Gen. Yoweri Museveni: DNA of Murderous Dictatorship

Dictator Museveni

Gen. Museveni, African dictator and Western agent of 35 years. Photo: Facebook

The richly endowed country in east Africa that Winston Churchill, the twentieth century’s British statesman, in his book “My African Journey” published in 1908, called “the pearl of Africa” has since 1986 been ruled by General Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who has now proved to be the second longest serving militarist dictator in the east-central Africa region. 

Museveni’s 35-year-old regime ranks second only to the record previously established by his godfather, General Mobutu Sese Seko who, having been installed by external forces during the Cold War, ruled the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) through a system of patronage and military terror from 1960 until 1997.

Similarly in Uganda, General Museveni has, through fascist-like terror tactics and impoverishment of the great majority of people, managed to stay in power since 1986 when he and his National Resistance Army (NRA) stormed Kampala, the capital city, and usurped power by military force. Since then, he has brewed a lethal cocktail of fear, poverty, despair and even desperation for the great majority in the country. 

Yet despite the objective sorry conditions in which millions of Ugandans are trapped, a cross-section with abiding faith and imbued with joyous stoicism still entertain hope for a bright future beyond General Museveni’s triumphalist yet delusional attempts to impose on the country a family dynasty. In recent years, his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba has been promoted rapidly to Lt. General and commander of land forces. His wife Janet is a minister in the government and his brother General Salim Saleh, a senior advisor. 

Lacking skills of communication and persuasion, Museveni relies on bullets. Photo: Facebook.

In this article, I provide an exposition of the major and intersecting factors and the tools that might help us understand how and why General Museveni’s militarist dictatorship in Uganda has managed to stay in power for well over 35 years despite its dismal records on the rule of law, human rights, good governance, economic development and democratic practice.

Although the particular facts used in this article to illustrate the case study of Uganda might be different in degree from those that obtain in other African countries, the historical and political framework of analysis should apply with equal force across the continent.

But before I provide exposition of the explanatory factors as indicated above, I first outline a dozen indisputable evidentiary facts and unflattering data that would—today—tend to challenge Winston Churchill’s designation of the country as “the pearl of Africa.” I have left out the more serious allegation leveled at the dictator of committing genocide in the country’s Acholi region, which should stand on its own merit.

The evidence and facts in chronological order should shine light on what have transpired in the country; but more significantly, it should be used to evaluate Uganda’s standing in the international community. In making this assessment, it should be remembered that Uganda is a signatory to, and has ratified, a host of international human rights and humanitarian conventions, for example, the International Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. As a State party to the convention, Uganda has a positive duty to uphold its provisions, which, among other things, in a strict sense prohibits torture from being justified on the grounds of public interest.

The first fact is that since 1986, the country has had only one president: that is, General Yoweri Museveni. For comparative purposes, during the same period, the United States has had seven presidents: Ronald Reagan; George H.W. Bush; Bill Clinton; George W. Bush; Barack Obama; Donald Trump; and Joe Biden. 

Of the other two original neighboring east African countries, Kenya has had three presidents, while Tanzania has had five. A critical fact to note is that General Museveni has achieved the feat of being a despot of unlimited power and unlimited tenure by changing the constitution of Uganda twice to suit his personal political preferences, by destroying virtually all institutions, and by the militarization of politics and politicization of the military.

Second, since 1986, General Museveni has imposed on the country a system of terror that infects people with fear and accordingly paralyzes a cross-section of citizens from effectively challenging his entrenched absolute power. And tragically, the technique of assassinations and mysterious deaths of prominent Ugandans have become the means to ensure that alternative leadership and vision for the country are eliminated—extinguished. 

Prominent Ugandans who have died in unsatisfactorily explained and mysterious circumstances include the following: Dr. Andrew Lutaakome Kayiira on March 9, 1987; Attorney General Francis Joash Ayume on May 16, 2004; Brigadier Nobel Mayombo on May 1, 2007; Major-General James Bunanukye Kazini on November 10, 2009; M.P. Hon. Cerinah Nebanda on December 14, 2012; General Aronda Nyakairima on September 12, 2015; Assistant Inspector General of Police Andrew Felix Kaweesi on March 17, 2017; and Major-General Paul Lokech, dubbed the “Lion of Mogadishu” for his valiant military achievement in Somalia, on August 21, 2021.

Third, on July 11, 1989, the 106th battalion of Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) rounded up 300 men in Mukura and other surrounding areas in Teso sub-region and incarcerated them in a train wagon number C521083. Most of the men were incinerated in the train wagon. To date, the perpetrators of the heinous crime have not been brought to book.

