Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, "can claim to have ended decades of instability" but has failed to hold a free election. © REUTERS/Edward Echwalu

It's time for Uganda's President to step down

Yoweri Museveni has ensured that the west is dependent on him
August 20, 2014

Yoweri Museveni once said that the problem with African rulers was that they stayed in power too long. In August he turned 70. He has now been President of Uganda for 28 years.

There is much he can look back on with pride. He took over after 15 years of military dictatorship, political chaos and civil war and brought peace to southern Uganda. The country’s economy has grown from $4.17bn in 1985 to $21.5bn today. The middle classes, who fled from President Idi Amin’s brutal regime in the 1970s and the chaos after his downfall, returned. The Asians, expelled by Amin in 1972, were offered their properties back and some, too, returned. The capital, Kampala, has more than doubled in size and today pulsates with activity. Other towns have grown too. Oil was discovered in 2006 and gas more recently.

Yet there is a question that undermines all of these achievements. Why has a president who can claim to have ended decades of instability and attracted billions of dollars in aid and investment not been able to abide by his own principles and hold a free election to select his successor? Ugandans today, especially middle class Ugandans, become angry when their government is mentioned—or, more worryingly, fall silent. In the north, particularly among ethnic Acholi people, there is a sense of “we told you so.” Ugandans no longer suffer the arbitrary brutality of the Amin years or the chaos that followed, but some are clearly frightened of being overheard talking politics. Their anger is fuelled by extensive corruption at the highest levels and the almost total control of the economy and government by a clique that enjoys exclusive presidential patronage.

Museveni became President in 1986. He ruled unchallenged, under a system he termed “no-party democracy,” until 2001 and then saw off an attempt by former allies to restore multi-party politics. But the pressure for political rights was too strong and in 2005 he was forced to hold a referendum on the introduction of multi-party democracy, which he lost. Elections were held in 2011. But they were manipulated successfully by the ruling National Resistance Movement party. Museveni travelled the country by helicopter, like African dictators of old, doling out bags of cash at political rallies.

These days Museveni looks more and more isolated in his vast, white, Chinese-built palace in Entebbe, the old administrative centre of the British Protectorate. 20 miles south of Kampala. He has suggested his son or his wife might succeed him, and he seems to have given up trying to make Uganda a modern state. Like President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, he is simply playing off potential successors in order to stay in power. When his last faithful follower from the Bush War of 1981 to 1986, Amama Mbabazi, now Prime Minister, recently began to look like a challenger, Museveni blocked him by arresting and threatening his lieutenants or simply buying them off.

Once open to ideas and discussion, Museveni now appears either addicted to power or too frightened to step down because he cannot find a successor who will let him spend the rest of his life in peace. His party is deeply divided and a peaceful transition now seems impossible. According to some experts, revenue from oil and gas will not start flowing until 2022 so, unless he borrows, he may not have the money to influence the constituencies he needs. He may increasingly resort to force in order to impose his will. With an exploding population that has high expectations but scarce job opportunities, Uganda is heading for difficult times.

Most worrying for Uganda’s stability is the growing gap between north and south. Uganda is divided by the Nile as the river passes east to west from Lake Victoria to Lake Albert. South of the Nile people speak Bantu languages; north of it the languages are largely Nilotic. The divide reflects deep cultural differences and a political rivalry. Museveni has exploited this division between north and south to a shocking degree during his time in power.

Regional tensions in Uganda exploded into the open in 1966 when the country’s first President, Milton Obote, a northerner, overthrew Kabaka Mutesa, the King of the southern Baganda. Five years later, Idi Amin, a military commander from the north, rose to power. Under Amin’s rule, the country went into steep decline. In 1979 Tanzania invaded and expelled Amin, and there followed years of chaos and civil war.

Museveni competed in a chaotic election in 1981 but lost to Obote who reclaimed the presidency. Museveni then decided to go to war and created a guerrilla force called the National Resistance Army (NRA). For the next five years he fought a fierce and extremely successful campaign against the governments of Obote and then General Tito Okello, the head of the army, who mounted a coup against Obote in 1985. Talks between Museveni and Obote broke down and the guerrilla war continued until 1986.

While most of Museveni’s NRA commanders were, like him, “westerners” from the southwestern kingdoms of Uganda, the foot soldiers were mostly young Baganda, Uganda’s largest ethnic group, who come from the centre and south. I spent time with this army as it took over the southern half of Uganda in 1985 and 1986. Many of the fighters were teenagers or younger, but they seemed mature for their age, disciplined and brave. Museveni’s army was smart. When they attacked, they tried to frighten rather than kill their enemy and always left an escape route. “A frightened enemy soldier is better than a dead one. He spreads fear,” one of the commanders told me. A Catholic priest in the south whose parish had seen heavy fighting said bluntly: “Thank God for Museveni’s children. They saved this country.”

