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

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Museveni's latest woes

Recent weeks have again highlighted that President Yoweri Museveni faces steadily rising criticism of his leadership both from within the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), and from outside it. In late April, a group of 20 Ugandan MPs (including NRM members) announced plans to launch a private member’s bill aimed at re-introducing presidential term limits in Uganda. This was followed, a week later, by Captain Francis Babu, a member of the NRM's National Executive Committee (NEC), trying to place the same issue on the agenda of a high-level party meeting in Kampala. Although both moves ultimately proved unsuccessful – government whips effectively quashed the proposed new bill even before it was tabled, and Babu’s agenda item was eventually ruled ‘out of order’ – the moves have once again highlight just how vulnerable the president has now become. Then, earlier this month, Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi once again came under pressure to step down as Secretary-General of the NRM - in a move which can also be seen as an indirect attack on the president. Moreover, this internal pressure on Museveni is being compounded by a stubborn opposition, and by their long-running public demonstration movement.

For several years now, Museveni has faced a growing challenge from a body of younger NRM MPs who, distrustful both of him and his party executive, have sought to check the president’s powers. During 2011, these ‘young turks’ dealt Museveni a number of setbacks, especially in relation to the country’s nascent oil sector. For example, in October 2011, the group supported the tabling in parliament of documents which purported to show that the then Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa had received a US$16.5 million bribe from Ireland’s Tullow Oil. Although the documents were proved to be fake, they nevertheless became a catalyst for Kutesa’s subsequent resignation. In recent months, the young rebels have continued to keep up their pressure on the president and his inner-circle.

For example, in early February, the group organized a petition calling for the resignation of Minister of Gender Syda Bbumba and Minister for General Duties in the Office of the Prime Minister Khiddu Makubya, over the role that the two had played in the payment of compensation, of around US$70 million, to NEC member Hassan Basajjabalaba over the loss of his public contracts for the redevelopment of several markets, and other public spaces, in central Kampala (at the time the payments were made, Bbumba and Makubya had been Finance Minister, and Auditor-General, respectively). Further pressure was then brought to bear on the two through the Public Accounts Committee, who on 16th February, formally censured the pair – following which both ministers did resign. Also in February, another of the younger NRM MPs, David Bahati, re-introduced his controversial Anti-homosexuality Bill (albeit with its former provision for the death penalty – for acts of ‘aggravated homosexuality’ – now removed). President Museveni remains opposed to the bill, having issued an executive order against it in late 2009. Nevertheless, on the day that Bahati tabled the revised version in the house, he received widespread applause from the NRM members present. Then, in mid-April, members of the young turks, this time working through Parliamentary Appointments Committee, were again involved in trying to force the resignation of Minister of Internal Affairs Hilary Onek. Onek had been previously implicated in the same corruption scandal that led to Kutesa’s resignation – although on that occasion, he managed to hold on to his position. However, the latest controversy relates to a claim that he had lied about his academic qualifications when first joining parliament, by inventing both Masters and PhD degrees from Uganda’s Makerere University. If upheld, this claim will almost certainly force Onek to step down. 

As a result of these developments, President Museveni is today more politically isolated than he has been for many years, and he is increasingly reliant on his loyalist Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi. However, Mbabazi has also been the subject of a corruption scandal in recent months - and he is anyway never far from controversy - and this has further deepened the president’s current political predicament. Thus, were Mbabazi himself to also fall foul of one of the rebel MPs’ parliamentary manoeuvres in the months ahead, then this would leave Museveni very dangerously exposed.

For its part, the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), which is now part of the umbrella-organization Activists for Change (A4C), have done their best to exploit the president’s current weakness. Following his relaunch of the ‘Walk to Work’ (W2W) campaign in mid-January, in recent months opposition leader Kizza Besigye has held an ever greater number of A4C rallies, especially in and around Kampala. However, with the authorities remaining hostile to the group, many of these rallies have become increasingly violent in nature. 

