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Museveni must go!

Ssebo | 10.02.2011 19:16 | Repression | Social Struggles | World

The momentum for change in North Africa must extend to sub-Saharan Africa.

Museveni must go! And all the rest!

As the world watches events unfold in Egypt, the fates of other autocratic leaders in sub-Saharan Africa seem to have been relegated to fourth page news. However, it is worth considering the similarities and differences, particularly for Uganda where the incumbent President of 25 years will face re-election on Friday 18th February.

Museveni, and his National Resistance Army, came to power in 1986. Although his efforts to restore stability to a country that had been ravaged by years of chaos and civil war may deserve credit, his claim to be the only force that can maintain stability deserves questioning. It was not until 1996 that Uganda was given a constitution and presidential elections were held in 2001 and 2006, both of which Museveni won, though with increasing allegations and evidence of vote rigging and intimidation of opponents. His National Resistance Movement (NRM) ran Uganda as a one-party state until a referendum which brought back multi-party politics in 2005. Museveni is seeking re-election next week after having scrapped the limits on the number of terms a President can serve.

Clearly there are differences with Egypt, however, in one respect, Museveni has played a similar role to Mubarak which is protecting Western, and specifically US interests. He has allowed the US military a solid base in East Africa, pursued with vigour the ‘war on terror’ by sending Ugandan troops to Somalia as part of the African Union mission and pursued free market policies opening the door to the multinationals. Within Uganda his economic policies have produced a wealthy urban elite that kowtows to his beck and call (even the Hip Hop Artists sing his praises) whilst the gap between this elite and the majority of Ugandans widens. Poverty is endemic to Uganda, as is corruption.

In the run up to next week’s elections an emergency budget was passed giving vast sums to State House (to spend on Museveni’s re-election campaign) and to bribe NRM MPs, who were given the equivalent of $9000 each (Uganda’s GNI per capita is $460), not to stand as independents. The other main recipients were the Army and the Police Force. Three weeks ago a convoy of fifteen new riot control vehicles from China trundled into the capital Kampala. The Police have also stocked up on tear gas and employed raw recruits to ‘maintain order’ in the run up and after the election. Unlike the Kiboko squad, stick wielding thugs who the Police have previously used to beat up Museveni’s political opponents, these youngsters, lacking employment opportunities but filled with nationalistic fervour and fear of chaos that change would bring, are armed with guns. Unlike in Egypt, the Army (the Ugandan People’s Defence Force) is partisan towards Museveni and have already stated their commitment to maintaining the status quo. However, Museveni’s hold on power is more subtle than the exercise of direct force.

Museveni has built up an elaborate system of patronage that buys the support of the elites. Government positions and contracts are fodder for those jostling to get their snouts in the trough. So-called ‘democracy’ exists to a certain extent. There are seven other candidates for the Presidency and Uganda, in both the towns and rural areas, is awash in election posters. Political parties and trade unions are allowed to exist once their criteria have been rigorously assessed by the government. However, the opposition is divided along many fault lines so attempts at a united front have proved ineffective. The main opposition candidate, Besigye, has not yet been arrested on trumped up charges as he was in 2005, however, with an Electoral Commission in place whose impartiality has been questioned on numerous occasions, his optimism towards the outcome must be limited. Political debate carries on but any form of political protest is suppressed. Activists criticising the bribe to MPs by handing out leaflets were quickly arrested last Saturday, the women’s group calling for change was beaten into submission last year, and words out of place will have you arrested for insulting or embarrassing the office of the Presidency. Moreover, for many people, there is an obvious fear of change and instability which, considering Uganda’s history is understandable, but how does it match up with problems that working class Ugandans face now.

The majority of the population of Uganda are young people. The majority of them are poor, uneducated and unemployed or reliant on precarious employment. However, one achievement of Museveni has been to invest in education, at a primary level and increasingly at secondary. Each year a range of universities turn out graduates, many of whom are unable to find employment. Most of those that do find good jobs make up the comfortable or wealthy politically idle youth category, who you will see in Kampala’s bars and nightclubs. But increasingly the majority of these graduates will find themselves excluded from access to employment and Museveni’s and the NRM’s patrimony. In this respect, parallels may be made with Ben Ali of Tunisia. His educational and economic policies (high expectations and then constant struggle to get by) eventually produced young people willing to take their grievances on to the streets. Hopefully, this will happen in Uganda, but probably not for a couple of years when the corruption and stink of Museveni’s fourth term becomes too much and the rise in food prices at the behest of global capitalism drives more people into a hand to mouth existence.

At the moment people here have not crossed the fear barrier, as they did in Egypt on January 25th. Rumours abound that on election-day, 18th February, and for several days following, Internet and mobile phone services will be down. Both protestors and autocrats are learning from the events unfolding. In Uganda people have not yet realised that their differences, religious and tribal, are less than what they have in common. However, this common experience of being marginalised while the corporate and political elite exercise domination over them is more important. It will not be long before a majority speak out and tell Museveni to go, and his son who he is grooming for the Presidency, and the rest of the parasites.