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Uganda’s political landscape: navigating Museveni’s longevity, transition, and opposition challenges

Uganda’s political landscape is dominated by one towering figure: President Yoweri Museveni.

For over three decades, he has held power, prompting questions about his longevity and the country’s future.

As a political scientist, I want to untangle this complex situation and explore what lies ahead for Uganda.

To understand Museveni’s grip and get a clearer picture of the country’s future, we need to dive deeper than just elections and constitutions; we need to understand the National Resistance Movement (NRM) in the specificity of the organisation.

Museveni’s power stems from the NRM, a revolutionary force born from a long guerilla struggle.

Unlike traditional mainstream parties, such as Kenya African National Union (KANU), Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM), or Malawi Congress Party, the NRM is a tightly knit group with Museveni at its core.

Think less “political machinery” and more “brotherhood of warriors”; the NRM is more like a group of fortune hunters led by a “godfather”. 

The NRM leader Museveni suffers from what I call Hubris Syndrome. Hubris Syndrome is when a leader develops an exaggerated view of their own capabilities.

The syndrome is more likely to manifest the longer a person exercises power and/or the greater the power they exercise. In his book, The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the intoxication of power, David Owen argues that George W. Bush and Tony Blair, overconfident, convinced of their own righteousness and fuelled by a “messianic zeal”, led their countries into the Iraq war, a disastrous foreign policy decision.

The NRM’s unique history – as a revolutionary movement that went to the bush and launched a protracted struggle for power – shapes everything.

The party is deeply embedded in the country’s security apparatus, blurring the lines between politics and military might.

It is like oil seeping through every crack – try as they might, Opposition efforts seem futile against this pervasive influence.

Movements that share a similar revolutionary history, in Cuba, North Korea, China, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Guinea Buissau, Algeria, and Nicaragua, have followed a similar trajectory.

These Movements share key characteristics, the principle one being a charismatic founding leader who serves as political head, ideological philosopher, as well as military commander.

Where these movements have captured power, they consolidate it and rarely lose it. Power tends to be centralised in the presidency and personalised in the person of the president, which raises the question: When this individual dies in power, can there be a peaceful transition?

Opposition Challenges  Museveni’s tactics for routing dissent

The Opposition in Uganda faces a Herculean task. Museveni has cleverly kept them off balance by offering potential leaders plum positions within the Government.

It is a classic divide-and-conquer strategy, leaving the Opposition fragmented and struggling to find its footing.

The NRM uses guerilla tactics to penetrate mainstream Opposition parties like FDC, NUP and DP, infiltrating them to gradually demobilise their centres of resistance.

President Museveni has successfully locked the Opposition and the Ugandan citizenry in what I would call the Allegory of the Cave.

The citizenry are like a group of people chained in a cave, facing only shadows projected on the wall.

These shadows represent their entire reality, until one escapes and sees the sun in all its glory. Plato’s account of the Allegory of the Cave, in his momentous book Republic, is eerily fitting for Uganda’s political situation.

Much like the prisoners mistaking shadows for reality, the Opposition is ensared within the cave of conventional politics.

Museveni’s tactics cast shadows that the Opposition, confined to a limited perspective, struggles to discern.

The call for dialogue represents an attempt to break free from these political shadows and see beyond the illusions that define the current power dynamics.

For many Ugandans, Museveni’s NRM is the only reality they have known, a carefully controlled system where dissent is muted and power consolidated.

So, how do we break free from these shadows and envision a new Uganda? That is the challenge facing not just the Opposition, but all Ugandans.

But it is not all about clever tactics. Corruption plays a crucial role in cementing Museveni’s hold.

It is like the grease keeping the political gears turning, ensuring loyalty and silencing dissent.

It is not just about enriching individuals; it is about binding ethnic groups and securing their support through patronage.

The President’s strategic patronage, seen in the appointment of RDCs, Ambassadors, Commissioners, and Ministers, has caused discord and confrontation within Opposition camps.

Museveni forges a coalition that helps him govern the ethnic identities of Uganda by bringing them to Cabinet and giving them resources, which helps him hold this Small Den Edifice of a fiction called the State of Uganda at ransom.

The Opposition’s call for a National Dialogue, while noble, fails to recognise that Museveni’s power does not stem solely from elections of the Constitution, but is deeply rooted in the armed in Luweero.

The Opposition runs the risk of falling victim to the “Adibaklum fallacy”, clinging to the mirage of national dialogue as the sole path to transition. Museveni is unlikely to engage in a dialogue that could become his political funeral.

So, will Museveni ever leave the stage? Predicting the future is a fool’s errand, but let us look at history.

Similar revolutionary movements in countries like Cuba, China saw their revolutionary leaders die in office, followed by a relatively peaceful transition.

It is therefore not farfetched to assume that Museveni will die in power’. While a peaceful transition is not guaranteed, the NRM’s internal structure suggests they might have the adaptability to adjust to a post-Museveni era.

The real question, however, is not just about who replaces Museveni, but about the kind of Uganda we want to see.

The Opposition needs to move beyond fixating on Museveni as an individual and articulate a clear vision for the country’s future.

They need to offer an alternative that resonates with the people, not just criticise the current regime.

Ultimately, Uganda’s future is in the hands of its people. We need to engage in critical thinking, demand accountability, and hold both the Government and the Opposition to a higher standard.

It is not a simple task, but it is the only way to break free from the shadows of the past and build a brighter tomorrow for generations to come.

The author is a political scientist and social entreprenuer.

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