Tunisia, Egypt, Uganda?

Campaign Posters in Kampala. Photo by Robert P. Baird
Historians are generally quick and correct to insist that we jump to easy political analogies at our peril. One of the first lessons of historiography is that grand generalizations are more apt to flatter an author’s own sympathies than to capture a disinterested abstraction of events. Did Tunisia, Wikileaks, Facebook, or Twitter contribute to the Egyptian uprising? Possibly, but who would have the hubris to argue that any of these mattered more than local conditions: the rigged elections in December that gave the ruling National Democratic Party 93 percent of parliamentary seats, the bombings in Alexandria that left twenty-one Coptic Christians dead, the thirty years of daily personalized humiliation at the hands of a brutal police state.

And yet it seems possible to respect the importance of historical specificity while also acknowledging that popular energies can, and do, spread. Not for nothing is the rhetoric of revolution and counter-revolution shot through with the metaphors of fever, contagion, and conflagration. When yesterday’s unthinkable prospect becomes today’s historical fact, we are reminded that possibility can be more than a speculative concept. The events in Tunisia or Egypt make us feel political possibility, they make us experience it as an emotion, a passion no less infectious than anger or joy.

That feeling of possibility has already raised new questions for Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni, who celebrated 25 years of continuous rule last Wednesday and is widely expected to claim victory in the presidential elections scheduled for February 18. When the question of Tunisia’s relevance for Uganda was put to him directly, Museveni shocked no one by arguing that Uganda’s situation is entirely different than the one that led to the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali: “I would not want you to confuse longevity with performance…social conditions in Tunisia are different to those in Uganda which are improving.”

Others, of course, disagree. Andrew Mwenda and Charles Onyango-Obbo, two respected political commentators here, have both suggested that Museveni has already constructed the same kind of economic-demographic trap that brought down Ben Ali. They argue that too many educated youth, not enough jobs, and an environment of thoroughgoing corruption have set the stage for a revolutionary aggregate of dissatisfaction. In this week's Independent (not yet online) Mwenda notes that only 150,000 of the 400,000 Ugandans who graduate from tertiary educational institutions each year are likely to find jobs, and suggests that

these unemployed graduates are not going to sit around and passively watch the kinds of institutionalised corruption, incompetence, and nepotism that we see in Uganda. They will begin to question the existing political order.

Jobs in Dubai. Photo by Robert P. Baird. Kizza Besigye, Museveni’s main challenger and the head of Inter Party Cooperation (IPC), a four-party opposition coalition, echoed the latter point in an interview with Reuters yesterday: “As long as there is repression that is sustained for a long time, that pent up anger builds and at some point explodes. The ground is certainly set for that kind of public expression.”

Whatever one expects for the aftermath of the elections, nobody in Uganda seriously doubts that Museveni will fail to claim victory. The president's National Resistance Movement (NRM) party has been credibly accused of bribing everyone from opposition politicians to religious leaders to the drivers of the motorcycle taxis known as boda-bodas. (Opposition parties have been accused of buying votes, but at nowhere near the levels of the NRM.) Election rigging by Museveni’s NRM is also widely expected. In 2009 the Ugandan Supreme Court found that there was “significant violation of the electoral system in all forms and manner” in both the 2001 and 2006 elections, and that “most of the violations and irregularities are perpetrated by and/or for the benefit of the incumbents in power.” And despite pressure from opposition parties and the U.S., Museveni has refused to appoint a non-partisan Electoral Commission to guarantee fair conduct of the election.

Of course, to say that Museveni won’t lose the upcoming election is not to say that he shouldn’t. He deserves much credit for rebuilding Uganda after the terror of Idi Amin’s eight-year regime and the less known but no less bloody second term of Milton Obote. The broad-based government that Museveni established in 1986 salvaged Uganda’s economy and preserved its unity at a time when, as Victoria Brittain put it, “there was no country in Africa closer to disintegration.”

But while Museveni has probably done less bad and more good for Uganda than Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarak did for their respective countries, the list of grievances against him and his National Resistance Movement continues to grow by the year. Corruption is the most common complaint and affects Ugandans at every level of society. (Uganda ranked 130th out of 180 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2009.) A long military campaign against the Lord’s Resistance Army in the north of the country led to the forced internment of 1.8 million Ugandans in internal displacement camps whose conditions have been described by some as nearly genocidal.

And while press, political, and civil restrictions in Uganda are nowhere near the police-state levels of Tunisia and Egypt, neither are they minor. Opposition journalists critical of the president have been regularly hauled into court on sedition charges, and a 2009 U.S. embassy cable published by Wikileaks cited “numerous, credible allegations of unlawful detention and torture by the Joint Ant-Terrorism Taskforce (JATT), the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI), the police’s Rapid Response Unit (RRU), and other para-military outfits.”

Boda-boda. Photo by Robert P. Baird. Like his North African colleagues Museveni has been able to maintain his autocracy with the help of extended American favor. He earned his reputation as a darling of the West when he adopted a series of strict neoliberal monetary policies in the late 1980s, but he proved even more important to U.S. interests as a regional military stalwart. The war against the LRA was in many ways a proxy war with Sudan, and Mahmood Mamdani has argued that “Uganda was simply a frontline state in the [American] war on terror—that frontline being the border between Uganda and Sudan.” (The 2009 embassy cable echoed this judgment, calling Uganda “one of our primary partners in the fight against terrorism.”)

In later years that frontline would move to Somalia, where Uganda supplied more than half of the troops that constitute AMISOM, the African Union peacekeeping mission. AMISOM’s main enemy is the Shebaab, the al Qaeda-affiliated group that was responsible for the July 2010 bombings that killed 74 people in Kampala. Last fall Time quoted James Tumisiime, a Ugandan journalist, who plausibly suggested that “The U.S. is depending on Uganda to play a role in Somalia to rein in extremist forces, and in light of the attacks, the U.S. is probably beginning to think they're better off with a stable, functioning style of leadership in Uganda—someone who's not necessarily a democrat but a guy in control—rather than support change for democracy's sake.” (Uganda’s involvement in Somalia got more complicated recently after it was revealed that Museveni’s half brother was working with Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, to train a private mercenary force to fight the Shabaab without AU approval.)

If the cases of Tunisia and Egypt prove any general rule, it may be that the U.S. is no longer interested or able to protect its autocratic client states at any cost. The Ugandans I’ve spoken to have confessed themselves more resigned than angry at the thought of Museveni’s inevitable reelection, and the prospect of a country-wide popular uprising seems, for the moment, very unlikely. But as Steve Randy Waldman wrote on Twitter yesterday, “Egypt is eroding the inevitability of the status quo, there and everywhere.” Museveni has to be wondering whether and how the U.S. will respond if Besigye’s warning proves prescient and Ugandans decide they're ready for a change. He—and we—will know soon enough.