Uganda has long suffered from internal tensions and has repeatedly been subject to government overthrows, culminating in the seizure of power and self-proclamation of Yoweri Museveni in 1986.
Indicated in the 1990s by US President Bill Clinton as the exponent of a new, more pragmatic and reliable leadership, coming from the so-called ‘African Renaissance’, Museveni has increased his power and influence over the years.
From 1986 to today
The history of the Ugandan state is closely linked to the politics and life of Museveni, who has ruled undisturbed for over thirty years. The current Ugandan leader had fought in the National Liberation Army against the various dictators of the time. In 1985 a new coup led by Tito Okello led to the immediate suspension of the constitution.
In the meantime, the opponents of Okello’s government organized themselves in the National Resistance Army (NRA), first gaining the southwestern part of the country and then gradually taking control of the entire nation.
The capital Kampala was conquered on January 25, 1986. In the same year, the commander of the NRA, Yoweri Museveni, at the head of the National Resistance Movement (NRM), was proclaimed president of the republic. At the same time, the troops loyal to Okello continued the civil war throughout 1987.
In 1988 indirect elections were held for the National Resistance Council (NRC), a new governing body created by Museveni; the slow and difficult normalization process led to the election of a constituent assembly in March 1994, despite the persistence of ethnic groups conflicts. The new constitution, passed in 1995, postponed the introduction of multiparty rule for five years.
Museveni, having won the presidential elections of 1996 – and reconfirmed in the following ones of 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2016, 2021 – with a strong majority, favoured the development of the country with a liberalist orientation which contrasted with the authoritarian nature of the political regime.
The presidential elections of 1996 were the first democratic elections in the history of Uganda. During his first term of office, from 1996 to 2001, Museveni managed to gain national and international respect for having improved the economic conditions of citizens and for having stabilized a country that could be defined as “chaotic”.
He carried out an effective campaign against AIDS and worked to improve the condition of women, appointing a woman as his vice-president. Starting from his second term, however, his presidency took a repressive and authoritarian turn. In 2005 Museveni passed a law abolishing the maximum number of mandates for the office of President of the Republic, allowing him to run for life potentially.
To date, the institutional form and quality of Ugandan democracy are deeply affected by the country’s troubled history. Until 2006, Museveni banned the formation of opposition political parties, arguing that competition between parties would encourage the spread of ethnic tensions.
In general, post-independence Uganda was characterized by a sequence of conflicts, both within the government and between the north and the south of the country, which claimed opposing rights and interests.
In 2006, mainly due to pressure from international donors, a new electoral law was passed, making it possible to form opposition parties. The awareness of opposition parties led during 2015 to the creation of the Democratic Alliance (TDA), a heterogeneous grouping of political formations united by a common opposition to the NRM. TDA’s leading figures include Kizza Besigye, a longtime opponent of Museveni, and Amama Mbabazi, former NRM secretary-general, who left the party after a failed attempt to get elected its leader.
In 2016 Yoweri Museveni, won the presidential election for the umpteenth time. The Ugandan electoral commission said Museveni got 60.75 percent of the vote, while the candidate who came second, Kizza Besigye, stopped at 35 percent. Several opposition figures, including Besigye himself, have accused Museveni of electoral fraud and called on the international community not to recognize Museveni’s victory as regular.
In 2021, it is no surprise that opposition leader Bobi Wine has rejected the presidential election results in which President Yoweri Museveni won. Under house arrest since the election, he continues to mobilize the streets in defiance of the regime: “The revolution continues, and nothing will stop the revolution of the people. The regime is desperately trying to close this chapter and pretend that everyone has moved on. But I tell them today: this is only the beginning. We are removing a dictator from power,” he said on social networks a week after the presidential election.
According to Bobi Wine – whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi – the first round of the January 14 presidential election was characterized by numerous irregularities: ballot box stuffing, intimidation, and observers’ arrests National Unity Platform (NUP), his party.
It is a love of interest between Yoweri Museveni and Westerners, especially Anglo-Saxons, that goes back to the late 1980s. Freshly arrived in power in 1986, following a civil war that devastated Uganda, Marxist Museveni discovered capitalist leanings and moved closer to the United States and Great Britain, becoming at the same time the pillar of the Anglo-American strategy in Central and East Africa.
