It is an old position in political science that autocrats have to kill their serious opponents to survive.
If not eliminated entirely, opponents are imprisoned, exiled, bankrupted or disabled. It follows, therefore, that if you weren’t dead or under the radar of death, the autocrat does not consider you a serious opponent. Please note here that political opponent does not only mean those involved in active politics.
For being what it is, the state appreciates all those opposed to it openly and covertly. To this end, it will murder or brutalise a businessman, a taxi driver, its own soldier or religious leader. While ordinary folks will struggle or even fail to appreciate the political connection of these murders, the autocrat would have fulfilled his existential imperative.
But whilst the old models of autocracy – Idi Amin, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Siad Barre, Daniel arap Moi – murdered and brutalised their opponents openly – in the spirit of Nicolo Machiavelli, that is aspiring to be feared than loved– the new models, which also reproduce themselves through electoral democracy, have approached their murderous imperative more quietly.
The old models held theatrical public executions, hung their opponents in the streets, and publicly savoured humiliating others. But they quickly collapsed, signalling to the fatality of these flamboyant executions. Indeed, the new autocrat understood that Machiavelli was wrong in advocating fear over love. Both are achievable.
Our new crop of autocrats love to be loved as they quietly embrace the murderous imperative of their governance. The new autocrat has devised careful ways of disassociating themselves from murders or any acts of brutality. They quickly deny any connection to the murder, launch elaborate investigations, and huff and puff about bringing the perpetrators to book.
They also mourn with the bereaved, often giving sumptuous condolence packages. But this is where all of it stops. Please note that this is a theoretical position [not necessarily about Museveni], and applies to any leaders who came to power in the late 1980s or early 1990s and are still governing.
The state has also deftly disassociated itself from criminal human rights abuses such as Nalufenya or the brutalisation of journalists. They have managed to convince the public that there are rogue elements in the security services. These “rogue elements” are then so generously and publicly sacrificed to the spectacle of a cheering public.
Again, note that this is true about all those fellows that became presidents in the late 1980s and 1990s, and were gifted by the end of the Cold War to govern for life – if they wanted. But why would our modern autocrat change tactics and embrace the old forms of autocracy, when they fully know the dangers of these old models?
When does an autocratic regime start to enjoy the spectacle of violence? Consider this ongoing theatrical display of violence: Zebra Ssenyange (RIP), Frank Senteza (RIP), Robert Mukasa (RIP), Ashraf Kasirye (in coma), Nicholas Opiyo (kidnapped), Justin Juuko (kidnapped), Joseph Lubega (kidnapped).
Lawyer Nicholas Opiyo would have been summoned to court if the charge was truly about money laundering. He was at a restaurant hanging out with friends. One of Uganda’s most renowned human rights lawyers and activists, Nicholas Opiyo, is the last person you would expect not to cooperate in these matters.
This man literally lives at the Central police station, and sleeps in court. But they settled for public humiliation by kidnapping him. Boxer Justin Juuko did not have to be kidnapped and kept incommunicado for over 20 days. Why then quietly smuggle a man back to his house whilst accusing him of having been in possession of a gun?
Perhaps the most excruciating is the story of boxer Zebra Ssenyange who had been cleared earlier to meet the commander-in-chief of the same forces that summarily executed him. As lawyer Isaac Ssemakadde would ask, why were they visiting him in the dead of the night by rings and rings of SFC commandos for extra vetting?
One of Zebra’s immediate friends, Robert Mukasa, was also announced dead the following day. In the same vein, running over Bobi Wine’s bodyguard Frank Senteza, and constantly shooting at innocent publics, or openly brutalising journalists, needs to be understood as the old model of autocratic governance.
This model – that prides in open violence – emerges at that point where the autocrat defines his opponent as entire populations, not the individuals. While the autocrat was content in eliminating a single individual then, it ceases being enough.
It becomes necessary to denigrate or eliminate the individual crudely and openly, and then take pride in it. It means sending a signal to an entire public already defined as the enemy. I should add that this often comes as the autocrat’s last stand.
The author is a political theorist based at Makerere University.