Uganda's ‘Benevolent’ Dictatorship

By J. Oloka-Onyango, [30 August 1998]

Few contemporary political and socioeconomic transitions on the African continent have been as dramatic or contradictory as Uganda's. Just over a decade ago, the National Resistance Movement-Army (NRM-A) became the second guerrilla organization to assume power in independent Africa (the first happened in Chad). After being sworn in as president of Uganda in January 1986, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni proclaimed the era he was ushering in was more than the usual changing of the guard to which the people of Uganda had become accustomed. It was, he declared, nothing short of Fundamental Change!

Many who heard Museveni hoped his words were true, having experienced a series of violent political shifts since independence from Britain in October 1962 Against the backdrop of vicious military dictatorships such as that led by the cantankerous Field Marshal Idi Amin throughout the 1970s, civilian autocracy under Apollo Milton Obote in the early to mid-1980s, and a period of anarchy instituted by the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) intermediately preceding the NRM-A takeover, Ugandans had grown weary of conflict and incessant, extraconstitutional changes in government.


The turmoil in Uganda in the 1970s and 1980s yielded human rights violations on a scale nearly unmatched in postcolonial Africa: moreover, civil war and social strife left orphans and widows in their wake, and economic dislocation removed essentials like sugar, soap, and wheat flour from the market stalls. Uganda became an economic basket case. Smuggling and magendo (black marketeering) replaced normal trade, and inflation soared into the triple digits. Given the people's experience Of marauding government armies that were more likely to loot, rape, and intimidate the local populace than to engage the enemy, reports of Museveni's disciplined guerrilla band heightened hopes that the change he promised would indeed he genuine and fundamental.

The NRM-A was created following elections in December 1980 that were widely believed to have been rigged by Obote's Uganda People's Congress (UPC). Museveni decided to take the fight against the electoral fraud to the bush, where he crafted the guiding philosophy of the NRM-A into a 10-point program that emphasized participatory democracy, the elimination of sectarianism , and respect for human rights. Beginning with only a handful of supporters, the insurgency grew until it came to occupy the Luwero Triangle, a wide swath of territory in the central region of Buganda. A combination of internal wrangling and battle fatigue eventually led the UNLA to turn against Obote in a military coup, paving the way for NRM-A victory in the war in l986 and Museveni's accession to power.

Today Museveni's slogan has become No Change! a campaign chant employed by the NRM to great effect in the May 1996 presidential elections. The elections marked the coming of age for the NRM and the Uganda People's Defense Forces (UPDF), the renamed military wing of the NRM. No Change! was used as a battle cry for the continued endorsement of the NRM regime, which, according to Museveni, had achieved its goal of fundamental change by in introducing a lasting sense of peace and security. In the event that some might have forgotten this, the NRM used the image of sculls from the Luwero Triangle and the sound of gunshots in its electoral campaign advertising. The message was simple: a vote against Museveni was a vote for a reversion to the chaos of the past.


The 1996 elections were significant for a variety of other reasons. Not only were they Uganda's first direct presidential elections, they were also a test of the various experiments in governance that had been introduced by the NRM since 1986. Among the most Significant of these experiments is the noparty or movement system of government Against the return of multiparty political systems that has swept the continent since the late 1980s, the NRM has held out the alternative of a no-party system Arguing that political parties are divisive, sectarian, and unsuited for preindustrial societies such as Uganda, the NRM has prevented opposition political parties from effectively operating or challenging the hegemony of the movement system.

This view of politics was endorsed in the 1995 constitution. While the new constitution has several progressive provisions, such as those mandating affirmative action for women, its basic intent is to place political parties in suspended animation. Parties are permitted only to issue statements to the press. Organizing party congresses, holding public rallies, and openly campaigning on a patty ticket are outlawed. Under the no-party system, competition for electoral office is on the basis of individual merit absent the stated affiliation of any particular political organization. In other words, everyone belongs to the movement, which is touted as a multi-ideological, noncompetitive, and all-embracing political system of governance.

The kernel of the movement system is the Resistance Councils and Committees (RCS). These nine person assemblies of directly elected individuals (with reserved places for women and young people) are charged with the overall administration of their local areas, the settlement of petty disputes, and the creation of municipal regulations. RCS commence at the village level and extend to the parish, the county, and eventually the district. Political and administrative power which had been highly centralized, was dispensed to more local levels of organization.

