In 2005, Yoweri Museveni persuaded Parliament to amend Uganda’s constitution to eliminate presidential term limits, so that he could remain in power. Now, at age 73, after ruling for 31 years, he is once again asking Parliament to amend the Constitution to eliminate the age limit that would require him to step down at 75.
Uganda’s General Yoweri Museveni is trying to change the Ugandan constitution so that he can remain “president” for life. Ugandans are resisting, and Museveni’s military police have recently tear gassed and shot rubber bullets at students defying the ban on demonstrations, raided the offices of civil society organizations, and arrested Erias Lukwago, the hugely popular mayor of Kampala, the country’s capital, in the middle of a television interview. In footage of the arrest, he’s seen grimacing in pain as officers grab his genitals. He has since petitioned the Uganda Human Rights Commission about being tortured and humiliated this way.
The military has also threatened and arrested Ugandans resisting in towns across the country and in the countryside.
On September 27, minority members of Uganda’s parliament—and even some members of Museveni’s own ruling party—made international headlines with an awesome act of defiance. First they filibustered a constitutional amendment that would give him the right to rule for life by singing the Ugandan national anthem over and over. Then, when plainclothes cops tried to remove them, they resisted. No one went limp and no one agreed to be cuffed and walked out of chambers. Instead, they fought back.
Shouts and screams filled the chambers as chairs were thrown, mic stands were swung, and tugs, pushes, and punches were exchanged. The MPs who had prevented the amendment from coming to the floor had one more try at singing the national anthem, and one of them waved a Ugandan flag. Police and parliamentarians jumped up on the table in the center of chambers, with each of the opposing forces holding the higher ground at different moments as they fought off those below. It was glorious, even though the cops finally overwhelmed the protesting MPs, dragged them out of chambers, and sent them off to jail.
In video footage, it looks as though as many as four cops were needed to subdue a single MP several times. Most if not all have been released, but Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga suspended them, so they will probably miss the “debate” on the constitutional amendment before Museveni’s two-thirds majority rubber stamps it.
Would that our own legislators had a fraction of the Ugandan opposition’s courage. Wouldn’t you have loved to see “Resistance” warriors Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders throw a chair or swing a mic stand to keep the $700 billion defense bill from reaching the floor of the U.S. Senate? Warren voted yes, Sanders no, but Sanders didn’t further risk his new status as the Democratic Party’s “Outreach Coordinator,” even though the $700 billion war budget was akin to the total capitulation demanded of Ugandan lawmakers and with far greater and grimmer global consequence.
The legislative specifics that inspired the Ugandan MPs are:
1) In 2005, President Yoweri Museveni persuaded the Parliament to amend Uganda’s constitution to eliminate presidential term limits, so that he could remain in power.
2) Now, at age 73, after ruling for 31 years, he is once again asking Parliament to amend the Constitution—this time to eliminate the age limit that would require him to step down at 75.
3) The amendment requires a two-thirds vote of Parliament to pass, but the minority opposition and everyone else I’ve ever trusted to report on Uganda says that Museveni has long since bought himself a compliant two-thirds majority.
4) Museveni has brutalized his own people and made war on most of Uganda’s neighbors in East and Central Africa since shooting his way to power in 1986.
Although he has never threatened the entire world with anything as monstrous as the U.S. Senate’s $700 billion War Appropriations Bill, he and his army are themselves in the budget. The U.S. has used him militarily and politically throughout his 31-year reign.
Bill Clinton called Museveni one of the “New Breed” of African leaders
Museveni is one of the “New Breed” of East and Central African dictators embraced by Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s. All claimed to be democrats, but their elections were rigged, and opposition politicians and their supporters were imprisoned, tortured, and/or killed. Helen Epstein, in her new book, “Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror,” writes:
“Museveni’s genius has been to capitalize on Western ambivalence about Africa’s capacity for democracy and self-determination. Thus, with America and Europe’s blessing, he used our generous foreign aid to turn Uganda into a military dictatorship dressed up to look like a democracy. Uganda has a Parliament, a court system, a lively press, and a pyramidal elected governance structure at the village, district, and regional levels. But these institutions operate at the mercy of a far more powerful paramilitary structure of Museveni-appointed Resident District Administrators, District Internal Security Officers, Village Defense Committees, and a shadowy network of unofficial security organs that control their own arsenals, override the decisions of elected officials, and close NGOs, newspapers, and radio stations deemed unfriendly to the regime.
Museveni as Pentagon proxy
General Museveni has also been an aggressor and Pentagon proxy in most of the conflicts in East and Central Africa since the end of the Cold War, which have cost millions of African lives. Again, Helen Epstein:
“He’s actually one of America’s closest allies on the continent. His government has received tens of billions of dollars in financial assistance and untold amounts of military assistance. He partners with the Pentagon all the time on military operations throughout the region. Much of the tragedy of East and Central Africa, including Ethiopia and Somalia, but particularly Uganda and its neighbors Rwanda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is due to the meddling of the United States and the backing of dictators, including Museveni. They have no doubt given the Americans’ promises that they would sort out the region for them, but have in the process caused shocking mayhem and pandemonium.”
Resistance among Uganda’s rural majority
Eighty-four percent of Ugandans are rural subsistence farmers of numerous indigenous ethnicities. In his 31 years in power, Museveni has done little to lift them out of poverty and has even committed genocide against the Acholi and other peoples of Northern Uganda. Now he is collaborating with the Madhvani Group, an industrial agricultural corporation, to seize the land of survivors in the North.
* ANN GARRISON is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.