President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni – Africa’s fourth-longest-serving head of state in 2023 – has cemented his place in history. He brought an end to two tyrannies: in 1979 his militia helped to oust Idi Amin’s famously bloody regime; and in the 1980s his army won a guerrilla campaign against the brutal government of Milton Obote. When his men marched into Kampala in 1986, Museveni became the first leader of a popular insurrection to oust a sitting African government.
In recent years, media and public attention has focused on Museveni’s rough handling of political opponents and the deterioration of human rights under his watch. A petition before the International Criminal Court accuses him of sponsoring violence and abusing critics. Leading dissidents bear the scars of abuse inflicted by agents of the state.
For many Ugandans, however, Museveni remains essential. The president’s claim to power rests in large part on history, on the hold with which the country’s dark past grips the citizens of the present. The inhumanity of the 1970s and early 1980s – the casual and unpredictable brutality of Amin’s government, the mass killings of Obote’s regime – have passed out of the living memory of most Ugandans. Museveni’s government has had to create routines and institutions that remind Ugandans of their recent history. Keeping the politically instructive memory of the dark past vividly alive has been his enduring achievement.
The politics of salvation
Yoweri Museveni was born in 1944 in Ankole, an ancestral kingdom in south-western Uganda. His father was a member of the clan of noblemen; his mother was a born-again Christian, a convert of the East African Revival. Revivalists were renowned for their loud professions of rectitude and for their wilful disobedience towards traditional authorities.
By 1966 Museveni had broken with the Revival. At the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania he spent time in the company of Mozambican revolutionaries and toured the zones they had liberated from Portuguese control.
It was in politics, not religion, that the young Museveni sought to author other people’s salvation. He first came to diplomats’ notice in January 1973, when the American embassy in Nairobi received a five-page manifesto from the “Front for National Salvation”, called Fronasa. In it the young Museveni blamed Ugandan dictator Idi Amin – who had come to power in 1971 – for “stupid government, falling trade, rising prices” and the killing of at least 83,000 people. Fronasa’s objective was a “mass armed struggle”.
Within a few weeks Fronasa’s hideout in eastern Uganda had been raided by Amin’s soldiers. For years thereafter Museveni was to live in Tanzania, working as a teacher in a government school while financing Fronasa’s activities from his modest salary.
That is one of the themes of Museveni’s early political career: the distance between the lofty goals which he set out to achieve and the scarcity of the means with which he worked.
The ‘black Che Guevara’
In 1978 Museveni and a small band of militiamen joined the Tanzanian army as it invaded Uganda. By the time the Amin regime collapsed in April 1979, Museveni had 9,000 volunteers under his command. Many were from his home territory in the south-west.
His success as a recruiter earned Museveni a position of importance – minister of defence – in the fragile new government that took power in Kampala after Amin’s ouster. The British diplomat who worked closely with him thought Museveni to be a “tall, spare, intense man”, the “most effective member of the present Uganda government”.
In December 1980 Ugandans went to the polls to vote in a new government. It was the first election in Uganda since independence in 1962. Museveni stood for the presidency as the leader of a new party, called the Uganda People’s Movement. But it was Milton Obote – who had been ousted by General Amin in 1971 – who won the election and returned to the presidency.
Convinced that Obote’s new government would wreck Uganda, Museveni mobilised his followers and launched a struggle to oust his regime from power. There followed a long guerrilla war, fought between Museveni’s band of militants and the brutal, incompetent military of Obote’s government. Museveni’s militia called themselves the National Resistance Army.
At the outset they numbered 41 men, and had 27 guns between them. Nonetheless, they were convinced that they had the high ground. In a 1981 tract Museveni argued that Obote was creating an
enclave economy [with] night-clubs, neon lights, tourist hotels or shiny office blocks … surrounded by a sea of backwardness.
It was revolutionaries’ role, in his view, to “revive the moral standards that had once characterised Uganda”. Museveni promised to create a “Directorate of Moral Guidance” that would “promote a general revival of values in society”. He insisted on a careful discipline among his cadres: his soldiers were to pay for food they received from peasant farmers; and soldiers’ rectitude about alcohol and other indulgences was widely admired.
Obote’s government waged a war of extermination against Museveni’s supporters, especially in Luweero, the region just to the north of Kampala which was the National Resistance Army’s base. A British journalist embedded with Museveni’s group reported that government soldiers had murdered thousands of innocent civilians. He compared Obote’s regime to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Amnesty International published a report in 1985 describing state-sponsored murder, torture and other abuses of human rights.
Obote was overthrown in 1985 by his own generals. In January 1986 National Resistance Army militiamen marched into Kampala and formed a new government, with Museveni as president. Commentators sometimes referred to Museveni as the “black Che Guevara“.
Commemorating the Bush War
The awful violence of the Bush War, as it is called, made Museveni’s new government seem essential. After Museveni came to power his government set out to commemorate the events of their revolution. The remains of people who had been killed by Obote’s army were put on display, and the skulls were lined up neatly for viewers to appraise.
Today the memory of the Bush War remains a key part of the liturgy of public life. Every 9 June government celebrates Heroes Day, marking the day when a group of Museveni’s comrades were executed by Obote’s malign government. Museveni periodically tours Luweero, where the Bush War was largely fought. In September this year he celebrated his 79th birthday at Katonga, scene of a key battle of the Bush War. His daughter, the film-maker Natasha Karugire, recently released an eight-part movie documenting Museveni’s rise to power. There is a new book, too, produced by Museveni’s admirers. It is entitled The Titanic Story of The People’s Protracted War in Uganda.
In 1996 the country’s political system was opened up, and since then Museveni has won national elections six times: in 1996, when he defeated Paulo Ssemogerere; in 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2016, when he defeated the medical doctor Kiiza Besigye; and in 2021, when he defeated the young musician Bobi Wine (Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu), winning 59% of the vote.
All were marred by intimidation and by accusations of electoral malpractice. In 2021 government banned Bobi Wine’s rallies, using the COVID pandemic to justify the suppression of political opposition.
Today, more than at any time in history, the memory of the old heroism grows dim. More than three quarters of Uganda’s population has been born since 1986, when Museveni came to power. Most of the 41 comrades who launched the Bush War have died or retired. The president’s son, Muhoozi, is increasingly prominent in public life, and there is talk that in the next election he will succeed his father as candidate for the presidency.
And yet, as the electoral results suggest, the founding story of Museveni’s government remains persuasive for a great many people. During the COVID pandemic he made an exercise video, sweating out 30 push-ups for the camera while instructing his viewers on the virtues of clean living. Here the “black Che Guevara” could be seen again: physically vigorous, full of direction for his people.
Derek R. Peterson, Professor of History and African Studies, University of Michigan