Yoweri Museveni’s Long-Term Leadership
Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who currently holds the position of Africa’s fourth-longest-serving head of state in 2023, has left a significant mark on Uganda’s history. He played pivotal roles in ending two oppressive regimes. First, in 1979, his militia played a crucial role in toppling the infamous Idi Amin’s regime. Then, during the 1980s, his army led a successful guerrilla campaign against the oppressive government of Milton Obote. Museveni’s entrance into Kampala in 1986 marked a historic moment as the first popular insurrection leader to unseat a sitting African government.
Controversies Surrounding Museveni’s Leadership
However, recent years have seen a growing focus on Museveni’s approach towards political opponents and the decline of human rights in Uganda. An ongoing petition at the International Criminal Court accuses him of supporting violence and suppressing critics. Many prominent dissenters bear visible scars from encounters with state agents.
Despite these controversies, Museveni remains essential to many Ugandans. His grip on power is closely tied to the way Uganda’s dark past continues to influence its citizens. The horrors of the 1970s and early 1980s, including Amin’s brutal regime and the mass killings under Obote, have faded from the memories of most Ugandans. Museveni’s government has actively worked to maintain institutions and routines that remind Ugandans of their recent history, making the politically instructive memory of that dark past his lasting legacy.
Museveni’s Early Years in Politics
Yoweri Museveni was born in 1944 in Ankole, a region in southwestern Uganda. His father belonged to a clan of nobles, while his mother was a born-again Christian who had converted during the East African Revival. Museveni initially followed his mother’s faith but later shifted his focus from religion to politics.
In 1973, Museveni gained diplomatic attention when he authored a manifesto called the “Front for National Salvation” (Fronasa), criticizing Idi Amin’s government for its incompetence, economic troubles, and violence. Fronasa’s aim was a “mass armed struggle,” but it faced severe challenges as Amin’s forces raided their hideout. Museveni, for years, lived in Tanzania, working as a teacher while financing Fronasa’s activities from his meager income.
Museveni’s early political career was marked by the stark contrast between his lofty goals and limited resources.
The Rise of the “Black Che Guevara”
In 1978, Museveni and a small group of militiamen joined the Tanzanian army’s invasion of Uganda. By the time Amin’s regime collapsed in 1979, Museveni had a formidable force of 9,000 volunteers under his command. Many were from his home region in southwestern Uganda. He assumed the role of Minister of Defense in the new government that emerged after Amin’s fall, earning recognition as the “most effective member of the present Uganda government” by a British diplomat.
However, Museveni’s aspirations for the presidency were thwarted when Milton Obote won the 1980 election. Convinced that Obote’s government would harm Uganda, Museveni mobilized his followers and launched a guerrilla war against Obote’s regime. This struggle, known as the Bush War, saw Museveni’s militia, the National Resistance Army, fighting against Obote’s brutal military.
Museveni’s vision during this period aimed to revive Uganda’s moral standards and values. He emphasized discipline among his soldiers, requiring them to pay for food and maintain rectitude regarding alcohol and indulgences.
Obote’s government responded with a campaign of extermination, with reports of state-sponsored murder, torture, and human rights abuses. In 1985, Obote was overthrown by his own generals, and in January 1986, Museveni’s National Resistance Army took control of Kampala, with Museveni becoming president. He was sometimes referred to as the “black Che Guevara.”
Commemorating the Bush War
The extreme violence of the Bush War made Museveni’s new government appear indispensable. To commemorate the revolution, the remains of those killed by Obote’s forces were put on display, including their skulls. This memory remains an integral part of Uganda’s public life. The government celebrates Heroes Day every 9th of June, marking the day when some of Museveni’s comrades were executed by Obote’s government. Museveni continues to tour Luweero, the region where the Bush War was primarily fought.
The Changing Landscape of Ugandan Politics
Despite electoral controversies, Museveni has won national elections six times since 1996. However, the memory of his past heroism is fading, with most of Uganda’s population born after 1986. Museveni’s son, Muhoozi, is gaining prominence in public life, raising speculations about his potential candidacy for the presidency in the next election.
Nevertheless, Museveni’s founding story and leadership style still resonate with many, as seen in his recent public exercise video during the COVID pandemic, where he emphasized clean living and physical vigor.
Author: Derek R. Peterson, Professor of History and African Studies, University of Michigan