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Yoweri Museveni: From reformer to autocrat

Philipp Sandner
January 13, 2021

Uganda's head of state, Yoweri Museveni, was once a freedom fighter who decried long-term presidents overstaying their time. Now he has ruled for more than three decades — and wants to continue for at least five more.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni
The ageing Museveni shows no signs of retiring as he seeks yet another term as presidentImage: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Yoweri Museveni has been at Uganda's helm for almost 35 years. Now, the 76-year old is standing for re-election again on Thursday.

The former rebel leader is a veteran state leader, but he still doesn't shy away from using bellicose rhetoric. When Bobi Wine, a popular contender for the presidency, was arrested on the campaign trail in November 2020 — resulting in mass protests and dozens of deaths among Wine's supporters — Museveni spoke like a true autocrat: "They have entered a space we are very familiar with, that of struggle," he said.

Eternal revolutionary

Museveni has always enjoyed making grand and controversial pronouncements. Before he became president, however, the message was much different. Museveni presented himself as an innovator and argued against presidents unwilling to give up office. After many years as a rebel leader, he seized power in 1986, ending a period of bloody civil wars in his homeland. Initially, he brought peace and economic prosperity to Uganda. 

He cemented the one-party system with a new constitution. Ten years later, a constitutional amendment allowed other parties besides the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) to enter the political realm, but at the same time the law abolished the two-term limit on the presidency. Despite the word "resistance" in the name of his party, the former rebel was by then an institution in his own right.

Billboards of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on a street in Kampala
Ugandans appear to have little choice in the presidential electionImage: Sumy Sadurni/AFP/Getty Images

Fighting terrorism

"Since 1971, I have been in fighting mode," Museveni said at the time. "Am I supposed to give up halfway and slink away?" After the introduction of the multiparty system, he solidified his position by projecting clear enemy images: the notorious Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) militia that has been raiding provinces in northern Uganda and neighboring countries since the 1980s, followed by the Somali Al-Shabaab Islamists that the Ugandan army has been fighting against side by side with Kenya and Burundi in Somalia as part of an international mission.

In a world newly polarized after the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York, Museveni's fight against terrorism in the Horn of Africa earned him sympathies. As an elder statesman, he increasingly sat at the negotiating table as a mediator in conflicts, whether in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, South Sudan or Ethiopia.

By appearing as a peacemaker, he tried to distract from the growing problems in his own country, according to Mareike Le Pelley of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. "Many Ugandans do not remember the war years of the 1970s and 1980s. They were born after the civil war ended," she said in 2016, at the time head of the foundation's Uganda office. Young Ugandans, she said back then, were most concerned about the lack of jobs. Discontent is bound to increase, she said.

New opposition

A protester in Uganda at a rally demonstrating for press freedom
Under Museveni's rule press freedom has been increasingly curtailedImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Sibiloni

Her prediction proved correct, not least because the way political and civil liberties are handled these days has lacked the spirit of optimism prevalent in the 1980s. A free press is increasingly being shackled; social media outlets have been banned and incitement against homosexuals has been making the headlines, fueled by a political debate that includes demands to penalize homosexuality. 

When Museveni lifted the age limit for presidents in 2017/18 with another constitutional amendment, paving the way for his election campaign, the tide firmly turned: the younger generation no longer saw Museveni, the only president they had ever known, as unavoidable. Since 2017, they have rallied behind 38-year-old Robert Kyagulanyi, a former pop star better known as Bobi Wine.

Ugandan opposition candidate Bobi Wine surrounded by soldiers
Singer-turned-politician Bobi Wine (center) has been harassed and arrested for challenging Museveni's ruleImage: REUTERS

"If I had met Museveni at my age, he would be my best friend because most of the things I say today are what President Museveni said in the early '80s," Kyagulanyi told DW. It's unfortunate, he added, that the president is now acting just like the rulers who forced him to go underground and fight against them.

Kyagulanyi is not only Museveni's main challenger in the elections — the presidential hopeful has also asked the International Criminal Court to investigate the incumbent president for human rights violations.

This piece has been translated from German.

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