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Yoweri Museveni and sit-tight syndrome

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FILE PHOTO: Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni arrives at the UK-Africa Investment Summit in London, Britain January 20, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

By his election as President of Uganda for the sixth time, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni led his country to miss the opportunity of easing political succession through credible democratic means.

The January 14 election, unfortunately, brought to the front burner the old and ever-present political sit-tight syndrome in which African rulers in the governance of their countries abhors routinisation of succession in the leadership of the state. Whatever accomplishment Museveni’s leadership had for Uganda has been diminished by his intolerance of opposition and unwillingness to vacate the seat of power.

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Museveni, a guerrilla leader turned president had been in power since 1986 when his NRM captured power through the violent overthrow of Milton Obote’s government. He was elected president in 1996 with control over the country’s parliament and was again re-elected in 2001 and once more in 2006 against a backdrop of a constitutional amendment to abolish term limit for the presidency and introduction of the multiparty electoral system. That would pave the way for subsequent elections and he was re-elected yet again in 2011 and 2016. 

Last month’s election which was contested by more than 10 candidates was mainly between the incumbent President of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) and the 38-year old Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine of the National Unity Party (NUP). There was about 57 per cent voter turnout of the 18 million registered voters. President Museveni polled 5.85 million votes representing about 59 per cent while Wine polled 3.48 million votes amounting to about 35 per cent of the votes.
 
According to poll watchers, the process leading to the election was fraught with violence and the shutdown of communication facilities, especially the internet with which the opposition had hoped to tally the votes. Beyond that, Wine was subjected to harassment and illegal detention while 26 people from a civil society coalition were allegedly arrested for manning an illegal vote-tallying centre at a hotel in the capital. Indeed, the Uganda electoral management body had banned the setting up of alternative polling centres. Substantial electoral irregularities were also observed. For example, some polling stations opened late leading to angry protestation from the voters in parts of the capital city of Kampala.

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There were also reports that the biometric system for identification was not working in some areas. In the run-up to the election, the president who dressed in military fatigues gave a speech in which he warned of grave consequences for troublemakers. In his words, “If you try to disturb the peace, you will have yourself to blame. The security forces, following the law, are ready to deal with any troublemaker.” Above all, the affirmation of global monitors was absent. The United States cancelled its Diplomatic Observer Mission to the country while the EU and the United Nations had expressed concern over the process respectively. Museveni actually warned against foreign meddlesomeness in his country’s affairs. It was only observers from the African Union and East Africa Community that monitored the election.

At the ripe age of 76, after 35 years in power, President Museveni ought to have stepped aside and allow a generational shift. By being unmindful of this political benefit, he missed the opportunity for routinisation of succession. He could have borrowed a leaf from Nelson Mandela, who demonstrated the power of example by relinquishing power to a younger generation of leaders, thereby dispelling a notion for sit-tightism. Museveni has no political moral to pass, more so that he had hypocritically railed against African leaders who stayed longer than necessary in power. Alternation in power ensures some measure of political stability and a culture of peaceful succession.

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Nevertheless, the staying logic of Museveni lies in his assertion of security and economic stability to Uganda, thus erasing the lingering memory of a country once notorious for instability underlined by civil war and was hitherto the advent of a failed state. The president flaunts this credential and is wont to say he represents stability in the country. Since his ascent to power, Museveni has helped to revitalize the country, provide political stability, and build an economy that is fairly stable with improved infrastructure.

His handling of the AIDS epidemic was remarkable, even as he has managed to maintain his grip on power through a patrimonial network and undermining of institutions of the state, and outright intolerance of opposition. Wine, the main opposition candidate, was hounded and was only released from detention following a ruling from the Chief Judge of that country to the government to release him or charge him with an offence before the court of law. 

However, overstaying in the office is not the best for democracies in Africa. Routinisation of succession to power will conduce to stability, eliminate the African big man mentality and sit-tight syndrome. The credential of being a “liberator and harbinger of peace” cannot be enhanced by remaining in office till eternity. The lesson is lost and the power of example is gravely undermined. Political succession in our continent needs not to be a do-or-die affair but one for democratic renewal. In Uganda, with a huge youthful population and a growing political enthusiasm, transferring power to them is the greatest legacy Museveni can leave behind for his country.

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