For example, on 21st February, riot police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd at an A4C rally in Katwe Market, Central Kampala. In the confusion that followed, Besigye’s bodyguard, Francis Mwijukye, was hit with a rubber bullet, whilst Besigye himself was hit in the leg by a tear gas canister (he was later hospitalized). In the same incident, FDC Women’s League Chairperson Ingrid Turinawe was sprayed in the face with pepper spray. Four days later, police again fired tear gas at an A4C rally held in Kasangati Town (which lies 9 miles north of the capital). That action resulted in widespread rioting, during which several buildings in the town were torched, and at least 8 people, including a 7-month old baby, were injured. However, worse was to follow on 21st March, when another A4C rally in central Kampala again descended into chaos. In the resulting melee, rocks were thrown at police, resulting in the death of a senior officer, Assistant Inspector of Police John Michael Ariong. 12 senior FDC officials, including Besigye himself, were arrested at the scene, along with several dozen of the group’s supporters. The opposition leader was later released on bail (although with restrictions on his movement), whilst at least 10 people were later charged with the policeman’s death, and with various public order offences relating to the incident. A week later, on 31st March, Besigye was again arrested, this time for breaching his bail conditions, as he attempted to reach another A4C rally in Kasangati. During the arrest, an NBS TV journalist who was covering the incident was hit by a police vehicle, and sustained serious injuries.

In response to the growing unrest, on 4th April, Attorney-General Peter Nyombi invoked Section 56 of the Penal Code Act to ban A4C as an ‘unlawful society’. The move was seen by many as unusual, given that in recent years Section 56 (which is an old colonial law) has only been invoked in relation to religious cults, and not in reference to large-scale political organizations. In this sense, Besigye himself was probably correct in his later assessment that the Attorney-General’s move demonstrated just how seriously the authorities are now taking the opposition threat. 

However, the formal banning of A4C seems unlikely to lead to a decline in the opposition’s protests, at least in the short term. Just one day after the ban came into effect, Besigye held another rally at the Kololo Independence Grounds, in Kampala. On 18th April, the opposition leader – along with Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago (who is another senior figure within the A4C organization) – then attempted another protest at Nakasero Market. Although Besigye and Lukwago claimed that they were only trying to have lunch at the market, the authorities barred the pair’s entry into the site, and this once again resulting in violence. In the ensuing fracas, a number of people, including a 12-year old girl, were injured. Finally, on 20th April, Ingrid Turinawe was arrested as she attempted to reach an opposition rally just outside the capital. In a strange twist, TV footage of the arrest clearly showed a male riot policeman gripping Turinawe’s right breast as she was pulled out of her vehicle. The footage resulted in complaints from human- and women’s- rights organizations, and subsequently led to female FDC supporters protesting topless in central Kampala (for which they were also arrested). The policeman involved was eventually suspended for his actions.

Footage of Turinawe's arrest can be seen here...

...whilst footage of the subsequent protests can be viewed here:

However, the ability of the opposition to move beyond these isolated incidents of unrest, and to develop a coherent opposition platform from which to challenge Museveni, has been significantly restricted in recent months by the emergence of a major leadership battle within the FDC. Following Besigye’s announcement that he would step down at party leader in June, intense jockeying has been taking place within the organization over who will succeed him. To date, at least three major contenders have emerged, including leader of the opposition in parliament Nathan Nandala-Mafabi, FDC heavyweight MP Abdu Katuntu, and long-time Besigye challenger Major-General Mugisha Muntu. In recent times, competition between these three figures has served only to deepen divisions within the FDC. However, it is also intriguing to note that both Nandala-Mafabi and Katuntu have also spent recent months developing their alliances among the NRM young turks: Nandala-Mafabi, by drawing on links made during his former Chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee (the same committee which recently forced the resignations of Ministers Bbumba and Makubya), Katuntu, through his own attempts to check the executive’s powers in relation to oil (for example, in December, Katuntu curried favour with many NRM rebels by taking the Attorney-General to the constitutional court over confidentiality clauses contained in several of the oil Production Sharing Agreements, PSAs). The growth of these alliances is intriguing, because it suggests that in the event of either Nandala-Mafabi or Katuntu taking over in June, an entirely new sort of opposition configuration might begin to emerge in parliament – one that would surely be powerful enough to signficantly restrict the president’s powers.

Museveni remains safe for now, and will probably continue to be so for as long as his political fixer-in-chief, Amama Mbabazi, remains in place. However, with Uganda’s economy performing badly (inflation is currently running at just over 20%, and in April the IMF lowered its growth forecast for 2012 from 5.5% to 4.2%) discontent will continue to grow throughout the country. In consequence, groups such as A4C – who recently tried to bypass the ban by relaunching themselves as For God and My Country (4GC) – will continue to draw big crowds at their rallies. However, whether such anger can be converted into a sustained drive for political change in the country remains to be seen.