UGANDAN President Yoweri Museveni has plunged himself into the race to extend his 30-year rule, in elections set for mid-February 2016.
In many ways, this was not the way Museveni’s story was supposed to turn out. In the first decade or so of his rule, it was fashionable among development studies scholars to refer to him as Africa’s first “anti-politics” politician.
He was not a career politician, and he liked to refer to himself and his colleagues who took to the bush to start a war after Uganda’s disputed December 1980 election, as just revolutionary angry young men.
How time flies
In interviews, he would say he would be in power for no more than 10 years (i.e. 1996) then go on to do other things, of which he was spoilt for choice, he would assert. Yet here we are, 30 years later, and a 2005 constitution amendment that deleted term limits and allowed him stay in power, and he is still in the hunt for more years in office.
Museveni is a cow man - and by some accounts Uganda’s leading cattle owner - and is known to give hundreds of his animals individual names. He uses it to give himself salt-of-the-earth cred, which has been a boon for his politics, especially in cornering the rural vote.
With his wife Janet among the famed long-horned Ankole cattle, reputed for their lean meat. In addition to deep familiarity with cows and their ways, Museveni is said to beobsessed with vegetation and can reel off the names of most grasses, shrubs and trees on his vast farms. (Photos/YKM/Facebook).
Museveni faces competition from Kizza Besigye, his former personal physician and now an opposition leader, who ran against him three times before, and from ex-Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi. There are other candidates in the run, but they are mostly passengers.
As he seeks political longevity, Museveni’s story is interesting because it is actually not typical and is perhaps best representative of how an African leadership looks like when it gets trapped in political limbo.
He is not Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. He has since spoilt, but not ruined, an economy and country he helped rebuild. Especially outside election times, Museveni has an internal auto correct button, which always seems to switch him away from madness and back to a course of sanity.
But neither is he a Nelson Mandela, who left power early when he was still inspirational, nor Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, who knew where the line of glory crosses into ignominy and left. Nor is he like fellow soldierman, Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings, who can live with seeing others as leaders of a “revolution” he engineered. He’s many things, not easy to box - almost a political schizophrenic.
Still, for a man who once ruled with a near Patrician air, who insisted that his works spoke to his record, and who was scornful of political theatrics - troupes of traditional dancers and the like - it is revealing that those same antics are now his props.
For example, unlike Rwandan president Paul Kagame who is a known football enthusiast and Arsenal FC fanatic, and even Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe who roots for Barcelona, Museveni was really not famous as a football-loving president.
But shrewdly, over the years he has worked on his football skills to connect to the urban vote where he was being trounced by the opposition, and with younger people, the longer he stayed in office. With youth unemployment nearing 80%, Museveni couldn’t let his works speak for him with this constituency.
He immersed himself in their games.
On a visit to Italy, Museveni locked shoes with a young Italian footballer who challenged him (above)...
..and Museveni obliged. The ambassador who arranged the footsie encounter, and the gentleman photographing in both cases, his foreign minister, are wise. They will be in his service for long. (Photo/YKM/Facebook).
His football exploits, though, are put to more social and political use at home. Above he kicks the ball with the children in a Ugandan family he visited in Kampala, and below he takes the show to Uganda’s big national stadium Namboole. (Photos/YKM/FB).
But at the end of the day, beyond speaking to the urban crowd and young people, football helps Museveni make a bigger political point—that despite his age, he is still “young” and able to lead. Thus upon nomination - unopposed of course - as his ruling National Resistance Movement’s (NRM) presidential candidate in early November, he put on a brisk run for the admiring faithful to prove his vitality.
This kind of messaging allows Museveni to paper over a lot of personal and political liabilities.
Police brutality against government opponents risks undermining the credibility of the vote, Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, said last month. And shifting the conversation from such stories is critical.
Eyes on the prize
All this proves that his eyes are never off the prize, whatever else.
It is said Museveni starts every election with a four-point strategy option: to charm voters with his charisma; if not then intimidate them with violence; if not then buy the vote; and if that fails get the electoral commission to fix the count as happened rather dramatically in 2006, according to the opposition.
He therefore always has a “winning” strategy.
If it works again this time, Museveni will actually pull off something extraordinary - he already has been in power longer than all Uganda previous seven presidents combined, and might well double it!
Small wonder then that descriptions of Museveni vary from visionary, strategic, despot, revolutionary, democrat, and reformer. Admittedly a deeply flawed politician, his story is nevertheless probably unequalled among other leaders on the continent.
Museveni likes to take to the flip board or chalk board, where he assumes either an avuncular or scholarly tone, lecturing his audience and casting himself in the image of “national teacher”. (Photo/YKM/FB).
He was a Born Again Christian as a student, then forsook religion as “unscientific” and became a leftist, even a Marxist Leninist. But today, he hobnobs with right wing evangelical groups, who partly shaped the virulently homophobic line of his government of his recent years, which saw the passing of what gay rights groups portrayed as virtually a lunatic law anti-gay law. Fortunately, the law was overturned by the courts.
It was uncharacteristic, and a troubling evolution, of Museveni who historically had taken an agnostic position on such wedge social issues.
Fighting in Mozambique
But in his “scientific” and early radical phase, cutting a Che Guevaran figure, he joined the Mozambique liberation movement Frelimo to fight the Portuguese, after he left Uganda when Idi Amin took power in 1971.
He later formed his first rebel group that, along with other Ugandan dissidents, joined up with the Tanzanian army to oust the Amin regime in 1979.