When, in the aftermath of the Cold War, the US decided to reshape the geopolitical map of Central Africa by neutralizing France and its French-speaking supporters in the Great Lakes region, they appealed to him. Following the example of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the Ugandan President is an essential ally of Great Britain and the United States in their desire to overthrow the Islamist regime in Sudan, supported by Washington’s great displeasure with Paris.
Although political freedom, association, and freedom of expression are constitutionally guaranteed, the country seems to be heading towards substantial authoritarianism. At the very least, it seems that the NRM now has a dominant position in the Ugandan electoral competition, making it almost impossible to organize a credible and competitive opposition.
Sources of instability
There are two main sources of instability in the region. On the one hand, Uganda borders some of the states that, for decades now, have been going through – or have gone through – situations of very violent civil conflict such as Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.
In particular, Uganda has been directly involved in the Rwandan events of the nineties: the head of military intelligence of the Ugandan army, Paul Kagame, of Tutsi ethnicity, who fled to Uganda in 1960, was the military and political leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front that in 1994 left Uganda to stop the genocide in progress and then assumed the role of president, which he still holds today.
In 1998, Uganda invaded the Democratic Republic of Congo through a military operation launched in concert with Rwanda. Although the initial objective was to stem the incursions of Hutu militias that had taken refuge in Congo after the genocide, the clash soon took on broader contours and included the possibility of weakening and controlling the large regional neighbour.
The Second Congo War soon ruined relations between Uganda and Rwanda, which accused each other of giving refuge to dissidents and destabilizers until 2006, the year in which a privileged relationship between Kampala and Kigali was resumed.
At a regional level, relations with Sudan have always been complicated by the mutual support that Uganda and Sudan have given to rebel movements. In recent years, the proclamation of independence of South Sudan has changed the geopolitical balance of the area, modifying relations between the new state, Uganda and Sudan. One of the main sources of instability between Sudan and Uganda is the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony.
On the other hand, relations with Tanzania and Kenya are much more stable and consolidated: in January 2005, within the East African Community (EAC), the agreement establishing a customs union involving the three countries came into force. The agreement, extended to Rwanda and Burundi, led in 2010 to the creation of the EAC common market.
The second source of instability is represented by the terrorist threat that has recently affected Uganda due to its involvement in the AMISON mission (African Union Mission in Somalia) against the Islamist group al-Shabaab.
During the World Cup final, the terrorist attack in Kampala in July 2010 caused 64 deaths and 71 injured. The Somali group itself claimed the explosion. In October 2013, US intelligence sources warned Kampala of the risk of another terrorist attack; the alert, renewed during 2014 and 2015, would still not appear to have been lifted.
The situation in the north of the country deserves a separate discussion. For 20 years, northern Uganda has been at the center of Africa’s most terrible civil wars, caused by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group. The Guerrilla warfare is intertwined with events in Sudan.
In fact, until 2002, the LRA enjoyed the support of the Khartoum government in an anti-Ugandan function. Therefore, intervening in the Ugandan conflict also means affecting that of Sudan. Until 2002 Sudan was the base and sponsor of the rebels. In any case, it is strange that one of the strongest armies on the continent, which invaded former Zaire to take possession of its raw materials, is not able to get the better of the guerrillas.
According to some, the government has no intention of defeating militiamen who target ethnic groups traditionally hostile to it. However, it should be noted in recent times the intention of the Ugandan army to intervene in South Sudan, where the guerrilla camps are located.
Military operations, however, have not brought security to the area, which continues to be put to the sword by the rebels. Therefore, the government has chosen the military option to defeat the guerrillas, but this is doubtful given the failures achieved so far.
On October 6, 2005, the International Criminal Court accused the leaders of the LRA of crimes against humanity, for having perpetrated rape, violence, murder, child abuse, use of child soldiers, mutilation. It is believed that Joseph Kony has kidnapped 20,000 children to keep them as sex slaves or soldiers of the rebel leaders.
On November 12, 2006, the head of the LRA met with a UN emissary and declared that he had not kidnapped children. Despite this, at the end of 2008, as the Kivu conflict resurfaced, the Lord’s Resistance Army allied itself with Laurent Nkunda’s rebels and, crossing the border, began to perpetuate the same violence and raids against the civilian population around Goma. The civil war in Uganda since 1987 has led to the death of 20,000 people.
The succession of wars, authoritarian policies and decades of social problems, such as AIDS and land redistribution, has deeply marked the history of this country, which nevertheless remains a potential leader in the region. It will take time and patience for Uganda to overcome internal and external tensions.