Ben Shepherd
Consulting Fellow, Africa Programme
Given voters' lack of options, Yoweri Museveni can command real support, but his style of politics cannot survive the country’s coming demographic change.
A woman walks past a Ugandan soldier and election posters in Kampala on 19 February 2016. Photo by Getty Images.A woman walks past a Ugandan soldier and election posters in Kampala on 19 February 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

Uganda’s election results are in, and Yoweri Museveni is the winner. Of course, the opposition has cried foul, alleging repression, vote rigging, a politically-biased electoral commission and wildly different levels of financing. Many of these complaints are likely well-founded, though it is very difficult to judge the extent to which they impacted the result. Observer missions have yet to release their assessments, but they are likely to repeat the verdict on previous elections; that there were irregularities, most glaringly over intimidation of the opposition and the misuse of state funds, but that the result broadly represents the will of the Ugandan people.  

Uncomfortably for Museveni’s critics, this may well be true. Most of Uganda’s people still live in rural areas where Museveni’s support has traditionally been strong. He is still personally appreciated by many Ugandans, notably older generations, for having brought stability after the chaos of the Idi Amin years and subsequent violence. And Uganda has made significant strides towards development over the 30 years that Museveni has been in office, albeit slowing in recent years. All these factors will have contributed to buttressing his vote.  

But this only tells half the story. While the result may indeed represent the will of the Ugandan people, this will was expressed within extremely narrow parameters. Both leading opposition candidates – Kizza Besigye and Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister – have strong links to the military and are from the southwest of the country, like Museveni. Both played prominent roles in the rebellion that unseated former President Milton Obote and brought Museveni to power in 1986. Mbabazi was a key Museveni insider as recently as 2014, perhaps explaining why his high pre-election profile only translated to 1.4% of the vote. Besigye was fighting on a platform that hadn’t noticeably evolved since his first campaign in 2001, and he has now gained between 26 and 37% of the vote in four straight elections. Though Besigye did marginally better this time than in 2011, Museveni was nearly a million votes past the 50% mark that he needed to avoid a second round run-off.

Opposition troubles

So, given the striking lack of variety in the choices available to them, it is entirely plausible that a majority of Ugandans opted for Museveni. What is more difficult to understand is why the opposition followed a pathway that had repeatedly been demonstrated not to work. And there are real political grievances in Uganda, most importantly around infrastructure, corruption and growth, and millions of young people facing a future without employment. It should be fertile ground for much-needed political innovation, leadership and dynamism.

Why did this dog not bark? Patronage is part of the answer. Politics has become a process of auditioning for jobs in government, and access to state resources. Running for parliament is expensive, making new-intake MPs – who should be at the vanguard of change – more amenable to making a deal rather than making more than temporary trouble. A heavy-handed security apparatus plays a role – the repeated arrests of Besigye in this and previous electoral campaigns, the militarization of policing and the recruitment of thousands of young ‘crime preventers’ at village level all act to undermine opposition. Ugandan politics is complicated by multiple cross-cutting cleavages − of region, ethnicity, religion and culture – and fractured into 111 sub-national political units; Nigeria, by contrast, has 36. This generates jobs – for the right candidates – and makes it difficult for any new political movement to generate momentum and coherence. Museveni’s party – the National Resistance Movement – is symbiotic with the state, particularly at local levels, and is the only actor with real national organization and reach.

Sclerotic model

So while there may well have been some direct manipulation of the electoral process, on a more fundamental level, Uganda’s politics has been moulded by Museveni over many years to make such excesses almost unnecessary. But while effective, the suite of measures that have achieved this all have one thing in common; they are expensive. Pulling the new parliament into line will take significant investment, as would any putative constitutional change – necessary to let Museveni run for yet another term – to increase the age limit for presidential candidates. Uganda’s economy is already feeling the pinch.

Uganda’s donor partners have so far seemed content to tolerate Museveni’s machinations, in return for some development progress and Uganda’s regional leadership across a range of security issues, from Somalia to Burundi. But the growth that Uganda needs to dampen its approaching demographic tidal wave – half of Uganda’s rapidly growing population is under 15 – will demand huge private sector investment from businesses that are wary of sinking vast costs before the parameters of the post-Museveni political landscape are drawn.

Museveni is caught on the horns of a catch-22. Maintaining stability under the current dispensation will demand cash that may not be available in the absence of some sort of road map to the future, but developing an inclusive vision for Uganda’s politics would necessitate a release of the personal control he has worked so hard to build. His model has given the country 30 years of relative peace and some much-needed progress. But sustaining this in years to come will demand the kind of political openness and dynamism he has spent decades neutering.

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