This is my old theoretical position: after 20 years in power, unless one is a monarch, no incumbent can win a ‘genuine’ election to continue as head of state.
This is a major and competitive position. (Maybe as a local council chairman). However revolutionary and informative they maybe, the winds cannot sing in their direction at the polls. They can only carry on — through “winning” elections — for 30 or even 40 years through coercion, electoral rigging, intimidation, and outright violence.
This is not about Museveni necessarily, but about the nature of power in modern autocracy. The maximum time of 20 years has nothing to do with the nature of the incumbent’s politics. It is just life.
Consider this: after 20 years in office, children who ranged between 1-10 years old, and neither voted nor followed politics, are now voters between the age of 20-30. And their heroes are boys and girls who were 15-25 as they grew up. These heroes of theirs are now 35-45 years of age.
They are the ones they look up to, and are inspiring them in many ways, ranging from media, academia, sports, entertainment, eloquence, invention, etc. And these 35–45-year-old heroes are still in touch with the trends of their time: TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Crypto, etc. creating a web that locks grannies on the outside.
Consider the other side as well: If the man or woman elected 20 years ago was 45 or 50 on their electoral (rebel movement) victory, they are now 65 or 70 years of age. After 20 years of running a country, even if they took extreme good care of themselves—neither drinking nor smoking—they will look tired and exhausted.
They are old, wrinkled and wobblier in their gait. The wrinkles, grey hair, and haggard look is bad optics. Their suits cease to fit properly, and watching them on tele is too monotonous to bear.
I cannot imagine, for example, that 18–30-year-old voters, who are spending eight hours a day on TikTok and Instagram, using filters for perfect shots, showing their booties and abbs, could turn around and support an 80-year-old presidential candidate. It is unthinkable they could ignore a 40–50-year-old tattooed dandy, who is keen on showing his abbs, with a bounce in his step.
Just the optics alone— what British anthropologist, Katherine Hakim calls erotic capital—makes a big difference for young voters. Recall John McCain and Barack Obama?
Let’s continue with our octogenarian: The voters of this candidate 20 years ago, who were between 18-35 years of age, have now turned 38 and 55 respectively. They are never the majority, and they too, have become used to their now haggard and exhausted hero. They have also seen the world move and shift below their feet, with advances in science and technology.
The issues around which they so fervently supported their candidate in the 20-year cycle have drastically changed. It is now cryptocurrency, climate change, electric cars, Wi-Fi, online business, etcetera.
(Recall that revealing conversation between Finance Minister Kasaija and late Bank of Uganda Governor Tumusiime- Mutebile discussing cryptocurrency? Kasaija, so hilariously, dramatized their ignorance of the thing, and how he sought help from his 20-year-old son).
Clearly, these were not the issues 20 years ago. It is the realty of life that these octogenarians cannot learn new skills and execute them with the efficiency of youngsters growing up under these new realities. Problems is, the octogenarians, selfishly, use the tools of coercion in their control to challenge life’s little realities. Till they die.
It is not just about age and time as I have explored above. But also, the monotony of a single face becomes terribly burdensome after 20 years. Even a same age candidate, just for the attractive power of change, will definitely beat the 20-year running incumbent.
Besides, there are no special skills exclusively, and uniquely implementable by one single individual without being learned and perfected by another in a 20-year cycle. How and why would God be as mean as this to send an entire country just one individual with a unique set of extremely important talents!
Uganda: with a president who has been in office for the last 37 years, surely, Museveni as a popular electoral candidate is way past his sale-by date. But as is well- known, he has remained president and is highly likely to run in 2026 after he makes 40 years in office.
How could he do it without violence; without bribery; without intimidation; without coercion—without cultivating an industry of fear and terror? There is no other way. In our recent history, how then does one explain the Kasese massacres of 2018 or the November massacres of 2020?
How does one explain the SFC raid on parliament or the violence with which small students’ or market vendor protests are quelled? How do we understand Nalufenya, safe houses, women murders, etc?
The industry of violence and fear in Museveni’s Uganda—operating mostly in the centre of Kampala—is perhaps the most funded (under State House and ministry of Security), and most important in Museveni’s politics. More than anything else, it is units such as SFC, CMI, JATT, ISO, Military Police, Crime Preventers, LDUs, UPDF, regular police, and some outfits such as Boda-Boda 2010, that guarantee Museveni’s power.
Everything else is theatre. Also note that the drama that comes with this fear industry is all part of the script because terror has to be publicised to be effective.
This is why beyond the kidnaps and torture, there is nothing more. Torture and kidnap victims are never tried of anything serious, but the news that there are kidnaps, safe houses, torture chambers is the end in itself—as it keeps the governed in a perpetual state of fear, and that is good enough.
The author is a political theorist based at Makerere University.