Delegates who drive into Kampala on Thursday to attend President Yoweri Museveni’s swearing-in ceremony will find the main road from Entebbe International Airport cleared of all regular traffic and manned by soldiers, some carrying machine guns.
This is, in part, to save foreign dignitaries from the nightmare of traffic jams in Uganda’s capital.
Mostly, however, it is also to avoid a repeat of events exactly five years ago when crowds of enthusiastic supporters jammed the road to welcome home opposition leader Kizza Besigye from a Nairobi hospital where he had been admitted after being brutally arrested while protesting the outcome of the 2011 election.
The opposition leader’s crowds, which took up the whole day covering the 38-kilometre route into the city and fighting running battles with the police, was uncomfortable evidence of another centre of power in the country, particularly in urban areas.
Little has changed in five years. Dr Besigye, who received 35.61 per cent to Museveni’s 60.62 per cent in the latest contest, in February, rejected the official results from the Electoral Commission, claimed he had won the election with around 52 per cent, and has called for public protests to force an independent international audit of the election.
The government has rejected the calls citing the lack of a legal basis for such an audit.
It also points to a Supreme Court ruling that unanimously rejected a petition filed by former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi who came third in the race with an underwhelming 1.78 per cent of the total vote.
The opposition FDC party has also not presented any evidence to back up Besigye’s claim of 52 per cent, although election observers noted widespread irregularities, including in the counting and tallying of results, ballot stuffing, intimidation, and the disenfranchisement of voters in opposition strongholds.
Swearing in for the sixth time since taking power in 1986 (fifth after a general election), Mr Museveni should be at the zenith of his power.
He remains firmly in charge of the military where his son, Brigadier Muhoozi Kainerugaba, heads the Special Forces Command, and his purge of Mbabazi and his loyalists from the NRM left the ruling party firmly under his thumb.
POWER TO APPOINT
The Constitution gives the President power to appoint all manner of officials and the length of his tenure is such that loyalists occupy most if not all key positions.
In Parliament, the NRM comfortably won a super-majority giving it considerably more than the two-thirds necessary to amend the Constitution (the opposition failed to field candidates in 91 out of 402 constituencies), and won three out of every four district races.
In the power sector, President Museveni recently ordered an investigation and the suspension of Energy ministry officials after cracks were discovered in two hydropower dams under construction at Isimba and Karuma on the River Nile.
It was a powerful metaphor about cracks in the incumbent’s own power.
The President had earlier awarded tenders to build the dams to two rival Chinese construction firms after the fight between rival commission agents, including some close to his family, reached his desk.
What might have appeared like a Solomonic decision then was not only in violation of public procurement rules as Uganda’s Auditor General recently noted, but also gave the projects a presidential imprimatur strong enough to shield them from bureaucratic supervision, but, as it now turns out, not strong enough to hold the concrete together.
Mr Museveni’s strong grip on the state is now undergoing a stress test.
Frustrated and unwilling to bow down to pressure calling for dialogue or a Big Church government of national unity, the government’s response to opposition calls for protests has grown increasingly intolerant.
Dr Besigye and other opposition leaders have been arrested or kept under house arrest, journalists threatened and arrested, including during live broadcasts.
“In some ways, this is nothing new,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement released ahead of the swearing-in. “Ugandan security forces have regularly relied on bullets, teargas, ‘preventive detention’ of opposition leaders, and endless fear mongering to silence government critics.”
The President ran on a slogan of “steady progress”, and there is a lot that’s improved in Uganda since he took power in 1986.
Gone are the chronic shortages of commodities, hyperinflation and war.
There is a surplus of electricity, expatriates drink $227 bottles of champagne at high-end pubs in new malls in the capital, and oil deposits in the west of the country have sparked a rash of investments in roads, railways, power plants and the airport.
Yet corruption remains endemic and distributes the proceeds of growth unevenly to a small coterie in power.
The country has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world and public services, from schools to hospitals, are crumbling.