Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, or M-7 as his ardent followers like to call him, won another election on Feb. 18 which is confirmation of the old national joke that everything in Uganda changes except the president.
Musevani has been in power since 1986 after seizing power by force and then changing the constitution to eliminate a term limit to the presidency. Some of the opposition media highlighted his endless reign with series of photos of him growing increasingly older and standing alongside six American presidents--Reagan, Carter, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama.
Ordinary Ugandans are not celebrating this, but neither are they grieving or protesting because there seems an inevitability of his dominance, even though the elections have been condemned by the European Union and other Western powers. According to the deputy spokesperson at the U.S. State Department Mark Toner the elections were "deeply inconsistent with international standards and expectations for any democratic process." The elections, according to the State Department, were characterized by "delays in the delivery of voting materials, reports of pre-checked ballots and vote buying, ongoing blockage of social media sites, and excessive use of force by the police."
Most African leaders have kept silent about the elections. Only Botswana has denounced the election in strong terms. But President Museveni is riding the waves of victory. While addressing journalists at his country home in Rwakitura on February 23, he dismissed election observers saying that they are "jokers; I am not a joker."
He dismissed claims of rigging, saying that those who may harbor the intentions of contesting the results in court should not be taken seriously by the people. He wondered why anyone would think that he rigged the elections if he could lose in the capital city, Kampala.
Museveni is the typical African dictator who combines some benevolence with a streak of vengeful brutality which chills his opposition into silence. Like Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Paul Biya in Cameroun, and Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazaville, Museveni has a Messiah complex which drives his unconscionable and insatiable quest for power. All African dictators follow a common pattern, with each attuned to the specific geo-political and economic dynamics of their respective countries.
They first sustain their retention of power through a patron-client relation of reward and punishment. Those who support Museveni have access to jobs and contracts, while his opponents are totally neglected. In 2013 when I went to Mbale and Soroti in the North-East, I could see the neglect of this whole area. The people's crime? They did not vote for Museveni in the previous elections. At a school which we set up to help displaced young men and women, one could see the parameter walls of the abandoned air strip in Soroti. One of my Ugandan colleagues told me that by 2015 the road would be constructed and the airport will be active because Museveni's helicopters will need a safe space to land when he comes for campaign. And it happened just as he said.
These sit-tight dictators also rule by fear, intimidation and violence. A mystique of life and death surrounds these presidents-for-life. They are demi-gods and political demagogues whose words and wishes are commands in their countries. They are also vampires who suck up blood and life from their country and from their opponents. Uganda revolves around Museveni. He gives life and he can also give death; those who adulate him enjoy some portion of the national wealth, and those who loath or oppose him suffer.
A third method of retaining power is the destruction of the apparatus of state that builds civil society. The first victim of a dictator is usually the national constitution; then comes the different arms of government, and then finally the rule of law, civil society and any sense of transparency. I have been visiting and working in Uganda for the last seven years but I have never been able to comprehend its basic government footing. Is it presidential, parliamentary, federal, confederal, welfarist, consensual, royalist? It is all of these, and none of these, depending on the daily whim of Museveni. Making the system so unclear helps to create confusion. It is in such atmosphere that the strong arm tactics of dictators become the only compass to navigate the unchartered waters of statecraft.
Most Ugandans are at least relieved that peace has returned to most part of the country, that the economy is picking up and that there is security in the land and that people can go to school, hospital and to their farms. They are even grateful to Museveni for the part he played in bringing this about. But they also know that it is their own courage and determination that makes life bearable.
Poverty is still very evident in this land and many people are uncertain about the future. Museveni is a friend of the U.S., which provides about $760m (Shs2.62 trillion) in support to Uganda annually with more than half of it ($440m [Shs1.5 trillion]) going to the health sector and military. This props up the dictator.
This is why the US and the international community must decide how it is going to reckon with Museveni after these farcical elections. I don't think that gentle reprimand from a junior staff at the State Department is enough for the old man to change his ways or remedy the fraud which he has contrived so well and for so long.