In contrast, the British-trained Ugandan army, under the command of the Obote and Okello regimes, behaved appallingly in southern Uganda in the early 1980s, torturing and killing at will. The army was made up mainly of northerners, especially members of the Acholi people. In 1985 I saw whole villages destroyed by this northern-led army, their pathways and gardens littered with skeletons. The survivors told only one story: it was the Ugandan army who did this, not Museveni’s rebel NRA.

Having taken Kampala, the capital, in January 1986, Museveni was sworn in as President and his NRA fighters moved northwest to cross the Nile at Karuma Falls. I joined them but when we approached the river, the commander, David Sejusa Tinyefuza, told me to go back to Kampala in the south, “for my own safety.” Underestimating the mistrust—hatred even—between north and south, I assumed that the NRA would use the same tactics in the north as they did in the south: don’t kill or rob the civilians, get them onside. I was wrong. Museveni’s forces were not seen as liberators when they crossed the Nile, but as invaders.

In Gulu, the capital of the northern region known as “Acholiland,” Museveni’s army made house-to-house searches, looting as they went. Anyone suspected of having served in the Ugandan army was taken away. Some were never seen again. There were many tales of beating and torture.

In response to the “invasion” of Museveni’s southern army, a strange rebel movement emerged among the Acholi. Known at first as the Holy Spirit Movement, it was led by a charismatic seer called Alice Lakwena who claimed that she could turn stones into grenades and that if her soldiers covered themselves in a magic potion, bullets fired at them would turn to water. Museveni’s army defeated her fighters in a head-on battle in 1987 but the movement was not destroyed. As one well-educated Ugandan church worker explained to me: “The spirit moved from Lakwena to her uncle and then to Joseph Kony.” Kony gathered around him the defeated remnants of Lakwena’s army and to create the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and oppose Museveni. His aim, he said, was to make Ugandans live by a combination of the Ten Commandments and a (twisted) version of Acholi lore. Kony used spiritual ritual and unconscionable brutality to make his followers loyal but he also deployed sophisticated guerrilla tactics against the NRA, which he learned from British training manuals.

Even so, it seemed inconceivable that Museveni’s new, effective and well-led national army could not mop up a rebel army that relied on witchcraft rather than weaponry. I thought this war could not last. But the war dragged on for more than 20 years, largely ignored by the outside world. Why?

The answer was simple: northern Uganda did not matter to Museveni. As long as the south was stable and growing economically, the north could be left to tear itself to pieces. Kony was Acholi, as were most of his soldiers in the LRA, and their victims. Typical of the LRA raids was the attack on the village of Lukodi, a few miles from Gulu, on 19th May 2004. Survivors tell the story as if it happened last week. The LRA attacked just before dusk. A Ugandan army unit stationed there fled. About 30 young people were taken by the rebels and forced to carry the loot. The remainder were pushed into huts, which were then set on fire. A witness showed me the spot where a two-year-old child called Adia Scoria was shot dead as she ran to her mother who was being dragged off. Many others were killed at random. A simple monument has been built by the villagers with the names of 46 of those who died in the attack.

The sheer ferocity of the LRA was so shocking that I believed this was one of those phenomena that would burn itself out. I was also unsure if the stories I was hearing were true. In 2004 I made a short film for Channel 4 News which included an interview with a young girl describing how she was forced to kill, cook and eat her baby brother. My cameraman did the interview when I was not there. We used the clip but was she telling the truth or had she been coached by the army to tell the story? I don’t know.

Similar tales are told in village after village across Acholiland up to the Sudan border of appalling attacks by the LRA and the utter failure of the army to protect the people. Instead, the Ugandan army forced more than 90 per cent of the Acholi population—about two million people—out of their scattered homesteads into “protected” camps. That began in 1996 and lasted until 2009. During those 13 years, the people in these camps lost everything. In the early years, conditions were appalling. Unprecedented mortality levels were recorded. Far more people died in the camps than had been killed by the LRA. The United Nations and charities eventually arrived but food and medical supplies were basic. Meanwhile, Museveni’s army was able to round up the northerners’ cattle, the main source of wealth in the region, and anything else of value, and take them south.

With the northern Ugandans dependent on food aid from the UN’s World Food Programme, farming—on which these communities had relied for centuries—was forgotten. The men felt emasculated and many became addicted to crudely brewed alcohol. The women, who continued to cook and care for the children, were often left unprotected. Children grew up without education, nor could they learn the roles they would normally play in village life. A particular problem was firewood for cooking. Collecting it was girls’ work but if they left the camps to forage, they were often raped by soldiers. HIV infection rates in the camps in the early 2000s were among the highest in the world.

