COMMENTARY / Norman Sempijja
When President Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986, he oversaw a reset of Ugandan politics for the next 35 years. He outlawed parties and formed a movement system which although has sometimes been described as a one-party state was crucial in bringing all groups on board to chart the way forward for a country that had been ravaged by misrule and conflict for almost 20 years.
Fast forward 2021, we are faced with a slightly different situation but of likely grave consequences. Uganda is in the middle of a stand-off between President Museveni and his challenger Mr Robert Kyagulanyi (also known as Bobi Wine). The issue relates to the outcome of the 2021 presidential election which although was held in a very peaceful manner had gross vote-counting irregularities. The Uganda electoral commission gave Museveni 58.6% and Kyagulanyi 34.8%. On the other hand, the tallying centres set up by Kyagulanyi’s team using the Uvote app where declaration forms were uploaded once counting was done have so far given Kyagulanyi 71% and Museveni around 25% of the vote. Vote counting is still ongoing. With Kyagulanyi unlikely to concede Museveni decided to put him under house arrest to prevent him from leading mass protests. The internet was also switched off for 5 days and at the moment social media can only be accessed through the use of VPN services.
Amid this melee is Covid-19 virus rampaging through the country. The health services are still not fully prepared to deal with a massive outbreak and although the lockdown has been eased, the economic impact will be felt for years. For a country that is largely agro-based and relies heavily on the informal sector, the impact has been dire on the already struggling population. Secondly, a worrying trend has emerged internationally where various variants of the Covid virus have been registered. For example, we have new covid-19 strains in the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil and Japan for now. Thus, questions have lingered about the effectiveness of the current vaccines in circulation to combat these new variants. But that is beside the point. Uganda has not secured any of the vaccines yet.
Therefore, Museveni as head of state faces a difficult situation. Does he pour the meagre resources at his disposal to contain Kyagulanyi? Or does he negotiate with him to chart a way forward out of this debilitating situation? Obviously, in trying to answer these questions he will have to weigh the cost-benefits to the solutions and gauge if they fit in his agenda.
So, let us imagine Museveni throws all his resources at containing Kyagulanyi. Well, he will have to curtail social media especially as it was crucial to ending former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. It is that powerful. But we should note that the internet is hard to police and is a medium through which a lot of people make a living. Either way patience will run out for the people whose livelihoods will be curtailed in the process. They will have no option but to organise protests. The bad news for Museveni is that according to African Union brief on the Sahel 2020 it is clear that violent clashes and violence against civilians are on the rise during these covid-19 times. If we mirror that with the November riots in Uganda, we are likely to see more protests if the heavy-handed policies of the state are continuously applied.
Museveni will also have to maintain Kyagulanyi under house arrest, but he will further draw the ire of the international community as his current gambit on the elections was a stretch too far. He may have burnt up his remaining currency with several international stakeholders. Apart from Western societies, citizens in different African countries have grown tired of Museveni and are pressuring their countries not to acknowledge his electoral win. This exasperation is among the young people especially in Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and South Africa to mention but a few.
A combination of continental and international loss of support could set Uganda the same path as Zimbabwe under Mugabe if Museveni resorts to outright violence. We could see sanctions being applied on top of the travel restrictions already imposed on key players within Museveni’s government. The problem for Museveni is Uganda does not possess strong support in East Africa as Mugabe did in Southern Africa. Plus, Museveni’s relationship with President Kagame has been frosty, to say the least. Either way, he will have to deal with mass protests in support of freedom for Kyagulanyi in Uganda. This will call for further investment in the police and army to contain the situation. Let us not forget that with the fluid nature of Covid-19 pandemic, the country could face deep human security issues. Hence containing Kyagulanyi will come at a very political and economic cost both to Museveni and Uganda.
What if Museveni decided to negotiate with Kyagulanyi and form a government of national unity? This wouldn’t be without precedent as Museveni set into place the movement system discussed earlier that brought everyone on board and for 10 years the country benefitted from collective governance (except the north which was experiencing an insurgency). I’m of the persuasion that Uganda is again on similar footing. Institutions have been degraded and cannot perform independently. There is a lot of frustration with the current regime as exemplified by the parliamentary elections where the vice president and 24 ministers lost their seats. By inviting Kyagulanyi onboard Museveni will be pressing the reset button especially as he will inject young people into the system, and they could play a key role in reducing corruption and improving service delivery.
It would cost Museveni some political capital among the entrenched supporters, but it will save his legacy. He will be seen as a father of a nation mentoring young leaders to take over from him. Right now, he is seen as an insensitive, power-hungry despot. But that could change in an instant if he goes for a coalition with Kyagulanyi and other leaders like Mugisha Muntu, Nobert Mao and Patrick Amuriat. The resources that would have been spent on containing them would be allocated to the heavily challenged health care system to combat Covid-19 and other ailments.
Moreover, this will save the National Resistance Movement political party from oblivion once Museveni goes. The reason for this is the party has struggled to attract a strong intellectual and ideological talent within its ranks as it has been accused of nepotism. This would be a good time to reset the party and its structures and prepare for the transition from Museveni. By co-opting the opposition into government this will put them under scrutiny and any blunders they make will further give NRM a softer landing come 2026.
The benefit for Kyagulanyi would be experience in government. Although he was a member of parliament, gaining further experience in public governance would do him a lot of good and also build a strong support base within the country. Since his political party has the largest number of opposition members of parliament this will give him further credibility and foundation to strengthen his National Unity platform party (NUP). The same will apply for the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT) led by Mugisha Muntu. The other parties like Forum for Democratic Change (led by Patrick Amuriat) and Democratic Party (led by Nobert Mao) will get a new lease of life.
Therefore, due to the circumstances afoot, it would be of immense political worth to form a government of national unity under the leadership of President Yoweri Museveni but with considerable influence of the other parties especially the National Unity Platform, Alliance for National Transformation, Democratic Party and Forum for democratic Change. This will pause the political animosity as the country goes into reforms to ensure more transparent electoral and governance processes.