19 October 2017

Uganda: Museveni Will Win but Only Because He Is At His Weakest, Not Strongest

Photo: Edson Kinene/Daily Monitor
Opposition supporters in Rukungiri engage police in running battles.

Few people doubt President Museveni's ability to push through the age limit constitutional amendment to allow him to run again in 2021, and possibly for life.

On the face of it, such an outcome is surprising because the proposal is widely unpopular across the country. An opinion poll by Afrobarometer found unanimous opposition to the removal of the age limit across the country regardless of gender, age, socio-economic status or region. In northern Uganda, the region with the lowest opposition to the proposal, 65 per cent said the clause should be left intact.

So why is the pragmatic money on the clause being removed? Mostly, it is because Mr Museveni is at his weakest, not his strongest.

This is rather counter-intuitive and needs some explaining.

Over the years, Mr Museveni has been able to extend his reign by exchanging tenure with a more desirable future outcome.

In 1989, it was with a promise for a new constitutional review commission to produce a new Constitution. That Constitution imposed restrictions to multiparty political activity, but it introduced a two-term limit that political rivals in and outside the Movement could wait out.

That, of course, didn't happen because in 2003, Mr Museveni then traded in the one-party system, offering a return to multiparty politics in exchange for lifting the term limits out of the Constitution. It was brilliant politics but it required sporadic applications of violence to enforce, with flare-ups every three years (2006, 2009, 2011, 2014, 2017).

The problem with the current proposal is that Mr Museveni has no plausible political offer to make to his rivals.

The most obvious one is to offer a return of the term limits in exchange for the removal of the age limit but not only has this particular card already been played twice before, it is hard to defend alongside the quasi-legal argument that the age-limit clause is discriminatory.

Another option is to make a personal-to-holder argument for a "thank you" term or two for the incumbent while keeping the age limit and returning the term limits but this, too, doesn't sit well with the "liberation" narrative. Revolutionaries aren't servants to be thanked willy-nilly.

To compound matters, a slow down in the economy since around 2011 has reduced the amount of largesse available to win friends and influence people, while slowing down the number of jobs and opportunities for the hordes joining the working class.

The biggest problem here isn't with the middle-class types who have been forced by the economic downturn to downgrade from single-malt whiskies to tummy-bloating lagers in huge, unwieldy bottles, or who now face the ignominy of paying their private school fees by installment. It is with the millions of Ugandans who, according to the latest data from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, slipped back into poverty over the past few years.

Poor people don't fight for what they have never had but they hate to lose whatever comforts they get.

A fellow in the village will walk miles for years without a bicycle without a complaint but try asking a boda boda rider to return to the trials and tribulations of "chest-power" bicycles.

The millions that have fallen back into poverty in recent years or are hanging onto the edge of the cliff by their gnarled fingers are the biggest opponents to the status quo. No wise words will stop their bleeding and promises of growth and prosperity down the road, even legitimate ones, are reminders of a recent future now behind them.

Mr Museveni is smart enough to look at the numbers and it is probably why he has chosen to argue the amendment on legalities (discrimination) rather than on politics (prosperity).

It is also why he has decided to do away with any civility and pretense. Parliament will be stormed, if need be.

Popular musicians carrying populist political messages of protest will be stopped from holding their concerts while their lyrics are checked carefully.

Members of Parliament will be restricted to holding consultations only within their constituencies and even these will be carefully monitored. Cabinet ministers, especially those who might have skeletons in their closets or family members under investigation, will be called upon to proclaim their support for the amendment "in order to survive".

Mr Museveni will pull all stops to get the amendment, even if it means a return to the strong-arm tactics of past years.

After three decades in power, he is more motivated to keep what he has than his opponents who seek to gain what they have never had.

The smart money is on Mr Museveni, because he knows he is at his weakest, not his strongest.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man's freedom fighter.

Twitter: @Kalinaki

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