Inside the mind of President Museveni

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

He can be described as a strange blend of revolutionary, shrewd general, political thug and pan-African visionary. Charles Onyango Obbo gives us an analysis of Mr Museveni.

Uganda goes to the polls on February 18. The joke in the street is that you know that an election is around the corner when the sales of helmets, bulletproof vests, pain killers and liniment skyrocket. The reason for that is that candidates running against President Yoweri Museveni need to prepare themselves to be beaten, shot, and arrested. A common feature of Uganda elections used to be the high profile of a state-funded militia called the Kalangala Action Plan (KAP).

Beatings
Led by Kakooza Mutale, a portly semi-retired major general who is also a presidential adviser, KAP would pitch up in town in a yellow bus (the colour of the ruling National Resistance Movement) ahead of Museveni’s arrival to campaign in an area. Maj-Gen Mutale would then lead a marching band through the area as an opening ceremony to their operations.

Later, having sniffed out opposition strongholds and meeting plans, KAP militants would arm themselves with sticks and metal bars, and beat up the opposition. If anything speaks to the extreme schizophrenia of the Uganda state, this is as good as any: One part of it is nearly-modern and progressive, another is a bandit regime; the state has its democratic aspects, but at election times its reflex has been to morph into a police state. However, very many things about this coming election that don’t fit the form have caught the media, the opposition, and commentators by surprise.

Battling Besigye
To begin with, Museveni’s former comrade but now his principal rival, Col Kizza Besigye, who faced off with the president in 2001 and 2006 — and was ruled by the courts to have been cheated on both occasions — has not yet (except from one incident at the start of the campaigns early last October when government officials blocking him from being interviewed on private FM stations upcountry) been whipped, or arrested. In 2006, he spent a few weeks of the campaign in prison on trumped-up charges of rape. It was a bizarre case, because the woman he allegedly raped was his previous househelp, who had taken up residence in State House for over a year being groomed for the case!

The trial was a farce, and all but collapsed when that detail, emerged; that Museveni, the man who was fighting with Besigye for the presidency, had been harbouring his accuser. He was acquitted. The fact that Team Museveni has not yet unleashed the dogs, has left some opposition elements on the back foot.

The opposition parties, which could only operate legally after the return to multiparty politics in 2005, continued to face disruption and banning of their rallies and to have their seminars broken up, even after they were freed.
However, the persecution they faced, partly because it made for great TV, press photographs and stories, gave their cause national and international exposure, and they became heroes and martyrs.

In that situation, the opposition did not need to have well-oiled campaign machines and deep pockets. The attacks on them by KAP and other security forces, gave them the kind of media play that no amount of money could buy.
Many opposition MPs say now that they are unusually free to campaign wherever they like, and are not being chased around by state militias. Because of that, they are not getting any media and don’t have the money to mount proper campaigns against Museveni and his party’s candidates for parliament.

Museveni has moved the game to a ground where his advantage is massive.
Said one observer: “The opposition was ready for Museveni the political thug, which is the position from which he has won all previous elections. Instead, he has come out with a velvet glove.” But a velvet glove itself would not be enough. This election is, by far, the most expensive in Uganda’s history.

Halfway through the financial year, Finance Minister Syda Bbumba has confirmed to parliament that the government is all but broke. The situation is so dire, parliament voted a whopping supplementary budget of Ush600 billion ($250 million). The opposition alleges that most of the budget has been diverted into the NRM and president’s campaigns.

In any event, even President Museveni’s most diligent aides must have lost count of the number of times he has handed out brown envelopes stuffed with Uganda shillings to people on the roadside at various places on his campaign trail in the past few months.

There is colourful talk about how wherever the president has been in the past few months, he has been followed around with a car carrying a “sack filled with money” for him to hand out to the proletariat. According to the Democratic Party presidential candidate Mao Norbert; “Uganda will have no economy at least for two years after this election”.

At any cost
Zie Gariyo, an independent researcher and specialist on poverty issues, summed it up aptly, “In the past, Museveni won by any means. This time, he has decided to win at any cost.” In any event, it has left an interesting contradiction. Though it is Uganda’s most expensive election, it is its most boring ever. Newspapers have not seen anywhere near the spike of circulation that elections brought in the past. There are those who think the lack of excitement is a bad sign, the calm before the storm.

