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Is Rapid Ugandan Urbanization Threatening Museveni’s 31-year Rule?

With the stunning overthrows of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia, some are wondering whether another one of Africa’s long-enduring rulers, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, is soon to follow.

What some might find striking about Museveni’s thirty-year rule is that, ever since he and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) rose to power in 1986 following a civil war, Uganda has never been a full-blown dictatorship. Even in the repressive years of 1998, political scientist Nelson Kasfir stated, “Most would probably agree that Kenya can hardly be said to be more democratic than Uganda, though the former has 27 parties and the latter has none.”

Yet it is disingenuous to claim Uganda is a liberal democracy, at least in the Western sense. Political scientists Chris Blattman et. al note,“While there is a high degree of party competition at the local level, the ruling party suppresses political opposition for the presidency, and cements its position through various forms of patronage.”

In short, it is best to defer to Uganda scholar Aili Tripp, who defines Uganda a “multiparty autocracy” or a “hegemonic party system.” It is a polity in which elections themselves are relatively competitive and fair, yet the system is biased towards the ruling party. This is accomplished by leveraging the state’s resources to fund advertising campaigns, patronage and intimidation of opponents. Although exact figures are hard to come-by, the civil society organization ACFIM claims the NRM outspent its opponents by a factor of twelve.

This distinction has concrete implications, as no explicitly autocratic politician could survive in Uganda today. This is because, as the work of Dan Ottemoeler, Afrobarometer, and an AllAfrica survey reveal, Ugandans are overwhelmingly (about 80 percent) in favor of democracy as well as free and fair elections. Therefore, the NRM has chosen its actions strategically to avoid inflaming the masses. They possess some democratic legitimacy on the one hand, yet on the other they unfairly leverage the power of the state to their benefit. Indeed, it is very telling that NRM supporters are more likely than the opposition to believe that Uganda is democratic.

Yet, day by day, more Ugandans are catching wind of these manipulations. Fewer Ugandans believed the elections were free and fair in 2016 than in 2011. Museveni’s rival, Kizza Besigye, has managed to electrify the opposition to such an extent that he has been arrested on an almost-regular basis. And, in the 2016 elections, which featured a higher turnout, Besigye performed about ten percentage points better than he did five years earlier.

Back in October, chaos erupted (even in parliament) in the wake of a proposal that would remove the age limit of 75 for Ugandan presidents. This was widely seen as a move to allow Museveni, currently 73, to run in the 2021 elections. The bill passed.

Under Museveni’s pragmatic tenure, Uganda has achieved eye-catching growth and poverty reduction, prompting some to proclaim Uganda as one of development’s success stories, much like neighboring Rwanda under the illiberal yet effective stewardship of Paul Kagame. At the same time, Uganda is one of the most rapidly urbanizing countries in Africa, with an anxious and growing middle class.

While one might think the NRM would be rewarded at the ballot box as a result, it may ironically be undermining their base. Since Uganda has an overwhelmingly rural population (84 percent), winning rural Uganda means winning Uganda at the ballot. Notably, a majority of rural Ugandans support the NRM. The converse is also true: the base of the opposition is situated in cities, and their numbers are quickly growing. Simply put, demographic shifts are posing serious risks for the NRM.

An Afrobarometer analysis provides further evidence for this. 51 percent of urban Ugandans believe the 2016 elections were not free and fair, while only 28 percent of their rural brethren have the same view. Indeed, Kampala region, where the capital is located, has the highest percentage of voters (66%) who believe elections were illegitimate. Education also plays a role, as college-educated Ugandans are three times as likely as to have concerns about electoral integrity, compared to their fellow countrymen without formal education.

It is striking that in the past high levels of economic growth have not been accompanied by urbanization. While from 1986 neighboring Rwanda’s proportion of urban to total population increased by 25 percent and Tanzania’s by 15 percent, Uganda has only urbanized at a rate of eight percent. However, despite the historical lag, Uganda is now catching up. The yearly urbanization rate is now at five percent, and the World Bank reckons that by 2040 the urban population of Uganda will more than triple.