Fourth, General Museveni has used mafia-like gangster-methods that brought him to power to hasten the breakdown of the rule of law so that he can rule without legal challenge. For example, in 2005 and 2006 he deployed a specialized machine gun wielding paramilitary unit to invade the high court, intimidate judges during the trial of opposition leader Dr. Kizza Besigye who had been falsely accused of treason for challenging Museveni, and to undermine the independence of the judiciary. James Ogoola, the Principal Judge of the High Court at the time characterized the invasion and memorialized the profound lack of respect for the rule of law and the gross violation of the sanctity of the court’s premises in a poem, as “a rape and the desecration of the Temple of Justice.”

Fifth, in 2005, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the U.N.’s highest judicial body, ordered Uganda to pay the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) up to $10 billion for the five-year (1998-2003) occupation, plunder, torture and killings of civilians in its eastern regions. Interestingly, after the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched its own separate criminal investigation of the same crimes, that could have resulted in the indictment of Museveni—much in the same manner in which Sudan’s General Omar Bashir was indicted—Museveni contacted then U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and urged him to block the probe. 

Sixth, in 2006, Jan Egeland, then U.N. Under Secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, described the then 17-year-old war in the northern part of Uganda as the worst neglected  humanitarian crisis on earth.

Seventh, in September 2009, Uganda security forces killed at least 40 people when they used unnecessary lethal force during two days of civil unrest in Kampala. The protests were triggered by police action when they blocked a delegation led by the hereditary king of Baganda, Kabaka Mutebi, from exercising their freedom of movement to visit Kayunga district. Museveni never held the security forces responsible for the mayhem accountable. His indifference to punish those responsible for killings of civilians over the last several decades symbolizes the entrenched impunity in the country for the commander-in-chief and his men.

Eighth, corruption has become a cancer and institutionalized in the fabric of society. In 2012, for example, the East Africa Bribery Index, in a survey conducted for it by Transparency International, found that of the five east African countries—Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda—Uganda stood out as the country with the highest levels of bribery scored at more than 40 percent. In fact, the epicenter of corruption is in the presidency, from where misappropriations of public funds are used for patronage and siphoning resources for personal enrichment. (More recently, in 2018, a U.S. court convicted a Chinese national of bribing General Museveni and his foreign minister Sam Kutesa $1 million to obtain oil and other business concessions). 

Ninth, in 2014, Uganda’s population census reported that the country had the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Sub-Saharan Africa with over 25 percent of pregnancies among teenagers registered every year. 

Tenth, in 2016, the Ugandan army attacked the Rwenzururu royal palace of the hereditary king, Charles Wesley Mumbere, in the town of Kasese, resulting in the massacre of over 100 people including women and children. General Museveni boasted in an Al-Jazeera interview of having ordered the attack. He promoted the commander of the massacre General Peter Elwelu. 

Eleventh, in 2020, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) reported in a survey of poverty in Uganda that although there was a slight decline in poverty at the national level, it increased dramatically in Acholi sub-region. To date, the sub-region is the poorest, to the extent that 68 percent of people there are categorized as poor.

Coupled with land-grabbing in the sub-region, it can be argued that the impoverishment of people there is a deliberate strategy of social engineering for long-term consignment of the people to servitude. By social engineering is meant the practice by authorities and elites in power to use public policies, laws, psychological manipulations, the media, rhetorical and propaganda techniques to effect far-reaching normative changes and foster values that would mold people’s attitude and behavior in particular ways, as desired by those in authority and elites in power.

To compound the regional inequalities, youth unemployment in Uganda is estimated to be around 70 percent in a country where young people below the age of 40 years constitute more than 80 percent of the population. With the great majority of young people losing hope, the future of the country looks bleak.

Twelfth, during the elections of January 2021, that the The Economist magazine of January 2, 2021, characterized as undemocratic and probably the most violent since General Museveni seized power in 1986, opposition candidates were arrested, crowds dispersed with tear gas and bullets, and campaigns in the capital city of Kampala, a stronghold of the opposition National Unity Platform (NUP), were banned. In the run up to the elections, in November, dozens of Ugandans were massacred by security forces. They were protesting the arrest of leading presidential challenger M.P. Robert Kyagulanyi, a.k.a. Bobi Wine. The regime itself admitted to killing 54.  

