Museveni unveils new cabinet amid opposition clampdown

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, in his country residence of Rwakitura, in west Uganda, February 21 2016.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, in his country residence of Rwakitura, in west Uganda, February 21 2016. REUTERS/James Akena

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni on Tuesday appointed three opposition members to his new cabinet, and pledged to forge 'political unity.' The swearing-in ceremony comes four months after hotly disputed elections and amidst growing fears of a clampdown on the opposition.


“This cabinet is aimed at maximising the unity of the country; that’s why we brought in a few members of the opposition,” President Yoweri Museveni is quoted as saying in independent daily The Daily Monitor.

The eighty-one strong council--four times the size of the US cabinet--includes Betty Kamya of the Uganda Federal alliance, who takes over the running of the Kampala City Council Authority; Betty Amongi of the Uganda People's Congress or UPC, who will manage the capital's Land, Housing and Urban planning; and lastly Florence Nakiwala Kiyingi of the Democratic Party, who takes over the Youth ministry.

This all female line-up may be good for feminism, but the UPC President Olaru Otunnu, argues it's not good for the opposition: "What he's trying to do is rent support from compliant members of the opposition, for instance the Uganda People's Congress' (...) Betty Amongi [has] been working with Museveni for several years to destabilize and undermine the UPC from within, [she's] now been rewarded by being given a cabinet position," Otunnu told RFI by phone from Gulu, in northern Uganda.

Shortly after Amongi's appointment, the UPC --one of the country's oldest founding parties-- was dropped from the opposition, because of cosying up to the ruling National Resistance Movement, (NRM) party.

"None of this is to do with reaching out to the opposition and having a national compact, it's everything to do with trying to buy out targeted opponents, to weaken the opposition," added Otunnu.

Museveni's claim of wanting to 'maximise political unity' through his cabinet reshuffle doesn't wash either for Jamie Hitchen, a policy researcher at the London-based Africa Research Institute.

"It fits into the narrative of the NRM in Uganda and this idea of a movement system that Uganda had up until the return to multi-party democracy whereby all politicians are working together for the same goals and objectives, but if you see the reality on the ground this is hardly the case," he told RFI.

Cajole the opposition

Hitchen is referring to the ongoing crackdown against Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) leader, Kizza Besigye. On Wednesday, the former presidential candidate was back in court on charges of disobeying lawful orders. Besigye has been subject to numerous arrests both in the run-up and after the disputed February elections.

Propelled to a near status of martyr, and considered the de facto president by a large number of Ugandans, Besigye continues to pose a headache to the authorities, desperate to find a trapdoor out of its post-electoral limbo. Bringing in opposition members could be one such escape route, accord analysts.

"Reading between the lines you can know that he [Museveni] has no choices," poet and political commentator Sam Ssmeganda told RFI.

"Whichever choice he makes now, is a choice of no choice. It has come to a point where he realizes the resentment from the population is so high, this was evident in the just concluded presidential election," he said.

Questions linger over the government's legitimacy, and nowhere more so than in Kampala. Besigye obtained over 60% of the presidential vote in the capital alone, but when the results were announced, 6% of the returns went missing.

By bringing in members of the opposition, Musevini is trying to placate public anger, explains Hitchen: "If you look at the election results of February 2016, Kampala was the city where Musevini performed the worst-- and the city has an FDC mayor-- so by appointing two opposition figures here, it's a politically saavy move to offer something to the city. He's saying that yes I'm not popular, but perhaps you can look at me in a different light, by relating to these people who you're more familliar with and more content with."

It's a message that falls on deaf ears however for the UPC President Olaru Otunnu. He says the government is in "panic mode". Otunnu is still reeling from the detention of his party's deputy national mobilizing secretary Dan Oola Odiya, abducted and arrested by security forces two weeks ago amidst a clampdown on several opposition figures, including military and police officers. Authorities refute the accusations.

Moving economy up

It's too soon to say whether the new cabinet will succeed in restoring public confidence, but it already has a tough job ahead in steering the country to a middle-level income economy.

"Youth unemployment continues to be a big issue," says Jamie Hitchen. "The formal economy is just not meeting up with the amount of jobs that need to be created." Seventy-five per cent of Uganda's 35 million inhabitants are under the age of 30.

Another issue weighing the economy down is corruption. A new report released on Wednesday states that Ugandans consider the police to be the most corrupt institution, according to government agency UBOS.

Museveni has urged his new ministers to break with the 'era of the past' and avoid any conflict of interest. Critics accuse him of paying lip service to the fight against corruption.

"In appointing both his wife and niece to the cabinet, and his wife is not even an elected member, it seems there is a contradiction there," Hitchen said.

The government was not immediately available for comment at time of publishing.

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