Why Uganda's 25-year ruler is unlikely to face Egypt-style protests

Ugandans are expected to extend President Yoweri Museveni's 25-year rule in Friday's election. More voters seem to want change, but apathy and fear of brutal crackdowns prevent unrest.

James Akena/Reuters
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni and First Lady Janet wave to supporters on arrival at the last campaign rally in the capital Kampala on Feb. 16. Ugandans will vote in presidential and parliamentary elections on Friday which Museveni is expected to win, despite a fierce challenge from third-time rival and former ally Kizza Besigye.

After abolishing term limits and reaching 25 years in power, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni is up for re-election on Feb. 18. He's expected to win and remain one of Africa's longest-serving rulers.

This is due to the stability and relative prosperity he's brought, supporters say.

A growing number of Ugandans, though, are fed up with the rampant poverty, high unemployment, and widespread corruption. They want change. But like many other African countries with aging strongmen who alter the rules of the game to extend their power, Uganda is unlikely to see the type of revolt recently witnessed in Tunisia or Egypt. Apathy and fear of brutal crackdowns stand in the way.

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"We want change in our country, but I don't think it can happen at elections the way they have been rigging the votes," says primary schoolteacher Paxtone Agatasha, who plans to vote for opposition leader, Kizza Besigye. "In Africa, these Arab countries like Egypt and Tunisia are the only ones where people can riot and change things, but not here in Uganda."

Why Ugandans won't rise up

On the surface, Egypt and Uganda have plenty in common: long-ruling authoritarian presidents, endemic poverty, lack of political freedom, weak opposition movements, large numbers of unemployed youth. Both countries, in theory, should be equally in danger of revolt. But experts say that Uganda is unlikely to follow Egypt's path of mass revolt.

"I believe we'll not have anything happen in Uganda like what we see in Egypt," says Sandra Adong Oder, a Uganda expert and senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. "From the security side, the president will make sure there are no incidents of violence [by protesters], and his police are very well equipped. He has effectively neutralized the opposition and the government institutions that might limit his power. And from the public side, there is this lethargy, an apathy, really."

Indeed, Uganda's largely rural population remains unpoliticized, with a low level of Internet use and few major towns. And security forces are always prepared to use lethal force. All of this makes an Egyptian scenario unlikely. "If an uprising like Tunisia happened in Uganda, then Museveni would kill a lot of people," says Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a political scientist at Kampala's Makerere University. "If it happened it wouldn't last long, as the government can also easily cut off telephones and radio stations."

Uganda 'needs' authoritarianism?

Having come to power in 1986, after a grueling five-year civil war, President Museveni has long argued that a country like Uganda needs a strong authority figure to rule it and protect it from the many ethnic, linguistic, and regional differences that threaten to pull it apart. That's just what he's done, he says, and voters have rewarded him for it.

Indeed, voters are highly unlikely to vote Museveni out of power, but this should not be taken as a sign of the president's popularity, says Nelson Kasfir, a political scientist and Uganda expert at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

"The problem is that when people are afraid, and when the opposition is weak, they are unlikely to act," says Mr. Kasfir. "Museveni's patronage system has reached a point where the people say, 'Oh my God, I don't see how this system can be dislodged in the future,' so they don't oppose it anymore."

Patience wearing thin

Veteran opposition candidate Dr. Besigye still pins his hope on the waning patience of Ugandan voters. With Museveni controlling the electoral commission and voter registry, these elections are already fundamentally flawed, he says.

After failing to unseat Museveni in the last two presidential elections, and failing to get the results annulled in court, Besigye says he'll be considering other options, including possible street protests. He even drew parallels with Tunisian and Egyptian-style popular revolts.

"As long as people are oppressed for a long time, as long as they become hopeless in all processes, the political process and government process, then a time comes when their anger explodes," Besigye said, pointing to antigovernment riots in Kampala in 2009 in which at least 25 people were killed.

There hasn't been a peaceful transition of power in Uganda in almost 50 years of independence, he adds, with every leader needing to be "bombed" out of office.

Besigye knows Museveni better than most. In the early 1980s, when Museveni was a lean guerrilla commander berating African leaders for hanging onto power too long, Besigye was his personal physician. Now he says his former ally is clinging to power and Museveni is convinced that no one else "can do what he does."

But Besigye also says Museveni has a "sense of self-preservation" and could step down without violence or "maybe with a little bit of violence."

This is considered wishful thinking in Uganda. "In Uganda the conventional wisdom is that something like that can't happen," says Golooba-Mutebi, "but then they said the same about Egypt and, as they say, a week is a long time in politics."

Just to be on the safe side, however, Museveni's goverment has ordered telecoms to intercept text messages with words or phrases including "Egypt," "bullet," and "people power."

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