James Karuhanga
Senior Researcher
Great Lakes Centre for Strategic Studies
Conflict Early Alert Report (CEAR)

Violent public rallies and demonstrations have recently rocked Kampala indicating that Uganda is on the verge of a major political crisis. The most recent riots were sparked by President Museveni’s plan to sell off part of Mabira Forest, a protected natural forest reserve to a sugar cane corporation.

Public outcry against the proposal has steadily increased tension and indicates that the next six or seven months could be very crucial for Uganda as growing opposition to the Mabira Forest give-away also mirrors growing opposition to the Museveni government.  On 12 April, a peaceful demonstration against the proposal turned bloody and three people were killed, including an Indian national, and scores of property were looted and vandalized. The irate crowds were only dispersed by heavy rains and police efforts in the afternoon.  

Popular analysis has seen this event as a growing anti-Asian sentiment reminiscent of Idi Amin’s regime in the 1970s; however, the Great Lakes Centre for Strategic Studies (GLCSS) believes the situation reflects a more deep seated opposition to President Museveni than racial overtones.

With the tension, violent riots and arrests of senior opposition politicians and activists who oppose the government’s position, President Museveni is facing the first test of his third term, and his authority is being challenged both from within and outside his party. There are four factors most likely to drive further risk of turmoil. These factors also partly explain the situation in terms of what brought the government to this point. They include:

  • The Tri-star Apparel collapse and government involvement
  • Dissent within the National Resistance Movement
  • Lack of electricity destabilizing the business environment
  • Fuel shortages and increased price of diesel



The Tri-star Apparel collapse and government involvement

The Mabira issue, like Tri-star Apparels, a manufacturer of textiles for export to the USA under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), has been widely controversial. Tri-star Apparel, also Asian linked, obtained unusually generous favors such as start-up capital, tax holidays, labor commitments, and an assured external market access from the government. Tri-star, however, collapsed after suffering heavy losses and recent efforts by the government to inject money into the embattled company were not accepted by legislators who demanded details, especially on losses the firm had incurred.
The emotional and political linking of Tri-star and Mabira has been overlooked in most analysis of the situation. Both companies are Asian owned and both companies have strong Museveni ties and in both cases the president attempted to force his political will on an economic situation without political consensus.

It is for this reason this analysis believes the Mabira give-away demonstrations or protests contain an anti-Museveni undercurrent as Ugandans largely see the Asians as Museveni’s protégés, who are resented as a growing ‘market-dominant minority’ under Museveni’s government.

When the protests turned violent, angry demonstrators carried racist placards such as, ‘’Indians get out,’’ or ‘’Asians should go’’ and many others.  Some went as far as threatening, ‘’Mehta do you want another Amin?’’ An attack on the Asian community, contrary to what is perceived as solely racisms, vividly points to an attack on Museveni’s government because of his perceived close ties with them.

Dissent within the National Resistance Movement (NRM)

Open dissent in Museveni’s ruling NRM also impacts the current situation, with ruling party’s members adamantly refusing to ‘toe the party line’ on what they consider strategic national issues. This will create further problems for Museveni’s third term unless a consensus is reached.

NRM legislators and other party activists are opposed to the Mabira give-away proposal, in the same vein they questioned Tristar, a scenario that gives the opposition more determination as the protest is seen as a national issue.

An NRM party caucus meeting to discuss the issue on 20 April was postponed to 4 May, which has now been postponed again because of the sudden death of the Minister of Defense, and was originally a bid to buy time to convince the majority NRM MPs, who do not support the give-away, to change their position. Only if the president gets his party’s support can the give-away be successful whatever the protests from the minority opposition members in parliament.

Most NRM legislators earlier vowed to oppose the give-away, and this appears to be the most likely explanation for the original postponement of the NRM caucus debate. The NRM has the majority in parliament and, if President Museveni can bring the dissenting NRM party members into line, then the give-away will certainly have the approval of the simple majority it needs in parliament. Even then, however, this scenario will not be a remedy to the situation because there is significant opposition to the plan and the Museveni government. 

