Zbigniew Brzezinski noted that the politics of fear is an efficient means of control because it “obscures reason and intensifies emotions.” After more than 34 years in power, President Museveni of Uganda—who toppled Milton Obote’s regime in 1986 after years in the bush with the National Resistance Movement (NRM)—understood the politics of fear better than anyone else. If one still had doubts, the death of around 40 people in Kampala at a political rally organized by Bobi Wine, Museveni’s main opponent, in November came to confirm one thing: it is election season in Uganda. On 14 January 2021, Ugandans will go to the polls. Museveni will most likely win re-election, after having scrapped the presidential term and age limits in 2005 and 2017 respectively. However, this piece argues that the intense politics of fear used by his regime can be interpreted as the possible end of post-liberation politics in Uganda.
Post-liberation politics can be understood as the forms of politics emerging in countries where an armed insurgency took power after a long period fighting in the bush. This produces a regime where “memory and memorialization [of the conflict] are inscribed in the day-to-day actions of the new states.” In other words, the liberation struggle becomes the genesis of politics, a framework within which actions are interpreted and understood.
Post-liberation politics have dominated Uganda for 34 years. However, the younger generation of Ugandans does not have any personal memory of the liberation war and did not experience Idi Amin’s cruelty from 1971 to 1979 and Milton Obote’s repression from 1966 to 1971, and again from 1980 to 1985. In 1981, 8 years after taking refuge in Tanzania, and unhappy with the victory of Obote in the presidential elections, Museveni started a guerrilla war in southern Uganda supported by Paul Kagame, the future President of Rwanda. Five years later, Museveni’s movement captured Kampala, sending Obote into exile in Zambia, and initiating the construction of a strong centralized state. The Ugandan President, who centers this moment of liberation in his politics, has however meager support amongst new urban young voters born in the 1990s and early 2000s, who are unimpressed by military parades and bored by liberation commemorations. This lack of support is therefore a challenge for a regime whose credibility is precisely based on the mythology of the liberation struggle and on the heroism of the NRM comrades.
Until 2016, the Ugandan electoral game was relatively straightforward: Museveni would win easily (though displaying brutality when necessary), against his main opponent Kizza Besigye, a former physician who fought with the NRM. Eventually, Besigye became very critical towards the NRM and founded his own party. For Museveni, Besigye was an ideal opponent—he was popular but not too much (averaging 30% in official tallies), just enough to be a useful sparring partner for the President. On top of that, Besigye was quite radical and had never really been in the Europeans and Americans’ good graces, which is crucial as Western powers are looking for a trustworthy ally to stabilize a volatile region (Uganda borders DRC and South Sudan, and has been mediating conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan or Ethiopia) and to counter Chinese soft power in East Africa.
However, in 2017, this comfortable situation ended when a 38-year-old born-in-the-slum rapper known as Bobi Wine won a seemingly insignificant parliamentary election in Kyadondo East. In the years that followed, candidates backed by Bobi Wine’s party have done very well in elections. Wine is now running for President, calling for a “revolutionary election.” He does not have a clear picture on what a future Uganda should look like. He just believes one thing strongly: President Museveni and his friends need to go, in order for Uganda to build a new social contract based on 21st century realities. The success of Wine, and the violence that has been perpetrated against him and his supporters, should therefore be seen as the outcome of a more hidden process: the erosion of the post-liberation state in Uganda.
At first, the Museveni regime seemed lost in front of this outsider, who did not share the same basic understanding of politics as them and who defied their defined framework. Wine is, after all, what Time Magazine called “the most unlikely presidential candidate.” The regime however quickly found a counter-narrative: for those too eager to forget the past, be careful not to lose peace and stability. Museveni knows that Ugandans are wary of any possible outbreak of violence after Idi Amin’s regime and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebellion. His regime is now tapping into this fear, discursively constructing a pernicious polarization. He is building a boundary between ‘us’, the post-liberation state protecting citizens and developing the country, and ‘them’, the group of dangerous young people destabilizing the country and ruining the heritage of the struggle. There are therefore two messages behind the regime’s violence last month. It sent a primary message to Bobi Wine: We are stronger than you; and a secondary message to the Ugandans: Chaos is around the corner.
On social media, Museveni has recently been posting messages showing how developed the country is: a mobile power station in Mbale, a new road in Muyembe, or even the “internet linking Moroto to New York by underground cable” in the Karamoja. On 23 November, he visited Jeressar High School, mentioning that the school was built thanks to “good ideology and discipline.” Bobi Wine is, in contrast, presented as the “enemy of prosperity,” a threat for democracy, and supported by “foreign backers who fear a strong Uganda.” This framing is meant to polarize the debate by bringing the violent past at the forefront in order to instill fear among the population.
For the first time in the last two decades, Besigye is not running for presidential elections. For the first time, an outsider is Museveni’s opponent. For the first time, the opponent does not have any memory of the liberation struggle. As a symbol, Bobi Wine and his supporters are wearing a red military beret, thumbing their nose at the liberation army and leading what they call their own revolution. Therefore, Uganda might be witnessing the decay of post-liberation politics. For now, the regime’s response is to generate fear, essentially. This leads to a more crucial question: How will the NRM party adapt? A first hint might be the 2017 army reshuffle where David Muhoozi, Museveni’s 54 year old son, became the New Chief of Defence Forces. A new generation of Uganda leaders is rising, but whether they continue the post-liberation traditions remains to be seen.