General Elly Tumwine, the Security Minister, justified the massacre of citizens by asserting that it was legitimate for military forces “to shoot to kill” protesters if they “reach a certain level of violence.” 

Human Rights Watch’s investigation concludes that the January 2021 elections were indeed marked by widespread violence and human rights abuses that included extra-judicial killings by security forces, arrests and beatings of opposition supporters and journalists, disruption of opposition rallies, and a shutdown of the internet. Even the U.S., the Museveni regime’s primary sponsor, in a statement, denounced the election as “neither free, nor fair” essentially meaning Washington doesn’t believe he has a legitimate mandate. The U.S. also imposed visa restrictions on unnamed Ugandan officials. 

The various violations of human rights committed by the militarist dictatorship are in fact in contravention of the government’s international legal obligations to which it voluntarily signed up. Perhaps more ominous for the future of the country than the persistent violations of human rights, have been the policies carried out and actions engaged in by the militarist dictatorship that have perverted ethical values in society and actively promoted the growth of sordid corruption on an unprecedented scale; destroyed and personalized most institutions of governance; mortgaged the country’s modicum of sovereignty; and plundered resources in neighboring countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan. 

A pertinent question is this: why has Uganda not been appropriately sanctioned for contravention of legally binding international obligations? This may in part be attributable to the fact that the international system of enforcement is not particularly effective to provide a remedy for cases of violation. 

However, when it is considered that the international community has treated other countries with equally odious if not arguably less blemished records than Uganda’s more harshly, we are left to seek more satisfactory explanations than simply the fact of weak enforcement mechanisms.

Two cases can be cited here. The first is that of the late military dictator of Chile, General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. In 1998 the British courts rejected the dictator’s claim that he was entitled to sovereign immunity for the violations of human rights he presided over in his country. A panel of five Law Lords ruled that as a former ruler he was not immune from prosecution for criminal acts that violate international human rights treaties.

The second is the case of Zimbabwe. From the late 1990s until now, Pan-European powers, in concert, have applied some of the most punitive sanctions ever in history against Zimbabwe for violating the rights of its white farmers. The punitive sanctions have been coached in the name of upholding the rule of law, human rights and democracy. 

But in the case of Uganda, instead of indictment and sanctioning of the militarist dictatorship, the international community has at best turned a blind eye to the Museveni regime’s evil deeds outlined above, despite the rhetoric by Pan-European powers to stand up for the promotion of the rule of law, good governance, democracy and human rights in Africa. 

It should be noted, nonetheless, that to their credit, from time-to-time Pan-European powers have registered feeble protests to Museveni’s militarist dictatorship when, for example, civil society organizations and some media have exposed and widely publicized instances of massive extra judicial abductions and killings, such as the ones that occurred before, during and after the January 2021 elections. 

However, on balance, the cold reality of the matter is that the public rhetoric by Pan-European powers has scarcely been matched by their action. This is so because the same Pan-European powers have sustained the militarist dictatorship by providing it with invaluable military materiel, diplomatic support, financial assistance and media outlets for public relations campaigns. These have collectively constituted the external legitimacy, which have been the linchpin for the militarist dictatorship. For the most part, therefore, the laudable public rhetoric might be regarded as no more than a mood of the moment, if not done for public relations purposes. 

How can we, from an historical perspective, properly understand and explain both the gap, if not contradictions, between what Pan-European powers profess to stand for and their actions in practice, as well as the long tenure in power by the militarist dictatorship? 

From a historical and political perspective two overarching and intersecting factors might help us understand and appreciate why and how Museveni’s militarist dictatorship in Uganda has enjoyed such a long tenure in power, despite the evidence of persistent human rights violations. I now turn to consider the two intersecting factors. 

The first factor is impersonal and external; and the other is personal in character and internal. 

The impersonal and external factor that might more satisfactorily explain how Pan-European powers have handled the militarist dictatorship in Uganda is what Kwame Nkrumah referred to as “neo-colonialism.” By “neo-colonialism” is meant the strategy of indirect means employed by imperial powers to maintain and advance their economic and geo-strategic interests. The strategy normally involves the employment of, and reward in money and in kind to, indigenous politico-military elites, serving as functionaries or agents of imperial powers. In Uganda, the local politico-military elites who superintend the interests of external powers are referred to as “nyampara.” In Chinese literature, the indigenous functionaries who serve as cost-efficient conduits to facilitate continued control and exploitation of local resources for the benefits of foreign interests are called compadorial managers.

