Why has Museveni survived so long in spite of serious flaws?

A while back I talked with some people who are familiar with Uganda’s political economy situation. We touched, inter alia, on the dangerously deteriorating social and environmental conditions in urban and rural areas which under normal circumstances would have created serious problems for Museveni in cabinet, parliament and the general population. Yet Museveni keeps on getting nominated for re-election. In true democratic terms where the public freely and fairly chooses the party candidate, one participant observed, Museveni would possibly not be re-nominated, much less re-elected. He has managed to stay in power by purchasing loyalty of the Uganda elites in the military and administration, and by aligning himself with western interests in economic, political and security areas.

At the domestic level, my colleague noted, Museveni has rewarded people with cabinet and presidential advisor posts, diplomatic appointments, lucrative businesses etc, including individuals who lost elections, are too old, not qualified and inexperienced or would not be so lucky under another regime. This political arrangement is called patrimonialism or personal rule. John F. Clark observed that patrimonialism is a political system that permits a leader to maintain power by rewarding the loyalty of important elites with advisory or administrative positions. It is likened to a ruler with no ‘constitutional, charismatic-revolutionary or traditional authority’. He rules by using material incentives and personal control of the administration and armed forces. Fear and personal loyalties become principal instruments of governing ‘untrammeled by traditional or modern constitutional limitations’ (SAIS Review Summer-Fall 1994). This political system has advantages for Museveni. The loyal elites are not popular or are handicapped in many other ways and cannot challenge him. The loyal elites know that without Museveni in power they would be lost. Accordingly they fight for him to stay in power. The general population is ignored and saddled with ‘bread and butter’ problems that they have no time to think about politics or are manipulated and intimidated so much during campaigns and at election time that they elect without choosing Museveni.

At the external level, Museveni has since 1987 backed western interests including Uganda’s involvement in Sudan, the great lakes region, Iraq, and Somalia conflicts. These are calculations designed to make Museveni wanted and therefore sustained in power. Accordingly external powers have turned a blind eye to rampant corruption, open sectarianism, skewed income distribution, rising unemployment and alcoholism, increasing human rights abuses and authoritarian military dictatorship and disregard for long-term consequences reminiscent of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, now DRC. After this conversation, I researched for supporting evidence which is outlined below.

In his article on “Finding African Solutions to African Problems”, Dave Peterson remarked that Uganda continues to receive high marks from the World Bank and other donors, despite the fact that Uganda under Museveni ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. He added that “Museveni may mean well; he may be a visionary and believes in discipline. But if he does not open up the government to more opposition forces, however cautiously, then his government is bound to become more rigid and less responsive, make more mistakes, and wind up just one more nasty, floundering dictatorship” (The Washington Quarterly Summer 1998).

Crawford Young in his article “Africa: An Interim Balance Sheet” noted that because of Uganda’s strong support for liberalization and structural adjustment programs sponsored by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, it won Museveni, his party and government some breathing political space. For this reason, “Uganda experienced far less international pressure for further political liberalization than Kenya and Cameroon” (Journal of Democracy July 1996).

Many Ugandans believe that some donors have poured into Uganda especially during the campaigns so-called development funds much of which is diverted to finance campaigns for Museveni and his party. Many in the donor community have also tolerated massive election rigging. Consequently by not paying enough attention, structural adjustment and expenditures on non-development activities have created a great deal of suffering as manifested in hunger and malnutrition, collapsing education, social and ecological systems with all sorts of misery and side effects including school drop-out, crime, cultural mal-function and early marriage that has contributed to population increase.

While many Africans have complained that globalization may lead to re-colonization or increased inequality within and between Africa and the rest of the world, and have described the World Bank and IMF as “arrogant, ignorant of local conditions, and applying ‘one-size-fits-all’ policies” and imposed fiscal policies with serious education and social consequences, Ugandans are the exception. They recognize that globalization could promote greater democracy, education and employment (World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization 2004).

To conclude, it is evident from the information outlined above at the domestic and external levels that Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party and government have stayed in power since 1986 not because they are popular but because domestic elite loyalty in the military and administration has been purchased and support of the international community secured by backing western interests in Africa and elsewhere. In return the loyal elites have nominated Museveni for re-election and the donor community has turned a blind eye to Museveni’s reliance on the instruments of force and fear, corruption, sectarianism, abuse of human rights and the rapidly deteriorating social and environmental conditions causing tremendous negative impact on Ugandans such as hunger, poverty, misery and despair.

Thomas Callaghy in his article “Africa: Back to the Future?” observed that “But Africa [and Uganda in particular] will not be a neighborhood that will be taken very seriously by players in the global economy, with the exception of some arms merchants and firms dealing in raw materials and minerals” (Journal of Democracy October 1994).