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Defeating Museveni can’t be achieved through international pressure alone

A man holds his radio close to his ears while a woman stands nearby.
Joseph Kazibwe, with his wife Magere, listen to radio updates of the Uganda presidential election result in January 2021. Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

In the past few months, Western media and academia have placed unprecedented, and somewhat bewildering, focus on Uganda’s 2021 general elections. It is puzzling because throughout the 2000s and 2010s, most Western commentators either painted a positive image or took a largely lukewarm interest in the deepening tenor of Yoweri Museveni’s 35-year-long authoritarian rule.

The fact is Museveni’s military dictatorship has been draped in civilian garb for a long time. As a routine ritual, Museveni purports to seek legitimation every five years through elections. These elections are scarcely free, fair or credible. This has been particularly true since at least 2001 when Museveni first faced a serious challenge to his stay at the helm.

At a personal, idiosyncratic level Museveni loathes political competition. He has expressed indignation for electoral rules that should apply to all actors. Because he holds an exaggerated sense of messianic mission for Uganda and Africa, he feels irritated having to subject himself to the motions of electioneering.

As Museveni’s rule has become more repressive, public opinion and media coverage in the West have shifted dramatically against him. In the 2021 elections, many in the community of pro-democracy advocates and activists in Africa found reason to overtly and proactively support Museveni’s main challenger for the presidency, the pop star and member of parliament Robert Kyagulanyi, more popularly known as Bobi Wine.

However, the obsession with Bobi Wine is problematic. This is because it fails to grasp the complex conditions around Museveni’s stay in power and the daunting dilemma of freeing the country from his firm grip. Museveni is a ruler whose primary source of power is the bullet – not the ballot.

Resisting and defeating such an entrenched authoritarian ruler cannot be achieved through pressure from Western powers alone. The forces and fuel that can prudently take down Museveni – in a way that advances the cause of genuine democracy and freedom – must necessarily evolve and emerge from Uganda and among Ugandans.

It is my argument that the outsized role of external agitators might in fact hurt rather than help the struggle for liberation from what is now a decayed, moribund and personalised system of rule.

It’s not enough to chase out Museveni

The Western media made the recent election about Bobi Wine as a person rather than what is critically at stake for Uganda and Ugandans. This meant that they handed Museveni a free pass to smear and discredit his opponent. He has sought to portray Bobi Wine as nothing more than an agent of foreign interests – a front for the same old imperial interests Museveni repeatedly claims are seeking to weaken Africa.

External agitation and pressure may sound like a benign and welcome ingredient to take down a brazen dictator. In practice, however, it can inadvertently promote nationalist mobilisation and jingoism in the service of entrenching the dictatorship. This happened in Zimbabwe when Robert Mugabe dug in deeper to hold on for so long.

For those keen to advance democracy and freedom in Uganda, the starting point is to take in the lessons of history. Externally instigated regime change tends not to happen the way it is expected to – and often leads to disastrous outcomes.

Bringing about meaningful change is not as simple as chasing out an autocrat and installing a new figure with populist appeal. It is also wrong to construe opposition figures as angels embodying democracy and deserving uncritical embrace. To see Museveni as a devilish dictator and his opponents as angelic democrats is a misleading dichotomy. Today’s ‘pro-democracy’ opposition figures can easily turn into tomorrow’s authoritarian rulers.

Uganda is a deeply socially complex society. The scale of the country’s socioeconomic problems and crisis of its politics cannot be overemphasised. It will be a herculean task to forge a new Uganda of peace and prosperity. The issue is not merely one of saving Ugandans from a ruthless dictator. It is also about understanding how a post-Museveni Uganda can be pursued and prudently implemented.

Here, the Western journalist, the academic, the democracy advocate and activist, the diplomat and politician need to pause and appreciate that principled partnership with Ugandans might help. But old-type paternalism won’t. The agency of Ugandans is what can make a true and durable difference.

More humility, less hubris

I propose more humility and less hubris for foreign actors genuinely concerned and fired up for freedom and liberation of suffering Ugandans. The possibility of social disintegration in the country is real. Its social fabric is fragile. The youth bulge presents a daunting task. Land conflicts easily portend the most important source of social disharmony and violence. The country’s democratic experiment requires a total rethink.

To start tackling these and other endemic problems, Uganda urgently needs a candid and concerted national conversation to turn the corner away from Museveni’s misrule, to reimagine a new Uganda.

The country wants to free itself from Museveni’s mess, but Museveni too needs to be liberated from his own trap of power. There is a delicate and difficult negotiation to be navigated here. It needs thoughtfulness and perceptiveness, not just fancy slogans and foreign pressure.

The prospects for forging a post-Museveni Uganda any time soon may very well be undercut by actions of overzealous and overbearing foreign actors. There is no magic wand of a popular figure that will easily sweep away Museveni without the efforts of coherent, coordinated and combined change seeking forces inside the country.

A longer version of this article was published in CODESRIA Bulletin No.3, January 2021

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