RCS (since renamed Local Councils) can be regarded as a reaction to Uganda's colonial history and experience. At the local level of governance in the colonial system, the most powerful instrument of tyranny was the chief, who was head policeman, prosecutor, judge, prison warden, and executioner. The chief was omnipotent and omniscient, coercing cash crop production there, stifling anticolonial dissent there. Despite Independence and the subsequent removal of centralized colonial autocracy, the institution of chieftaincy remained intact and performed the same coercive functions it always had. RCS destroyed the hegemony and autocracy of the local chief in postcolonial Uganda.

However populist-and popular-the RCS may appear to be, they suffer from several limitations. Only village-level elections are universal the larger the scale, the more restricted the suffrage. At the highest level elections are by an electoral college that is largely unrepresentative and wholly unaccountable. Furthermore, RCS are able to influence only local politics and developments; issues relating to the economy and social services are decided at the national level by a parliament dominated by NRM stalwarts.

The real character of the RCS as a grassroots mechanism for the consolidation of movement rule emerged in the 1996 elections, dispelling any notion that they were truly participatory or that they could be genuinely nonpartisan. Despite the fact that the elections were held on the basis of individual merit, the state's power and resources were manifest in aiding some candidates and in intimidating others, especially those with known multiparty sympathies.

In the 1996 election Museveni was opposed by Paulo Ssemogerere, leader of the Democratic Party (DP) and a former NRM minister who quit government to represent a coalition of political groups seeking to restore pluralist politics. But given Ssemogerere endorsement by the UPC, the NRM recast the election as a fight between Museveni and Obote, even though Obote had been in exile in Zambia since his overthrow in 1985. The opposition coalition tried hard to dispel the Obote bogeyman. but to no avail. The situation was made worse by the NRM'S blatant intimidation of Ssemwogerere and his supporters. Furthermore, the NRM harassed opposition political actors into breaking ranks and joining the NRM. During the election, such chicanery was combined with the heavy deployment of state resources and institutions in favor of incumbent Museveni. It was not surprising that he secured 75 percent of the vote, a victory lauded by observers as a free and fair exercise of the will of the Ugandan people-an assessment that brushed aside the many limitations of the preelection context and the process itself.

Museveni's shift from Fundamental Change! to the No change! slogan is significant for several other reasons. In 1986 one could discern hints of a Marxist or Maoist tendency in the NRM's political and economic programs. From the ubiquitous AK-47 to the visions of state-owned public enterprise, the rhetoric of the movement's commissars, and the RC concept itself, the NRM projected itself as a group that was sympathetic to socialist principles Indeed, long stints in socialist Tanzania and Mozambique by the NRM leadership and an initial rejection of World Bank and IMF prescriptions for economic recovery led many to believe the NRM would pursue socialist, or at least mixed-economy, policies.

But the rhetorical commitment to some form of social consciousness disappeared. Museveni quickly became a market-reform(ed) Marxist as he vigorously adopted the free market gospel of modernization and today is one of its most ardent and articulate proponents. Among Africa's current crop of leaders, his views on economic reform are regarded as providing the necessary panacea to the problem of economic stagnation on the continent. In the process Museveni has become the blue-eyed boy of Western financiers and leaders. This commitment to free market policies has meant that Western donors are more hesitant to push democratic reform in Uganda than they have been in other African countries such as neighboring Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia. Although they recognize the inherently monopolizing and undemocratic thrust that underpins the movement system, they are happy with the present stability for the free exercise of market forces. In short, they do not want to rock the boat According to this form of reasoning, Museveni's ‘benevolent’ dictatorship is far better than a multipartist who cannot guarantee older and stability.


Under Museveni's guidance and the prodding of a World Bank and IMF structural adjustment program (SAP), far-reaching changes have been under way in the Ugandan economy Currency reform stabilized the Ugandan shilling, the government has privatized state-owned enterprises, and incentives for foreign investment have been placed in a new code designed to keep foreign capital coming. If the numbers are to be believed, the effect of these policies has been dramatic Uganda has registered between 6 and 10 percent annual economic growth over the past five years.