There are multiple reasons why there is such a political rural-urban divide in Uganda. First, as argued in AllAfrica, it is conceivable that the NRM’s systemic bias is more useful for penetrating rural areas than urban ones. State-controlled media can be used to channel pro-NRM messages to the peasantry, who lack access to the media alternatives that urban dwellers enjoy. Plus, civil liberties groups, which have been vigorous in documenting NRM intimidation, are mostly located in cities, limiting their reach over the rest of the country.

Finally, it must be noted that there is a class element to this divide as well (i.e. that not all of this support is due to patronage). As previously stated, Museveni oversaw impressive growth rates, reductions in poverty, and the completion of several infrastructure projects. While concerns about inequality remain, the lot of peasants has undeniably improved during his tenure. This might explain why urbanization was previously slow: if services are accessible to rural areas, cities inherently become comparatively less attractive.

Museveni himself was born to a peasant household. As a university student in Tanzania, he was president of University Students’ African Revolutionary Front, an anti-colonial, hard socialist activist group which championed pro-peasant policies. During his rule, several pro-peasant policies—both symbolic and earnest—were enacted. Some examples include the change to the Constitution in 1995, the 1998 Land Act and, recently, a World Bank-financed project for improving land titling and administration. According to legal scholar Simon Coldham, the 1998 Land Act “provides security of tenure for customary occupants of land…[and] it decentralizes land administration and establishes specialized land courts.” Furthermore, in 2008, Museveni drew the ire of the Bagandan Kingdom by proposing a land bill protecting tenants.

Back in the heady days of 1986, when the NRM emerged victorious after Uganda’s civil war, Museveni promoted grassroots democracy with “resistance councils.” While it is easy to dismiss this as authoritarian doublespeak—and big questions remain as to whether this decentralization was inclusive and effective—rural participation in local government has undeniably increased. This system seems more suited to rural areas, where there are strong communal bonds, than densely-populated urban areas, where there is competition for “limited political space and financial resources.” Therefore, it is plausible that,for rural Ugandans, local politics (rather democratic by any standard) is more salient than national politics.

Finally, while certainly not a high bar, Museveni’s rule has brought large improvements for peasant land rights when compared to Uganda’s previous rulers: Milton Obote, Idi Amin, and the British colonists. Under those rulers, what Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani calls “involuntary coercion” and appropriations were endemic. For example, Amin’s 1975 land decree reform took away legal recognition of land, and appropriated customary land that was not being “productively used.” Therefore, prior to Museveni, peasants lived in constant fear and uncertainty. Indeed, Museveni and the NRM may have been one exception to the “urban bias” in development, where governments neglect rural livelihoods in favor of growing cities.

Yet it appears there is now an upper limit to how much the NRM can impress the populace with such policies. A recent, intriguing paper by political scientists Blattman, Fiala, and Memeriau states that recipients of a government program in northern Uganda were more likely to support the opposition.

Blattman et al. argue that, while some of this effect can be explained by misattribution (i.e. people do not correctly attribute the policy to the government), it can’t explain all of the phenomenon. They hypothesize that there exists an income effect: higher incomes lower the appeal of clientelistic programs. If the authors are correct, then one can predict that, with continued growth, more and more Ugandans will be liberated from financial constraints and can vote their conscience (i.e. against the NRM).

Uganda now has the youngest population on the planet (77% of the population is younger than 30). The youth have not seen the tumultuous pre-Museveni years; youth unemployment is at very dangerous levels. Unsurprisingly, young people are more likely to support the opposition than older Ugandans. Hence, simply harkening back to the ghosts of old Uganda is not enough anymore for the NRM. And arrests can only go so far.

If the opposition can be inclusive of rural Ugandans, then the NRM and Museveni will find themselves at a critical juncture. They can go down the path of tyranny, which can only lead to a harvest of bitterness—causing the respectable achievements of the NRM and Museveni to be wiped out from the memory of Ugandans. The more difficult option is winning a democratic election fair-and-square, which wagers their power. But how much is power really worth? Maybe Museveni would be wise to consult Mugabe, lest he become yet another revolutionary hero whose legacy is demolished by his intransigence as ruler.