of supposed licentiousness. While this may appeal to his conservative political base, it has made him a laughing stock for the younger Ugandans who formed the backbone of the presidential campaign of the popular singer Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu (aka Bobi Wine).

Each time Museveni has run in presidential elections – there have been six elected terms following ten unelected years in power – irregularities and violence have grown as he manoeuvres to maintain control. Term and age limits have been overthrown, the media suppressed, the internet shut down, with increasing levels of intimidation greeting opposition figures who have dared to step up. During the January 2021 election campaign (which Museveni supposedly won with 58.6 per cent of the vote), Covid-19 restrictions were used against the Wine camp. Forty people died in campaign-related violence and many more were brutalized and imprisoned. While the blustering 75-year-old remains in place, Uganda’s generationally informed politics are not in his favour: the country has the second-lowest median age worldwide, of just 15.7 years – with only Niger being younger. Soon the old guy will no longer be able to trade on the idea that at least he is better than Amin and Obote, because no-one will remember them.

LOW CUNNING: Part of Museveni’s public repertoire is as a kind of ersatz anti-imperialist railing against Western meddling over everything from criticism of Ugandan military plunder of the eastern Congo to his shabby record of human rights violations.

SENSE OF HUMOUR: Young Ugandans on social media have taken to portraying Museveni as ‘Bosco Katala’, a buffoon-like village character from an ad campaign, due to his lack of sophistication and regressive policies. Much to their merriment, Museveni played right into their hands by publicly insisting: ‘I am not Bosco.’

Sources: The Review of African Political Economy; Africa Confidential; BBC; International Crisis Group; CNN; Daily Monitor.

New Internationalist issue 531 magazine cover This article is from the May-June 2021 issue of New Internationalist.
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