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Institutions the cure for disease of presidents who rule forever

Friday February 22 2019

Yoweri Museveni

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni addresses the nation at State House in Entebbe, Uganda, on September 9, 2018. PHOTO | SUMY SADURNI | AFP 

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I arrived in Kampala on Tuesday, just as the headlines were announcing that the Ugandan opposition had — as we used to say when we were young and foolish — walked into a dimensional slammer.

President Yoweri Museveni, a crafty old fox, was nominated by the NRM Central Executive Committee to run again in 2021.

Mr Museveni is perennially difficult to beat at elections; he is particularly gifted at longevity and has led the country since 1986.

He wears the pips of a revolutionary and democrat but takes the same approach, a little, as Donald Trump: The country can sometimes resemble the family firm. His son, Lt-Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, a serious military honcho, was among the 160-odd officers promoted recently.

Mrs Janet Museveni, the First Lady, is among the most influential national and party leaders.


I wondered whether the decision by Mr Museveni to seek re-election and the reorganisation of the military were related.

I don’t know enough about Mr Museveni to tell whether he is merely testing the waters. He doesn’t look like a water tester to me.

Mr Museveni is, possibly, the most influential leader in this region. He has his finger — and, possibly, troops — in most regional conflicts and flashpoints.

He has soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ostensibly to hunt for rebels, and Central African Republic, ‘hunting’ for Joseph Kony (Uganda’s version of the Bogeyman), and in South Sudan, either helping Salva Kiir to resist Riek Machar’s attempt at ousting him or playing other power games.

And Uganda People’s Defence Forces control important parts of Somalia as part of the African Union peacekeeping mission, Amisom.

So, he is like an ancient savant in the region — ever alert, watching, manipulating this and that all the way from Sudan to the Congo and re-arranging fates in his own, and Uganda’s interests.


All of Mr Museveni’s attention now appears to be focused on Rwanda, whose leader, Mr Paul Kagame, is an ally-turned-rival.

He had pledged his oil to the Kenyan pipeline from Turkana — until Mr Kagame struck up a rapport with then-new Tanzanian President John Magufuli.

He quickly left President Uhuru Kenyatta dangling in the wind and shifted to the Tanzanian route, possibly to curry favour with the difficult man from Dar and have a one-up on Mr Kagame.

The bromance between Mr Museveni and Mr Kenyatta appears to have cooled off rather dramatically.

The former is no longer often invited to address Kenyan national days; we get visitors from far-off places, which has created complications and opportunities in the Kenyatta succession, ‘Museveniwise’.


Politicians will say that the support of foreign leaders does not matter.

Unfortunately, it does, and I get the feeling that regional leaders are meddling in each other’s affairs, especially at elections, more than ever.

The moral, financial and technical support of friendly neighbouring leaders is a useful, if dangerous, asset in Kenyan elections.

Who can forget the white-haired former Tanzanian Prime Minister Edward Lowassa campaigning for Jubilee in 2017?

Or revelations by Miguna Miguna that Nasa expected to be allowed to swear in Mr Raila Odinga in Tanzania.

And that Mr Museveni enthusiastically supported Jubilee and was generous and quick with congratulations after the poll.


Nasa is widely rumoured to have received financial support through, if not from, Tanzania.

The chemistry between Mr Odinga and Dr Magufuli is quite obvious: The pair are fast, family friends.

The chemistry between Mr Odinga and Mr Museveni, on the other hand, has never quite worked.

Mr Museveni has put little effort to hide his dislike for Mr Odinga, even though in age and political backgrounds there are many similarities.

One would expect delegations from Deputy President William Ruto, Mr Odinga’s presumed rival in 2022, to be eating lots of bananas in Kampala, bringing messages of friendship and goodwill.

The vibe off the street is that relations between Mr Museveni and Mr Kagame have never been worse.


I don’t know whether it has anything to do with Mr Museveni’s decision to delay retirement by another decade or two.

But one gets the feeling that there is some serious stuff going on in the region and one is not certain how the countries which do not keep their presidents in office for decades — where, with time, they develop relations and sharpen knowledge and competence — fare in the face of leaders who have been in power since long before the internet and mobile phones.

The answer lies in state institutions and establishments, which can define and protect national interests as well as school inexperienced politicians in statecraft.

A good example is America, where a new president is briefed and quickly trained to lead the nation, but there are also deep pools of knowledge and leadership in Congress, the national security establishment and the diplomatic service.

The danger with the Museveni model is that when he exits the scene, he will be nearly impossible to replace — where will you get a candidate with 33 years of presidential experience? — while in an institutional set-up, there is automatic continuity.