Museveni, 72, captured power in January 1986 after a five-year-long guerrilla war. On 29 January 1986, from the steps of the Parliament of Uganda, he proclaimed in his inaugural address: ‘No one should think that what is happening today is a mere change of guard; it is a fundamental change in the politics of our country.’
Indeed, in his book What is Africa’s problem?, published in 2000, the president presented this diagnosis: ‘The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power.’ After a record-breaking 30 years of uninterrupted presidency, it is hard to recognise Museveni, the once-popular president, now branded a dictator, as the author of that book. The contradiction in Museveni’s de facto lifetime presidency and his expressed idealism makes one wonder what happened along the way.
Retired Supreme Court of Uganda Judge George William Kanyeihamba, who was a Minister and the attorney general when President Museveni came to power in 1986, put it better when he told BBC news: ‘If the Yoweri Museveni of 1986 were to meet the Museveni of today, they would fight on sight – they would shoot each other.’
‘Revolutionaries don’t retire’
On 12 May 2001, President Museveni was sworn in for what should have been his last constitutional term. On this glamorous occasion, the then Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who was the chief guest of honour, was quoted by local newspapers as having advised Museveni not to step down in 2006. ‘Revolutionaries don’t retire or resign,’ he was quoted by the state-owned New Vision as telling Museveni at the International Conference Centre in Kampala. ‘Those people who come through revolutions should stay in those revolutions for the rest of their lives because they did not come through elections.’
Indeed, as if heeding Gaddafi’s advice, Museveni instituted a constitutional overhaul, removing term limits, thereby allowing himself to stand for the presidency in 2006, 2011, 2016 and probably 2021, setting a precedent for what would then become a life presidency.
The acclaimed Ugandan author Timothy Wangusa was particularly irked by the Libyan leader’s utterance. Talking to This is Africa at the Uganda Christian University, where he is a visiting professor, he noted that Museveni should have been sceptical of Gaddafi’s statement. ‘We should have asked Colonel Gaddafi, what is a revolutionary? Is it anyone who spearheads drastic and sudden change in the socio-political status quo of his [or her] country or time? Are revolutionaries born or made, and why can’t they retire?’
Wangusa, who also serves as Presidential Advisor on Literary Affairs, wondered whether ‘revolutionaries’ were not born with blank minds like the rest of us; minds which, in their case, were moulded by a host of negative contextual factors into mega-egocentrics who viewed (and worshipped) themselves as unique gifts of nature and history to their struggling nation or race.
Despite his tight grip on power, Museveni has had to fight a growing opposition, one that has become increasingly vehement since 2001. A vibrant civil society, a skeptical media and an active informal sector have combined to expose the ills and vices of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) regime.
Although all the candidates for president were invited to Museveni’s swearing in, the leader of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), Dr Kizza Besigye, is still under house arrest, while the residences of other key opposition figures have been surrounded by the police.
In an interview with the Daily Monitor, a local newspaper, opposition politician Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda said that more than 150 opposition supporters and officials are either in detention or missing.
The FDC, Uganda’s leading opposition party, called for countrywide protests against Museveni’s inauguration, arguing that their candidate, Dr Besigye, legitimately won the election by 52% and should rightly be sworn in as president.
Defiance campaign gaining momentum
During his presidential campaign, Dr Besigye said that unlike the previous elections he had lost to the incumbent and whose results he had accepted, this time he would be spearheading a ‘defiance campaign’ if the results of the election were not representative of the people’s will. ‘The defiance campaign means that we will not cooperate with the regime. We will continue to demonstrate against its actions until we delegitimise it and until the regime succumbs to the will of the people.’
On 18 February, when Museveni was declared the winner of the presidential election with 60,8% of the vote, the FDC publicly decried the result and attempted to announce their own results as captured at their tally centre. However, the army and police cracked down on FDC party headquarters, confiscating equipment and arresting party officials, including party president General Mugisha Muntu.
Unlike Amama Mbabazi, an opposition politician who petitioned the results of the election through the courts of law and later lost the case, Dr Besigye announced, on 7 March, his party’s boycott of government activities and of musicians deemed to be sympathetic to Museveni’s party.The ‘Free my Vote’ campaign also appealed to its supporters to hold prayers every Tuesday and to stay home every Thursday as a sign of their dissatisfaction with the governance of the country.
As these acts of defiance spread to the countryside, the government announced a ban on live media coverage of FDC activities and threatened to slap a ban on any media house that defied this directive. The directive, delivered in a statement by the Minister of Information, General Jim Muhwezi, was met with resistance in media circles and civil society as it is a violation of Article 29 of the Ugandan constitution, which states that ‘every person shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression’.
Fighter jets over Kampala
After rumours circulated on social media that the FDC was organising massive protests against Museveni’s inauguration, the government responded by flying fighter jets over the capital city. Kampala, virtually paralysing business in the central business district.
The Uganda People’s Defence Force later made a public statement that this display was not meant to threaten the population but was rather a routine testing exercise in preparation for Museveni’s inauguration The army’s spokesperson, Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, said: ‘I hear people are worried about the aircraft that flew over Kampala this morning. Calm down, these were routine test flights. The purpose was not to intimidate anyone, as some people are alleging.’
The swearing-in of the president does not come cheap. It will cost the taxpayer a whopping Shs 2,8billion, or USD 840,000. A total of 14 heads of state and government – from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kingdom of Lesotho, South Sudan, Tanzania, Mali, Togo, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Swaziland, China, Nigeria and the Russian Federation – have confirmed attendance.
FDC boycotts inauguration
Although all the presidential candidates who contested the election were invited, opposition parties, and the FDC in particular, have distanced themselves from the event, saying that they do not recognise Museveni as the duly elected president of Uganda. As FDC vice president Salaam Musumba told The East African newspaper: ‘They should not even bother sending invitations because we have made it clear to them that we do not support the election results […] We are having another swearing ceremony elsewhere.’
With Museveni poised for yet another five years as Uganda’s chief executive, fundamental change remains a distant dream. How ironic that Museveni now personifies the leader who overstays his time in power – the very thing he himself had identified as ‘Africa’s real problem’.