BUSHENYI, Uganda (Reuters) - When Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni returned to his home region to throw an Independence Day party last month, the uniformed security outnumbered the small crowd of bored spectators. Museveni slowly drove past the crowd, a mix of schoolchildren and farmers, in a top-of-the-range pick-up truck, giving them a wide smile and a thumbs-up, the ruling party symbol. He was met with blank stares. The apathy - on a continent where strongman rulers are traditionally feted in their home areas - reveals the slow leaching away of political support from one of Africa’s longest-serving rulers.
Now, as his party plans to extend his rule, the president is increasingly reliant on a military unit from his home area, the Special Forces Command, to quell dissent over collapsing public services, corruption, growing poverty and brutality by security services. “We’ve had enough of him,” said butcher Steven Ruturukirira bluntly. In a lengthy speech, the 73-year-old Museveni studiously ignored the day’s hot topic: a legislative plan to remove the 75-year age limit for the presidency, clearing the way to extend his leadership of the oil-rich nation. “The pursuit of social and economic transformation of Africa is not a simple matter. It calls for visionary leadership,” Museveni told the crowd.
Relieved to see Uganda freed from the yoke of brutal dictators, the West has given Museveni an easy ride over the last three decades, glad of his support against radical Islam and his role as power broker in the volatile Great Lakes Region.
Uganda has also welcomed foreign investors like France’s Total, China’s CNOOC and Britain’s Tullow, who hope to start pumping 6.5 billion barrels worth of crude reserves through a planned $3.55 billion pipeline.
But as the opposition makes inroads in urban areas, Museveni relies on support in rural heartlands, as well as his special forces, exacerbating ethnic tensions and potentially sowing the seeds for conflagration when he eventually leaves power.
Currently, the age cap bars Museveni from standing in Uganda’s next elections, scheduled for 2021. But last month a ruling party lawmaker introduced a bill to scrap the rule.
The government gave each MP $8,000 to help them consult voters on the bill, provoking fury among ordinary citizens like quarry worker Ronald Malongo, 27, who is among a growing number of Ugandans who make less than a dollar a day.
“Museveni works only for his stomach and those around him,” Malongo panted as he lifted a load of granite. “We’re trash to him.”
An opinion survey of 1,200 Ugandans by pollster Afrobarometer a year ago found three quarters opposed the bill. Some legislators trying to promote it were met with jeers or violence in their home constituencies, media reported. Protests have been crushed by riot police, killing two. Opposition lawmakers tried to filibuster the bill in September, but said they were forcibly ejected from parliament by the Special Forces Command (SFC), a loyalist military unit heavily staffed with soldiers from Museveni’s Hima ethnic group. Several MPs sustained serious injuries, like Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, who said SFC forces dragged him from the debating chamber and choked him in a nearby room. Uganda is “gradually moving into some sort of a military regime,” he said. “I don’t see Museveni turning back, he has a group around him that can’t allow a change (because they are profiting from this).” At the time, the police chief told television reporters he had invited “sister” security agencies into parliament, a euphemism usually used for the military.
But military spokesman Richard Karemire denied soldiers had ejected legislators or strangled Nganda, telling Reuters: “Uganda is not a military state ... it’s a democracy.”
Estimated at about 10,000, SFC has evolved from a small presidential guard to a fully fledged branch of the military that enjoys better welfare and training and controls superior equipment.
Soldiers in the SFC get an $80 per month “food basket allowance” that ordinary soldiers don’t get. That’s a powerful incentive when the number of Ugandans who spend less than a dollar a day has surged to 27 percent of the population, up from 20 percent five years ago, according to the statistics office.
The starting wage for an ordinary soldiers is $105.
The unit also gets better housing, training, and weapons than regular soldiers, two military officers told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
“It’s an army within an army,” one the officers said. It was formerly commanded by Museveni’s son, Major General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, now a presidential adviser. Many believe he is being prepared to succeed his father after a military general, David Sejusa, wrote a widely published letter to the head of internal security in 2013.
Sejusa, an old comrade of Museveni‘s, asked for an investigation into an alleged plot to assassinate top government officials opposed to the Museveni “family project of holding onto power in perpetuity”.
Sejusa fled to the United Kingdom but returned to Uganda in 2014. He remains in the military, which bars him from politics, but has been sidelined from power.
Kainerugaba’s successor at the head of the SFC is also from the Hima ethnic group. Other prominent members include military chief David Muhoozi, and Museveni’s wife, Janet, the education minister.
“SFC is ethnic, it’s an army built on ethnic lines,” said Nganda, a former member of a parliamentary committee that oversees the military. The danger with rewarding ethnic loyalists with favours and privileges is that beneficiaries “will not sit back and watch power slide out of their hands,” Uganda political analyst Nicholas Sengoba said.
“These people will try by hook or crook to maintain the status quo,” he said. “That is where you have potential for violence.”
Editing by Katharine Houreld and Giles Elgood