January 26: A rewind into 38 years of Museveni’s NRM in power

By Lukanga Samuel

NRM’s presidential flag bearer since its inception, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni Tibuhaburwa, the president of Uganda is currently serving his sixth term at the helm of affairs of this East African country.

As we prepare for 2024, on Friday 26th January, NRA/M will be celebrating 38 years of service in Uganda. The day is coming at a time when the yellow political party has in addition to legally expired structures never had any other national leader except Yoweri Kaguta Museveni Tibuhaburwa.

The Museveni administration has on several occasions been accused among other concerns—of muzzling dissenting voices in the country since 1986.

The 78-year-old leader’s time at the top has been accompanied by a long period of peace and big developmental changes for which many are grateful. But he has managed to maintain his grip on power through a mixture of encouraging a personality cult, employing patronage, compromising independent institutions and sidelining opponents.

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Mzee Tibuhaburwa, who came to power on the back of an armed uprising in 1986, has defied the political laws of gravity which have felled other long-serving leaders in the region.

On 29 January 1986, while addressing Ugandans for the first time as a national leader, he said “No one should think that what is happening today is a mere change of guard; it is a fundamental change in the politics of our country”

Given that Uganda had been led by seven presidents and a presidential commission in the preceding seven years, few could have expected that Museveni would remain at the helm 38 years later.

The National Resistance Army and its political wing, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), took power after a bush war that began in 1980. The NRM’s ten-point programme, debated and agreed during 1984, sought to “usher in a new and better future for the long-suffering people of Uganda on the back of a grassroots campaign to seize power”. It promised a peaceful, democratic future, free from corruption, and with basic services and economic opportunity for all citizens.

Thirty-eight years on, it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the Ugandan state, its dominant political party (NRM) and Museveni as its leader.

Museveni’s NRM promised “popular democracy” in 1986 from which it began to dismantle Uganda’s political structure. In 1992, political parties were banned, giving rise to a no-party or “movement” system. Museveni said this would provide a platform for more inclusive politics and encourage Ugandans to move beyond divisive tribal rivalries prevalent during the previous three decades.

The 1993 Local Government Statute was arguably the most promising reform initiated during the NRM’s early years in power. Devolution of power was a key tenet of NRM policy. But as I write this, local governments have no power over their locally collected taxes.

A lack of proportionate resources has hampered devolution. NDP II has it that by 2013, district authorities were expected to deliver 80% of government services – including primary education, healthcare and urban planning – with just 17% of the national budget. The government acknowledges that more than 30% would be required for local government to operate as envisaged. Despite its early promise, local administration has become more of a political project than a service provider.

Since 1986, the number of districts has grown from 30, 112 to now 146. The increase in the number of political officeholders has not meant more representative governance.

Uganda’s constitution-making process, which commenced in 1989, was, at the time, unsurpassed in Africa in terms of civic participation: 25,547 separate submissions were received from citizens, institutions and local councils But by the time the constitution was adopted in 1995, the process had been and is still manipulated by the NRM to entrench it and its leaders hold on power.

While political and civil rights were provided for and legislative oversight extended, the presidency was invested with “significant powers of appointment”. Subsequent amendments impinged on the constitutional rights of citizens and parliament, notably the removal of presidential term limits. To appease critics, less than a month later the government reintroduced a multi-party system.

Uganda now has many political parties, holds presidential and parliamentary elections every five years, and has a vibrant and critical press. The ninth parliament comprises 534 members, of whom more than one-third are women. The armed forces, youth and the disabled are represented. Vigorous debate is a noted feature of the assembly.

Despite media coverage of huge election rallies and competitive campaigning, electoral participation has dwindled. Turnout for presidential polls, which have returned the same winner four times in a row, are also declining.

Citizens are increasingly convinced that an NRM victory is the only outcome and vote accordingly. The long term legacy of movement-dominated politics, combined with control of state resources and restrictive legislation such as the Public Order Management Act 2013, which outlaws political gatherings of three or more people without prior permission from the police, has stymied genuine opposition to the NRM.

NRM relies on a strong rural support base to deliver electoral victory.

A powerful executive controls the influence of parliament on the legislative agenda and oversight of government expenditure. Internal party divisions have become more noticeable. However, “young turks” have yet to pose a significant challenge to Museveni’s grip on power.

