KAMPALA, UGANDA — Dr. Sam Lyomoki, a Ugandan member of Parliament who belongs to President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, has announced his intention to run against Museveni in the next general election, in 2021.
Lyomoki, an MP since 1996, knows that this is a risky move. The 51-year-old says he’s prepared to overcome the intimidation, threats and mudslinging that are part of a political environment in which the government has changed laws to keep Museveni in power for 32 years.
Museveni assumed the office of the presidency in 1986 after his National Resistance Army toppled the regimes of Milton Obote and then Tito Okello, but Museveni was first elected president in 1996. In 2005, Parliament removed an article from Uganda’s Constitution that barred the president from ruling for more than two five-year terms. Museveni won a fifth presidential term in 2016, in an election marked by accusations of fraud, vote rigging and intimidation, and Parliament voted in December 2017 to lift the presidential age limit of 75. It is believed Museveni will be 77 at the time of the next election, but his exact age is unknown.
“If you say you want to contest for presidency, it is as if you have committed treason,” says Brian Ssekasamba, a public-health specialist with Nutrition Group Africa. Those who try, he says, get arrested arbitrarily on trumped-up charges, and their relatives are harassed.
“There is fear within the population,” Ssekasamba adds.
Nevertheless, Lyomoki says he intends to work during his campaign to build trust within a constituency comprising people who find comfort in the status quo. Many have known no leader other than Museveni, and some remember his violent and corrupt predecessors, such as Idi Amin and Obote.
“I am a leader who has been tested and proven to be true and have no corruption or other scandals as a leader,” Lyomoki says.
Lyomoki has chaired parliamentary committees on health and social services, and he says his platform is “service delivery” and “putting people first.” That means he’ll work to ensure Ugandans have access to health and education services and to utilities such as water and electricity.
The presidential hopeful also spoke to his goal of technical competency in his government – a minister of finance, for example, would work alongside auditors, statisticians and senior economists.
Lyomoki plans to revise constitutional mandates on the composition of Parliament to create a leaner government: 22 ministers in total, compared with the current 80, and 112 members of Parliament, compared with the current 417, with each district of the country and the capital represented by one MP. He intends to hold a referendum with Ugandans to agree on a number of MPs.
MPs would be selected in a transparent manner, Lyomoki says; ministers would be vetted in the presence of the public prior to selection.
Mable Kukunda, a civil-society activist, says Lyomoki could propel Uganda to prosperity.
“He might be the silver bullet Uganda now needs,” she says. “He had demonstrated what he can do. He is a clean man. That shows he can be a safe pair of hands to man this country.”
Odonga Otto, an opposition MP for Aruu County, supports Lyomoki’s candidacy and any efforts to change leadership in Uganda.
“It is time to get new leadership,” Otto says. “It’s a full-time struggle. I encourage him and more people to join the struggle to liberate Uganda.”
Ugandans point to the potential challenges for any candidate. Otto says the current government is unwilling to hand over power peacefully.
“NRM is a group of men who were angry and grabbed power using the gun,” Otto says. “They only use the ballot to legitimize their power, otherwise there is no level ground.”
Charity Kalebbo Ahimbisibwe, the communications and advocacy manager for the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, says the electoral process in Uganda is not credible.
“It does not matter which candidate comes up, if the institutions mandated to conduct elections do not do it in a free and fair manner; the process is compromised if elections are held [the] same way they have always been held,” she says.
Jotham Taremwa, the head of public relations for the Electoral Commission of Uganda, says the nation’s elections are conducted in a transparent manner, so critics have themselves to blame for failing to convince the electorate to vote them into power.
“Voting is done in the open in the full view of everybody, including media… . It’s up to the voters, not the Electoral Commission, to determine who wins,” Taremwa says.
Beyond any issues with the system itself, Ahimbisibwe explains, many Ugandans are afraid that without Museveni, their lives and property might be destroyed.
“Museveni has been here for 32 years,” she says. “People know that they can go to bed and sleep [and] wake up in the morning and go to their daily routine. Peasants, especially, cannot comprehend the fact that, if power changed hands, institutions would still remain operational.”
Ruth Nankabirwa, the government chief whip, declined to comment when asked about the possibility of a new candidate challenging Museveni.
Ahimbisibwe says that any new entrants into the presidential race need to travel the country to get to know Ugandans and educate voters on leadership change.
“You have to spend time convincing people in the whole country to trust you,” she says.
Lyomoki says he will traverse the entire nation at some point closer to 2021.
By being transparent in his governance, Lyomoki says, he plans to “change values and methods of leadership” in Uganda.