Will Uganda become an open dictatorship in 2013?
On December 12, 2012, President Yoweri Museveni was in Russia and met with President Vladimir Putin at the Novo Ogaryovo, the official residence.
It was an interesting meeting because, although President Museveni has been in power for 26 years, it was the first time he was making an official visit to Russia.
During the visit, Museveni was obviously determined to create a great impression which started by announcing that he was travelling there in three capacities; as President of Uganda, as head of COMESA, and as chair of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR).
Museveni told Putin that he was in Russia because Moscow is the "support centre of freedom".
"I am happy to be here because of the support that the USSR gave to our freedom fighters. Muslims go to Mecca, freedom fighters consider Moscow as support centre for freedom struggles," Museveni said according to a statement issued by his press team.
The next day, on December 13, 2012, President Museveni was back in Uganda and in an address to Parliament, warned MPs against attempting to frustrate his oil ventures.
Museveni told Parliament that he was there to "counter the nefarious and mendacious campaign of the foreign interests, using NGOs and some Members of Parliament, to try and cripple or disorient the development of the oil sector".
"The maligning by internal saboteurs working on behalf of external parasitic interests must be stopped by legal, political and media actions by the NRM and Government leaders."
Exactly one day after this address, and two days after Museveni's meeting with Putin, on December 14, Cerinah Arioru Nebanda, the youthful Woman MP of Buteleja District, died in Kampala under unclear circumstances that have sparked speculation of murder. She was an outspoken critic of Museveni on oil and other issues. So how are these events related?
President Museveni has ruled Uganda for the last 26 years largely through a combination of oppressive tactics, financially rewarding loyalism, and dangling offers of public goods likes roads, schools, and hospitals to constituencies he courts.
In his December 13 address to parliament, for example, Museveni listed over 2,000 kms of roads that were being worked in all parts of the country. The road through Butaleja was not on the list.
But as blood boiled over the death of Nebanda two weeks later, Museveni responded by promising in the New Year message on December 31, 2012 to tarmack the road from Nabumali-Butaleja-Namutumba.
Museveni's ability to deliver on this promise and keep the pork-barrel brimming with largess will be drastically curtailed by a frail economy and with donor cuts biting. In that case, Ugandans will see the more oppressive side of the president.
The appearance of Museveni's darker side is in turn likely to lead to louder noises against him, even within his own party in a vicious cycle of oppression more dissents and yet more oppression.
In 2013 therefore, it appears, President Yoweri Museveni will have to deal with increased dissent within his party. That is what the politics of 2012 show. How Museveni behaves, however, will depend on whether or not he has oil money.
Museveni, according to most analysts, will have to choose his direction in 2013 from three alternatives or a combination of them.
Unlike in the past when his regime was strong and looked invincible, Museveni can no longer avoid his government becoming more repressive if it cannot appease discontent with delivery of public goods.
If he perceives the rebellion against him to be either weak or moderately strong, then his pursuit of oil money to increase his ability to supply public goods could postpone his regime's demise.
During the meeting with Putin, Museveni had sought to get Russia interested in supporting Uganda's infrastructure, energy, military, and personnel training. Nothing of real significance was agreed according to sources familiar with the discussions.
Significantly, Russia is Museveni's latest stop in the hunt for partners in Uganda's oil sector. Although the Irish-firm Tullow, CNOOC of China and Total SA of France are the declared partners in Uganda's oil, as early as the mid-2009 when he visited Iran, Museveni signaled that he is on the lookout for other options.
This hunt for alternative partners has been more urgent recently for two reasons; first because Tullow and company have signaled their reluctance to support Museveni's avowed position to build a refinery and not export crude. Secondly, the tough global and local economic times, compounded by recent donor aid cuts over rampant corruption, have reduced Museveni's ability to procure the support of the elite using financial muscle. Museveni needs oil money urgently.
If he does not get it, then Museveni will become more openly repressive.
Issues in 2013
Relationship between Parliament and Executive
Donor aid cuts
The tendency for Africa regimes to become repressive amidst financial hardships has been studied by scholars like Paul Collier. They have shown, however, that the more repressive a regime becomes the more opposition to it becomes motivated.
In the same way, 2013 has started with a group of MPs attempting to sign a petition to compel the Speaker to recall parliament to debate President Museveni's alleged "attack" on parliament. They are protesting against the harassment of Speaker Kadaga, and the arrest of MPs Chris Baryomunsi and Mohammad Nsereko over utterance they made after Nebanda's death.
This is the second time in Museveni's regime that parliament is in panic over alleged attempts to poison its members.
In 2007, parliament was thrown into panic and then-Speaker Edward Kiwanuka Ssekandi had to intervene when there was an attempt to poison MPs Jack Sabiti and Mugisha Muntu at parliament. Reports at the time claimed the would-be assassin had balked because then-MP Ben Wacha, who was not targeted, joined the duo.
