Following years of misrule and civil conflict in Uganda, power was achieved by Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) government in January 1986 following a guerrilla war with, successively, the second government of Milton Obote (1980-1985) and then the government of Generals Bazilio Okello and Tito Okello. On coming to power, Museveni proclaimed that his top priorities were national conciliation, economic development, and army discipline. While the latter aim was swiftly achieved, with the army gaining much respect from most ordinary Ugandans, the country embarked on a managed transition to an unusual form of democracy in the early 1990s. Heading an elected “no-party” government, president Museveni attacked the concept of multiparty democracy with both vigor and eloquence. He claimed that it was inappropriate for Uganda to have a political system based on divided and divisive political parties. He noted—with some justification—that, when tried in the past, a fundamental cause of the country’s societal and political problems had been the ethnic and religious divisiveness caused by the competition of multiparty politics. In Uganda, there are four main religious divides—Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and followers of African traditional religions—and some 40 distinct ethnic groups.
Museveni and his government inherited a shattered economy, heavily dependent on foreign loads and investment if it were soon to recover. Encouraged by Museveni’s determination to rebuild the country’s political, social, and economic stability, Uganda was the recipient of billions of dollars of foreign aid from the late 1980s on. A condition for its disbursement, however, was the adoption of major economic reforms via a structural adjustment program, with terms dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Surprisingly, the international financial institutions did not try to link the granting of financial assistance to political conditionality, especially progress to a multiparty political system. The chief reason, it appears, is that there was admiration for the way that Museveni and his government had managed to install a fair level of stability after decades of turmoil.
The centerpiece of political reform in Uganda after 1986 was the proclaimed policy of fundamentally shifting power to the mass of ordinary people, especially in the rural areas, where the majority of Ugandans live. Museveni claimed to have created a government of national unity drawn from as many effectively autonomous or semiautonomous political forces as possible, in order to bring the country’s internal wars to a close. Balancing (and to some extent constraining) the resultant broad-based but weak central government were resistance councils (RCs), strong representations of the multifarious political grassroots of the country. These bodies were established initially in the early 1980s in the “liberated areas” then under Museveni’s control. Small-scale, face-to-face support groups, they were examples, he claimed, of grassroots, popular democracy. Following the achievement of power, RCs spread throughout Uganda as an important NRM policy.
The RCs were not seen by the country’s political leaders as an inferior substitute for other kinds of representative institutions. Rather, they were defended as being fundamentally more democratic institutions than earlier political parties operating in the country. Traditional parties—including the Democratic Party, the Uganda Peoples’ Congress, and the Kabaka Yekka (King Alone) movement in Buganda—had collectively made Uganda’s transition to independence from Britain in 1962 an intensely pressured and divisive affair. Their maneuvers and strategies to achieve power had the counterproductive result of strongly encouraging ethnic, regional and “sectarian” differences (what Museveni’s
London: James Currey, 1988.
Kasfir, Nelson, “‘No-Party Democracy in Uganda.” Journal of Democracy 9, no. 1 (1998): 49-63.
Museveni, Yoweri. What is Africa’s Problem? Speeches and Writings on Africa. Kampala, Uganda: NRM, 1992.
Government called the country’s “politicoreligious cleavages”) still dividing Uganda today.
After its seizure of power, the NRM installed an intricate structure of “nonparty” RCs from village to district level. Elections to the various levels were held in 1989 and 1992. The October 1995 constitution provided for a 276-member unicameral parliament and an autonomous, independently elected president. The constitution formally extended Uganda’s one-party “movement system” form of government for five years and severely restricted political party activities.
In what was widely interpreted as a step toward political normalization, separate generally peaceful and orderly presidential and parliamentary elections were held in June and July 1996. Museveni was elected president by a wide margin (70 per cent) over his nearest challenger, Paul Ssemogerere, joint candidate of the Democratic Party and the Ugandan People’s Congress. NRM supporters won an overwhelming majority of seats in the new parliament. Overall, popular participation in the three sets of elections was widespread, providing positive evidence of the NRM’s commitment to its own kind of no-party democracy.
During the 1990s, political reforms were paralleled by economic reforms. Despite the regime’s disavowal of multiparty democracy and a questionable human and civil rights record, there was considerable financial support for the NRM government from external sources. The government relied heavily on foreign aid to support its development program, with foreign assistance accounting for approximately 51 per cent of government spending. Rebuilding the country’s export base after years of decline, there were economic reward: between 1985 and 1997 average annual growth of gross domestic product per capita averaged 2.7 per cent. Overall, in the 1990s the economy grew, albeit from a low base, at over 7 per cent a year. While much of this growth was no more than rebuilding after years of civil strife, it was nonetheless a good record.
Museveni has been able to bring political stability and economic steadiness to most of a country that has hardly experienced either since independence in 1962. He was reelected in 2001, and in 2003 he proposed lifting the ban on multiparty politics, subject to a referendum. Surrounded by politically volatile countries (including the Democratic Republic of Congo [Zaire], Sudan, Ethiopia, and Rwanda), Uganda is seen by Western governments as an island of stability in an increasingly turbulent East African region. However, despite undoubted successes, significant problems remain. While national reconstruction and economic growth and reconstruction have forged ahead in the south of the country, the government is embroiled in a civil war in the north with rebels with bases in southern Sudan and eastern Congo.
See also: Museveni, Yoweri Kaguta.
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-. From Chaos to Order: The Politics of ConstitutionMaking in Uganda. Kampala, Uganda: Fountain/London: James Currey, 1995.
. Uganda Now: Between Decay and Development.