GLCSS does not rule out the likelihood of the creation of a dividing line in the NRM, heightened by the Mabira debate. A far more destabilizing scenario is the likelihood of further dissent and division within the party due to internal divisions. This could not only spell trouble for the ruling party but for the country as a whole.
Lack of electricity destabilizing the business environment

Uganda’s political turmoil comes at the same time as significant dissatisfaction in the business community, which has strong Asian representation. Uganda’s continued energy crisis has also contributed to this dissatisfaction, as high energy tariffs have significantly affected businesses in Kampala , and this is often blamed on the government’s poor planning.
With an energy deficit currently estimated at 120 megawatts compared to the demand of 380 megawatts, Uganda’s energy problem has a bearing on the political developments in the country, as it seriously affects social and economic development. High electricity tariffs, rampant load shedding in the city and the effect on consumer prices in the past 25 months are expected to continue until the power problem is effectively addressed.

In a bid to rectify the problem, The World Bank Group has approved US $ 360 million in loans and guarantees for the Bujagali dam hydro-electric project. This is an integral component of Uganda’s strategy to close the energy deficit that seriously continues to constrain Uganda. What is worrying, however, is Uganda’s ever increasing energy demand and fast growing population, now estimated at 28 million and growing at 3.3 per cent.


Fuel shortages and increased price of diesel

In addition, increased price of fuel and fuel shortages has raised the political dissatisfaction with the Museveni-led government. Reduced fuel inflows have increased transport costs, and have had an impact on higher utility charges and the subsequent rising inflation in the country. The fuel scarcity has increased transport fares and prices of fresh food and. Museveni blames Kenyan officials’ for their unreasonable demands on Uganda oil companies for the current fuel shortage, but for the average Ugandan the everyday life in Uganda has deteriorated, adding to the unrest.
The fuel shortage affects most sectors of the economy which has revealed another government problem. Uganda lacks adequate fuel reserves and criticism has been pointed at the government’s lack of planning for the energy sector.

The effect of a persistent energy deficit and the recent fuel shortage are in turn largely responsible for the increasing inflation in the country. High fuel prices due to the Kenyan pipeline problem have meant higher transport cost and the impact of high utility charges have sharply increased the inflation rate. The cost of diesel, if available, has risen from USh 1700 to over USh 2500 per liter.  In addition, in April 2007, monthly headline inflation is reported to have steeply risen to 2.6 percent from 0.4 per cent in March.

The high inflationary pressure, due to persistent internal and external shocks on the economy, also correlates to the increasing frustration as Ugandans blame the government for the escalating problems.

Government and opposition share blame for riots

The recent riots have largely been blamed on the government. First, the degeneration of events surrounding the Mabira issue was obvious and could have been curtailed. President Museveni is widely blamed for going against what many term as ‘conventional wisdom’ and ignoring both widespread public outcry and professional advice on the issue. The government seemed to ignore or lack the capability of reading through events as they developed and counteract unfortunate events such as the 12 April riots.


Many accuse the government of insensitivity to the public outcry. The perceived arrogance of the Mehta group, an Indian group of companies, has also been brought into scrutiny. Mehta’s earlier adamant statements, that if Ugandans don’t buy their sugar they will sell it to Congo and Sudan, are partly blamed for arousing bitter emotions against Asians and the associated public unrest.  

However, the real failure is a political failure by President Museveni, who has always been considered one of the most astute political operatives in the region.
There are questions about the future because some see the Mabira give-away and the Tri-star failure as a new trend lacking political consensus and utilizing raw political power.

GLCSS observes that one of the most likely scenarios, to ease the situation, is the president’s possible change of stance on the Mabira give-away. This will reduce some social pressure and the risk of increased riots and confrontations with the political opposition and within the NRM. 

Second, the opposition is most likely to continue taking advantage of the government’s mistakes. It fiercely opposes Museveni’s proposal, and opposition leaders and activists, despite many denials, will exploit the political unrest. For example, riots and violence in the city prior to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) due in November have already been mentioned as the next course of action.

In summary, GLCSS believes Uganda will continue to experience both political and social turmoil for at least the next six months or beyond. The positive impact of this crisis will be the institution of a stronger and effective political opposition and possibly, a clear message of a need to build political consensus prior to government decisions. The possible negative impact will be if President Museveni goes the way of Zimbabwe’s Mugabe and sees this as a personal threat to his power and not a natural transition for Uganda to an even more vibrant government and civil society.  If the latter becomes a reality, it will cast a shadow on the one of the most effective politicians in the region and it will be the loss of not only Uganda but also the entire region.

This situation report is produced by the staff of the Great Lakes Centre for Strategic Studies with coordination and support from the Great Lakes Conflict Early Alert Report (CEAR). Comments may be directed to cear@glcss.org.

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