According to this view, because Ugandans don’t expect that Museveni will allow a free election (he refused to reform the electoral commission, and very many Ugandans have to vote without voter cards), many don’t have faith in the process, and believe that the same method that brought Museveni to power — an armed rebellion — is the only way to deal with him. However, analysts who are sceptical of this doomsday scenario argue that all the signs are that the country, which lived with varying levels of war from 1972 to 2006 — a good 34 years — is fatigued and will not support another rebellion. What is true though, if voter turnout is anything to go by, is that Ugandans’ faith in elections is diminishing. In the famously controversial election of 1980, turnout was 80 per cent. In the 1996 presidential election, it was 73 per cent.

Dramatic elections
In the 2005 referendum that voted to return the country to multiparty politics, but also scrapped presidential term limits, it was a miserable 51.1 per cent. The 2001 election was dramatic and exciting, because that was when Museveni and Besigye first battled it out. It was the first real challenge to Museveni. Still, voter turnout was down on 1996 at 70.3 per cent. The two men locked horns again in 2006, but still the numbers slipped, though marginally, to 69.2 per cent.

Daniel Kalinaki, managing editor of Uganda’s main independent newspaper, Daily Monitor, takes a less grim view. He puts the lethargy down to “lack of novelty.” He also suggests that as Besigye remains the main challenger to Museveni, their third confrontation is not truly interesting. You could say it is like watching Muhammad Ali fighting Joe Frasier a third time.

By contrast, he says, the death of Uganda’s controversial founding president Milton Obote, the scrapping of term limits, the legalisation of parties, the return of Besigye from exile in South Africa and his arrest, all ahead of the 2006 polls, created a level of drama that is difficult to match.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi of Makerere University’s Institute of Social Research, a leading researcher on Ugandan and Rwanda politics, takes a more nuanced view. Though he says Museveni’s prestige has been damaged by his heavy-handed rule and the runaway corruption in his government, he is in a very good place in term of the wider Great Lakes geopolitics and can afford to be a little more comfortable than in past elections.

In all previous elections, he notes, Museveni was facing armed rebellion. Since 2006, the last major active rebel group inside Uganda, the uniquely brutal Lord’s Resistance Movement, has been defeated and chased out of Uganda.

No more LRA
It is now a roving rebel band traipsing around eastern Congo and the Central Africa Republic. The north has returned to normalcy, and the “obvious signs” of regime failure that the rebellions used to pose for Museveni, are no more. Also, while in the past Museveni was burdened as the head of an army that was being accused of pillaging and plundering in eastern DR Congo, in this election the Uganda army is playing its most glorious role as the lead contingent in the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia.

“Museveni probably understands global dynamics more than most of his rivals in this election,” said Golooba-Mutebi, adding, “He has increased UPDF’s military presence in Somalia when no one else will contribute more troops. The opposition has not been clear whether they will maintain the Somalia operation, so the geopolitical environment favours Museveni.

That is winning him a lot of support from the US, and if the Americans support Museveni, the rest of the donors will too.” On Somalia, Museveni, who is sometimes given to grandiose posturing on pan-African issues, seems to have finally found a sweet spot.

Furthermore, Museveni is famed for being a smart strategist. Though he was not a noted frontline commander during the bush war, even his critics acknowledge that his strategic and political calculations were unrivalled.

Outfoxed enemies
The reason he has outfoxed so many enemies, according to those who know him well, is that he is always thinking five to 10 years ahead. And he is obsessive about getting his way. His rise to power demonstrates this wonderfully. To the south of Kampala is the Lungujja suburb. It is a little tattered these days, but in its heyday it was the neighbourhood of eminent politicians from the influential southern Buganda and old money.

This is where former prime minister Kintu Musoke, a cerebral Socrates and Gandhi-loving retired politician, lives. His is a two-storey house. Kintu Musoke was a senior official in the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM). Museveni was the leader of the UPM in the December 1980 election, which was swindled by Milton Obote’s UPC.

Rebellion
Museveni had, during the 1980 campaigns, threatened to launch a rebellion if UPC rigged the elections, as they eventually did. Many of the UPM leaders were idealists, and its influential secretary-general Bidandi Ssali — who was a Museveni minister for long but has now parted ways with him and is one of the seven presidential cards in the race — was and remains a pacifist. After the election fiasco, the UPM politburo met to discuss what to do next. Museveni himself had lost his shirt in that election, placing third in his home constituency of Nyabushozi. Kintu Musoke told this writer about what transpired at that night meeting. “Museveni hardly spoke,” he said.

The group agreed that they should disperse to all corners of the country, and organise at the grassroots to build the UPM into a mass movement to fight future political battles. The politburo had breakfast at dawn, and walked out of Kintu’s house in a group. When he reached the bottom of the stairs on the way out, Museveni stopped.

