Michael Mutyaba, World Politics Review, Monday, May 16, 2022
Last month, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, celebrated his 48th birthday with a series of public parties. The events were widely viewed as the thinly veiled launch of a political project that would see Muhoozi succeed his father. The move follows years of similar, albeit more subtle, maneuvers—particularly Muhoozi’s rapid rise through the ranks of the country’s military; the apparent purge of potential contenders within the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party; increased public appearances; and, more recently, his flurry of meetings with various diplomats and heads of state.
It is not yet clear what is prompting the apparent acceleration of the “Muhoozi Project,” as the succession plan is commonly referred to in Uganda. Throughout the four decades of his rule, Museveni has always been extremely possessive of power. However, his age—officially, he is 77 years old, although some pundits put him at 85—combined with the country’s demographics and the NRM’s current internal dynamics offer some possible clues as to why the plan is gaining steam.
It is possible that Museveni’s age could be rendering him physically weaker and unable to efficiently handle the responsibilities of the presidency. The unprecedented challenge he faced in the 2021 election from popular singer-turned-politician Bobi Wine, fueled by the country’s demographic shift to a younger population, has also likely pushed Museveni to consider his retirement. Over 75 percent of the population is below age 30, and Uganda’s youth unemployment rates are among the highest in Africa.
Combined with widespread corruption and repression, these dynamics have fueled growing resentment against the government, which increasingly relies on violence to maintain control. Muhoozi is not any more popular than his father or better-positioned to preserve the status quo, but Museveni probably views his son’s relative youth as an asset in ongoing efforts to dampen the pro-change movement gaining momentum among this younger demographic.
The coterie of elites around Museveni is also rooting for Muhoozi in a bid to secure their own political and economic interests, which are increasingly threatened as public opinion swings against the president and change appears ever more inevitable. Over the past three decades, hundreds of officials have illegally accumulated colossal amounts of wealth, while others have ascended to powerful public positions merely by their connections to the first family. As Museveni ages and his legitimacy wanes, however, their future appears ever bleaker. The Muhoozi Project potentially offers a new lease on life to their privileged positions.
How and when Muhoozi might ascend to the presidency is also shrouded in mystery, but there are at least four possibilities.
He could replicate the model his father has used over the past three decades: an election that is neither free nor fair, in which the entire state apparatus works to guarantee his “victory.” While the extent of Muhoozi’s popular support is questionable, he could simply use his father’s extensive influence over state institutions—especially the army, electoral commission and parliament—to sail to power.
Despite the ostensible succession plan, Muhoozi might have to wait at least until his father’s death, as the prospect of Museveni handing over power is still largely conjecture.
But Uganda’s most-recent elections, in addition to being conducted on an unlevel playing field, involved a level of violence that fed domestic discontent and attracted negative publicity internationally. There may be less appetite in the NRM’s upper echelons to expose themselves to such risk again.
A more unconventional option, namely a constitutional amendment that would see the president elected by parliament rather than by popular vote, is therefore also on the table. In recent months a group affiliated with the NRM has been pushing for just such a new law. Given the NRM’s parliamentary majority, such a maneuver could ease Muhoozi’s path to power and shield him from the rough and tumble of a popular vote.
A third possibility, however, is that Museveni could keep Muhoozi waiting perpetually without ever actually ceding power to him. This is plausible, considering that talk of the Muhoozi Project has been circulating in Uganda for more than a decade without it ever coming to fruition. Previous presidential hopefuls in the NRM, notably former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, were similarly kept waiting endlessly in a rumored “presidential succession queue.” Muhoozi’s apparent positioning for the presidency is therefore no guarantee that Museveni intends to hand the office over to him.
In fact, after four decades in power—more than half of his lifetime, officially—Museveni likely has difficulty imagining himself stripped of the privileges of the presidency. On several occasions, he has been quote referring to state institutions and resources—notably the country’s oil reserves and the army—as his property. Despite the ostensible succession plan, therefore, Muhoozi might have to wait at least until his father’s death, as the prospect of Museveni handing over power is still largely conjecture.
A final possible scenario is that Museveni ends up superficially ceding the presidency to Muhoozi while retaining de facto control of the state behind the scenes. This could simultaneously achieve the goals of staying in power while assuaging the contradictions that stem from clinging to it, allowing Museveni to prolong his own rule, albeit by proxy; familiarize his son with the workings of the state; and get the public to come to terms with a Muhoozi presidency. Seen from this perspective, the recent maneuvers and public messaging hinting at a Muhoozi presidency in 2026 are likely accurate.
Whatever direction the Muhoozi Project ultimately takes, however, it faces at least three major obstacles. First, arguably much of the Ugandan population widely views Muhoozi as a puppet of his father, and his presidential bid as an extension of Museveni’s rule, with all its many abuses, including abductions of opposition supporters, police brutality, clampdowns on the media and NGOs, and restrictions on social media, to mention but a few. These would all likely continue unabated, if not worsen, under Muhoozi, who has frequently boasted about and reportedly participated in state violence. If he succeeds in taking power, he will therefore likely face a crisis of legitimacy from the outset and would need to employ even more repression to maintain control, potentially damaging his chances of doing so.
Muhoozi’s erratic personality may also prove to be a liability. His self-aggrandizing tweets and coarse public statements in recent months—including bragging about the government’s nepotistic makeup, threatening opposition activists and making chauvinistic statements about women—have already attracted scorn and derision, even from within the NRM’s ranks. In addition to damaging his public persona, Muhoozi’s behavior also reveals a lack of political tact and could render him vulnerable to being outcompeted by more methodical political players, whether from within the NRM or from the ranks of the opposition.
This is even more likely in the event of his father’s death. Because of Museveni’s personalization of the ruling party, the NRM depends on his presence for its apparent unity. For decades, he has skillfully purged the party of anyone with presidential ambitions and actively promoted factionalism, while ensuring that the different camps that emerge compete for his attention and favors. This triangulation made him the sole unifying figure in the party, while also serving to obscure its internal schisms, a factor that—for as long as he is alive—will aid Muhoozi’s prospects.
Museveni’s absence, however, would almost certainly bring these tensions to the surface and ignite more open power struggles that Muhoozi appears far less capable of managing. Coupled with long-running popular disenchantment with NRM rule, this would likely spell disaster for the party.
It is probably too early to imagine the end of Museveni’s domination of Ugandan politics. But the project intended to secure his “legacy” appears wobbly and could just as well mark the beginning of its end.