When asked on national talk radio last weekend whether he had any plans for retirement, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, the President of Uganda for the past 28 years, claimed he would gladly leave politics, but believes his people do not want him to step down. The question comes as Museveni, whose National Resistance Movement party voted him their sole presidential candidate this February, prepares to campaign for the nation's 2016 elections and potentially begin his fifth elected five-year term in office. Soon after this tacit affirmation of his openness to being the nation's president-for-life, Museveni claimed he did not think any other country in the world was more democratic than Uganda.
"Well, I don't think Ugandans are as obsessed with my retirement as [Member of Parliament Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, of the Forum for Democratic Change opposition party, who posed the question] seems to be," said Museveni, "because when I go to ask them at the elections, 5 million say don't go, you stay. You have heard them, singing tajakugenda tajakugenda [don't go]. So if the Ugandans really were like Ssemujju, I would be happy to retire because I am not lacking where to retire. I am a member of my party and I do what my party wants."
Museveni's assertions raised eyebrows around the world. Uganda's elections, upon which the President's claims of external demand are based, are mired in allegations of tampering, intimidation, or at the very least imbalance. And the NRM, despite its outward show of support, is struggling with internal power struggles. (The President sidestepped specific questions by FDC opposition MP Abdul Katuntu about these fissions in the same interview.) Despite claims by NRM spokesman MP Stephen Mukitale that the party's youth did impose a presidential bid on Museveni, the President's track record suggests that he's had far more agency and desire in his latest electoral run than he's letting on.
Museveni came to power in Uganda in 1986, after spending the 1970s fighting the dictatorial regime of General Idi Amin and the early 1980s rebelling against the administration of President Apollo Milton Obote, under whose first 1966 to 1971 administration he'd served as an intelligence agent. Upon seizing the Presidency at age 41, Museveni initiated a series of economic, electoral, and social reforms that gained him massive popularity. This gained him an easy victory, with 74 percent of the vote, in the nation's lauded free and fair 1996 elections. Now aged 70, the 37-million-man nation's leader retains a strong everyman appeal. A 2013 Gallup Poll ranked him the ninth most popular president in sub-Saharan Africa with a 62 percent approval rating; his lowest ratings in recent memory, in 2012, were still 59 percent.
However high approval ratings do not equate to a desire for continued rule as Blaise Compaoré, President of Burkina-Faso from 1987 to 2014 and tied for fourth most popular with a 70 percent approval rating in the same Gallup Poll, learned when he was ousted after a bid to extend his term limit this year.
Museveni, the sixth longest-serving world leader who's not also part of a royal family, already bucked his own two-term limit, amending the constitution in 2006 to allow himself another run. This was particularly ironic given that he built his early popularity by lambasting African heads of state who stayed in office too long. This, alongside his decision to involve Uganda in the Democratic Republic of Congo's civil war, increasing use of the military to control the population through the 2000s, and excoriation of the Constitutional Court for opposing his actions, has slowly built up local skepticism of his increasingly Big Man regime.
Support for Museveni dropped in presidential elections to 69 percent in 2001 and 59 percent in 2006, before mysteriously jumping back to 68 percent in 2011. This trajectory tracks with growing accusations of electoral tampering, opposition intimidation, and increasing voter apathy. As early as 2001, the Supreme Court of Uganda found the state's elections mildly suspect. By 2011, international observers reported numerous irregularities, including bribery in at least 9 percent of voting fields and NRM spending ten times above opposition parties.
As if this weren't enough to cast doubt on Museveni's popular credentials, key opposition candidate of the 2001, 2006, and 2011 elections Kizza Besigye of the FDC has been the subject of intense state-backed military intimidation. In 2001 he was forced into exile after losing the elections, only to be accused of treason after returning in 2005. Over the course of five years, he was arrested at least 34 times and barricaded in his home on many more occasions. Protests after his 2011 loss were met with lethal force, killing at least nine. As of this year, Basigye has declared that he will no longer legitimize Museveni's elections by contesting them.
Fellow opposition candidate, Olara Otunnu of the Uganda People's Congress party, claims that these instances of rigging and violence have led to calls for a violent ouster.
"There's tremendous frustration in the country, tremendous bitterness, and young people in particular are saying, give the guns, don't waste time talking with Yoweri Museveni, he only understands the language of the gun," says Otunnu in a call for the removal of military personnel from electoral monitoring roles and their replacement with independent observers.
Within the NRM, critics say Museveni has actively squelched alternative leadership, and that their motion to select him as their sole candidate was a bid to discourage prominent members from challenging him in 2016. The same month, Museveni warned NRM members against forming cliques and contesting his position. This was most likely aimed at former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya and Parliamentary Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, both said to be entertaining a presidential bid. Then in September he dismissed his Prime Minister and former ally Amama Mbabazi supposedly because he had begun a campaign for the NRM's presidential election.
Instead of welcoming opposition candidates or rising stars in his own party, many believe Museveni may wish to hand over power to his son, Brigadier Muhoozi Kainerugaba, appointed head of a special forces unit in 2008, which in 2010 took control of presidential security and the nation's economically vital oil fields.
Museveni still enjoys widespread support, thanks to the nation's consistent six-plus percent growth rate and steady infrastructural development. Success in the nation's intervention in South Sudan, where many Ugandan businessmen have substantial economic interests, and presidential support for the anti-gay Bahati Bill skyrocketed Museveni's approval rating to 80 percent in February. And with no strong candidate set to emerge in Besigye's the incumbent president will likely enjoy a strong no-better-option bonus.
But none of this constitutes a popular mandate and desperate cry for Museveni to serve indefinitely as Uganda's de facto president-for-life. Whether Museveni does not recognize growing dissent, or simply dismisses it remains unclear. Whether he would be able to win an open internal NRM or national election remains unclear as well. What is clear is that, so long as the President appears to push against emerging alternative internal and external leadership, his claim that he only stays because the people want him there is entirely facetious, as they haven't really had the chance to voice their true opinions on the matter.
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