The Problem With General Museveni I: He Has No Exit Strategy

35 years of kleptocracy

General Museveni. No way out? Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

[Speaking Truth To Power]

The problem with Uganda’s dictator Yoweri Museveni is that he’s backed himself in a tight corner. He’s got no exit strategy except to remain in power until he dies.

Barring that, Museveni would prefer a fictitious military “coup” whereby a “new” regime would protect him, his family, and their financial and commercial interests. In reality it would be a government where Museveni would continue pulling the strings from the background while remaining chairman of his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party. 

He may be concerned that this maneuver may not be sufficient. Jose Eduardo dos Santos tried it in Angola. In 2017 his protege Joao Lourenco succeeded him after he’d held power for 38 years. Dos Santos remained chairman of the ruling party. Today, he’s living in exile while Angola is working to recover the more than $1 billion accrued by his daughter Isabella dos Santos.

Of course Museveni doesn’t want to go into exile. He cannot afford to lose an election to a candidate like Robert Kyagulanyi, a.k.a. Bobi Wine, who represents the new Uganda, the youth. They comprise the overwhelming 80% of the nation’s population. They will surely vote for Bobi Wine. 

Museveni fears that a post-Museveni government not engineered and controlled by Museveni would not secure and protect his interests. To Museveni, the interests of Museveni and the Museveni family are paramount. They are more important than the interests and well-being of Uganda, as he told Kenyan journalist Jeff Koinange. The late Congolese dictator Mobutu liked saying, “Je suit l’etat,” meaning “I am the state.” Likewise for Yoweri Museveni. 

Museveni knows that a military regime would not endure in Uganda. The regime would be condemned by the African Union (AU), the United States, and the EU. Might a military regime be able to buy itself breathing room of several months during which it can claim it’s on a mission to restore order before returning power to civilians?

In Mali, the military seized power from an elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August 2020. The regime was roundly condemned by the AU and international community. The regime arranged a managed “consultation” with civil society. The regime created a caretaker administration with a “civilian”—former defense minister Bah Ndaw—as president. The apparent coup master Col. Assimi Goita became vice president. In other words, the military maintains power during the interim period.

Mali’s coup and aftermath emulates the Sudan’s. There, Omar Hassan Bashir was deposed by the military in 2019, after 30 years in power. This followed a popular uprising. The army entered into an interim administration—a compact with civilians, leading toward promised elections. Today Bashir is in prison facing trial on charges related to his role in the 1989 coup that brought him to power. The ICC also wants him at the Hague; the court issued a warrant for his arrest in 2009 in connection to his alleged role in crimes against humanity carried out against people in Sudan’s Darfur region.

In both Sudan and Mali there had been sustained protests for several months. The coups likely intercepted popular revolutions. In Mali, France may have encouraged the takeover. The Gulf states that finance Sudan’s government may have promoted Bashir’s exit.

In Uganda, after 34 years in power, Museveni may have outlived his usefulness to the U.S. and U.K., the two primary sponsors of his regime.

Faced with the prospects of losing in a landslide to Bobi Wine,  Museveni might attempt to engineer his own Mali, or Sudan exit. He may be pondering whether to trigger a friendly “coup” before or after Uganda’s Jan. 14 presidential election. 

How might Museveni engineer a pre-election coup? He could order a massacre. After he arrested leading presidential candidate Bobi Wine, leader of the National Unity Platform (NUP), on Nov. 18, his supporters protested. In the days and weeks that followed Museveni’s armed forces killed a reported 85 people. Museveni could order another such massacre before Jan. 14—with more casualties. He could then use the incident as a cover for a friendly coup.

He could similarly launch the coup after the election. Museveni would certainly have more opportunities and bogus excuses for such a takeover.

Judging by the size of the turnout at Bobi Wine’s campaign events relative to the number of people bussed in, or coming voluntarily, to Museveni’s own events, the dictator is headed for a landslide defeat. Bobi Wine is 38 years old, compared to Museveni who is at least 76 by his own account–possibly older. Bobi Wine is of the generation of millions of impoverished Ugandan youth. He speaks and sings in their language. They see in him the possibilities of a better today and tomorrow. They will vote for him. 

