Sunday, 7 February 2016

Does Museveni need militias to retain power in 2016?

Although the armed forces and police are firmly in Museveni`s control and have always served him loyally, he seems unsatisfied. The police have been massively recruiting and training unemployed youth called ‘crime preventers.’ But opposition parties have repeatedly complained that this militia is meant to harass them and bolster the ruling party ahead of the February 2016 elections.There was no free and fair election in Amudat. What was in Amudat was National Rigging Movement.” This quote, from an aggrieved member of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) from the Amudat district in northern Uganda, reflects the frustration of many NRM members as they participated in the party`s primaries which were held on 27 October 2015.[1] These elections were marred by intense violence and rigging accusations. Since NRM remains in power, the institution managed to have the police force deployed and further had them either reinforced or replaced by the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF). In Uganda, it seems, the incumbency advantage is boundless.

Predictably, the election chaos was blamed on the opposition, especially former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi. According to Tamale Mirundi, presidential advisor on the media, such turbulent elections were an extension of the infighting and friction initiated by the former prime minister within the NRM.[2] The friction started when Mbabazi, former Secretary General of the ruling party and a long time ally of President Museveni, began mobilizing support silently within the ruling NRM with the intention of seeking nomination as a presidential flag-bearer for the 2016 general election. Mbabazi and Museveni fell out following a series of accusations that Mbabazi was “misusing party structures and involving himself in pre-mobilization activities for purposes of ascending to the presidency.”[3] Confirmation of these rumours resulted in the removal of Mbabazi, first as the Secretary General of the ruling party in April 2014 and later as the prime minister in September of the same year.

As excitement about the 2016 elections continues to build up across the country, the Uganda Police Force (UPF) has become even more restrictive of the freedom for opposition parties to gather and mobilize supporters. `Preventive arrests`, which amount to home blockade and detention, have been previously exercised to ensure Kizza Besigye, one of the leading opposition figures and a presidential candidate, does not slip away and take part in `unlicensed` political rallies. The force is under the command of a loyal general, Kale Kayihura.

Although the armed forces are firmly in Museveni`s control and have always served him loyally, he seems not to be satisfied. The Police Force has recently been undertaking massive recruitment and training of youth that it describes as “crime preventers.” The force has previously explained that the crime prevention initiative is, in fact, a community-policing program, which serves as an extension of the historical Nyumba Kumi (Ten Houses) arrangement, and not in any way a militia force.[4] Opposition parties have, on several occasions, expressed their concerns that such `militias` are meant to harass them and bolster the ruling party, NRM. Notably, development partners have also expressed their concerns that those militias “have the potential to ferment election violence.”

Uganda has a long history of militias dating back to the 1990s, most of them linked to the government through the ruling party and the Police Force. They range from Kalangala Action Plan (KAP) to Kiboko Squad.[6] Needless to say, quite often the government and the ruling party deny knowledge of their existence or linkages. Recently, the Inspector General of Police hinted that the force had intelligence about the presence of active militias such as B13, Solida and Red Berets and used the space to announce the beginning of a crackdown. However, given the military might of the UPDF, it is impossible to imagine that a serious militia, not linked to the regime and that actively operates in Kampala and other major cities, can be allowed to thrive.

Poring through the Uganda Crime and Traffic/Road Safety Report (2013), one hardly sees conditions that warrant the recruitment of crime preventers in the thousands. General Kale Kayihura makes the following remarks in opening; “While last year, the crime rate, alarmingly, showed a slight upward trend, however negligible, am (sic) gratified to note that the trend in 2013 showed a downward trend, however slight, at 0.5%. This is consistent with the crime trend since 2006.”

The United States Overseas Security and Advisory Council (OSAC) seems to have a different view though. In its 2014 report on crime and safety in Uganda, OSAC rated crime in the country as “critical.”[8] However, the report noted that, “despite inaccuracies or underreporting, crime is generally low in provincial towns and rural areas.” UPF`s vision is that of “An enlightened, motivated, community oriented, accountable and modern police force geared towards a crime free society.” Could it be that the unprecedented mobilization of the so-called crime preventers is aimed at achieving this idealistic vision of zero crime?

In a recent article by a Ugandan journalist, Ramadhan Ggoobi, titled `What Makes Museveni Dominant?`, the writer advanced the argument that Museveni is dominant because he does not solely rely on the armed forces to rule. Instead, the president spends significant portions of his time canvassing for votes in rural villages throughout the year while denying his opponents the opportunity to do the same. As such, “he remains the most popular individual in Uganda” and “wherever you go in Uganda, the people know Museveni”.

Nevertheless, one does not need to look too far to see a contradiction to this assertion. According to a survey by Afrobarometer (2015), 85% of Ugandans support presidential term limits.[10] In a country whose president has been in power for three decades, that is a cunning way of showing ‘popular support.’

Youth, those aged between 18 – 30, make up a significant section of the population of Uganda. This group is also badly hit by unemployment.[11] These reasons partly explain why the recruitment of crime preventers has been so successful – there is a high number of desperate youth. While it is clear that the crime preventers initiative is Museveni`s attempt to get youth on his side, the nature of the program raises questions about retention and control. The president has already made it clear that crime preventers will not be paid since the government does not have enough resources.[12] Without cash incentives, it is unlikely that the government, through the Police Force, will be able to exercise any reliable control over the group.

On the other hand, there is a high likelihood that Museveni will not be facing the same opposition that he has consistently and controversially defeated since 1995. The Democratic Alliance (TDA) coalition that started taking shape in June this year did not materialize. Nevertheless, both Besigye and Mbabazi were recently approved to contest in the 2016 election, though, under different political structures. The collapse of the TDA attempt was not without benefits. Mbabazi emerged stronger under his `Go Forward` outfit after receiving public endorsement from the majority of the members of the now defunct coalition. As the opposition strengthens, the ruling party weakens. Analysts are seeing the possibility of an election run off, for the first time in Uganda.

Although Museveni has successfully quashed all his enemies since 1986, the ultimate test will be his age. Given his declining support and the ageing factor, leadership succession, as a medium term objective, should be high on his agenda. Winning the 2016 election constitutes a short-term agenda. As to whether the so-called crime preventers will play any role in achieving the objectives of the medium term agenda, we will have to wait and see. Regarding their role in the 2016 election – it has been well articulated by the opposition parties. There is no reason to think or believe otherwise.

* Dastan Kweka is a researcher based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

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