But although the brand of neo-colonialism in the post decolonization era, after 1960, has been slightly different, it is not totally new. In their classic, “Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism,” published in 1961, Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher document that before 1880 the British government preferred “informal control” of Africa because this was deemed more cost-effective and efficient than formal occupation of the continent.

As indicated above, Kwame Nkrumah, the undisputed intellectual and visionary leader of Pan-Africanism in the second half of the twentieth century, is the leading authority on the workings of neo-colonialism in Africa. In his book, “Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism” published in 1966, he spells out with clinical details the various guises under which it operates to ensure that the country subjected to it is, in theory, though independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside. Nkrumah argues that probably the worst aspect of neo-colonialism is that to the foreign powers that employ and profit from it, it means power without responsibility to account for the consequences of their policies. Conversely, for indigenous people who suffer form neo-colonialism, it means exploitation without redress.

Nkrumah predicted the challenges neo-colonialism would create.

A year after Kwame Nkrumah published arguably this most consequential book, in 1967 Jaramogi Oginga Odinga—the father of Raila Odinga—in collaboration with Ruth First, published “Not Yet Uhuru.” In the book the authors argue that juridical independence had not changed much the socio-economic dynamics of Kenya. In effect, they outline the operation of neo-colonialism in Kenya. In 1975, Colin Leys, a British political economist, published “Underdevelopment in Kenya: the Political Economy of Neo-Colonialism,” which with scholarly analysis supported Odinga’s earlier broad observations. In the case of current Uganda, Helen Epstein’s book, “Another Fine Mess,” is highly recommended if not indispensable for an understanding and appreciation of how neo-colonialism informed by geo-strategic and security calculations has operated in Uganda to sustain in power the militarist dictatorship under General Museveni. 

It would therefore seem that considerations of economic and geo-strategic interests of Pan-European powers rather than concerns for the rule of law, human rights and democracy, leave alone the humanity and welfare of Africans, explain more satisfactorily than other factors why and how the militarist dictatorship in Uganda has been in power for well over 35 years. In fact, it is fair to surmise that since the mid-1960s, the operation of Pan-European neo-colonialism in Africa has substituted internal democratic support from the population with external legitimacy as a vital mainstay of authoritarian rulers in the continent.

In order to avoid confusion, I should briefly clarify the concept of legitimacy, as used in this article. It should be noted that legitimacy, as a historical concept, has been neither static nor self-evident. For example, before the late eighteenth century, legitimacy was justified on the grounds of divine right of monarchs. It was the French Revolution of 1789 that dealt crippling blows to the notion of divine right and substituted it with a modicum of popular democratic legitimacy. Similarly, in the present context of Africa’s integration into the global capitalist economy and of the enormous structural economic imbalances between the countries of the North and Africa, the practical notion of legitimacy has been so transformed that external actors can bring about changes within African countries more effectively than citizens.

Museveni shown with President Reagan. Reliable agent of neo-colonialism. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. 

I now turn to exploring the second factor, which is internal and personal in nature. But first, it should be noted that neo-colonialism is neither self-effecting nor works in a vacuum. As such, how has it operated in Uganda since 1986? As indicated above, as a rule, it requires indigenous agents to facilitate its operation on the ground. For better or worse, General Museveni has proved to be a malleable person to facilitate the operation of neo-colonialism in the country. But why has he been so malleable?

Below, I outline three relevant themes and values that can be detected throughout General Museveni’s life since his formative stint at Dar-es-Salaam University in Tanzania where he was a student in the department of political science in the late 1960s that seem to have shaped his approach to politics. I focus on the values that have shaped his character not least because he occupies the strategic and gravitational center of the dictatorship, and because his personality and whims have overshadowed all else in the country since 1986. 

The first has been General Museveni’s unwavering embrace of, and faith in, the potency and the effective use of violence to achieve his ends. This suggests that he is infected with deep insecurity about his ability to win rational arguments. And when he has failed to convince in an argument, he has been prepared to resort to violence to achieve his ends.

In fact, there are numerous examples over the years when he has resorted to the use of violence where he could not persuade in rational debates. This happened, for example, in 1980 when he lost the election to Parliament to Sam Kutesa, his brother-in-law and later his foreign minister. Similarly, whenever he lost presidential elections to Kizza Besigye, his former personal doctor, on at least two occasions, he mobilized the military to brutalize him and simply refused to yield power. 

