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This report was first published by CrisisGroup here

  • What’s the issue?  Popular discontent is growing over President Museveni’s apparent desire to remain in power while governance, economic performance and security deteriorate.  
  • Why does it matter?  Uganda is not in danger of renewed civil war or rebel violence, but it risks sliding into a political crisis that could eventually threaten the country’s hard-won stability.  
  • What should be done?  The government should hold a national dialogue over presidential succession, enact reforms to the partisan police force, stop postponing local elections and initiate broad consultations on land reform. Donors should encourage these efforts, while avoiding projects that help perpetuate political patronage.

Executive Summary

Uganda suffers from inefficient patronage politics and a downward spiral of declining governance, poor economic performance and local insecurity. President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, in power since 1986, appears unwilling to step down; supporters and detractors alike expect him to rule until he dies or engineers a handover to a close ally or family member. He will be 77 by the next election in 2021 and is poised to amend the constitution’s 75-year age limit, despite objections from the opposition, civil society and some in his own party. The president undoubtedly retains support, particularly in rural areas, not all of which is patronage-based. He is credited with bringing stability after the 1980s civil wars and eventually defeating the Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion, though his autocratic drift and systemic corruption risks wrecking this legacy. With political and institutional reform, there still is time to avoid such an outcome.

The decline in governance has ripple effects across the system. It stymies attempts to improve core services – particularly infrastructure and agriculture – that are strained by the demands of a rapidly growing population. Urgent infrastructure projects and the long-anticipated start of oil production have suffered delays, further depressing international investment. New government initiatives, nominally aimed at stimulating the economy, typically take the form of handouts, particularly to under-employed youth, designed to secure political support. The likewise politically-motivated creation of new administrative districts has not improved local services, but instead increased the size of the public sector, straining an already overwhelmed public purse. New districts also contribute to communal tensions, particularly when delimitation reallocates control over natural resources and land.

The security sector, particularly the police, is emblematic of these problems. Police officers carry out functions that are nominally intended to preserve public order yet in reality function as the president’s first line of defence against rivals. They spend much of their time disrupting opposition activities. Allegations of criminal activity within the police undermines its legitimacy; officers are reportedly involved in protection rackets, organised crime and turf wars. Violent crime, including murder, is on the rise as police ability to carry out regular duties declines. The rise of informal security groups, most notably the Crime Preventers (a non-uniformed youth militia that mobilised pro-government votes and intimidated its rivals during the 2016 election), has blurred lines, further eroded accountability, politicised policing and weakened the influence of better trained and disciplined career officers.

As crime has risen, particularly in urban areas, local governance has deteriorated.

As crime has risen, particularly in urban areas, local governance has deteriorated. The local council system remains the bedrock of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), but the government has not held village or parish council elections since 2002, due partly to their cost but also reportedly to fears of the outcome. Local administration has withered and become increasingly dysfunctional.

Disputes over land, administrative districts and the government’s recognition of “traditional” authorities – another form of patronage – likewise prompt communal and ethnic violence, problems Ugandans doubt the state can resolve. Clashes are on the rise between the authorities and locals forcibly removed from newly demarcated wildlife reserves or who feel that ancestral lands are being grabbed by rapacious businessmen. The forthcoming land reform bill – a constitutional amendment that would ease government purchase of private land for infrastructure projects – provokes fears of more land-grabbing.

The lack of opportunities for youth plus tensions surrounding the presidential age-limit amendment and controversial land reform bills are fuelling the rise of new political actors – notably the musician turned-populist MP Bobi Wine and increasing the risk of popular demonstrations that could provoke a violent crackdown.

Uganda is in urgent need of political and administrative reform to prevent a slide toward an increasingly dysfunctional, corrupt and insecure system. In order to mitigate longer-term dangers of civil strife, donors should be more sensitive to the political impact of their assistance by avoiding projects that contribute to ruling party patronage. For its part, President Museveni’s government should:

  • Hold a credible National Dialogue: This should be done by revisiting plans to which the ruling party itself had agreed after the February 2016 election. Such a dialogue should be broad-based and focus on popular consultations with Ugandan citizens to discuss issues associated with the presidential succession and reduce fears that it might end in violence.  
  • Take steps to professionalise the police and improve its leadership: To stop the decline in police operational capacity and address criminality within police ranks, the government should re-institute a merit-based system of promotions in the senior command and investigate and prosecute alleged crimes by members of the force. It also should end or reduce use of informal, non-uniformed groups, particularly the Crime Preventers.  
  • Improve local governance: Hold local council elections to re-legitimise grass-roots administration while imposing a moratorium on the creation of new administrative districts.  
  • Consult widely on land reform: Complete consultations with the population at the local level (in local languages) in association with civil society to understand main concerns before embarking on any land ownership reform. Reforms should give local leaders – including elders and elected council leaders – a say in matters such as land allocation. The government should shelve the upcoming constitutional amendment on government land acquisition and instead prioritise reforms and anti-corruption measures within the lands ministry.

These proposed steps will not be easy. But President Museveni should recognise them as necessary to avert dangerous drift and limit the risk of damage to his legacy.


This report was first published by CrisisGroup here

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