In Uganda, Museveni finds biggest election obstacle in former friends

Three politicians who have announced their candidacy in next year’s election were once part of President Museveni’s powerful inner circle. Now, they find themselves on the opposite end of his wrath. 

James Akena/Reuters
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni prepares to deliver his state of the nation address in the capital Kampala June 4, 2015.

Ugandans are still reeling from the arrest and release of two prominent politicians last week, a move that foreshadows a potentially explosive election next  year.

Last Friday, former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and Kizza Besigye, a former presidential candidate, were placed under "preventive arrest" after announcing their intentions to challenge President Yoweri Museveni’s three decades in power in the 2016 election. They were released 12 hours later without charge.

It was only last month that David Sejusa, another presidential candidate, went through a similar episode. Each of these three challengers was at one time part of Mr. Museveni's tight inner circle, “The Historicals,” which has slowly crumbled amid his efforts to consolidate his power.

These former allies – many of whom fought beside Museveni in the Bush War that brought him to power in 1986 – are now bitter enemies, and have become the strongest threat to his next run for another term.

“There  has been disaffection among many of The Historicals and Museveni’s associates for a long time,” says Aili Tripp, a professor of politics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Most  felt that Museveni has remained in power too long and needs to open up space for other leaders. Even those who once supported him feel the country needs a change.”

The recent arrests show Museveni is aware of the threat against his weakening regime. And that political tension, built upon the dissatisfaction of generals and party leaders, has created an atmosphere where open conflict could erupt at anytime, experts say.

“I think the arrests speak to the paranoia that I think is inevitable when a regime is in power for 30 years,” says Joshua Rubongoya, a political science professor at Roanoke College. “As legitimacy declines, coercion and the use of the state security apparatus becomes more and more profound and prominent.”

Serious threats

Museveni’s  former allies have been ramping up their opposition for years. Mr. Besigye, Museveni's physician during the Bush War, is running against him for the fourth time in the 2016 election.

The  fallout between the two men has been bitter. When Besigye first ran against Museveni in 2001, an election that the president won under murky circumstances, Museveni threatened to put Besigye "six feet under." Besigye's 2006 run was even more eventful: he was arrested for treason and rape, charges that were later dropped, and lost in what is commonly seen as a stolen election.

But no threat, perhaps, is more serious, and personal, than that from Mr.  Mbabazi – once the prime minister and for decades Museveni’s righthand man. Also a Bush War veteran, he was known as Uganda's Mr.-Fix-It,  at one point serving simultaneously as attorney general as well as defense and foreign affairs minister.

Until last year, he was Museveni’s presumed successor – which made Mbabazi's sudden dismissal from his prime ministership last year shocking to the nation and created a rift between  power players in Ugandan politics. Now he is running for the candidacy of Museveni’s own party, the National Resistance Movement.

“Many  are eager to see Museveni leave power and if it appears that Mbabazi is  the one best poised to do that, they may support him,” says Ms. Tripp. “Much will depend on whether Mbabazi can work with the opposition coalition, The Democratic Alliance.”

'A product of his own design'

Each  of these challengers faces a difficult battle. Mbabazi and Mr. Sejusa, in particular, are accused of being instrumental to the very government they now they decry.

On one hand, Sejusa had been Museveni’s spymaster for decades and has overseen multiple deadly operations and arrests. His announcement of a staged coup attempt in 2013, that would have placed the blame on Sejusa, Mbabazi and other former members of Museveni’s inner circle, forced him to flee to London for two years before returning late last year.

On the other hand, Mbabazi was widely perceived as the party strategist. In 2005, he supported an amendment to allow Museveni to run for another term, and he supported the law giving police officers control over who is allowed to hold a public meeting. Mbabazi says he now regrets both of those moves.

“The very machinery of the [ruling] party that are now incarcerating him are a product of his own design,” Mr. Rubongoya says.

Museveni in control

Museveni still holds strong support, and commands an army of loyal electoral commissioners, a vast spy network, and the most powerful arms of the military.

Furthermore, Museveni benefits from a very divided opposition, an operative in Sejusa’s camp told this reporter.

“If the opposition had its act together, by now they would have a unified candidate to canvas the country,” Rubongoya says.

But the threat is being felt by Museveni. Joseph Bbosa, a member of the opposition Uganda People’s Congress, told a local paper that last week’s arrests were an indicator that the 2016 elections will not be free and fair.

“Mr.  Museveni quakes during election time and wants your legs and hands to be tied on a 50kg bag of cement so that you have no power to harm him.”

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