KAMPALA, Uganda: After the stunning fall of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, attention has turned to other longtime African leaders accused of trying to extend their rule. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s sudden move last week to decorate over 300 army officers in a rare mass promotion suggested the jolt of realization across the continent: If Mugabe, who ruled for 37 years, could be forced from power by the military, perhaps anyone can.
With Mugabe’s departure, Museveni is one of just four African leaders in power who have ruled for more than three decades. The group also includes Cameroon’s Paul Biya, who has been head of government or president for 42 years; Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who has ruled since 1979; and Republic of Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso, who during two spells in office has ruled for 33 years.
Museveni, a key U.S. security ally, is the most visible of the four. He has ruled this east African nation for three decades and now seeks to extend his rule by removing a presidential age limit from the constitution. The opposition has loudly objected.
His mass promotions in the Ugandan army promotions signal that Museveni was startled by the sight of Zimbabwe’s military takeover that ended the rule of the 93-year-old Mugabe, who led his country since independence and had vowed to rule until death.
The promotions were meant to appease army officers after Mugabe’s ouster, said Gerald Bareebe, a Ugandan academic at the University of Toronto who is researching the role of African armies in regime consolidation. “Museveni knows that without the support of the army he cannot survive longer in power,” he said.
“There are fundamental similarities between Uganda and Zimbabwe. Both Mugabe and Museveni have been pushing fate,” said Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi, a Ugandan attorney who has represented Museveni’s opponents. “What will cause a spark in Uganda, no one knows.”
As in Zimbabwe, the military is seen as the most powerful institution in Uganda, and many people despair over Museveni’s seemingly tight control of it. The newly promoted officers include the chief of military intelligence and the commander of the elite special forces, which is in charge of protecting the president and until recently was led by Museveni’s son, Maj. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba.
Museveni over the years has boasted of his ability to “tame” the army following violent coups that deposed past Ugandan leaders. Museveni himself took power by force in 1986 after toppling a military junta that had removed an elected president. He has since purged many peers who had become generals and replaced them with younger officers deemed loyal to the first family.
Still, some doubt that an aging Museveni can continue to wield firm control and are urging him to initiate democratic reforms.
“Zimbabwe’s lesson for Africa is that an imperial presidency backed by the organizational ideology of militarism is not sustainable,” said Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a political historian at Uganda’s Makerere University. “It has an end.”
Over the years, Museveni has won four elections marred by allegations of vote fraud. Lawmakers are now working on a bill that seeks to remove a clause in the constitution that prevents anyone over 75 from running for president. At 73, Museveni is ineligible to run again if the barrier remains. The bill almost certainly will pass because the ruling party enjoys an overwhelming majority in the national assembly.
Uganda is on a “downward spiral of declining governance” as Museveni appears unwilling to retire, said the International Crisis Group in a Nov. 21 assessment that Uganda’s government has disputed.
“Major violence is unlikely for now, but Uganda nonetheless faces the gradual fraying of order, security and governance. Discontent is growing, particularly among youth,” said the group. “The president cannot continue to rely on patronage and coercion by loyal security services instead of initiating the reforms necessary to reverse the decline of the economy.”
As in Zimbabwe, where huge protests after the military’s takeover pressed for Mugabe to step down, leaders across Africa risk being swept from power with support from a popular uprising, especially one angry over economic stagnation or decline.
Early this year Gambia’s longtime ruler Yahya Jammeh was forced to flee into exile in Equatorial Guinea after losing an election and refusing to step down in a political standoff that led to a threat of regional military intervention. In Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore was forced to step down in 2014 after 27 years after protests erupted when he tried to amend the constitution to seek another term in office.
Now the spotlight has turned to Uganda, according to Makau Mutua, a prominent Kenyan lawyer based in the United States, who said on Twitter after Mugabe’s resignation last week: “Ugandans need to give Yoweri Museveni the Mugabe treatment. Strike while the iron is hot.”