Museveni and KagameBy : Harry Verhoeven

Is East Africa slowly democratizing, or about to turn back the clock and slide into political violence again?

The landslide election victories of Uganda's National Resistance Movement (NRM), the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in the past twelve months have not coincided, as the ruling parties hoped, with a sense of political stability in Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.

Though the NRM, RPF and SPLM/A pulled out all the stops in their respective campaigns -humiliating a harassed opposition with Stalinist scores- winning the polls with 93% of the vote should reassure no one, as it is a sign of deep uncertainty amidst intra-movement dilemmas.

The problems in the months and years ahead for the NRM, RPF and SPLM/A are not so much related to a resurgent opposition capitalising on youth unemployment, (this is NOT Egypt or Tunisia) or even to possible outside challenges (from Khartoum or Kinshasa), but are reflections of the inherent dilemmas that post-liberation movements face.

The main challenge faced by post-liberation regimes across Africa is the ‘commitment problem' that arises as regime elites with joint control of the state's coercive capacity try to share power. Rebuilding the country is always difficult- external conditions, weak governance structures and greed all help explain relapses into violence. However, the central challenge for power holders is often not economic, but political. Former rebels continue to use the informal mechanisms that suited them so well when conspiring outside government. Power consequently resides in a shadow state, characterised by the personal and reciprocal arrangements which developed in the struggle. When the external enemy disappears and interests diverge, tensions emerge between these formal and informal arrangements.

Intra-elite conflicts occur in all political systems, but when antagonisms develop between factions with the capacity and capability for violent action, power struggles can be explosive. What further increases the potential for violence in post-liberation regimes are the personal ties of shared sacrifice on which the movement is based (with actors confusing political disagreements and personal betrayal) and the persisting belief that violence is an integral part of politics.

When splits occur along regional or ethnic lines, conflict often spills over from movement into society, as the losing side tries to turn the tide by mobilising ‘its' part of the population. This detonates full-scale civil war, as happened in Sudan when figurehead president Omar Al-Bashir and disgruntled lieutenants successfully challenged the supremacy of Sheikh Hassan Al-Turabi of the National Islamic Front, contributing to the Darfur conflict as Western Sudanese were purged from the regime to protect Bashir. Other classic examples include Liberia and Chad in the 1980s, and Congo's AFDL, with Laurent Kabila, the Congolese Tutsi and the RPF as protagonists.

Uganda and the NRM

The NRM, RPF and SPLM/A are all at different stages of the post-liberation cycle. The NRM has so far been able to prevent devastating splits and keep the peace, at least internally. Yoweri Museveni has presided over sustained economic growth, a reduction in HIV infection rates and perhaps most importantly seems to have managed to pull Uganda out of the coup-civil war cycle, when each new takeover of power -1962, 1966, 1971, 1981, 1985, 1986- coincided with ethno-regional exclusion at the elite level, thus reproducing violence as former power holders mobilised their base against the new rulers (who were often their old co-conspirators.)

Museveni has shown himself a master of movement politics, abandoning progressive Pan-Africanist ideology and embracing a traditional neo-patrimonial agenda, but fending off factional infighting and its possible spillovers to the rest of Ugandan society. Museveni's strategic use of the wars in Congo -keeping his ambitious generals busy with mineral exploitation there- but also of lavish aid flows and decentralisation policies -expanding his patronage network and thus widening the base on which the power of the president rests- have allowed the NRM to keep internal rivalry under control.

Museveni has been careful in balancing elites and their local constituencies, trying to give many factions a stake in the current order by keeping them close to him to prevent security dilemmas from unfolding. Important former NRM cadres like Kizza Besigye and General Muntu now head the main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, but their departures from the movement were not the result of rising paranoia or ethno-regional purges- Museveni, Besigye and Muntu all come from South-Western Uganda which has dominated power positions since 1986.

However, the real test of whether the NRM -and Uganda- have effectively escaped The Commitment Problem will only come when the Old Man finally retires. The recent elections demonstrated once again how the combination of a divided opposition and the usual incumbency advantages can easily return the president to office, making the vote mainly about reordering power with NRM. It is terribly convenient for Museveni's supporters to argue that he cannot leave the presidency, lest his party falls apart as it fights over his succession. However, this isn't entirely disingenuous: it is an implicit admission that the NRM still finds it difficult to share the spoils of sovereignty in a strategic environment where the threat of ethno-regional exclusion and associated violence continues to be a real possibility.

Rwanda and the RPF

The RPF has long been regarded by its enemies as a formidably cohesive liberation movement, but 2010 has gone some way to shattering the image of a phalanx built on Tutsi solidarity. The increase in repression vis-à-vis the opposition in the run-up to the August 2010 presidential poll had less to do with a genuine threat to RPF hegemony emanating from Victoire Ingabire or the Green Party than with the fall-out between old comrades in arms. The succession question is explosive in Rwanda too, particularly given the recourse to coercive capacities and the continued elite belief in violence as a legitimate political strategy. However, the problem is far more acute than in Uganda ,as the split of former army chief of staff Kayumba Nyamwasa and spymaster Patrick Karegeya underlines.