Peace talks began in 2006 but dragged on without resolution. Then the LRA moved west into Congo where it continued to attack civilians and live off the land. An attempt to ambush it by Guatemalan commandoes who were part of a UN peace-keeping mission failed because of a tip-off. Ten UN soldiers were killed. Peace talks went nowhere but Kony and the LRA moved north and are now thought to be in the forests of the Central African Republic. I recently flew over its thick forest. Finding a guerrilla band there must be almost impossible.

Today, Acholiland in northern Uganda is at peace and beginning to flourish again. But earlier this year, as I took in the view from the extraordinary natural rock fortress Patiko, north of Gulu, I was suddenly shocked by something obvious: this land is almost empty of people. The gently undulating plain of grassland and trees looks vast and bright, and the horizon, a spectacular landscape of jagged mountains, seems a hundred miles away. The Nile winds gently through the plain. Samuel Baker, the British explorer, described his arrival there in March 1864: “as lovely a route as could be conceived.”

Looking out across Acholiland, two thoughts struck me. Firstly guerrilla country it is not. Even when the grass is high you can see for miles. So why was the Ugandan army, which was provided with real-time information from American satellites, not able to catch the LRA? Any half-decent army should have surrounded and captured Kony’s forces. And Museveni’s army was highly effective. The war was limited almost entirely to the Acholi district. Other equally exposed communities were left largely unmolested for many years. Why?

Last year General Sejusa Tinyefuza, then head of the army, fell out with Museveni and fled to London. He told me that in 1992 he was about to capture Kony. He had been wounded in a battle and moved to a village called Opit near Gulu. Kony had sent a message that he was willing to surrender and Sejusa had ordered a unit to go and pick him up. But then, claims General Sejusa, he got a telephone call from Museveni telling him to stop the operation. Instead Kony was evacuated to Sudan.

Whether or not this story is true, it is extremely hard to see how the war could have continued for so many years had Museveni not wanted to prolong it. There are clear motives. First, revenge. Museveni may have wanted to punish the Acholi who had formed the backbone of the army that his movement fought against from 1981 to 1986. He was also able to reward his victorious army with a wealth of cattle. Second, the war kept the army busy and out of the capital, Kampala. A fear of coups haunts African presidents, especially military ones. Third, the war with the LRA kept huge resources flowing from aid donors, who naturally sided with the government against the deranged Joseph Kony. The aid for “reconstruction” amounted to billions of dollars and a lot of that aid did not reach its intended destination. Museveni has let his top commanders eat plentifully, as they say in East Africa.

Like many skillful African rulers, Museveni has often flipped the relationship with the donors, making the donor dependent on the recipient. He has made himself the security lynchpin of the region by sending the Ugandan army into regions, such as Somalia, Congo and South Sudan, where western countries are reluctant to deploy their troops. In this way he has made Britain more dependent on him than Uganda is dependent on Britain. If western donors try to pressurise him, he can threaten to pull out or quietly cause chaos by stirring up old feuds in the region. The donors soon fall into line. Despite evidence of corruption and immense theft by ministers, senior army officers and officials, the president remains a frequent visitor to London.

Britain sends just under £100m of aid to Uganda each year, some through the Ugandan government, the rest through the UN agencies or NGOs. But in 2012 aid to the government was stopped because £1.3m went missing. It was repaid in full the following year and payments resumed. Other countries such as Denmark cut aid after Museveni signed into law a harsh anti-homosexuality bill in February. He appears to have judged that either he can forgo the aid or that it will get to Uganda in other ways. Perhaps—again Mugabe-like—he may prefer Ugandans to suffer rather than stamp out corruption in his government. Whatever his strategy, it shows once again that when donors reach to turn off the aid tap, they realise that many African presidents do not care. Uganda has been a showcase for development, but for how much longer?

I was driving from Kampala to Entebbe recently when a phalanx of huge police motorbikes came the other way, driving all other vehicles off the road. Blue lights flashed and sirens wailed as they roared by. Following them was the presidential convoy consisting of 14 heavily armoured trucks and Casspirs (apartheid South Africa’s armoured vehicle designed to quell riots in the townships). Two vehicles were packed with soldiers, one in full combat gear with gas masks over their faces, guns pointing at the crowds at the side of the road. They were followed by an enormous ambulance. I was suddenly struck by a memory from 42 years ago when, on a roundabout on the same road, only a mile from where I stood now, another Ugandan President had suddenly appeared. Idi Amin was driving alone in an open Jeep. He pulled up to let us pass and waved gaily even though he had just denounced the British for trying to kill him. As horrendous as he was, Amin was a braver man than Museveni—and he also knew when to quit. Seven years later, he fled to Saudi Arabia when the Tanzania army invaded Uganda.

If Museveni announces a date for his departure, calls an election, ensures the election is free and fair and accepts the result, he might restore his reputation and be allowed to end his days in peace. Despite the successive tragedies Ugandans have suffered, they have an extraordinary capacity for ending wars as well as starting them. It may not be justice but all the alternative endings are appalling.