Why the removal of age limits may be the best way to get a peaceful succession in Uganda
There is consensus among Ugandan, African, and even global elites that presidents who rule for long make peaceful succession impossible. This informs the current debate on the attempt by the NRM to amend the constitution and remove the age limit so that President Yoweri Museveni can run for the presidency in 2021. After 31 years in power, allowing Museveni to run in 2021 gives him a chance to extend his rule to 40 years. This turns Uganda from a republic to a monarchy.
The NRM party enjoys a huge majority in parliament and our legislators are broke and indebted. I suspect 90% would desire Museveni to retire. However, over 350 out of 436 MPs will vote for removing the age limit. It is, therefore, naïve to think noise in mass and social media can decouple his plans. And even though over 70% of the country thinks the age limit should be maintained, Museveni will most likely win the 2021 elections.
I think Museveni should retire. This is not because he has ruled for long or because he is old. Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore ruled for long and grew old in office yet retained energy and dynamism. Museveni should retire because, while he commands a lot of power (more than any successor will ever marshal), his policy ideas and management ability cannot take Uganda to another level. Put simply, he has too much power but very little leadership left in him. Uganda’s tragedy is that his opponents are even worse in both management credentials and policy ideas.
But what does his presidency for life portend for our desire for a peaceful succession? Human affairs cannot be subjected to a controlled experiment in a laboratory. So it is difficult to see how our actions today will shape outcomes tomorrow. However, history is a very good guide for us to make a reasonable prediction. Thus, we need to look at the character of NRM and compare it with similar regimes across time and space.
NRM came to power after a protracted armed struggle. Beginning small, it challenged a state funded by donors and backed up by 30,000 Tanzanian troops. Without an international power to bankroll it or a rear base where to hide when the going got tough, it dismantled the state from below. This demonstrated exceptional organisational and leadership ability.
Therefore, the best way to predict the future of NRM and Museveni is to look at other groups that came to power by similar means – in Cuba, Vietnam, China, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, North Korea, Cambodia, former Soviet Union, Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Algeria, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Guinea Bissau. This covers all continents spanning 100 years from the capture of power by the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 to today. This history provides considerable grist for our intellectual speculation.
What are the major characteristics of these movements? Note: the examples I use here are not neat. There are exceptions, divergences and even counter narratives. But if I have to give an account of such a broad process I will pick some common thread or threads that run(s) through all of them.
First, once they capture power and consolidate in the first five years, these movements never (or rarely) lose it. This is because the nature of their struggle gives them knowledge to penetrate society deeply. They fuse the state and the party, and politics with security from the lowest level of the village to the apex of power. Thus, even when they suffer prolonged economic atrophy, as we have seen in Zimbabwe, Cuba and North Korea, they don’t suffer political defeat. In Nicaragua and Guinea Bissau these movements lost power briefly but regained it and they hold it today The Khme Rouge in Cambodia was removed by the invasion of that country by Vietnam. In Russia, the communist party disbanded itself but its successors continue to rule under a different guise.
The founding leader is always the political head, ideological philosopher, and military commander. Often he dies in office. (Fidel Castrol in Cuba ruled for 49 years and retired due to old age and poor health). In all of them, power tends to be centralised in the presidency and personalised in the president, giving no hint of succession. Yet whenever the founding leader dies, there is a peaceful transition and the emergence of collegial leadership – Meles Zenawi’s Ethiopia being the most recent example.
Thus, from this perspective, Uganda may be headed in that direction. Predictions of chaos are not grounded in history. Of course history is replete with black swans; i.e. unexpected events. It is possible the NRM can suffer political defeat especially because it is the most liberal in this group. Or Museveni may die in office and bequeath chaos as different factions of NRM vie for power. But history tells us that this is least likely.
Indeed, it is not true that if one leader hands over power peacefully to a successor, future peaceful transitions will follow automatically. Africa is filled with examples of such well-intentioned actions leading to tears. The first president of post-independence Africa to concede electoral defeat and peacefully hand over power was Osman Daar of Somalia in 1967. Two years later there was a coup and we know where Somalia is today.
In Ghana (1969), Nigeria (1979) and Mali (1992), militaries organised peaceful transitions to democracy that lasted a few years ending in military coups. Liberia exemplifies the fragility of peaceful transitions. From its founding in 1847 to 1980, it had 20 presidents with none of them serving more than eight years or two terms until William Tubman from 1944-1971. Power kept changing from Independents to Whigs to Republicans. But after 133 years of peaceful transitions Liberia succumbed to a military coup, prolonged civil war and state collapse.
Now I am aware that my critics will miss this argument and respond with ad hominem attacks on me, claiming I have been bribed by Museveni. As I wait for the president’s cheque to come in, let me suggest an even more controversial heresy. Ideally, and sad as it is, Museveni’s desire to die in office may neither be avoidable nor portend disaster. Instead it may be good for Uganda. Ironically it is very possible that if he attempts to conform to the current consensus and organise a peaceful transition when he is still alive, especially for a movement made of the characteristics I have discussed above, he may cause tensions leading to instability.