Quiet Museveni
Then he turned and spoke to his colleagues for the first time in many hours. He didn’t say much. However, he disagreed with them: “Me, I will not just sit around and wait for Obote and his people to arrest me. I will fight them.” And he drove off. They didn’t know what to make of Museveni’s remarks. He ended their puzzlement a few days later when they heard in the news that he and a band of about 30 other militants, had staged an audacious raid on a major military barracks in the southwest, overrun it, and made off with weapons. The bush war had started.

Almost everyone thought a bush war was madness and doomed to fail. Obote government officials made tribally laced jokes about how Museveni was a milk-drinking and banana-eating weakling who would be killed by mosquitoes in the bush.

Museveni, though, seemed to have had a good sense that the ground was ripe for the first rebellion to topple an African government. The government swooped on the UPM leaders, none of whom had been forewarned. Several were arrested. Others took off for the tall grass and into exile.

Yet others struggled to look for Museveni in the bush and join him. “He didn’t ask our permission,” Kintu reflects years later, “but in the end, he was the man with the plan that worked. And now all of us have had to come and work with him in the NRM, because he delivered what we could only talk about.” So, to understand why Museveni has not let the dogs out for this election, one needs to look at the journey he has plotted for himself.

Museveni thinks he is the best thing that ever happened to Uganda and Africa. His book Sowing the Mustard Seed is a major rewrite of the country’s history that also casts his ascent to power as a culmination of great political genius. He paints even some obscure youthful political activism in his high school days as having far-reaching national consequences.

Museveni has thus already constructed the glorious first chapters for his political story. It only stands to reason that he is now crafting its glorious climax. If he wins, and he is confident he will, Museveni will begin his sixth term in power (two of them unelected).

So far, he has been in power for just over 24 years, three times longer than the last longest-ruling two Ugandan presidents — Milton Obote, and military strongman Field Marshal Idi Amin. By the end of this year, he will have broken an East African record, having been in power longer than Kenya’s former president Daniel arap Moi and Tanzania’s founding father Julius Nyerere.

He will be a true political veteran, and must know that he will be the butt of political jokes and East African satirists and cartoonists by the end of his term. To complicate matters, Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki will step down in late 2012, and Kenya will have a new president. Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete will come to the end of his term in October 2015.

Messianic views
Rwanda’s Paul Kagame will be about to come to the end of his legally last term. Museveni will look out of place, nodding off at EAC summits, in a room where the combined age of the youngest two presidents could be less than his. For that reason, it is very likely that he has begun crafting his legacy. He needs to show much more on the ground in Uganda today for that many decades in power.

So, as a revolutionary with messianic views about his place in Ugandan and African politics, Museveni will not want the most vivid memory of him to be of an election cheat and tormentor who whipped his people into voting for him.
Buying an election is the only way out this time, and it might just work, because this time the Museveni campaign is paying the right price. As it happens, Ugandans might even think favourably of him for choosing this path, because ours is a cynical, corrupted society that has grown to expect its hands to be greased.

In a recent presentation on the elections, Daily Monitor editor Kalinaki sent the room into an uproar with some captivating photographs. As he hunts for votes around the country, Museveni is stopping at the homes of small farmers and business people who are model of the entrepreneurial society he says he is building. And, typically, he rewards them with a fat envelope as a way of motivating other villagers to follow their example.

Brown envelop
One photo showed the president handing a progressive peasant an envelope, with his star-struck wife standing meekly beside him. In the next photo after the president has departed, the lucky peasant is shown with five other men, his neighbours, in animated conversation.

In the third photo, half the village is surrounding the envelope recipient, and the scene is chaotic. Here is what happened. The people know that the President is looking for successful farmers in the countryside. So the village collected all its goats and chickens, and pooled them in the man’s home, then helped clear his gardens and their surroundings. The President was then carefully steered to the man’s home. He was impressed, and he handed out the envelope.

When he left, all the villagers who had contributed goats and chicken arrived, and they were arguing how to divvy up the money among themselves. The whole country has been finely tuned to this kind of game. In 2006, during a pre-campaign tour in the east of the country, Museveni’s campaign managers channelled him to the successful farm of a local citizen. The President leaped praise on the model citizen who had imbibed the NRM spirit of self-improvement and development.

Admirable chief
There was only one problem. It was a con. The farm belonged to a UPC supporter, who was a leading supporter of Museveni’s rival. Where there is big campaign money, Ugandans tend to be bipartisan. Buying the election, and avoiding the messy route of rigging, might actually be a good place for Museveni to begin influencing the story of his last years in power. The image of a chief who comes bearing gifts and treasure for voters, is more durable and admirable than of the one who comes with hammer in hand.