Q&A: Uganda’s Museveni on staying in power, rights abuses

The Museveni administration has repeatedly been accused of muzzling dissenting voices in the country since 1986.

President Yoweri Museveni
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. [File: Mike Hutchings/Reuters]

Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda since 1986, is currently serving his sixth term at the helm of affairs of the East African country.

In that time, his administration has repeatedly been accused of muzzling dissent within the ranks of the opposition and in some cases abducting human rights activists and other citizens. There have also been speculation that he is grooming Muhoozi Kainerugaba, his army general son to succeed him, an idea infamously known in the country as the “Muhoozi project”.

Al Jazeera spoke to Museveni while he was recently in Washington, DC to attend the US-Africa Leaders summit.

Al Jazeera: How does Uganda benefit from this summit today?

Yoweri Museveni: Well, we have four aims; one is to get more investments, two to get to consolidate trade access, three to get tourists, and then four to work with others on security issues against “terrorism” and crime.

Al Jazeera:  You have met at least seven US presidents who have ruled and have gone through a very peaceful transition but Uganda has not had that in close to 40 years. How does that make you feel?

Museveni: Well, the United States was founded in 1623. Do you know that? 1623 when the Mayflower, the first ship which brought satellites here came and America did not get even elections until 1776. For us, we are having elections every five years, but there were no elections for more than 100 years here so our histories are different.

The Americans built United States for more than 100 years without democracy, without elections. For us, we have been able to rebuild and consolidate Uganda with democracy from the very beginning, so countries have different histories. In fact, they did not adopt the two terms until 1945. There was a leader called Roosevelt who served more than I think three terms. So, countries have got different histories. Ours is different, theirs is different.

Al Jazeera: You are one of the world’s longest-serving leaders and on most occasions, regimes that have overstayed in power have their rule characterised by corruption, absence of civil liberties and bad leadership. Do we hope for a transition? Are you grooming someone?

Museveni: Uganda’s statistics are clear. The economy of Uganda has been growing at 6.5 percent per annum for the last 36 years. I want you to get me other countries which can compare with that. Then, the population has increased from 15 million to 23 million now. Education has gone up, infrastructure [too]. So you, just look at the figures to see how longevity of contribution becomes a problem. In fact, it’s a disadvantage if you do it with the support of the people. Because I’m in government supported by the people every five years.

Al Jazeera: Human rights abuses has been one of the big topics at this summit. There have been reports of abductions, killings, people wallowing in detention without a fair trial in Uganda. Are you aware of these?

Museveni: There were arrests, and all the people arrested were accounted for. There were some mistakes [in] mishandling people while they were being arrested but we corrected those mistakes. We showed the security forces what to do in writing, so there is nothing that can go wrong and we don’t know.

Al Jazeera: There are a number of families in Uganda today seeking justice and some of them accuse your government of kidnapping and torturing their kids. Some were killed during the elections and they have not gotten any justice yet. What do you have to say about that?

Museveni: I’m not aware. There are 54 people who died during the riots of November 18-19, riots like the ones you had here in Washington here in the US. People are being tried for organising riots. Democracy doesn’t mean that you organise riots. Now, those riots of the 18th and 19th where these people wanted to turn Kampala into … security forces intervened and defeated that insurrection and in the process, some 54 people died. They have analysed their cameras and everything was captured. There were some mistakes where people were hit with stray bullets different from the rioters who were shot when they were attacking other people. That report is there. You can come and read it and see for yourself. Uganda is very peaceful so some of these policemen panicked and fired aimlessly because people were throwing stones but those mistakes are being corrected.

Al Jazeera: Your son General Muhoozi Kainerugaba recently called journalists “terrorists” and he also said he’ll crush whoever is abusing him and this is on record in the local media. Recently, you came out and said you are going to stop him from making these reckless statements online. Are you an accomplice? Are you endorsing this character?

Museveni: Well, I’m not aware of those threats. What we discussed with Muhoozi was tweeting. He can tweet on non-controversial subjects like sports and so and we discussed that. Some journalists can be “terrorists” for sure. Why not? Al-Qaeda has journalists who support them. So being a journalist does not make you immune from being a wrongdoer.

Al Jazeera: You have been serving for all this time and your efforts are recognised by a big section of Ugandans while some oppose you. What do you want to be remembered for?

Museveni: First of all, for having worked with the NRM [National Resistance Movement party] and the people to save Uganda from a failed state. You’ve heard of failed states? Failed states where there is no security, there is no business, the economy has collapsed?  Uganda is now one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. For security, there is chaos in many parts of the world but Uganda is secure. I don’t care how people remember me but I am happy about that.

Al Jazeera: Are you running in the next election?

Museveni: The NRM are the ones who decide what to do, who runs and why so you wait for the party.

Al Jazeera: There have been soldiers who have made partisan statements. One of these is Muhoozi. Others have come out to endorse him [as successor] or endorse you. As commander-in-chief, are you taking action because this is in violation of army rules?

Museveni: These are small matters. Not every matter needs action or punishment no. We don’t have to arrest people. We guide. We now have many issues, let’s concentrate on them.

Source: Al Jazeera