Likewise, in January 2021, when General Museveni was aware that he could not win in a free and fair election against rising star, Member of Parliament Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu—popularly known as Bobi Wine—the popular musician-turned-politician, he instructed his lieutenants in the police and military to subject followers of his leading political opponent to savage extra judicial killings and other grotesque violations of human rights.

The second has been his chameleon-like opportunism not moderated by any grasp of ethics or conventional morality. This means he can betray both friends and foes once he perceives them to threaten his interest in general and hold on power. The examples of how he demonized Apolo Milton Obote and persecuted Kizza Besigye, both politicians who had been his close allies in the past, illustrate the point. This may also explain the mysterious and unsatisfactorily explained deaths of prominent Ugandans cited above.

And the third is that Museveni has not been ashamed to peddle in and promote some of the worst forms of ethnic chauvinism, if it advances his ends. In fact, over the years, he has exploited ethnic affiliations to shore up support for him when he could not appeal to people on the merit of his argument or ideology. In my book “Politics and the Military in Uganda,” I document how in the late 1970s, as defense minister, he disproportionately recruited people from his ethnic group into the military. It is apparent that at the time he was already preparing to mobilize people from his ethnic group in the armed forces to use unconstitutional means to usurp power. 

Since his seizure of power in 1986, Museveni has brazenly populated strategic positions in the state with people from his family and sub-ethnic group. Publisher Andrew Mwenda’s article titled “Family rule in Uganda” that appeared in the Independent Newspaper of March 11, 2009, documents the practice. Timothy Kalyegira’s brilliant rejoinder, in an article titled “The dynamic behind Museveni’s family rule” in the same newspaper on April 7, 2009, sheds more light on how General Museveni’s more or less pathological sectarian tendencies and shameless ethnic chauvinism created within a short period of time an elite group drawn mostly from Western Uganda. It is this group of decadently parasitic elites and their codependents that will likely fight literally to death to defend the otherwise oppressive system, in order to protect their ill-gotten wealth and privileges. 

To ensure that he and his extended family rule the country for as long as people succumb to the terror tactics he routinely employs, General Museveni has cynically exploited people’s misery to build support for the dictatorship through a system of shifting alliances. In the early 1980s, for example, he exploited the sincere grievances of the people from the central region of Buganda to build support in Luweero for his guerrilla war against the then democratically-elected Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) government led by Obote. 

A few years ago, when the people in Buganda began to withdraw their support for him after they had realized that he had used them like a ladder to get to power, Museveni struck a symbolic alliance with political elites in Acholi, a sub-region whose people he had demeaned, demonized, massacred, forced into internally squalid displaced camps for over a decade where hundreds of thousands perished, and hammered to their knees. Having reduced the Acholi people to a state of servitude, Museveni has now without shame pretended to be their friends if not savior. The suspicious death of General Okech could create an obstacle for his scheme. 

On balance, partly because he came to power through military means, and partly because he is wedded to ethnic chauvinism, from time to time Museveni treats ethnic groups out of favor as conquered people. With the traits summarized above and his insatiable desire for power, it is not difficult to see why and how external powers, whose experts, including intelligence services, are probably far conversant with his weaknesses than ordinary Ugandans, would co-opt Museveni to grease the wheels of neo-colonialism. 

Rather sadly, apologists of the militarist dictator, who have settled their bargain with him, while ignoring the impact of his rule on the great majority of Ugandans, have adduced his rhetoric to argue that General Museveni is “progressive.” The fact of the matter is that his initial chant of revolutionary rhetoric was simply hot air blown to disguise his reactionary core tendencies. 

General Museveni’s cynical manipulation and exploitation of socio-political differences in Uganda, and his lethal use of violence to eliminate known or perceived opponents, as well as the dual fostering of poverty, his shameless deployment of ethnic chauvinism and patronage as the means to ensure his hegemonic domination of the country are all a recipe for disaster, now and in the future.  

If Uganda is to reverse course and redeem the promise of the country Winston Churchill called “the pearl of Africa”, it would be necessary for other enlightened and courageous leaders, in the mold of Bobi Wine, General Mugisha Muntu—leader of the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT) party and Kizza Besigye, to give three examples, to rise above the pathological pettiness of General Museveni. 

Significantly, such leaders—and others not as well known—should renounce violence and embrace revolutionary non-violence as the means to liberate and build a democratic country. 

More than this, they must demonstrate commitment to social justice, collective solidarity, and an ecumenical vision of Uganda. And most importantly, they must commit to leading by example in genuine efforts to couple power with ethical values which is something alien to General Museveni.

Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu teaches at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, U.S.A




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