Those debating the succession issue in Uganda should refer to Rome in 44BC. Rome had been a republic since 509BC when the patricians rose in revolt and deposed King Tarquinius Superbus. For nearly five centuries monarchy was taboo in Rome. Whenever anyone exhibited signs of strong leadership, critics would, to discredit him, accuse him of trying to make himself king.
On March 15 that year, senatorial conspirators of the Roman Republic led by Marcus Brutus assassinated Julius Caesar a powerful general and politician accusing him of trying to make himself king.
But anyone who has read the history of Republican Rome, most especially from the end of the Third Punic War in 146BC to Caesar’s death, would see that the republic was unsustainable. Leadership by a divided senate had caused Rome to be engulfed in civil war for a century. Killing Caesar could slow but not stop the slide towards monarchy. There were underlying factors necessitating strong centralised leadership. That is why 17 years after Caesar’s assassination, Rome actually succumbed to monarchy when Caesar’s grandnephew and heir, Octavian, declared a Principate in 27BC, marking the beginning of the Roman Empire.
Yet Octavian never declared himself king or emperor although that is what he became. Initially, he only persuaded the senate to name him princeps senatus, which meant “first on the roll call of the senate”. It soon took on the dignity of a prince. In fact in 27BC he asked to be relieved of all his offices and powers and be allowed to retire to private life. Instead the senate begged him to stay and confirmed his princely title for life. Later it conferred upon him the religious title, Augustus, which meant “Devine Augmentor” or “provider”, the name by which he came to be known in history.
Octavian (or now Augustus Caesar) understood both Rome’s hostility to and need for monarchy. Thus, he eased the death of the republic by keeping republican rituals and forms. He professed to be only chairman of the senate but no measure was proposed to it except at his instigation or consent. He ran for the consulate 13 times, campaigned and even paid for votes like the rest. Consuls and tribunes continued to be elected but actual power resided in him. The only important precedent he violated was to keep three cohorts of soldiers in the city and six near it to ensure his rule. After over a century of civil strife, Romans accepted this barely disguised monarchy with the humility of experience.
There is some similarity between Rome in the first century BC and Uganda at the end of the 20th Century and between President Yoweri Museveni and Augustus. Museveni campaigns in elections, spending oodles of money; his handlers stuff ballot boxes, beat up his opponents and even on occasion kill a few. Yet Museveni does not derive his power from these elections or the constitution. His power comes from his role in leading the NRA/M to victory through military conquest. Elections and constitutional rituals are only instruments to legitimise this power.
Consequently, this structure of power has led inevitably to a presidency for life. Yet Museveni does not seem to have planned it this way. Insiders say that when the NRA/M High Command met at Lubiri in January 1986 after capturing Kampala, Museveni insisted he preferred to be president for only two years of a transitional period, after which there would be peaceful succession. He was forced to accept four years. Yet when the four years expired, then National Political Commissar, Dr. Kizza Besigye, led a team to draft a resolution to amend the constitution to extend NRM’s life, and therefore Museveni’s presidency, for another five years.
This was the first in a series of actions that would create a presidency for life. In 1995, Uganda promulgated a constitution that limited the terms a president would serve to two. When writing his manifesto for the 1996 elections, Museveni promised he would not seek a second term. He was convinced by Bidandi Ssali, Amanya Mushega etc. to remove it arguing that it was not good to put such promises in writing; if he did not want to seek a second term, he should just not seek it. After the 1996 elections, Museveni addressed a press conference where he said he would not seek a second term.
In 2001 Museveni went back on his word and decided to seek the second term but promised it would be his last. When the test of this came, just like in 1989, the NRM, this time led by Amama Mbabazi, moved to amend the constitution and remove term limits. I suspect Museveni of 1986 would not have imagined himself clinging to power for 30 years. He despised such leaders.
But his change of heart is like what happens to people who fall in love. Initially they are totally convinced that he/she is the one and only. But even before marriage, cheating begins, and after marriage, quarrels escalate, and divorce or separation looms. What sustains a marriage is not the initial feelings of mutual affection and promises of “till-death-do-us-apart” but daily experiences where responses are improvised.
Therefore, we need to see Museveni as an improviser, not a long-term strategist for power retention. He is as much a hostage of his power as he is its architect. He is a cog in a wheel of Uganda’s vast social dynamics even though he would like to think, like his critics do, that he is the wheel. The vast network of interests that have grown and consolidated over the years have created powerful constituencies that benefit from Museveni’s rule and will fight to keep him in power to serve their interests.
Octavian did not seek to become an emperor but the situation in Rome, and every single action he personally or his handlers took, led to monarchy. Anyone who has read the history of armed struggle would know that successful movements in this category have very specific features. The founder is always the ideological philosopher, military commander, and political leader. Power tends to be centralised and personalised. The leader dies in office. After which there is a peaceful transition to collegial leadership. We have seen it in China, Vietnam, Cuba (Castrol retired after 49 years), Mozambique, and most recently in Ethiopia.
Those who are arguing for succession in Uganda should take these dynamics into consideration. Circumstances are never the same; there is always potential for a black swan and Uganda’s Museveni may surprise us. But holding other factors constant, I can predict that as night follows day, the NRM is going to amend the constitution to remove age limits so that Museveni can run for president in 2021.