Uganda’s newly elected President, Yoweri Museveni, angry at opposition protests over his extensive reign and the country’s deteriorating economic situation, recently declared the media an ‘enemy of the state.’ Referring specifically to the BBC, Al Jazeera, East African NTV and Uganda’s privately-owned The Daily Monitor, Museveni attacked freedoms of speech and expression, the very basis of a democratic state—likening news outlets’ reporting of recent unrest to ‘treachery’. With this rather disturbing attack, Museveni was simply solidifying his position as Africa’s next dictator, using what have become rather standardized tactics, applied by numerous African ‘strongmen’ before him, to establish authoritarian rule.
Step 1. Eliminate Term Limits
Ensuring no term limits is key to implementing one man rule. It is the very first step to guaranteeing that the man in power retains his seat without legal recourse. Dictators from Egypt’s now defunct Hosni Mubarak to Zimbabwe’s chief enemy of the state, Robert Mugabe, have employed this measure, believing that the constitutional absence of presidential term limits somehow legitimizes and justifies their continuous bid for ‘re-election’. Term limits are in fact a base principle of democracy; the very notion that an individual can retain power for decades is completely inimical to democratic practice. Thus the absence of term limits makes democracy impossible. Thankfully, there are signs that populations across Africa are recognizing this fact—most recently demonstrated by the ousting of Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja, who attempted to alter the country’s constitution by erasing presidential term limits and soon found himself sitting in a jail cell after mass protest and a military coup led to his dethroning.
Unfortunately for Ugandans, the government started its web of constitutional provisions, laws and regulations that entrenched one-man rule almost two decades earlier. It started with a Museveni-led revision of the country’s constitution in 1995 that included eliminating multi-party politics in favor of Museveni’s political party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM). Museveni essentially solidified one-party rule by limiting the power of Ugandans to organize and form political parties (actually by criminalizing such acts) and by ensuring that members of other political parties were removed from government posts. Museveni claimed that the NRM was completely inclusive and that it would represent all Ugandans, thereby eliminating the need for a multi-party system. Exploiting Ugandan’s sense of unity, Museveni, like other dictators before him, claimed that the multi-party system fostered sectarianism and therefore was ‘dangerous’. The result was the absolute, unopposed control of all government by the NRM; supplemented a constitutional amendment that required the country’s leader to be member of the NRM.
It was shortly before the end of Museveni’s second term, which was set to lapse in 2006, that he initiated his push to remove presidential term limits. The 1995 constitution limited presidents to two 5-year terms; however, this would mean an end to Museveni’s rule, which he could not allow. With his party already the dominant force within Parliament, Museveni found it easy to summon the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution once again. Furthermore, the constitution had already been amended a total of 119 times by then; in addition, the document’s length was unparalleled, reflecting the rather confused process in which it was created and then revised. Parliamentary corruption was the final factor in determining Museveni’s success in passing the amendment. It was reported that over 70% of MPs openly took bribes in exchange for their vote. The final parliamentary vote was 220 to 53 in favor of eliminating term limits.
Step 2. Delegitimize and Incapacitate the Opposition
Removing presidential term limits, although important to establishing dictatorial rule, only afford the incumbent the opportunity to win the presidential seat once again. A wider campaign to incapacitate any opposition or challenge to re-election is required in order to guarantee victory. As mentioned under Step 1, Museveni devised a strategy that ensured NRM’s dominance within the government. In fact, Museveni managed to alter the constitution to essentially outlaw the formation of political parties. Ironically, the provision contradicts some of the primary tenets of the constitution: freedom of speech, expression and assembly. Several attempts at legally challenging the constitutionality of many of these offensive provisions and subsequent bills through Uganda’s courts sadly failed.
