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The subtleties of authoritarianism in Museveni’s Uganda

Uganda’s fifth general election under President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) regime was hardly a vision of a genuine democracy. Opposition candidates competed on an uneven playing field, the government used public resources with little oversight, and state security forces were deployed to arrest presidential candidates and teargas their supporters. The election therefore provided new evidence for a familiar scholarly and media narrative about the trajectory of the Museveni’s Uganda: once an innovative agent of decentralisation and democratisation, the regime now relies on its control of the state to bypass democratic processes. However, while it certainly makes use of crude abuses of state power, this occurs within the context of a sophisticated electoral technique which is equally important to understand.

What is the NRM?

The NRM is a dominant party, meaning that it has effectively monopolised all the available avenues into political office in most of the country. Paradoxically, it is also an extremely weak organisation. Rather than being a muscular protector of an established political class, the NRM does not enforce even its most basic internal rules regarding campaigning and candidate selection. In the 2016 elections, as in the past, it did not stop candidates defeated in party primaries from standing for parliament as independents (so-called “NRM-Independents”). This occurred in almost every constituency, and in many the NRM-Independent beat the party’s official candidate. In the rural areas of central and western Uganda, where the NRM receives most of its support, this kind of intra-NRM competition dominates local politics, and is the reason why more than 50% of NRM incumbents who stood for re-election in 2016 lost.

The question is: why do challengers to incumbent politicians so often chose to operate within the NRM rather than the opposition? One reason is that after more than 30 years in power, people have come to see it as the inevitable party of government, and therefore the only one whose members have a chance both of commanding influence in Kampala and effecting local change. Another is the physical and social pressure placed on opposition candidates in NRM rural strongholds.

There is also a conceptual and historical explanation. After so long in power, the NRM has come to be seen more as a forum for local politics than the dominant player in national politics. This dates back to the first two decades of the NRM era, when the “Movement System” of no-party competition barred political parties to mitigate sectarianism. In its place, the regime promoted individual merit as the measure of a candidate’s political legitimacy, and localised political mobilisation through its decentralisation programme. With the return to multi-party politics before the 2006 election, the Movement became a formal political party – today’s NRM – that inherited the culture of internal competition of its predecessor.

The true strength of the NRM today is not that it is rigid and powerful enough to control the dynamics of local politics, but is flexible enough to absorb them. It is common to find political newcomers in party primaries denouncing local corruption, the poor state of services or the broken promises of incumbents while supporting the NRM and Museveni’s re-election. This makes it all the more confusing to read reports that people keep voting for the NRM. In reality, they are voting within the NRM.

Support for the president in the NRM’s rural heartlands is in many ways conditioned by this localisation of political grievance. Compared with parliamentary candidates, who are seen by the voters as potential champions of local development, Museveni cuts more of a monarchial figure – a man in control of the political establishment, but aloof from the petty squabbles of the constituency. While no local power-broker can say that he or she “owns” the NRM brand, this is not the case for Museveni, who is inseparable from the party and its history.


Money is critically important at all levels of Ugandan politics. It is common to see campaigning politicians handing cash to voters, or promising to do so in the event of victory. The most extravagant displays of this practice are by the president himself, who hands out paper bags containing hundreds of millions of shillings to supporters at campaign rallies and on regional tours. Museveni also routinely promises implausible sums to various funds for marginalised social groups like youth, women and elders.

Rita Abrahamsen and Gerald Bareebe argue that the president effectively buys elections with these demonstrations of largesse. But images can be deceiving. Very little of what is dished out actually reaches voters. Instead, most of the cash that does find its way into voters’ pockets comes from local candidates, most of whom go heavily into debt to finance their campaigns. In 2016, any genuine contender for a parliamentary seat needed to spend in excess of £100,000 (UGX483 million) to have a realistic chance of victory. Candidates spend this on community donations, facilitating vast networks of agents and dispensing cash or gifts after rallies. This decentralised pipeline of election spending – not Museveni’s donations – is the driver of increasing monetisation of Uganda’s recent elections.

For both Museveni and local candidates, however, spending money is usually less a matter of straightforward material persuasion than of projecting an image of generosity, wealth and power. Image is likely to mobilise votes on election day, as voters still expect their representatives to “deliver” on election promises of development and distribution. Campaign spending is therefore better understood as a necessary rather than sufficient condition for winning votes in Uganda. In fact, there is a lively public discourse against “vote buying” or “vote bribery” – sharp insults often used to delegitimise the campaigns of candidates that people do not like or trust.


Elections in the NRM era have involved varying degrees of coercion and violence. The first full multi-party elections in 1996 were mostly peaceful, but the more closely fought 2001 and 2006 polls witnessed severe intimidation by soldiers and NRM militias. The 2011 election, in which Museveni arrested his declining trend to win 68%, reverted to being a more peaceful affair. In the lead up to the 2016 campaign, the likelihood of violence was again a major talking point. However, despite a few high profile actions – such as the arrest of presidential candidates Kizza Besigye and Amama Mbabazi and the occasional teargas-quelled riot – most areas were spared a repeat of the 2001 and 2006 experiences. Two factors help explain why.

First, political violence in Uganda (as under many regimes) does not have to be repeatedly deployed in order to remain effective. Often, Ugandans only need to be reminded – through rhetoric and symbolism – of the consequences of state intimidation, which they well remember. The 2016 election campaign featured the presence of police-trained “crime preventers”, and newspaper reports speculating a return of 2001-era NRM militias. In the event, the former turned out to be mostly harmless and the latter false – but that does not mean they were ineffective.

Second, and somewhat puzzlingly, is that Museveni’s authoritarian rhetoric is often a source of comfort rather than distress to voters. The period before Museveni took power in 1986 saw the wholesale collapse of the state in many rural areas. Contrary to the impression of most outsiders, those old enough to remember this time usually recount the anarchy of banditry and local violence enabled by the absence of the state, not just the abuse of power by Museveni’s predecessors. The atrocious human rights record of previous regimes remains vivid in people’s memories; the historical narrative that sustains Museveni is that he alone can maintain stability in Uganda. While many voters are infuriated by the NRM’s use – or threats – of force to stay in power, there are plenty who see in the president’s language confirmation of a regime “strong” enough to keep the peace and prevent the general collapse of order.

Context matters

A dominant party system, patronage, a degree of coercion – all appear at first glance to be crude instruments of averting fair democratic competition. But each of these three NRM characteristics rests on deeper and more complicated contexts that can easily be obscured. The NRM does not, in the most mechanical sense, simply control, buy, or intimidate its way into power. Instead, its success is contingent on an embedded and complex array of ideas, histories and processes. This in no way affirms the regime’s claim to be genuinely democratic. Rather, it cautions against the assumption that authoritarianism in countries like Uganda is a necessarily simplistic form of maintaining power. Only by avoiding this trap can we grasp the wider lessons of the 2016 elections – and begin to assess where Ugandan politics is going and what will happen when the Museveni era finally comes to an end.

Sam Wilkins is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford

Richard Vokes is Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and Development Studies at the University of Adelaide

They are the guest editors of a special issue of the Journal of Eastern Africa Studies entitled “The NRM regime and the 2016 Ugandan elections”. This online briefing draws extensively on papers presented in that edition.