President Museveni likes to trumpet his government's provision of public goods; from free Universal Primary and secondary education, building hospitals, to electricity dams, and roads.
However, if the opposition against him continues to gather momentum, then it becomes almost inevitable that he will increase his investment in the means of repression; security agencies, tear gas, jails, safe houses, and torture. This is the tendency we saw in the speeches after he returned empty-handed from Russia.
On December 24, when Museveni called a press conference to explain government's position on MP Nebanda's death, he again spoke tough against the MPs.
"There is a group of indisciplined MPs who have made it a habit to disturb the peace of Uganda," he said, "When we call you big names like Honourable and you think you are big, we shall fight you like we did to Amin, but using legal means."
He called them liars working for foreign interests and personal gain without a care about the country.
He accused them of blocking Bujagali, uttering forged documents to Parliament alleging that Prime Minister AmamaMbabazi, Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa, and Interior Minister Hilary Onek had taken bribes from oil firms, usurped the role of police in investigating the cause of Nebanda's death, and blocked the government representative at the burial, Third Deputy Prime Minister, Moses Ali from addressing the mourners.
In his New Year message, Museveni continued with the threats to the political elite and the media who he accused of "indiscipline, endless lies, and sabotage."
"Firm steps will be taken to end this indiscipline," he said.
"The pessimism and misinformation spread by liars is totally false and should be rejected," he said, "The Radio and TV stations that peddle these lies should be closed if they are not prepared to fulfill their mandate of entertaining, informing truthfully and educating truthfully."
Inflation down 4.9%
Exports down 50%
GDP growth up to 5%
Donor aid cut US$ 200 Million
The last lap
President Museveni likes to present the contest between him and parliament as one between the defenders of the nation, led by him, and the sell-outs, led by the Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga.
The reality, however, is that the contest is a fight for positions in a post-Museveni regime.
That is why the renegade MPs are unlikely to quit the President's party. They recognise it as the strongest contender to the leadership of a post-Museveni and want to be in it. However, they also want to be recognised as leaders within NRM. This explains the tendency to assert themselves among the younger MPs without political pedigree like Theodore Sekikubo, Chris Baryomunsi, and some from the old order like Speaker Kadaga and AmamaMbabazi who covet a post-Museveni role.
Former Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi equally appeared invincible for 24 years from 1978 to 2002. He arranged elections whose outcomes were preordained through rigging. Chinks started appearing in his armor when biting donor aid cuts forced him to accept multipartyism. The 40-year rule of KANU ended when divisions within its ranks led some of its top leaders to quit and for the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) that kicked out Moi.
The bulk of Museveni's men and women such as Eriya Kategaya, Henry Kajura, Moses Ali, Tarsis Kabwegyere, Ephraim Kamuntu, Tress Bucanayandi, Ruhakana Rugunda and others however recognise that this is the final lap and are anxious not to bury themselves in the mud of today's battles.
Museveni has a cabinet of 31 but in reality about 30% of the old timers are mere place markers.
In spite of the rosy economic outlook projected by the government statisticians, the current power struggles are taking place amidst increasing poverty and income disparity between the rich and the poor. The situation is likely to get worse in 2013 if Museveni does not get oil money and donors withhold aid and budget support.
Uganda's exports to Europe, which is the country top export destination, have dropped by more than 50%.
The Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) has so far recorded a deficit of about Shs 103 billion or 4% off its Shs 2.7 trillion target for the first two quarters of the 2012/13 financial year, which ends in June 2013. Not bad in other situations but the URA is known for persistently surpassing targets.
Ugandans may be unable to challenge President Museveni's assertion in his New Year message that inflation, which was 30% last year is now 4.9% and that the annual rate of growth which was 3.4%, will climb back to 5% and, eventually, go back to 7%.
But they can challenge his assertion that commodity prices have gone down and that the price of a litre of petrol has dropped from Shs 3,900 to Shs 3,700.
Amid this uncertain situation, URA has been tasked to find the money. Its earlier attempt to use the lucrative real estate market to tax the rich was fought vociferously by the powerful elite until it was abandoned. It is unclear where URA will turn. If it makes any missteps, the option of rebellion against the government in any form and the clamor for change could grow and get even more entrenched.
The relationship between poverty, repression, and rebellion has been documented by scholars like Prof. Paul Collier. In his book, 'Democracy, Development, and Conflict', Collier argues that rebellion is likely to occur when widespread poverty persists.
He says there are fewer rebellions in rich countries because above a certain income threshold, proneness to political violence ceases to be an option.
According to this line of argument, Museveni has one final optional, which for Uganda could prove to be worse than even increased repression. This option depends on whether Museveni recognises that he has lost the battle and goes into desperate attempts to siphon off resources for him and his inner clique as they await the final downfall.