President Museveni rose to power in 1986 when he led rebel forces in a campaign to overthrow the second Obote government. Obote was President when, during a trip out of the country, Idi Amin seized power in a coup. The second Obote government was repressive and violent which lead to the rebellion ending his second attempt at the Ugandan Presidency. According to some Ugandans the first ten years of President Museveni’s rule was characterized by an attitude of ‘at least.’ At least we can sleep at night. At least life is better than it was.
As demographics change while the government does not, there seems to be growing discontent among Ugandans under 40. Although the Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion continued will into the second decade of President Museveni’s rule, the government solidly controlled the rest of the country. For those born in the years immediately before and after Museveni’s rise, the history of Uganda and the role of violence is quite different than for those who lived through the years of conflict. As the upheaval that brought Museveni to power passes out of popular memory, so does the motivation voters have to vote for Museveni and his party.
The most recent electoral cycle in Uganda was not characterized by overt violence as the previous cycle was but by an insidious suggestion of violence. In a situation such as this, overt violence is easier to combat because it is highly visible whereas the suggestion of violence breeds widespread paranoia and fear. Military and security forces held public exercises and increased their public presence during the campaign period. Even if these allegations from the opposition are false the very fact that a portion of the Ugandan population believed that the state would use violence if the election did not go as planned speaks to a wider systemic problem within Uganda’s democracy.
Furthermore, Uganda is one of 33 African states in which the government is mandated to fund political parties. Although this is guaranteed in Uganda by parliamentary decree, opposition parties experience great difficulty in accessing these funds. In addition, the opposition is so fractured that it cannot mount a serious challenge to President Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Movement party. In the face of criticisms that Uganda’s one party system was undemocratic, Museveni allowed the creation of a multiparty system while simultaneously abolishing presidential term limits. This in effect allowed a disorganized opposition to have a few seats in parliament while ensuring that the NRM would continue to control the office of President for the foreseeable future.
Some political observers point to recent actions and speeches by President Museveni as indications that he will not seek a life term in office. Over the last two years President Museveni has attended to his duties as president while simultaneously spending more time at his personal ranches, both in frequency of the trips and in their duration. While this may seem at the surface encouraging for those who would like to see a democratic transition within the Executive branch of the Government of Uganda, observers point to President Museveni’s son as his probable successor. Muhoozi Kainerugaba experienced a meteoric rise in the military, a process which will lead to his increased viability as a President and a way to legitimize his leadership as an officer first than as a politician.
Tensions between the government and opposition parties are growing as campaigning begins for the February 2016 elections. Of particular interest in this case is whether President Museveni will cede power in a peaceful transition or if the administration will use voter suppression and media intimidation, as they have in previous elections, to shape the outcome of the election. There is great optimism for Uganda, however, interviews with Museveni during the and 2011 elections indicate that free and fair elections are real on paper but are not necessarily real in Uganda’s political system. Of additional interest, as the presidential campaigns begin, is whether the opposition offers a real change in candidates and government accountability. Some of the most outspoken critics and rivals to Museveni’s leadership are fellow army men who have come to politics late in life. If Museveni’s record is tarnished by his actions as a military leader during conflict and as a political strongman over the last 28 years, what makes any of his contemporaries better or more relate-able to the younger segments of the voting public?