Gen. Museveni, African dictator and Western agent of 35 years. Photo: Facebook
The richly endowed country in east Africa that Winston Churchill, the twentieth century’s British statesman, in his book “My African Journey” published in 1908, called “the pearl of Africa” has since 1986 been ruled by General Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who has now proved to be the second longest serving militarist dictator in the east-central Africa region.
Museveni’s 35-year-old regime ranks second only to the record previously established by his godfather, General Mobutu Sese Seko who, having been installed by external forces during the Cold War, ruled the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) through a system of patronage and military terror from 1960 until 1997.
Similarly in Uganda, General Museveni has, through fascist-like terror tactics and impoverishment of the great majority of people, managed to stay in power since 1986 when he and his National Resistance Army (NRA) stormed Kampala, the capital city, and usurped power by military force. Since then, he has brewed a lethal cocktail of fear, poverty, despair and even desperation for the great majority in the country.
Yet despite the objective sorry conditions in which millions of Ugandans are trapped, a cross-section with abiding faith and imbued with joyous stoicism still entertain hope for a bright future beyond General Museveni’s triumphalist yet delusional attempts to impose on the country a family dynasty. In recent years, his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba has been promoted rapidly to Lt. General and commander of land forces. His wife Janet is a minister in the government and his brother General Salim Saleh, a senior advisor.
Lacking skills of communication and persuasion, Museveni relies on bullets. Photo: Facebook.
In this article, I provide an exposition of the major and intersecting factors and the tools that might help us understand how and why General Museveni’s militarist dictatorship in Uganda has managed to stay in power for well over 35 years despite its dismal records on the rule of law, human rights, good governance, economic development and democratic practice.
Although the particular facts used in this article to illustrate the case study of Uganda might be different in degree from those that obtain in other African countries, the historical and political framework of analysis should apply with equal force across the continent.
But before I provide exposition of the explanatory factors as indicated above, I first outline a dozen indisputable evidentiary facts and unflattering data that would—today—tend to challenge Winston Churchill’s designation of the country as “the pearl of Africa.” I have left out the more serious allegation leveled at the dictator of committing genocide in the country’s Acholi region, which should stand on its own merit.
The evidence and facts in chronological order should shine light on what have transpired in the country; but more significantly, it should be used to evaluate Uganda’s standing in the international community. In making this assessment, it should be remembered that Uganda is a signatory to, and has ratified, a host of international human rights and humanitarian conventions, for example, the International Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. As a State party to the convention, Uganda has a positive duty to uphold its provisions, which, among other things, in a strict sense prohibits torture from being justified on the grounds of public interest.
The first fact is that since 1986, the country has had only one president: that is, General Yoweri Museveni. For comparative purposes, during the same period, the United States has had seven presidents: Ronald Reagan; George H.W. Bush; Bill Clinton; George W. Bush; Barack Obama; Donald Trump; and Joe Biden.
Of the other two original neighboring east African countries, Kenya has had three presidents, while Tanzania has had five. A critical fact to note is that General Museveni has achieved the feat of being a despot of unlimited power and unlimited tenure by changing the constitution of Uganda twice to suit his personal political preferences, by destroying virtually all institutions, and by the militarization of politics and politicization of the military.
Second, since 1986, General Museveni has imposed on the country a system of terror that infects people with fear and accordingly paralyzes a cross-section of citizens from effectively challenging his entrenched absolute power. And tragically, the technique of assassinations and mysterious deaths of prominent Ugandans have become the means to ensure that alternative leadership and vision for the country are eliminated—extinguished.
Prominent Ugandans who have died in unsatisfactorily explained and mysterious circumstances include the following: Dr. Andrew Lutaakome Kayiira on March 9, 1987; Attorney General Francis Joash Ayume on May 16, 2004; Brigadier Nobel Mayombo on May 1, 2007; Major-General James Bunanukye Kazini on November 10, 2009; M.P. Hon. Cerinah Nebanda on December 14, 2012; General Aronda Nyakairima on September 12, 2015; Assistant Inspector General of Police Andrew Felix Kaweesi on March 17, 2017; and Major-General Paul Lokech, dubbed the “Lion of Mogadishu” for his valiant military achievement in Somalia, on August 21, 2021.
Third, on July 11, 1989, the 106th battalion of Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) rounded up 300 men in Mukura and other surrounding areas in Teso sub-region and incarcerated them in a train wagon number C521083. Most of the men were incinerated in the train wagon. To date, the perpetrators of the heinous crime have not been brought to book.
