The killing of three Baganda youths by President Yoweri Museveni’s security detail at Kasumbi tombs is shocking but not surprising. There is a quiet battle between Museveni and Mengo. The president knows that Mengo is becoming a major pillar of resistance to his authority. Although this is a correct reading of the situation, it is actually happening spontaneously i.e. without a strategy or plan by Mengo.
Therefore, when Mengo asked him not to go to Kasubi until they okay his trip, Museveni interpreted it as some grand plan to determine his actions. Besides, during the Kayunga saga, he had ordered the Kabaka not to visit a part of his kingdom. To allow Mengo determine whether or when he can visit a part of Uganda would be surrendering vital strategic initiative – however symbolic it was.
Most critically, when some Baganda youths sought to block him from accessing the tombs, they were inadvertently daring him to cross the Rubicon. Museveni understands the stakes in such a game; he could not afford to retreat. He had to demonstrate to Mengo and its real, imagined and potential allies that he is president and commander in chief. A forceful entry accompanied by terror and deaths was therefore necessary.
To understand why Museveni tends to use an unusually high level of violence against opponents – both violent and pacific – it is vital to first appreciate his view of violence. From his student days in Dar Es Salam, Museveni has viewed violence as an instrument of power. You only have to read his bachelor’s thesis to get what I am saying.
Indeed, Museveni’s approach to security is akin to what in colonial parlance was called “gunboat diplomacy.” Here, the colonial power would, through a massive demonstration of force like matching an army through the capital of an African chief, create such shock and awe that the “natives” would back down from any imagined resistance.
That is why it was necessary for the media to publish pictures of the security operative pointing a pistol at a terrified, unarmed and defenceless crowd of women. The dead bodies, the injured and the terrified women at gunpoint are all images Museveni needs to send a signal to Mengo. They give whoever is (or may be) planning to challenge him a hint of the evil he is willing to visit upon them should they dare.
In many ways, Museveni learnt from Milton Obote’s experience in 1966. Obote avoided any demonstration of force against Mengo. This encouraged Mengo to pass a motion of secession in the Lukiiko, call upon Baganda veterans of World War 2 to turn up to defend the Kabaka, throw barricades on major roads and overrun police stations across Buganda. Rather than lead, Obote was reacting to Mengo’s moves. When he finally decided to act, the situation had grown too grave to avoid a bloody confrontation.
Museveni is therefore taking pre-emptive action to forestall any possibility of Mengo growing confident enough to imagine it can challenge him. Of course he has to weight the costs and benefits of such an undertaking. On balance, at least in his scheme of things, pre-emptive violence is less costly than a full bloodied battle like that of 1966.
Indeed, it is the perception among many Ugandans inside and outside the NRM that Museveni is ruthless enough to kill anyone who challenges him that has helped him consolidate power. When Kizza Besigye challenged him in 2000 and 2005, Museveni unleashed unprecedented terror on him: 24 hour surveillance, jail and trial for rape and treason in the high court, for terrorism in the military court martial etc.
These tactics were not meant for Besigye; Museveni knew his opponent to be made of steel. They were directed at those in NRM who desired to challenge him by showing the costs of such an undertaking. Therefore, the killings at Kasubi Tombs, although possibly accidental, fit into Museveni’s grand strategy against the opposition.
At Kasubi, Museveni was sending signals to the opposition of what he can do as we begin presidential election campaigns. He has always organised private gangs or security operatives to disrupt opposition rallies and kill or harm their supporters in every election.
Every Independence Day or NRM day, there are massive demonstrations of military might at Kololo Airstrip. You see a large assembly of tanks, APCs, Buffaloes, artillery pieces – everything. It looks like the military parades in the Red Square in Moscow during the Soviet era that is still done in North Korea. In such cases, the aim is to scare real or potential adversaries before they dream of challenging him.
Mengo has emerged, quite inadvertently, as the major pillar of opposition to Museveni. Yet partly because it does not seek to be, partly because it does not know how to go about it, partly because it has descent leaders that do not seek to violet the constitution and partly because it is afraid of the consequences of such an undertaking, Mengo is holding back from taking a leadership role its circumstances have bestowed upon it. This way, the forces of opposition in Uganda are deflated.
Yet Museveni’s pre-emptive strategy also bears seeds of its own limitations. Without the overt and covert support of Mengo, he would neither have succeeded in his guerrilla war nor been able to rig and “win” three elections. Although he legitimately claims credit for restoring the kingdom, Museveni ignores the critical role Mengo played in securing Baganda support for his rebellion to succeed.
Museveni is also underestimating the emotive appeal the kingdom has among its subjects. His aides keep saying that “Baganda peasants” are behind him. But does Museveni believe that in the race for the hearts of Baganda peasants he can beat their own Kabaka even if His Majesty did not contest at all? I hope he doesn’t.
Without Baganda support, neither Western Uganda alone nor his rigging machinery can pull off a victory for him except a pyrrhic one i.e. at a very high cost. Therefore, in locking horns with Mengo, Museveni may finally be laying down the foundation of his eventual downfall. Next week: how can the opposition benefit from this conflict.