In Uganda, Unrest Gains Little Ground

By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN and JOSH KRON
Thursday, February 17, 2011

KAMPALA, Uganda — Fresh from fighting in the bush, Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni, a former rebel commander, electrified the crowd at his inaugural address in 1986 when he declared that “the problems of Africa, and Uganda in particular, are caused by leaders who overstay in power.” He vowed never to be one of them.

Now, after 25 years in office, he’s running again. On Friday, Mr. Museveni, a close American ally whose relatively small nation gets hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid, faces re-election, seeking his fifth consecutive stint as president.

By all measures — polls, diplomatic analyses, even taxi driver talk — he is expected to win. But while Uganda shares many of the same, combustible conditions that have fueled popular uprisings in the Arab world — grinding poverty, masses of jobless, students glued to Facebook and a leader who refuses to step down after more than two decades in power — few here expect widespread upheaval.

In fact, the persistence of authoritarianism, whether through acceptance or a sense of helplessness to do much about it, seems to be the rule across much of sub-Saharan Africa, home to some of the most everlasting strongmen in the world: José Eduardo dos Santos in Angola, in power since 1979; Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, also since 1979; Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, since 1980; Omar Hassan al-Bashir in Sudan, since 1989. And the list goes on.

“There are two main reasons why we’re not seeing North Africa-style popular revolts in sub-Saharan African,” said Phil Clark, a lecturer in international politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. First, he argued, many sub-Saharan African countries are more divided ethnically, and such divisions “undermine the possibility of a mass social movement against the national leadership.” Second, and partially connected, is the loyalty of the army, which is often built from the president’s ethnic group and bolstered by corrupt spoils.

“Museveni and Mugabe can rely on total commitment from the military,” Mr. Clark contended. “The fear of violent military crackdowns keeps many Ugandans and Zimbabweans off the streets.” Many young urban Ugandans, who have been watching their cohorts in the Arab world stage huge protests, seem to agree. “Ugandans have no unity,” said Charles Rollins, a 21-year-old university student, speaking about ethnic divisions. “That is why we are different.” Robert Lugolobi, director of Transparency International’s Uganda chapter, argued: “People here are too tribal. Uprisings happen, but they happen by tribe.”

In September 2009, dozens of young Ugandans were killed by the security forces in intense rioting in Kampala, the capital. The youth were members of the Baganda ethnic group and furious that Mr. Museveni’s government was trying to curtail the powers of their traditional king. The government cracked down harshly and few expect the Baganda to riot again like that anytime soon. Of course, ethnic divisions alone do not explain the notable lack of anti-authoritarian protests in most of sub-Saharan Africa. Yemen has long suffered serious tribal conflicts, but that has not stopped demonstrators there from demanding an end to the authoritarian rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In Egypt, protesters across religious, ideological and class lines all descended on Tahrir Square to oust President Hosni Mubarak. Here in Uganda, many young people support Mr. Museveni, who is credited with turning around the country. Over the past few days, they have packed shoulder to shoulder at rallies, waiting patiently under a punishing sun, some of them flaunting hilarious posters of the mzee, or old man, as he calls himself, with his face superimposed on an Incredible Hulk-like body. “Mzee our freedom fighter,” the slogan goes. Mr. Museveni, who was born in 1944 — official documents don’t provide an exact date — has tried to cultivate a folksy, avuncular image, often appearing at campaign rallies hand-in-hand with his wife, Janet, and decked out in a wide-brimmed planter’s hat. Even among detractors here and abroad, he is not usually spoken of in the same breath of, say, Mr. Mugabe, who is widely blamed for transforming a once-prosperous country into one of the world’s poorest.

Uganda’s agricultural-based economy stands in stark contrast to that, growing steadily over the past few years, by a respectable 6 or 7 percent. Oil is on its way, 200,000 barrels per day, starting as early as next year, which could boost growth much further. Mr. Museveni’s message, printed on the backs of ubiquitous yellow t-shirts, is peace and security, and Uganda has come a long way on that front. In the 1970s, it was haunted by a dictator, Idi Amin, notorious for beating people to death with his own hands. In the 1980s and 1990s, the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army terrorized the countryside, slicing off lips and hacking away at villagers. Today, Kampala is reasonably safe — definitely much safer than Nairobi, of neighboring Kenya — and the rebels have been pushed out of country.

This stability carries some costs, though. Mr. Museveni’s opponents and many Western analysts accuse him of running a vast and corrupt patronage system and abusing human rights. Just this month Human Rights Watch said the Ugandan police had rounded up civilians who complained about corruption. His government has threatened to execute gay people, though a bill in parliament calling for that has yet to be resolved. Seven others are running for president and the problem for Uganda’s opposition, just like in Tanzania, Sudan and other African countries that are beginning to experiment with democracy, is that it is rudderless and divided.

The stiffest competition Mr. Museveni faces is from his old comrade, Kizza Besigye, a retired army colonel who has run twice before and lost handily, though he claimed fraud. Mr. Besigye, who seems to be a bit of a loose cannon on the campaign trail, predicted Egypt-style riots. (He has also intimated Uganda was better off under Idi Amin). He warned that Mr. Museveni’s government has “created these conditions of oppression and despondency, conditions of frustration, unemployment, that can lead to violence.” Ugandan human rights groups say that the leading political parties have organized youth into militias, a troubling sign.

Another worry is if the election is close and the government tries to rig the results to stay in power, then people could rise up. That seemed to be the case in Kenya in 2007, plunging that country into a violent crisis. The unrest in north Africa and the Middle East has sent a few tendrils to other parts of Africa, though the relatively small protests in Sudan, Djibouti and Gabon were quickly crushed.

The Ugandan security forces are out in force. On Thursday, the day before the election, squads of officers prowled the streets, swinging batons and carrying guns. Protests are one fear; a terrorist attack is another. Uganda has thousands of peacekeepers in Somalia, and Somali terrorists bombed crowds in Kampala last summer, killing scores. That seems to be the biggest question — whether this election will pass incident-free, not so much who will win.