An anthropologist's take on Uganda and the Great Lakes region...

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Museveni faces growing difficulties

It is now almost 5 months since President Yoweri Museveni’s was sworn in for his latest five-year term of office, which when complete, will extend his rule to 30 years. However, the ‘political barometer’ has registered a significant drop both in the president’s political fortunes since the February polls (which he won with 68% of the vote). The reason for this relates to the storm of problems that Museveni has faced over recent months, as he struggles to control a major economic crisis, against the backdrop of growing discontent within his own party (the National Resistance Movement, NRM), and an emboldened domestic opposition.

The biggest difficulties that Museveni faces at this time relate to the economy. Since late 2010, rising food and fuel prices, combined with extravagant government spending in the run-up to the February polls, have steadily pushed up inflation. Annual inflation reached 21.4% in August. In protest, several large commodity suppliers in Central Kampala (and other urban centres) temporarily suspended trading, in an action that appears to have had widespread popular support. The Ugandan shilling - along with with other East African currencies - has also been under huge press for much of 2011. Following several dips early in the year, on 26th August, the currency slumped to an all-time low against the greenback, at 2825:1. The Bank of Uganda (BoU) was eventually forced to intervene. This trend is primarily driven by falling exports. However, in June, it was exacerbated by an article published in the Financial Times of London, in which the normally highly diplomatic, and deeply loyal, BoU Governor Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile openly criticized Museveni’s economic policies. In particular, the governor attacked the president’s earlier decision to purchase six Russian-made Sukhoi-Knaapo military jets using US$740 million of Uganda’s foreign currency reserves. According to Tumusiime-Mutebile the purchase, which was made without parliamentary approval, leaves the country dangerously exposed in the event of future global shocks.

Since the February elections, the president’s difficulties have been further compounded by growing dissent from within his parliamentary party. For several years now, a growing body of younger NRM MPs have become increasingly distrustful of Museveni and the party executive, and have sought both to pursue an independent legislative agenda, and to block the president on certain key votes. For example, it was a group of these ‘young turks’ – most of whom are in their 30s or early-40s, and are therefore 3 political generations removed from the ‘NRM historicals’ – who introduced the notorious Anti-homosexuality Bill in 2009, and who then kept the bill alive even after Museveni had issued an executive order against it. In addition, the same actors were also behind a parliamentary rebellion against the president’s Cultural Leaders’ Bill in December 2010. In the end, that challenge was seen off only after Museveni gave each of the rebel MPs a personal UgSh20 million grant to monitor National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) projects in their constituencies (grants which have since been decried by the opposition as ‘bribes’).

However, during the current sitting of parliament, the ‘young turks’ have become even more emboldened still, not least given that their number grew at the February general election. In other words, that election saw a record number of younger NRM MPs being elected to parliament, many of whom feel no particular loyalty towards the president, nor have any direct ties to him. Thus, the beginning of this 9th parliament has already seen rebel MPs:
  • Rejecting four of Museveni’s proposed ministerial appointments, on the grounds that the candidates had either ‘questionable morals’, or inadequate academic qualifications. 
  • Building a consensus against the president’s draft Anti-Bail legislation (which if passed, would remove the right to bail for certain crimes, including that of ‘economic sabotage’ – a charge that Museveni has previously leveled against his main political challenger, leader of the opposition, Kizza Besigye).
  • Voting down Museveni’s favoured candidate for the chairpersonship of the influential Uganda Women’s Parliamentary Association, UWOPA (in the end an opposition MP, Betty Amongi, was elected to the position).
  • Coming out against the president’s plan to revive the sale of part of Mabira Forest outside Kampala to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda (the sale would raise an estimated UgSh 11.5 billion. However, such is the strength of public opinion against the sale, that a previous attempt to do so in 2007, resulted in rioting across the capital).
  • Blocking an attempt by Energy Minister Irene Muloni to raise a $50 million loan for outstanding subsidies owed to electricity distributor UMEME (who in early July had pulled the plug on the national grid, temporarily plunging the entire country into darkness).
  • Refusing to endorse the budgets of a number of Ministries, including those of Defence and Foreign Affairs.
  • Rejecting a government proposal to increase teachers’ salaries by up to 44%.
In response, in mid-July, Museveni began inviting groups of NRM MPs to a series of ‘agricultural modernization tours’ at his home in South-western Uganda, during which he again offered to facilitate each to create a model agricultural project in his/her home constituencies. However, there is a growing danger that if these sorts of tactics don’t work, and the current trends within the parliamentary caucus continue, that Museveni may soon become seen as a ‘lame duck’ president – something that would almost certainly trigger an internal challenge for his position. Indeed, the president now seems to be guarding against just such a possibility, for example, in his recent sacking of NRM heavyweight Gilbert Bukenya as vice-president; he had been widely tipped to one day challenge Museveni for the party leadership. Bukenya saw Anti-Corruption Court proceedings against his restarted in June, on charges related to alleged embezzlement during the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kampala.

However, other potential challengers within the NRM cannot be so easily removed. In particular, the career of Bukenya’s main rival, Amama Mbabazi, continues to go from strength-to-strength. Following his successful coordination of Museveni’s recent re-election campaign, in June Mbabazi was rewarded by being made the new Prime Minister. Although Museveni stipulated that Mbabazi give up the position of NRM secretary-general in order to assume the premiership, Mbabazi has simply refused to do so. As a result, he now holds the two most senior offices of the party – below those held by Museveni  – leaving him very well positioned to eventually challenge for the presidency. Should a genuine leadership challenge develop, then Museveni would likely rely on his power base within the army, the upper-echelons of which remain loyal. 

Against this background of deepening economic crisis, and internal strife within the NRM, on 16th July, opposition leader Kizza Besigye announced his intention to restart the ‘Walk to Work’ (W2W) campaign:

Previous actions within this campaign had in April and May led to some of the worst civil unrest in Uganda for 25 years, and – amidst accusations of heavy-handed tactics by the police – left at least 5 people dead, and more than 130 hospitalized. During the fifth W2W action, on 28th April, Besigye himself had been badly injured, and was subsequently taken to Nairobi for treatment. Upon his return from Kenya he was placed under house arrest, although all charges against him were eventually dropped. 

However, whether a second round of W2W protests will ultimately prove more successful than the first – and might thereby turn popular discontent over the economy, and youthful anger against the authorities, into a genuine swing away from the ruling party – seems highly doubtful, not least given how divided the opposition currently are. On 5th July Besigye announced his decision to step down as party leader of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) when his current term ends (in 2014), in a move apparently designed to ward off a leadership challenge before that time. However, the move may have been counter productive, in that it makes it increasingly unlikely that other opposition parties – especially the influential Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) and the Democratic Party (DP) – will ever unite behind future Besigye-led protests. Indeed, at around the same time that Besigye was making his leadership announcement, the UPC and the DP – along with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) – were busy creating an opposition platform of their own. Called ‘Free Uganda Now’, this platform has since attempted to mount a number of protest events of its own (although to date, most of these have been thwarted by the authorities). But as a result, at present, it is not clear whether the UPC and DP – both of whom were active participants in the first round of W2W – will even take part in future actions organized under this banned. Yet if the opposition cannot even agree upon a common platform for protest, then genuine, and sustained, political gains seem unattainable.