A faded Museveni 2011 election poster (Adam Jones July 23, 2012)

On Saturday 20th February, Badru Kiggundu, the chairman of the outgoing Ugandan Electoral Commission, declared Yoweri Museveni the winner of the just-concluded presidential election. At the end of the new five-year term, his fifth as an elected president, Museveni will have ruled Uganda for 35 years.

Not surprisingly, the freeness and fairness of the elections have been called into question by many local and international observers who were dubious from the outset. During a trip to the country last December, I couldn’t help but notice an atmosphere of tame resignation. The general sense was that the posters of opposition candidates jostling for space on the country’s electric poles were part of a game whose outcome was already determined.

Museveni wasn’t going to lose.

During the election, two opposition candidates were effectively under house arrest by the military. The most viable opposition candidate, Dr Kizza Besigye, had been in and out of scuffles with the police for the whole week.

Many polling stations in his strongholds in and around the capital Kampala received ballot papers within minutes of 4pm, when polls were supposed to begin closing. There was sporadic violence and rumours of violence, and my friends in Uganda had to resort to VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to circumvent a social media lockdown.

In the end, more than 5.4 million eligible Ugandans didn’t take part in the exercise. There certainly are many reasons for this. I think the most pertinent is the reason a Ugandan who was in Kenya during election week gave: his vote wouldn’t have made a difference anyway.

It’s too soon to make firm conclusions about what happened in Uganda. But for a Kenyan, the similarities with the government of our President Moi are inescapable, even for someone who only lived through the tail end of those days. The election was staged more as a rubber stamp for the continued rule of a strongman than as an open platform for the projection of the voice of the people he seeks to rule.

Museveni apparently wanted another term – a 2006 constitutional amendment struck down term limits – because he was worried about leaving the country in the wrong hands. The implication that he is the only one who can lead the country smacks of a longing to rule forever and is the hallmark of all dictators’ desperate claims to legitimacy. He might sound concerned about the country’s future, but he is also going against the statement he made at his first swearing-in in 1986 that “democracy is the right of the people of Africa.”

But even against the backdrop of Museveni’s penchant for presidential terms, one also shouldn’t be too quick to canonise the opposition candidates. Their every tribulation shouldn’t be seen as evidence of the government’s high-handedness and nothing else.

On some occasions, Besigye tactically provoked the government to act in a manner that would suggest intimidation. Not one to be outdone in a clash of egos, Museveni responded in these cases with impressive swiftness, detaining the man more than once in the week before the election.

Besigye came out the martyr, and when he subsequently claimed two days before the elections that they would be neither free nor fair but that he would win nevertheless, he sounded like the one on the right side of history.

With this in mind, one might easily ignore the fact that Besigye has been cut from the same cloth as Museveni, having served the president as his personal physician during and after the Ugandan Bush war, which brought Museveni to power. Sure, that’s not reason enough to dismiss him, but it shows that there is more to their rivalry than a desire to bring Uganda to its best days.

Given that Museveni has been reluctant to jump onto the liberal bandwagon, boldly standing up to western-pushed calls for gay rights, reproductive health services (quite a misnomer) and condoms in the fight against AIDS (a battle in which the country has made great strides anyway), there is an overwhelming temptation for many to paint him the devil and Besigye the saint. A glowing tribute was paid to Besigye’s “remarkable bravery and resolve” in the Daily Nation – Kenya’s largest newspaper – by Nic Cheeseman, an Oxford professor of African Politics who was in western Uganda during the elections.

Certainly, Museveni hasn’t played it fair this time. If he had, he might still have won, given that his main support base is in the rural areas where the vast majority of Ugandans live. His victory would have been above reproach, but instead the effect of his antics has been to associate his resistance to the West with an illegitimate presidency. Denying his countrymen the right to a free and fair election and denying them gay rights are seductively easy to equate as evidence of African conservativism’s dictatorial tendencies.

Like it or not though, he remains the president of Uganda, and that means a lot for the region’s geopolitics. It means Kenya’s government retains a stalwart friend and an indispensable ally in the battle against al-Shabaab, where Ugandan troops constitute the largest AMISOM (an AU mission in Somalia) contingent. Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president, maintains a close friendship with Museveni, and braved a backlash from Kenyans when he congratulated Museveni in his victory.

The victory also means the US has to keep working with Museveni in tracking Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army). The LRA’s 25-year insurgency in northern Uganda, the Central African Republic, Congo (DRC) and, more recently, Sudan’s Darfur, has claimed thousands of lives and ruined even more. American advisors have been part of the search for Kony since 2010, following a popular law signed by Obama.

Maybe it’s a preposterous statement, but Museveni might have the best chance of lassoing Kony, since he’s been on his trail longest and with most success. But even here he is not above reproach. For one, his support for the en masse African withdrawal from the ICC and his dismissal of the court during the election campaign goes against his referral of the Kony case to the same court in 2003 and certainly occasions one or two doubts about his commitment to the fight. Time will whether this will be the term in which he finally captures the elusive renegade.

Ultimately though, despite Museveni’s antics, democracy is on the rise in Uganda. It is possible, almost certain, that, just like Kenya moved from its one party days to the political melee that it is right now, Uganda will one day say goodbye to Museveni and have a taste of real democracy. One can only hope that Museveni will bow out gracefully, and humbly overlook the few banana peels that will be thrown at him during the handing-over ceremony.

Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.