Fourth, General Museveni has used mafia-like gangster-methods that brought him to power to hasten the breakdown of the rule of law so that he can rule without legal challenge. For example, in 2005 and 2006 he deployed a specialized machine gun wielding paramilitary unit to invade the high court, intimidate judges during the trial of opposition leader Dr. Kizza Besigye who had been falsely accused of treason for challenging Museveni, and to undermine the independence of the judiciary. James Ogoola, the Principal Judge of the High Court at the time characterized the invasion and memorialized the profound lack of respect for the rule of law and the gross violation of the sanctity of the court’s premises in a poem, as “a rape and the desecration of the Temple of Justice.”
Fifth, in 2005, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the U.N.’s highest judicial body, ordered Uganda to pay the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) up to $10 billion for the five-year (1998-2003) occupation, plunder, torture and killings of civilians in its eastern regions. Interestingly, after the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched its own separate criminal investigation of the same crimes, that could have resulted in the indictment of Museveni—much in the same manner in which Sudan’s General Omar Bashir was indicted—Museveni contacted then U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and urged him to block the probe.
Sixth, in 2006, Jan Egeland, then U.N. Under Secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, described the then 17-year-old war in the northern part of Uganda as the worst neglected humanitarian crisis on earth.
Seventh, in September 2009, Uganda security forces killed at least 40 people when they used unnecessary lethal force during two days of civil unrest in Kampala. The protests were triggered by police action when they blocked a delegation led by the hereditary king of Baganda, Kabaka Mutebi, from exercising their freedom of movement to visit Kayunga district. Museveni never held the security forces responsible for the mayhem accountable. His indifference to punish those responsible for killings of civilians over the last several decades symbolizes the entrenched impunity in the country for the commander-in-chief and his men.
Eighth, corruption has become a cancer and institutionalized in the fabric of society. In 2012, for example, the East Africa Bribery Index, in a survey conducted for it by Transparency International, found that of the five east African countries—Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda—Uganda stood out as the country with the highest levels of bribery scored at more than 40 percent. In fact, the epicenter of corruption is in the presidency, from where misappropriations of public funds are used for patronage and siphoning resources for personal enrichment. (More recently, in 2018, a U.S. court convicted a Chinese national of bribing General Museveni and his foreign minister Sam Kutesa $1 million to obtain oil and other business concessions).
Ninth, in 2014, Uganda’s population census reported that the country had the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Sub-Saharan Africa with over 25 percent of pregnancies among teenagers registered every year.
Tenth, in 2016, the Ugandan army attacked the Rwenzururu royal palace of the hereditary king, Charles Wesley Mumbere, in the town of Kasese, resulting in the massacre of over 100 people including women and children. General Museveni boasted in an Al-Jazeera interview of having ordered the attack. He promoted the commander of the massacre General Peter Elwelu.
Eleventh, in 2020, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) reported in a survey of poverty in Uganda that although there was a slight decline in poverty at the national level, it increased dramatically in Acholi sub-region. To date, the sub-region is the poorest, to the extent that 68 percent of people there are categorized as poor.
Coupled with land-grabbing in the sub-region, it can be argued that the impoverishment of people there is a deliberate strategy of social engineering for long-term consignment of the people to servitude. By social engineering is meant the practice by authorities and elites in power to use public policies, laws, psychological manipulations, the media, rhetorical and propaganda techniques to effect far-reaching normative changes and foster values that would mold people’s attitude and behavior in particular ways, as desired by those in authority and elites in power.
To compound the regional inequalities, youth unemployment in Uganda is estimated to be around 70 percent in a country where young people below the age of 40 years constitute more than 80 percent of the population. With the great majority of young people losing hope, the future of the country looks bleak.
Twelfth, during the elections of January 2021, that the The Economist magazine of January 2, 2021, characterized as undemocratic and probably the most violent since General Museveni seized power in 1986, opposition candidates were arrested, crowds dispersed with tear gas and bullets, and campaigns in the capital city of Kampala, a stronghold of the opposition National Unity Platform (NUP), were banned. In the run up to the elections, in November, dozens of Ugandans were massacred by security forces. They were protesting the arrest of leading presidential challenger M.P. Robert Kyagulanyi, a.k.a. Bobi Wine. The regime itself admitted to killing 54.
General Elly Tumwine, the Security Minister, justified the massacre of citizens by asserting that it was legitimate for military forces “to shoot to kill” protesters if they “reach a certain level of violence.”
Human Rights Watch’s investigation concludes that the January 2021 elections were indeed marked by widespread violence and human rights abuses that included extra-judicial killings by security forces, arrests and beatings of opposition supporters and journalists, disruption of opposition rallies, and a shutdown of the internet. Even the U.S., the Museveni regime’s primary sponsor, in a statement, denounced the election as “neither free, nor fair” essentially meaning Washington doesn’t believe he has a legitimate mandate. The U.S. also imposed visa restrictions on unnamed Ugandan officials.
