The Time For Uganda’s Museveni to Leave Office Has Come

By Ethan Story

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

On January 14, 2021, Yoweri Museveni won his sixth term as President of Uganda. Far from free and fair, Museveni’s victory was marred by internet blackouts, rampant human rights abuses, and outright corruption. Uganda, with a median age of under 17 years old, will continue to be ruled by a 76-year old autocrat desperate to remain in power. Museveni’s regime draws comparisons to those of former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, who was thrown out of office in 2017, and other African strongmen who’ve been removed from power in recent years. Museveni has long been a strategic ally of the west, protected under the guise of regional security and stability. With the tides in Africa shifting and a young, democratically-minded challenger in Bobi Wine waiting in the wings, the international community should reverse its support for Museveni and choose to support democracy and progress in Uganda over the status quo.

Despite evidence of election fraud and vast human rights abuses, the international community has remained relatively muted in the aftermath of the January election. This is nothing new; for decades, Western powers have implicitly supported autocracy in Uganda in exchange for a stable regional ally. Since rising to power in 1986, Museveni has received billions of dollars in aid, with the United States pledging over $500 million in 2021 alone. Uganda is a leading ally in the War on Terror, contributing a significant amount of troops to the African Union’s mission in Somalia. President Bill Clinton used Museveni’s military to funnel arms to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) rebels in the 1990s, giving Museveni easy access to America’s military weaponry. Ugandan troops are even found in Iraq, where they assist American forces with security. American presidents from both parties have showered Museveni with praise, citing Uganda’s post-war recovery and impressive AIDS record while ignoring the increasing autocracy of Museveni’s regime. Western media and commentators, who once hailed Museveni as a member of a new generation of African leaders, have largely been indifferent to growing human rights abuses in the country.

Museveni’s past electoral transgressions paint a clear picture of corruption and repression. In 2005, Museveni forced Parliament to remove term limits for the Presidency; in 2017, he again extolled Parliament to remove the age limit that would have prevented him from running for his sixth term in 2021. Since his first re-election in 2001, elections have become progressively less free and fair. In recent years, opposition leaders have been beaten and jailed, protesters killed, and internet access cut while military vehicles roam the streets. Museveni’s 2021 challenger Bobi Wine, born Robert Kyagulanyi, has been beaten by security forces on several occasions, while MPs like Betty Nambooze either fall in line or risk enduring violence. Nambooze, who opposed the 2017 bill to remove age limits for elections, was kidnapped from Parliament by suspected Museveni loyalists and beaten nearly to death. These stories are not uncommon in Uganda: Museveni rules the country with an iron first, emboldened by a war chest in part siphoned off from foreign aid.

Some Western aid, which pays for medical supplies and social programs, has undoubtedly benefited Uganda, lifting thousands out of poverty. Much of the aid, however, only benefits Museveni and his government. In 2013, Human Rights Watch published a report that found Uganda has repeatedly failed to punish high-level corruption. Donor funding worth $12.7 million USD, supposed to help rebuild some of Uganda’s poorest regions, was stolen in 2012. Earlier, in 2005, officials stole $4.5 million that was meant to help fight AIDS and other medical crises. In light of Museveni’s recent abuses, the international community has pledged solidarity with protestors, with both the U.S. and the E.U. releasing statements expressing concern for Ugandan democracy. However, these alone are not enough. The international community’s support for Museveni has undoubtedly contributed to his current grip on power. Museveni’s long-bought image as a Central African peace guarantor has given him diplomatic leeway, while billions in aid and military supplies have given him the means to solidify his autocratic mission.

The rising star of challenger Bobi Wine has changed the dynamics of Uganda’s fight for democracy. Wine’s National Unity Platform picked up over 50 seats in the January election to become the main parliamentary opposition party, enjoying significant support from many of the poorest in Kampala and the rural Buganda region. Nicknamed the Ghetto President, Wine offers a breath of fresh air to a young population disenchanted with Museveni’s authoritarian regime. Similarly, Wine’s charisma and artistic background have endeared him to Western media, where he has enjoyed profiles in TIME and Rolling Stone just as coverage of Museveni’s leadership has turned negative. While young, Wine represents the opposition’s best hope for ousting Museveni in decades. Just four years old at the time of Museveni’s ascent, Wine has consistently preached democracy, urging his supporters to engage in non-violent protest while hinging his presidential hopes on Uganda’s court system and an international cohort of democracy advocacy groups.

As with any upstart opposition leader in a country that’s only known authoritarianism, there is risk in anointing Bobi Wine as the democratic future in Uganda. Museveni was once seen in a similar light, as successful AIDS programs, new education reforms, and compassionate immigration policies bolstered his reputation as a competent and democratic leader. However, those successes soon turned sour: the AIDS program became stricken with corruption, education reform failed to increase upward economic mobility, and liberal immigration policies largely took in refugees that Museveni’s military helped create. Wine’s generation-based populism could potentially head down a similar path, succumbing to power and corruption. However, with risk comes reward, and a potential Wine government offers plenty of the latter. Wine has long stood against democratic backsliding while arguing for tolerance and freedom in a country where neither is guaranteed. His nuance is rare amongst revolutionary leaders: he has consistently criticized the west for what he sees as their damaging support for Museveni while admiring their liberal democratic values and recognizing their importance in his fight for democracy. Wine is no sure bet, but he is certainly right about one thing: the time for Museveni to leave office has come.

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