Make no mistake, the violent and angry protests directed at the Ugandan government earlier this month have nothing to do with the power and priviledges of traditional monarchies in sub-Saharan Africa or Uganda in particular. The outbreaks are so threatening to the government of Yoweri Museveni because, as president, he has strained ethnic relations in his multi-ethnic East African nation that’s blessed with great physical endowments but also afflicted by a long history of political turbulence. The Bugandan people, who are rallying behind their traditional monarch, are the most numerous ethnic group in Uganda and they feel victimized by practices of Museveni’s government that seem to favor the president’s own relatively small Banyakole ethnic group against the much larger Buganda. Lacking a secular political party of their own, the Buganda have only a ready means of resistance in the form of their traditional “tribal” authorities. Museveni, however, strongly opposes any form of autonomous sub-national government for the Buganda as such.
To be sure, the conflicts between the Buganda and the Ugandan national government are not the only instances of ethnic tensions within the country. Museveni and his government have long been accused of discrimination — and worse — against the ethnic Acholi of northern Uganda. And in the past year, complaints about ethnic favoritism have grown, with some even claiming that Museveni himself is fanning ethnic suspicions in order to maintain his own power base through divide-and-rule tactics. One of Africa’s finest journalists, Andrew Mwenda, has consistently confronted the use and abuse of ethnicity in Uganda and he remains the best single source on the contradictions of Museveni’s rule. As Mwenda noted in an important column this month, Museveni continues to woo donors with dreams of grassroots decentralization of governmet, while at the same time straining ethnic relations and creating new avenues for official corruption.
Underlying much of the tension in Uganda is a simple reality: Museveni aims to maintain a projection of democracy amid a reality of family, dynastic rule. Unwilling to abide by term limits on his own presidency, Museveni takes steady actions to engineer a succession by a family member, perhaps a child or even his own wife, Janet, who is a member of Parliament and a political force in her own right. Once a political icon who justly achieved acclaim for bringing stability to a strife-torn Uganda and fighting AIDS with intelligence, Museveni has become a kind of Mugabe-in-the-making, ever-more willing to sacrifice his country’s well-being for his own narrow interests.