Uganda’s Longtime Strongman Faces a New Rival: His Restless Soldiers

Uganda’s Longtime Strongman Faces a New Rival: His Restless Soldiers
Uganda President Yoweri Museveni arrives at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Aug. 4, 2014, to attend the U.S.-Africa Summit (AP photo by Cliff Owen).

On Jan. 25, 1986, rebel fighters overran the final hideouts of Uganda’s crumbling military government of Tito Okello after five years of bush war and tens of thousands of deaths. Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) concluded its Maoist-inspired insurgency with a promise to end 24 years of violent, corrupt and militarized post-independence politics. The 42-year-old Museveni became an American ally, economic liberalizer and, in the eyes of many Ugandans, a youthful visionary who would marry the leftist progressivism of Julius Nyerere in Tanzania with the realpolitik exigencies of post-Cold War politics and Western hegemony.

Nearly 30 years on, an aging Museveni still dominates Ugandan politics. Despite regular announcements by the opposition that the end is nigh, Museveni and his movement retain the political initiative. The odds are stacked against a victory of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) in the 2016 presidential elections. After the FDC seemed to build up momentum in the 2001 and 2006 votes, Museveni widened his lead again in 2011, cruising to a new five-year presidential term with the support of two-thirds of the electorate. He continues to dominate parliament, too, since campaigning for a parliamentary seat is staggeringly expensive. Unaffordable for many candidates, they are forced to turn to the NRM for campaign finance, which ties them to State House for the duration of their term.

While the civilian opposition appears impotent to legally break Museveni’s grip on power, the opaque inner workings of the regime and the internal dynamics of the armed forces are another matter. Constitutionally, the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) are guardians of the Republic of Uganda and not of NRM rule, but Museveni, as the commander-in-chief, has organized endless reshuffles to guarantee the personal loyalty of high-ranking officials. Moreover, Kampala’s aggressive foreign policy—years of bloody forays into Sudan and Congo, battling al-Shabab in Somalia and operations in Central African Republic and South Sudan—has since the early 1990s served the purpose of coup-proofing the president.

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