Museveni‘s Uganda: A template for presidents who don’t want to leave office

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 12, 2021

Does any of this sound familiar? A president who refuses to leave office and will do just about anything to make it happen. Compliant legislators who coddle the man. A quarrel with big tech, which is trying to rein the administration in.

That’s the situation in Uganda as it moves with some difficulty towards a presidential election on January 14.

Yoweri Museveni, who has led the country for 35 years, is reluctant to give up power.

His challenger, Bobi Wine, leads a precarious and lonely existence, campaigning in a bulletproof vest, having despatched his family to the US for safety. On January 12, Mr Wine said the army had raided his home and arrested his security team.

Previously, Mr Wine told the Financial Times he had “been arrested almost every day” for the last 69 days, “but detained only about 11 times. I’ve been shot at four times…I’m only glad that I’m still alive.” He claims that one of his bodyguards was run over by military police last month. The police say the unfortunate man fell from a car.

Meanwhile, scores of people have been killed in violence ahead of the latest poll. According to Mr Wine, more than 100 people were gunned down by security forces in November but President Museveni claims just 54 died in “senseless riots”.

Uganda’s president is at odds with big tech too. When Facebook shut some Ugandan government accounts for seeking to manipulate public debate ahead of the elections, Mr Museveni’s spokesman tweeted angrily: “Shame on foreign forces that think they can aid and plant a puppet leadership on Uganda. You can take away our platforms, you won’t take away Museveni votes.”

Mr Museveni, 76, has been supported by Uganda’s supine parliamentarians, who lifted the 75-year age limit for the presidency in 2017, thereby allowing him to run for election again.

But make no mistake, Mr Museveni’s party is well aware that their septuagenarian leader is at a disadvantage against the 38-year-old pop singer who was elected to parliament by a landslide in four years ago. More than 75 per cent of Uganda’s population is below the age of 30 and young voters appear to see the singer’s message as inspirational. Despite the campaign of intimidation and violence, Mr Wine has been calling for a massive “protest vote” from the 18 million or so registered voters.

Democracy is on trial, say observers. Yes. Not just in east Africa.

Museveni’s Uganda offers a familiar template for presidents who don’t want to leave office.

That’s worth thinking about, for democracies old and new.