Unfortunately, the ‘war on terror’ gave new license to dictatorial governments to crackdown on any opposition groups thought to be challenging the established order. Museveni, like several other tyrannical African and Middle Eastern leaders, used the pretense of terrorism to dismantle and arrest any persons or groups who threatened their rule. Uganda’s 2002 Anti-terrorism Act, which broadly defined terrorist activity and any material or intellectual support for such activity, veritably permitted the arrest and possible execution of any persons accused of attempting to cause unrest. The bill also gave Uganda’s security establishment sweeping powers of surveillance and monitoring of citizens, civil society and political groups, as well as the media. The Act has essentially prevented any meaningful attempt at challenging Museveni’s reign.
That same year, the Ugandan parliament passed the 2002 Political Parties and Organizations Act, which attempted to set very strict conditions under which political parties could register. Although the act legitimized the formation of political parties, it also placed heavy restrictions on them, basically depriving them of the freedom to function. In a rare case of judicial independence, sections of the act that restrained party function were deemed unconstitutional by Uganda’s high court. The petitioners argued that the act would transform Uganda into a de jure one-party state, solidifying NRM’s rule. This led to the lifting of the ban on political parties in 2005 (which coincided with the removal of presidential term limits).
Since the lifting of the ban, several small opposition political parties have emerged; however, their influence is minimal. In addition, the chief opposition party to the NRM, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), is led by Kizza Besigye, a close former ally of Museveni. FDC’s leadership is comprised mostly of disenchanted NRM members, frustrated over Museveni’s continued rule and their inability to seize the presidential seat. Besigye himself is perceived by many as being no better than Museveni, using the façade of democratic reform to ascend to the presidency. Nevertheless, Besigye, along with other stalwart FDC members, have suffered numerous arrests and beatings, in pursuit of their goals. In addition, it should be noted that there are several highly respected Ugandan civil society leaders who are members of the FDC and whose democratic motivations are not questioned.
Museveni is clearly threatened by the FDC’s growing popularity. Over the past three elections, Besigye’s base has increased; in the last election, held in February 2011, Besigye obtained 26% of the vote to Museveni’s 68%. The FDC claimed widespread electoral fraud in the form of ballot-box stuffing and intimidation, and attempted to stage peaceful mass protests within the capital (protests that eventually focused on the country’s deteriorating economic crisis); however the protests were met swiftly with violent anti-rioting tactics from security forces, acting on the orders of Museveni, who had vowed to put a stop to any street protests, warning against Egyptian-style protests in Uganda (and by doing so, manifestly validating that he is indeed a dictator of the Mubarak sort).
After numerous brutal crackdowns that included spraying pink dye onto anyone engaged in the peaceful ‘Walk to Work’ campaign (a tactic used by the South African apartheid regime against black South Africans to later identify and arrest protestors), Besigye was beaten and arrested and now stands trial for ‘inciting violence, rioting after proclamation and unlawful assembly’—the latter of which seems an impossibility within a true democracy. But Museveni’s attack against any opposition did not end there. Museveni recently convened a commission to discuss the possibility of once again amending the constitution to ensure that any person arrested for protesting be denied the opportunity for bail (and be held for up to six months). He also desires the inclusion of a provision that would deem the act of protesting a form of ‘economic sabotage,’ claiming that even peaceful protests threaten the economic stability of the country. Museveni’s proposals continue to be hotly contested by various government, civil society and university entities, even his own supporters. It remains to be seen whether he can use his corrupt influence and heavy-handedness to force the provisions through.
Step 3. Debilitate and Control the Media
In addition to the new provisions attacking the basic rights to assembly and due process under the law, Museveni’s proposal has also threatened Uganda’s independent media, which is considered one of the few mediums left for Ugandans to openly discuss and debate State affairs—as they’ve found themselves increasingly disenfranchised from their own government. Museveni, obviously unhappy with any critical reporting of his rule, has launched a targeted attack against Ugandan media, declaring its reporting to be “unbalanced” and even “treacherous.” In what was very violent and yet typical language for him, Museveni dubbed specific media outlets as “enemies of Uganda’s recovery,” and vowed to treat them as such. Museveni warned against what he called ‘malicious’ and ‘irresponsible’ reporting by some of Uganda’s major media outlets.