Should Museveni ignore the outcome of the election, and have his hand-picked election commission declare himself “winner”—as he did after challenger Dr. Kizza Besigye defeated him in the last three elections—the youth will take to the streets. Museveni could then order massacres. Should street protests continue, Museveni could then trigger the coup and the army would declare a state of emergency and deploy on the streets.

Predictably the AU, U.S., and EU would condemn the takeover. The army could then announce a caretaker administration led by a “civilian.” With Museveni pulling strings in the background, the military could nominate a “civilian” like Henry Tumukunde as interim president. Tumukunde is a regime insider who’s related to Museveni’s wife Janet, who doubles as minister of education. Tumukunde was Museveni’s minister of national security until 2016. 

Other possible “civilians” the military could propose includes Museveni’s own son, Gen. Muhoozi Kaenerugaba. He is presidential advisor to his father and controls at least three military services, including the Special Forces Command. He could become vice chair of the interim government. 

These—or some other variation—are possible temporary arrangements that Museveni may be contemplating. Both would be triggered by massacres to provide cover for takeovers. Yet, these manufactured coups don’t address the existential challenges facing Uganda: how to remove Museveni from power; how to empower the youth; and how to institute government that is anchored on Uganda’s institutions—the executive, the courts, the legislature—rather than on one man, Yoweri Museveni.

Enter Bobi Wine. How could he be denied power after he’s secured landslide victory? Museveni may be thinking he could place Bobi Wine under house arrest or exile him to some remote part of Uganda such as Karamoja while soldiers seize the streets. Of course there is a chance the youth might still return to the streets and drive him out of power and from Uganda. Nowadays no dictator can massacre with impunity and hope that he will not account for it one day. Hissen Habre of Chad, Charles Taylor of Liberia, and Sudan’s Bashir learned the hard way. Museveni is not blind to the facts. 

Even if the military secures the streets then what next? A caretaker government fronted by Tumukunde, a retired general —or some other Museveni acolyte—for 24 months? Then some sham elections to follow? An election where the only competing parties are the Democratic Party (DP), the compromised Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), and his own NRM? 

A sham election—that excludes NUP, FDC, and ANT—can only lead to a sham government. Musevenism would continue—corruption, embezzlement, torture, massacres, economic retrogression, and collapse of already crumbling state institutions. After 34 years, Ugandans and the outside world wouldn’t buy it. 

If Bobi Wine and NUP contested again he would win by a wider margin. Museveni would likely preclude Bobi Wine from contesting in another election by having him convicted of one of the bogus criminal charges he’s now facing. He’s likely reluctant to harm Bobi Wine because that would likely spark a popular uprising and revolution, spelling the end for him.

So what is to be done? 

A government that reflects the will of the vast majority of voters is the only solution. If Bobi Wine’s NUP wins in a landslide he must be allowed to form a government. He has shown remarkable maturity and moderation. He has been brutalized—including the infamous torture incident in Arua in August 2018—and arrested multiple times, as have been his supporters; many have been killed. Yet, he has urged his supporters to refrain from revenge violence and to seize power by voting on Jan. 14. 

Judging by the maturity he’s displayed, Bobi Wine would likely form an inclusive, broad-based government of national recovery. He could draw talented individuals from FDC, ANT, DP, and some non-compromised members of UPC, to join NUP in government. He may even be able to find some NRM members without blood in their hands, to play a role.

Museveni seized power with the sword and has governed by the sword. He reasonably suspects that many people who lost relatives during his  tyranny will seek revenge. Even a U.S. senator has privately said Museveni holds on to power because that’s the only way he can protect himself, his family, and ill-gotten riches.

This is a matter that has to be addressed, and which will be the subject of future commentary.

Yet the fate of one man and his family can no longer hold hostage a nation of over 45 million.

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