President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, on Tuesday celebrated thirty years in power. He is now on the last leg of his campaign to extend his rule by five more years. When he seized power in 1986, he promised to rule for four years and was famously quoted saying Africa’s problem is leaders who do not want to leave power. If that is anything to go by, he could be one of the major problems facing Africa today.
Nevertheless, while appearing on BBC Hardtalk, three years ago, he clarified his statement saying that he had said Africa’s problem is leaders who stay long in power without the people’s mandate. Therefore, having subjected himself to elections four times and won, his long stay in power can be justified, at least by his supporters, on the grounds that he has been in office with the mandate of the people.
He has always come up with reasons why Uganda still needs him. He has put regional integration at the core of his political programme and reason to stay in office, becoming probably the most enthusiastic proponent of the East African community integration, even toying with the idea of a possible political federation. Museveni, who is expected to win the February 18 elections, will probably be going into his last term of office since the constitution places an age limit of 75 for anyone to contest for president.
In this probable last term in office, he will hope to see the start of commercial production of oil in the Albertine region and probably work on a political succession plan that allows him a peaceful retirement and continued behind the scenes role in a government that he can influence. Though he has promised that he will not support a change in the constitution, it would not be surprising if he were to instigate an amendment process that lifts the age limit allowing him to hold on to power Robert Mugabe style.
Growth but no jobs
Museveni’s long stay in power has been marked by relative stability, and as he likes to say, restoration of the sanctity of human life, where extra judicial killings of civilians by security forces can not be countenanced. This stability, coupled with market reforms have allowed strong economic growth with an average of 7% per year for most of Museveni’s time in office, according to the World Bank. Also, Uganda’s population has grown from 15 Million people in 1986 to 37.5 million people now. The implication is that the vast majority were born under his rule and would naturally clamour for change.
A sizeable aspirational class has emerged in Uganda thanks to the increase in access to higher education. At the time of his seizure of state power, Uganda had only one University-Makerere, that admitted only a small fraction of the students completing secondary school education. Now with more than 20 Universities, Uganda has established itself as regional hub for higher education with students coming in from all the neighbouring countries to access Uganda’s Universities. Kampala viewed is now viewed in some quarters as second only after Cape Town as the continent’s best University city/town.
This exponential expansion of access to higher education during Museveni’s reign has been accompanied by unmet expectations of the approximately 40,000 graduates being churned out of Universities every year- without good prospects for employment. At the moment many youths are unemployed with the African Development bank noting that Uganda is one of the African countries with over 80% of its youth living in poverty. Museveni acknowledges the unemployment situation of his country’s young people but is always quick to point out that Universities, are producing unemployable graduates lacking in transferable and practical skills, yet there are many job opportunities in the public sector.
At the heart of his re-election promise, is retraining this mass of unemployable graduates and also promoting vocational skills that can transform the youths into productive citizens. This move is most probably not only driven by practical necessity but also his own political survival strategy; because such a mass of educated youngsters can easily form part of the urban masses opposed to his continued stay in power. They are certainly restless and must resent that, years of growth have only served to give them an education that does not do much in helping them realise their aspirations, which on average are above those of the ordinary Ugandan.
With jobs hard to come by at home, the government has supported exportation of Ugandan labour. On the flip side, this policy has also in recent months come under criticism, with reports that young women working in the middle east, have been subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment, forcing the country to put a ban on the recruitment and export of labour until a review and assessment of working conditions for those sent to this region have been carried out. The policy in the first place indicates a government desperate to create opportunity for its labour force but greatly constrained by circumstances it can not control.
Regional power broker
Further afield, Museveni has had to combine his busy campaign schedule with his role as mediator in the conflict in Burundi, the latest of his role as a go to regional power broker in the Great Lakes region. During his long stay in power, he has positioned himself as the region’s elder statesman; consulted for his wise counsel on regional conflicts, some of which he has had a hand.
His troops are involved in the pacification of Somalia, where under the auspices of the African Union, they are helping in the fight against the terrorist Al Shabab and propping up the Somali government. Yet part of his most enduring legacy is likely to be the export of his revolutionary zeal and ideology to neighbouring countries, especially in the early days of his reign.
The starting point was in 1990, when a section of his army composed of Tutsi Rwandan refugees originally led by his former deputy minister of Defence General Fred Rwigema (RIP) left Uganda and fought a four year armed struggle with his support, culminating in the capture of Kigali by the Rwandese Patriotic Front.
The Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, then under John Garang, was yet another liberation movement that benefitted from Museveni’s support as it waged war against the National Islamic Front government of Omar El Bashir and the now sidelined Islamist ideologue Hassan al Tourabi. With support from the United States, he positioned himself as a bulwark against Islamist expansion in Africa. The result was his country’s northern and western regions paying a heavy price when Sudan retaliated by supporting the Lord’s Resistance Army of Joseph Kony and the Islamist Allied Democratic Front of Jamil Mukulu.
The expected oil windfall, will probably be the game changer that provides him with the finances for his grand infrastructural projects; in the energy and transport sectors that have largely progressed on a slow pace. With that, he could put his country on the path to a middle income nation that he so much talks about but has so far not delivered for his people. That would be a fitting departing shot for a great revolutionary who had hoped to transform his country.
At the same time, with the oil windfall, some observers fear that Uganda under his watch could yet turn out like Angola, with widening income inequality between the masses and the few elite in control of the country’s resources. It has happened under Dos Santos in Angola and Obiang Nguema in Equatorial Guinea. Despite immense oil revenues they have failed to transform their people’s welfare for the better, instead concentrating all wealth in the hands of family and cronies. And all have one thing in common; a dexterity for hanging on to power for so long.
It is obvious that Museveni’s last thirty years in power has been a mixed bag. Presiding over strong growth, yet little prospects for his young population. Allowing a reasonably vibrant civil society and media, but also sometimes coming down hard on the free press. He also accepted a return to multiparty politics and has given leeway to his opponents to contest against him, but set up roadblocks that make it impossible to oust him in a democratic poll.