The coupling of these accusations with the announcement of the proposed constitutional amendment that essentially deems any protest a threat to the State is concerning, particularly since any reporting that criticizes the regime’s actions could be interpreted as a form of ‘protest’. In addition, people are undoubtedly inspired to action over what they read or hear in the news. Under the new laws, any action on the part of individuals or groups that is viewed by the government as ‘inciting violence’ would be considered criminal. Could the media therefore be held liable for ‘inciting violence,’ for simply reporting the facts or being critical of Museveni and his government’s actions?
In order to solidify authoritarian rule, it is essential for Museveni to completely debilitate all government and public outlets of independent thought and discussion. To a dictator, the media should be just another tool to enforce his agenda and dictate his country’s narrative. The total control of all major media, although increasingly difficult to achieve in this day and age with the advent of Internet reporting and social networking, is a tactic applied successfully by numerous African strong men nonetheless. In fact, Museveni’s long-time crony, Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, has recently employed such a strategy to stymie any critique of his government, using the pretense of ‘inciting ethnic hostility’ to arrest reporters and editors and to suspend and remove media licenses. Museveni has often criticized Uganda’s major independent media outlets of their reporting; his regime has also gone so far as to periodically shut down newspapers and radio stations and to detain editors and reporters. Museveni’s recent proclamations are therefore a troubling indicator of an escalation in his campaign against independent media (and essentially truth and fact).
Step 4. Secure Loyalty of Security Forces/Military Leadership
Ugandans do not have an army. Museveni has an army. That is the sentiment of most Ugandans, and it is mostly true. Museveni led the resistance against the former Ugandan regime and is hailed as a national hero: the man who brought stability to what seemed like a never-ending civil conflict that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. In what sounded more like a threat than a promise, Museveni has said himself, “I brought you stability. The other candidates can't keep you as safe [as] I can, therefore vote for me.” In addition, during the 1996 and 2001 elections, Ugandans were subjected to rather threatening and frightening TV and radio advertisements that warned of the potential of violence if Museveni was not re-elected.
Museveni recognizes that his support base is his military, which throughout the years has been strategically filled with various ethnic clans, whom he managed to integrate by exploiting fears and promising strategic ends. In addition, throughout the past two decades, whenever Museveni needed to replenish his ranks, he often recruited young and impressionable men who held him in awe; men who view Museveni as some messiah. Many of these soldiers are now major officers within Museveni’s army and their allegiance is vehement. In fact, it was reported in 2010 that during both the 1996 and 2001 presidential elections, the country’s top military leaders had conspired to overthrow the democratically-elected government if an opposition candidate had won over Museveni. Furthermore, Ugandan news media reported that just this past election, signs of an intended coup by Museveni were quite obvious, as large contingents of military police and troops in full battle camouflage were positioned sometimes clandestinely, sometimes openly, across the country. Indeed most Ugandans have come to accept the notion that Museveni has no intention of giving up power, even if he undisputedly loses an election.
Museveni’s unilateral command of the military therefore provides him with impressive force behind his rule. Maintaining the presence and loyalty of such a force is key to enforcing authoritarian rule. As long as Museveni retains such a devoted force, the opposition, as well as average Ugandans, will have extreme difficulty voicing and/or orchestrating any significant challenge to the despot’s incessant reign.
Africa is littered with dictatorships from Zimbabwe’s Mugabe to Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir to the continued reign of the tyrannical Bongo family in Gabon to Paul Biya of Cameroon. There are over 54 sovereign states in Africa, and almost all have been subject to some form of dictatorial rule post-independence. Currently, over 27 African states are run by dictators; dictators-in-the-making (having abolished term limits); coup leaders; transitional military regimes; and undemocratic ‘power-sharing’ governments. That means an estimated 44% of Africa’s total population lives under an undemocratic regime. Many of these dictatorial regimes have employed the same tactics listed above to solidify their power. As if straight from a playbook, this formulaic strategy has been employed time and time again in several countries so that strong men, those like Museveni, can remain in power for the benefit of themselves and not their people. Recognizing the above tactics is important however to understanding and countering these attempts at establishing authoritarian rule and to reversing the rising tide of the new era of African dictatorship.