Uganda's 'dictator in a suit' Yoweri Museveni holds power, but at what cost?

President Yoweri Museveni swept to his fifth election victory this month with 61 per cent of the vote.

Saturday February 27 2016

Ugandan soldiers patrol the city centre in Kampla after President Yoweri Museveni won the presidential election for a fifth term on February 20, 2016. PHOTO | AFP

Ugandan soldiers patrol the city centre in Kampla after President Yoweri Museveni won the presidential election for a fifth term on February 20, 2016. PHOTO | AFP 

KAMPALA, UGANDA

"In the past you could get away with imprisoning and killing everyone," said Ugandan lawyer and poet Kabumba Busingye. "Now it has become much more difficult to be a dictator."

Under Idi Amin, 1970s Uganda was a rough dictatorship ruled with brutal buffoonery, but Yoweri Museveni, a former rebel who helped overthrow Amin and his successor to seize power in 1986, is a "sophisticated dictator in a suit" said Busingye.

Museveni swept to his fifth election victory this month with 61 per cent of the vote. Observers said the cards were heavily stacked against his opponents, as the 71-year-old's grip on his party and country — and his access to state resources — meant the result was never in any doubt.

"In the past there was rule by decree, abolishing courts and parliament. Now you keep them, you have elections once in five years but you arrange the system to make sure that you always get your way," said Busingye.

The cost of getting his way may prove higher this time than in similarly disputed elections against the same main opponent, Kizza Besigye, in the past. Foreign donors are dismayed and, more importantly, a large chunk of the electorate feels disenfranchised and angry.

In the days since the vote, armed police and soldiers have maintained an aggressive, highly visible presence on the capital's streets to keep a lid on things, while Besigye has been prevented from leaving his home by a succession of mob-handed arrests.

"The issue of legitimacy is going to be a big one for the next government," said Livingstone Sewanyana, chairman of the Citizens Election Observers Network Uganda (CEON-U) which monitored the vote.

"There is a general belief that the whole process was not transparent and the mood is that the results do not reflect the will of the people."

'GOOD WILL EXHAUSTED'

While campaigning, Besigye addressed large rallies in his urban strongholds and in rural areas where Museveni finds his strongest support.

The president resorted to "rented crowds" attracted by freebies and handouts, said Sewanyana, and could rely on the support of an Electoral Commission that is widely regarded as partisan.

During three decades in charge, Museveni has melded state and party, bending institutions to his will, from the security forces to the judiciary. "Museveni controls all aspects of our life," said Sewanyana.

Doing others' dirty work abroad has won him gratitude and a free pass.

Uganda's army is the core of the US and European-backed fight against Islamic militants in Somalia and its soldiers are deployed in various UN peacekeeping missions.

"Uganda is punching above its weight in the region in terms of security matters, and a number of players both in the region and outside would be keen to have continuity," said Busingye.

"Museveni has very shrewdly worked this into his calculations."

Government spokesman Shaban Bantariza said Museveni is simply showing himself to be the "regional leader" he is, a "brand" with support "right from the grassroots upwards".

Even Museveni's critics offer grudging admiration. "He's not smart, he's extremely smart," said Busingye who compared Museveni to two other rebels-turned-rulers, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Ethiopia's late leader, Meles Zenawi.

But while Meles never lost his grip, opposition to Museveni is growing.

"A dictator, whether it's the crude one like Amin, or the sophisticated one like Museveni, can only go as far as the people let him," Busingye said, adding it was "a question of when, not if" Ugandans will have had enough.

Ladislaus Rwakafuzi, Besigye's much in demand lawyer, said that time might come soon. "Museveni has exhausted the good will he had from the people," he said.