The various violations of human rights committed by the militarist dictatorship are in fact in contravention of the government’s international legal obligations to which it voluntarily signed up. Perhaps more ominous for the future of the country than the persistent violations of human rights, have been the policies carried out and actions engaged in by the militarist dictatorship that have perverted ethical values in society and actively promoted the growth of sordid corruption on an unprecedented scale; destroyed and personalized most institutions of governance; mortgaged the country’s modicum of sovereignty; and plundered resources in neighboring countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan.
A pertinent question is this: why has Uganda not been appropriately sanctioned for contravention of legally binding international obligations? This may in part be attributable to the fact that the international system of enforcement is not particularly effective to provide a remedy for cases of violation.
However, when it is considered that the international community has treated other countries with equally odious if not arguably less blemished records than Uganda’s more harshly, we are left to seek more satisfactory explanations than simply the fact of weak enforcement mechanisms.
Two cases can be cited here. The first is that of the late military dictator of Chile, General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. In 1998 the British courts rejected the dictator’s claim that he was entitled to sovereign immunity for the violations of human rights he presided over in his country. A panel of five Law Lords ruled that as a former ruler he was not immune from prosecution for criminal acts that violate international human rights treaties.
The second is the case of Zimbabwe. From the late 1990s until now, Pan-European powers, in concert, have applied some of the most punitive sanctions ever in history against Zimbabwe for violating the rights of its white farmers. The punitive sanctions have been coached in the name of upholding the rule of law, human rights and democracy.
But in the case of Uganda, instead of indictment and sanctioning of the militarist dictatorship, the international community has at best turned a blind eye to the Museveni regime’s evil deeds outlined above, despite the rhetoric by Pan-European powers to stand up for the promotion of the rule of law, good governance, democracy and human rights in Africa.
It should be noted, nonetheless, that to their credit, from time-to-time Pan-European powers have registered feeble protests to Museveni’s militarist dictatorship when, for example, civil society organizations and some media have exposed and widely publicized instances of massive extra judicial abductions and killings, such as the ones that occurred before, during and after the January 2021 elections.
However, on balance, the cold reality of the matter is that the public rhetoric by Pan-European powers has scarcely been matched by their action. This is so because the same Pan-European powers have sustained the militarist dictatorship by providing it with invaluable military materiel, diplomatic support, financial assistance and media outlets for public relations campaigns. These have collectively constituted the external legitimacy, which have been the linchpin for the militarist dictatorship. For the most part, therefore, the laudable public rhetoric might be regarded as no more than a mood of the moment, if not done for public relations purposes.
How can we, from an historical perspective, properly understand and explain both the gap, if not contradictions, between what Pan-European powers profess to stand for and their actions in practice, as well as the long tenure in power by the militarist dictatorship?
From a historical and political perspective two overarching and intersecting factors might help us understand and appreciate why and how Museveni’s militarist dictatorship in Uganda has enjoyed such a long tenure in power, despite the evidence of persistent human rights violations. I now turn to consider the two intersecting factors.
The first factor is impersonal and external; and the other is personal in character and internal.
The impersonal and external factor that might more satisfactorily explain how Pan-European powers have handled the militarist dictatorship in Uganda is what Kwame Nkrumah referred to as “neo-colonialism.” By “neo-colonialism” is meant the strategy of indirect means employed by imperial powers to maintain and advance their economic and geo-strategic interests. The strategy normally involves the employment of, and reward in money and in kind to, indigenous politico-military elites, serving as functionaries or agents of imperial powers. In Uganda, the local politico-military elites who superintend the interests of external powers are referred to as “nyampara.” In Chinese literature, the indigenous functionaries who serve as cost-efficient conduits to facilitate continued control and exploitation of local resources for the benefits of foreign interests are called compadorial managers.
But although the brand of neo-colonialism in the post decolonization era, after 1960, has been slightly different, it is not totally new. In their classic, “Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism,” published in 1961, Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher document that before 1880 the British government preferred “informal control” of Africa because this was deemed more cost-effective and efficient than formal occupation of the continent.
As indicated above, Kwame Nkrumah, the undisputed intellectual and visionary leader of Pan-Africanism in the second half of the twentieth century, is the leading authority on the workings of neo-colonialism in Africa. In his book, “Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism” published in 1966, he spells out with clinical details the various guises under which it operates to ensure that the country subjected to it is, in theory, though independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside. Nkrumah argues that probably the worst aspect of neo-colonialism is that to the foreign powers that employ and profit from it, it means power without responsibility to account for the consequences of their policies. Conversely, for indigenous people who suffer form neo-colonialism, it means exploitation without redress.