Both Kayumba and Karegeya were part of the very core of the RPF but were losing the internal power struggle with President Paul Kagame and his lieutenants James Kabarebe and Emmanuel Ndahiro that emerged after the Congo wars. As Kayumba tried to up the game by exploring the possibilities of a coup in 2009, Kagame moved against him, triggering his escape to South Africa via Uganda. Grenade attacks in Kigali, a tightening of security around the president, several frantic government reshuffles -including the arrest of another key RPF general, Karake Karenzi- and a failed assassination attempt on Kayumba in Johannesburg in June 2010 all highlight the stakes of the game currently being played.

Kayumba and Karegeya have formed the Rwandan National Congress and are known to be in touch with Rwandan military inside and outside the country. Now that Kagame seems to have warded off a possible coup, chances of a new rebellion have increased. Kayumba and Karegeya are rumoured to be preparing an armed struggle against Kagame's RPF from Eastern Congo, possibly via the Front Populaire pour la Libération du Congo (FPLC), currently under the control of officers close to another RPF ally-turned-foe Laurent Nkunda (who is under house arrest in Rwanda). The FPLC has attracted defectors from the Rwandan army and also fighters formerly with the genocidal ex-FAR/Interahamwe. It is small and weak at this stage, and is already facing targeted assassination strikes, but its type of organisation has the potential to grow into a serious threat after the split in the RPF leadership, bringing former archenemies together under the anti-Kagame banner.

South Sudan and the SPLM/A

Whereas the NRM and RPF have been in power for several decades, the SPLM/A will only officially begin ruling independent South Sudan from 9 July onwards, though it has been administering the region for the past 6 years under Sudan's Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The SPLM/A is however already facing a major revolt as Lt-Gen George Athor, following disputed gubernatorial elections in Jonglei in April 2010, is leading an uprising that is threatening to tear South Sudan apart. In recent days and weeks, clashes between Athor's forces, mainly consisting of disgruntled SPLA forces, and the regular army of the Government of South Sudan have led to more than 1000 deaths and the violence has spiralled away from the desolate Jonglei countryside. After the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Fangak, open battles in Malakal, the biggest city in Upper Nile, are now taking place, as Athor has rejected the amnesty and political negotiations proposed by President Salva Kiir and is trying to team up with other rebel leaders.

Though Khartoum's National Intelligence and Security Service is almost certainly supporting these insurgencies, the driving factors behind the violence are predominantly Southern Sudanese. Persisting underdevelopment; a lack of reconciliation and social justice efforts following the CPA; food production problems; disastrous post-CPA disarmament campaigns; and, increasingly, the commitment problem are at the heart of the growing crisis. It is particularly worrying that senior sources in the SPLM/A are indicating that Angelina Teny, wife of SPLM/A Vice-President Riek Machar and herself a defeated gubernatorial candidate in Unity State, is providing extensive support to the rebellion of another renegade officer, Gatluak Gai. Gatluak is fighting against Governor Taban Gai Deng who's backed by the boss of Angelina's husband, Salva Kiir. In 1991, a terrible split along ethno-regional lines unleashed genocidal violence in Jonglei against the Dinka by the Nuer as the mainstream SPLM/A, dominated by Dinka, fought Machar, thriving on Nuer chauvinism. A repeat of an ethno-regional schism in the SPLM/A could now be more likely than at any time since John Garang and Riek Machar reconciled in 2000.

As the SPLM/A leadership privately admits, this is an absurd but above all dangerous situation that jeopardises the entire state-building project. Landlocked, mired in abject poverty, facing a resource curse, and teaming with weapons, oil-rich South Sudan already faces a struggle against the odds to deliver the peace, development and justice its people deserve. The last thing it needs is a fall-out among its political elites over the spoils of sovereignty. Yet that is exactly what seems to be happening at the moment.

The overall picture then at the elite level is a difficult one. Democratisation is not advancing in Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan and though optimists point to economic progress, the reality is one of intense intra-elite competition with incredible violent potential, as has been witnessed in all three countries in the past and as might soon occur again in Rwanda and South Sudan. No government finds it easy to deal with internal rifts, but the stakes are seldom as high as they are for post-liberation regimes where violent methods are considered legitimate and elites have recourse to them.

Harry Verhoeven is a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford. Together with Dr Philip Roessler, he's working on a book exploring the internal dynamics of Africa's Great War, using the commitment problem as a theoretical framework to understand the fall-out between Laurent Kabila, the Congolese Tutsi and the RPF.

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