The NRM presidential flag bearer in his 2014 Independence Day address, remarked that all Uganda was finally at peace for the first time in 114 years.

While the narrative of the NRM as a guarantor of peace is grounded in fact, it underplays the persistence of domestic conflict. Military action against the Lord’s Resistance Army affected northern districts for almost two decades, displacing as many as 1.5 million people.

Why it took the well-equipped Ugandan People’s Defence Force so long to bring a couple of thousand rebels to heel confounded many. By the time it did so, many northerners could not regard the troops as liberators. The lack of a government or International Criminal Court investigation into alleged abuses on both sides has created a legacy of “negative peace”

To some extent, Museveni and the NRM benefited from the protracted conflict. Instability in the north prevented opponents from establishing a power base in the region, were a pretext to curb freedom of expression, and attracted US funding and assistance with training for the security forces.

NRM’s Museveni continues to progressively and shrewdly position Uganda as a guarantor of regional stability and key ally of the West in the war on terror.
The country borders the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and South Sudan, and has maintained sizeable peacekeeping forces in Somalia.

NRM’s Museveni has consistently turned regional geo-politics to his advantage. In addition to attracting substantial funding, this has deflected censure from donors over issues such as governance and corruption.

Uganda has consistently been one of the fastest-growing African economies. NRM’s ten-point programme described economic development as “probably the most important part”.

The country’s status as a “donor darling” has underwritten economic growth. After 38 years, the NRM’s stated goal of achieving a “self-sustaining economy” remains elusive.

The HIV/AIDS crisis loomed large in the NRM’s early years in power. In 2020 an estimated 18.5% of Ugandans were infected with the virus, one of the highest rates on the continent. By 2021, the figure had been reduced to just 6.4%, showing other afflicted countries what was possible with a concerted effort that combined medical awareness campaigns with consistent availability of drugs.
However, the drive to improve health care has faltered.

Despite a burgeoning population, total health spending averaged 9.9% falling short of the commitment to spend 15% on health care that Uganda made as a signatory to the 2001 Abuja Declaration. The health budget remains dependent on international donors for up to 40% of funding.

The NRM’s initial ambition for education was impressive, but achievements have been mixed. Investment has been consistent as a percentage of GDP. Adult literacy improved with adult female literacy rising by 26.5% to exceed 70%.

The NRM introduced universal primary education in 1997 and universal secondary education in 2007. This greatly increased the number of children attending primary school.
However, drop-out rates remain the highest in East Africa.

Schools are ill-equipped and overcrowded; teachers’ unions are permanently restive about conditions and pay; and the pressure on the education sector is rising inexorably due to population growth.

In 1986 the ten-point programme aimed to restore and improve social service provision in war-ravaged areas. The Luwero Triangle, an area 75km north of the capital Kampala where the bush war was most fiercely fought, continues to receive a high level of support 30 years later.

The legacy of more recent war, insecurity and underdevelopment in the north has yet to be properly addressed. In Karamoja, for example, an estimated 82% of inhabitants are still living in poverty, literacy rates are just 31% and maternal mortality is double the national average.
A decade after the end of hostilities in the north, the region is home to almost half Uganda’s poor.

Corruption is an “endemic at almost every level of society in Uganda” despite 38 years of promises to eliminate it.

Although trust in the NRM’s Museveni has reportedly increased since 2021, people increasingly distrust parliament, the judiciary, state institutions and public officials.

Demography is the biggest threat to the progress made under Museveni and the NRM since 1986 – and to Uganda’s very stability.

The population is one of the youngest in Africa: 75% of its 35 million citizens are under the age of 30. The formal economy annually creates 9,000 positions, but 400,000 school leavers begin searching for jobs each year. The real unemployment rate is estimated at 64%.

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The difference between Uganda in 1986 and 2023 is profound. The NRM’s 2016-2021 like the 2021–26 manifesto focuses on economic development, tackling corruption, and peace and security. No one can accuse the party of inconsistency in its policy pronouncements.
The document is coherent and considered, but the “vision” remains no more than that for most Ugandans.

NRM needs to rediscover its boldness if it is to stay remotely relevant to ordinary Ugandans, but time is not on its side and its leader may not allow the movement to reinvent itself in his lifetime.

For God and my country, Africa!

Lukanga Samuel is a Social Development Enthusiast, a Youth Leader and an Ambassador of Humanity.
lukangasamuel55@gmail.com / +256 785717379

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