Early in the year Museveni was in rainy Tanzania, and needed an umbrella. No problem there, except, as much to the amusement of many, it was in gay pride colours. That happens when you hang around long enough to be caught up in your contradictions. (Photo/YKM/FB).
He had a turbulent time in the post-Amin administration, the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF), where he was Defence minister before being demoted. Then in the shambolic elections of December 1980 he led his party, the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) to defeat. It finished third. Museveni lost his shirt and deposit.
He took to the bush to protest the outcome, and emerged victorious at the head of the National Resistance Army/Movement in January 1986.
Today his long incumbency looks unnecessary, in part because other people would have been happy to bank the credits he had garnered and move on. For one, Museveni pulled off Africa’s first successful post-independence home-based rebellion.
He achieved Africa’s first successful post-war reconstruction, lifting Uganda from the grave to heady glory in the 1990s.
He was the trail blazer in overseeing freemarket reforms – by 1998 Uganda was being touted as among the freest economies in the world.
He was the first leader on the continent to comprehensively liberalise the airwaves and open up to independent radio and TV.
He led the way in scrapping the role of government in fixing fuel prices and foreign exchange controls on the continent. He was among the first to provide modern-day free universal primary education; and in the 1990s turned Uganda into the Mecca for those who wanted to learn how to turn back the tide of the ravages of HIV/AIDS.
But, being a Napoleonic figure, Museveni’s grand ambitions got the better of him. At one point, the Uganda army’s foreign operations stretched through southern Sudan (before it became independent), DR Congo up to the border with Central African Republic, and at the border with Angola.
His DRC campaign (after the Rwandan, Angolan, Ugandan, Zimbabwean, and Ethiopian forces helped rebels overthrow the corrupt Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997) eventually ended in disgrace.
The Uganda army was internationally condemned for plunder, and supporting murderous groups in eastern DRC. The low point was when Uganda’s alliance with bosom ally Rwanda fell apart, and the two armies fought bitter turf wars in eastern DRC.
Museveni’s pan-African passions, however, never died. In 2007, in a daredevil move, he flew units of the Uganda army into al-Shabaab controlled Mogadishu to begin the African Union (AMISOM) mission to push out the militants. The mission probably would never have happened if he weren’t so gung-ho.
Nevertheless, he is losing most of that, becoming like the proverbial mother dog that eats its puppies. His administration is now derided as the most corrupt that ever came upon Uganda, though his unwavering supporters say that that is a good sign because today there is something to steal in Uganda. Until Museveni came along, they say with straight faces, there was nothing.
Internal repression, and especially violence, against opposition challengers is common place – and often takes the most petty forms.
He has taken an economy was that once the fastest growing in Africa, and is turning it into a train wreck.
Still, in terms of political astuteness and sheer strategic cunning, Museveni is ahead of his rivals.
His problem seems to be that the time for him to leave in glory is long past, but he hangs on hoping for one last play of the dice, which will create an Alice in Wonderland moment.
So he soldiers on, preoccupied with conjuring up shows of strength to counter claims that he no longer has the energy to lead. In times of crisis, he jumps back into his military uniform, and wraps himself in the heroism of the liberation war.
Signs of Museveni’s fragility are common these days. A Kampala TV station was suspended from covering presidential events for months after it showed him snoozing in Parliament.
After his party’s nomination in November 2015, Museveni put on a sprint for the delegates. He’s 71 and has said he feels like a 30-year-old, and likes to prove it. Its effect is to eliminate contestation against him based on age. (Photo/FK/M&G Africa).
A man who once seemed to have the world at his feet, today looks a little stranded amidst all the bravado, with nowhere to go but stay put in State House, hoping for a miracle.
It can make for awkward narratives. Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world, and 79% of the country’s population today was born with Museveni as president.
Can Museveni salvage his legacy with them? He can, but it will be tough. Part of it is bigger than him. There are few grand existential causes left in Africa to champion. There are few “firsts” left for shrewd politicians to exploit.
Blink and you miss it: Museveni in a boat with now-rival Mbabazi in the good old days before they fell out. While Mbabazi (right) sat on the boat’s edge in a lifejacket, Museveni stood without one. Figure out the brave one.
Unlike other former rebel leaders like Rwanda’s Kagame, who don’t go back into fatigues or to totting guns when they “civilianise”, Museveni remains immersed in military traditions and things. Above and below, he makes the frequent stop at the military gun range to polish up his skills.
After visiting training exercises by the Uganda military near the South Sudan border, he said, “what the hell, let’s take a tour”, and he drove into the northern neighbour in an armoured car. These kinds of things allow Museveni to project power in ways his rivals can’t, but it also means he clings to what he sees as a glorious martial past, and increasingly unable to embrace the future. (Photo/YKM/FB).
The second wrinkle for Museveni is that the problems that face Africa today, actually do require the kind of anti-politics politician he was in his first decade, not the old garden variety he has become.
In these times, an Alassane Outtara in Ivory Coast, a Macky Sall in Senegal, or a Hailemariam Desalegn in Ethiopia who have a dull bureaucratic streak, thrive better. They are the ones who build technology cities, and industrial parks.
He has one prayer, though. His best shot is to surprise with a smooth transition. If he can avoid the temptation to create a dynasty so that he hand power to family, his recent transgressions would be forgotten and even forgiven. For, after all, he has an old record that can be dusted off and put on a pedestal again.