Recently, Ugandan civil society organizations warned about the likelihood of increasing political violence leading up to the country’s 2021 general elections. Disturbing incidents of opposition figures like Bobi Wine being arrested and beaten, journalists being punished for covering those who challenge the state, and people associated with the new political opposition, like Michael Kalinda, being abducted, tortured, and even killed certainly support the case for sounding the alarm.
Uganda is not doomed; it’s an impressive country in many respects and countless Ugandans are interested in working together to build a peaceful, more democratic, and prosperous future. But over the course of Museveni’s 33-year governing tenure, clientelism and intolerance for political challenges that resist co-option have become prominent features of the state. Realistic plans for the future have to grapple with the possibility that instability will grow, and that the end of 75-year-old President Museveni’s tenure, however it comes, will be a catalyst for violent competition as entrenched interests resist change.
It is not at all clear that the United States is prepared for the possibility of a Ugandan unraveling. As the largest troop contributing country to the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, Uganda has been a critically important partner in combating al-Shabab and supporting the fragile government in Mogadishu. Uganda also currently hosts over a million refugees, more than any other African state. If Uganda is destabilized, the potential for contagion in an already volatile region is substantial, particularly for neighbors like South Sudan, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One hopes a range of contingencies are being thought out, and that energetic diplomacy is working to tip the scales towards peaceful, positive outcomes for Uganda and the region. The worst thing the United States could do would be to assume the status quo will persist.