A recent rise in world market prices for some of Uganda's traditional export crops, like cotton and coffee, and the liberalization of export and crop marketing systems have led to increased benefits for at least some members of Uganda's large class of rural farmers. At the same time, the traditional reliance on the vagaries of just a handful of cash crops has been ameliorated by a program of diversification to so-called nontraditional crops like sesame seeds, roses and other decorative flowers, and vanilla. But the real benefits of this boom are much less obvious. Despite touting Uganda as an economic miracle and likening it to the tigers of East Asia, even the World Bank has admitted that real poverty has increased under the SAP. Privatization has led to retrenchments and layoffs, and discriminatory investment policies have marginalized indigenous business and production. Furthermore, in the quest to encourage foreign business and enterprises the state has tuned a blind eye to the conditions of labor, wherein wages are suppressed to below subsistence level and trade union activity strenuously prohibited.

The SAP has also affected access to social services such as health care through the introduction of user fees at government-owned institutions, policies that have placed the cost of basic medicine beyond the reach of the rural poor. The push to the market has led to a major food export drive. Because Uganda is considered a veritable breadbaskets there is no coherent food security policy. The net result is that the promotion of food crops for the export market has led to domestic shortages, and in some instances (compounded by drought) even to famine. Long able to feed its neighbors, Uganda is in serious danger of being unable to feed itself.

Uganda's heavy reliance on donor assistance has led to the exponential growth of its external debt over the past decade. And while intentional financial institutions have recently discussed the issue of debt forgiveness for countries such as Uganda that have pursued adjustment programs with zeal, the exact form such forgiveness will assume is clouded in mystery.

Even if Uganda's $4 billion debt is forgiven, heightened reliance on foreign sources of funding for basic support and the emphasis on export-led production will have a questionable impact on future economic sustainability A major scourge of the economic reform process remains corruption. The situation has assumed such debilitating dimension that Uganda was ranked seventh in the annual survey of global corruption compiled by Transparency International, narrowly edged out by countries like Kenya. Nigeria, and Pakistan.

Despite a belief that Museveni himself is largely free of blemish, members of the cabinet and Museveni's family have been implicated in dubious deals and questionable associations. A principal target of such machinations has been the privatization exercise, which has seen well-placed politicians and close Museveni associates figure prominently in the successful bidding for the property.


Despite the NRM's claim that it has restored peace and security, Uganda is still riven by conflicts. An insurgency that [festered in northern Uganda in late 1987 continues to evade peaceful resolution 10 years later. Commencing as a rearguard action by the retreating soldiers of the UNLA military regime, the conflict has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives, internal displacement, and serious violations of human rights by both sides. The northern conflict has also seen its share of drama. This includes the Holy Spirit Movement, whose followers, led by fundamentalist Christian priestess Alice Lakwena, go into battle armed only with a dousing of peanut oil to protect them from UPDF bullets. The equally spiritual but extremely malevolent Joseph Kony has instituted a reign of terror in the area. Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has engaged in the abduction, rape, and mutilation of schoolchildren. For its parts, the UPDF has retaliated by herding civilians into so-called protected villages, where physical safety, basic health facilities, and adequate hygiene are seriously lacking. Moreover, as the war has dragged on, the discipline of the UPDF has been sorely tested, and it has increasingly engaged in atrocities and human rights violations of the kind previously associated with its predecessors.

The escalation in the northern conflict is partly due to the dynamics of regional geopolitics. Museveni has long been a supporter of his old college friend John Garang, whose Sudan Peoples Liberation Army is fighting an interminable civil war against the fundamentalist government of Sudan. Realizing that it could get back at Uganda by exploiting the northern insurgency, the Khartoum government began to arm and supply the LRA and a motley collection of other rebel groups in the area, such as the West Nile Bank Liberation Front and the Uganda Rescue Front. A war that seemed to be petering out as the combatants grew weary suddenly returned in a fury in early 1994. The ragtag LRA acquired a sophisticated arsenal of weapons, including land mines, that enabled it to wreak more havoc on civilian populace and to outmaneuver the UPDF. The northern situation is compounded by the government's refusal to sue for peace and its insistence on a military resolution to the conflict. Since his election last May, Museveni has intermittently set up camp in the north, vowing to end the insurgency himself. All the deadlines he has given for the war's termination embarrassingly pass by, with no end in sight.

The NRM government has been plagued by less prominent but equally destabilizing insurgencies. Some have sprouted in the NRM'S former guerrilla base in the central region, others in the west, espousing a wide range of grievances against the incumbent regime. The single exception is the uprising in the northeast, which appears to have been successfully quelled. The latest insurgency in western Uganda is believed to be the work of the Zairian government, which is seeking revenge for Museveni's alleged assistance to Laurent Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo/Zaire (ADFL) in eastern Zaire.


The NRM'S changes in rhetoric are mirrored in its attitude toward the issue d traditional monarchies and ethnically base political interests. The kingdoms of the Great Lakes region date back several centuries. Under colonialism, Buganda in particular played a largely collaborative role in support of British rule. That privileged position eventually crystallized in a special federal status for Buganda under the independence settlement in 1962. After independence, conflict between Buganda and the republicans came to a head. In 1966, Prime Minister Obote abolished all the kingdoms, exiling the Buganda monarch, Kabaka Frederick (King Freddy) Mutesa, and inflicting a permanent wound on the pride of the Baganda people. The desecration of the kingdom was never forgiven.

Although Museveni's bush war was fought in Buganda and with the active support of monarchical elements, once it came to power the NRM denied that it had any intention of restoring the old kingdoms We did not fight to bring back the monarchies, declared Museveni, However, in a surprising about-face, Museveni allowed Prince Ronald Mutebi to be crowned as the new Kabaka in 1993, effectively restoring the Buganda kingdom-albeit as a cultural, rather than a political, entity. Coming on the eve of the election for the constituent assembly, which was to discuss the status of the political system that Uganda was to adopt (including the issue of monarchies), the NRM's reversal was suspect. In the fight for the assembly, the NRM needed all the allies it could secure against the multiparty supporters . The quid pro quo with Buganda was the delivery of the kingdom in exchange for its support of the movement. With the critical aid of Buganda-the country's largest and most populous region—the supporters of the movement subsequently won the election and secured the no—party system as part of the constitutional arrangement. But the NRM relationship with Buganda is uneasy; dissatisfaction remains over the failure to secure the political privileges and autonomy that were originally promised as part of the constituent assembly trade-off.

The convoluted situation in Uganda must also be viewed in terms of the tumultuous regional context. Turmoil and conflict of varying levels of intensity plague Sudan, Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi, and Kenya. Museveni is widely believed to have a hand in each of the conflicts in these countries. The president's own position on regional politics does nothing to diminish this suspicion. A longtime fan of larger markets and a critic of the foolish arbitrariness of colonial boundaries, Museveni often proudly recalls the days of the great precolonial, interlucustrine kingdoms, which covered a vast stretch of territory ranging from northern Tanzania to central Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and parts of Zaire.

Some observers hypothesize that the Zairian struggle is the latest chapter in the Museveni inspired quest for a greater Tutsi empire. Indeed, the French government has consistently accused Uganda of fomenting rebellion in the region This charge was first made in 1990 after the formation of the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF ), an off-shoot of the National Resistance Army that has taken control of Rwanda . More recent allegations about Uganda's involvement with Kabila's ADFL in Zaire seemingly confirm the dominant view of Uganda's machinations in the region. There is, of course, a francophone/anglophone tension that undergirds many of the conflicts, and Museveni appears to enjoy the tacit approval of Britain and the United States in the spread of Anglo hegemony in the region. Indeed, reports of arms flows to and through Uganda (especially from the united States) lend further credence to this contention. whether or not the allegations are true, they have a profound effect on internal Ugandan politics, enabling military insurgents to find willing supporters for their campaigns against the Museveni regime. This keeps the NRM preoccupied with military issues and diverted from urgent social and economic concerns.


Museveni's larger-than-life persona is Uganda's boon and its bane. Museveni has been critical in extricating Uganda from the economic and political quagmire in which the country had become stuck by the mid-1980s. Even the most ardent opponents of Yoweri Museveni and the movement system of government cannot deny the significant changes that have been introduced in Uganda over the last decade of his stewardship. However, these changes belie the underlying instability, the inherent tensions, and the manifest autocracy of the system. The movement system has failed to institutionalize mechanisms of governance distinct from the personality of Museveni. As a result, major doubts about sustainability remain.

Uganda today recalls the images of the early days of African independence, when the founding fathers, such as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and Jomo Kenyatta, enjoyed a legitimacy derived from their participation in the struggle for liberation from colonial hegemony. But these same leaders were unable to envision a system independent of their own participation in and domination over it. Thus came the subsequent disintegration into single-party regimes and life presidencies The success of the Ugandan experiment will be sealed only if it can extricate itself from reliance on a single individual and escape the travails of all systems that have disintegrated into single-person hegemony. To achieve enduring change, Uganda must reignite the spirit of Fundamental Change!