Kampala, Uganda – When Ugandans next head to the polls in 2026, President Yoweri Museveni will have been at the helm for exactly 40 years.
In the capital Kampala, renewed talk of a political transition is a now trending. For years, there have even been multiple reports about a succession plan for Muhoozi Kainerugaba, his 48-year-old son, a commander of the land forces and top general in the army to become the next president.
But Museveni who will be 81 years old in 2026, could still appear on the ballot.
And little attention is given to how the veteran has successfully managed to maintain a grip on power for so long and the state mechanisms he has crafted to enable this.
Here’s one way he’s done so.
Laying the foundation
In 1985, the National Resistance Movement or NRM, which was waging war against the Milton Obote administration, had taken control of parts of western and central Uganda. Before the fighters eventually took Kampala in January 1986, the position of Special District Administrator – the precursor to the Resident District Commissioner (RDC) – was created in a number of districts.
RDCs as they came to be known after the role was formally enshrined in the 1995 constitution – have been integral to the continued functioning of Museveni’s Uganda.
As per the constitution, RDCs are appointed directly by the president, primarily to monitor activities and oversee security in their assigned district. “RDCs were intended to be the ‘eyes and ears’ of the president in districts,” independent researcher and analyst Frederick Golooba-Mutebi told Al Jazeera.
But they have become much more than that.
While individuals in the role are themselves dispensable, the position is an enduring tool of patronage, information-gathering and executive control. On average, reshuffles happen every two to three years; the most recent one happened in March 2022 with 64 RDCs relocated to a new district and 63 new recruits brought into the fold. Only 19 retained their current posting.
As chairs of the district security committee, they channel local intelligence from the periphery directly to the centre, allowing it to keep tabs on what is happening across the country. It is not unusual for an RDC to receive a phone call from the president himself to discuss security matters.
This tight control of the security apparatus by Kampala is a defining feature of the Ugandan state, underpinned by the refusal of the president to uncouple democratic governance from his military roots.
But there are risks to institutions with this centralised approach, experts say.
In Uganda’s recent history, many top security operatives have been accused of “doctoring intelligence reports” or manufacturing intelligence to suit a centrally crafted narrative.
Since the return of multi-party democracy in 2005, the security lens has also been used in Uganda to clamp down on political mobilisation efforts. The state’s go-to response has been restrictive legislation and policing popular protests with a heavy hand.
In the run-up to the 2021 elections, the RDCs of Lira, Kitgu [m and other districts banned the leader of the main opposition National Unity Platform (NUP), Bobi Wine, from holding rallies on the grounds that it would “disrupt the peace of residents”. In districts where he did try to campaign, such as Kalangala, he was detained for doing so.
This was a continuation of an approach that existed even before the return of multi-party democracy.
Efforts to stymie political opposition at the district level have also not been limited to election periods. Radio stations have been shut down by RDCs during or after broadcasts featuring opposition leaders, under the guise of national security, presenting hurdles for the opposition at grassroots and higher levels nationwide, to the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM).
In 2018, one mountainous district of western Uganda was controlled by the opposition Forum for Democratic Change when an RDC was appointed. But as he told Al Jazeera anonymously, he then worked to change that.
He spent time camping in the mountains asking community members what was wrong and “explaining to the wananchi [ordinary people] that the opposition was not doing the right things”. Three years later, his efforts have borne fruit. Three out of six MPs; 25 of the 44 sub-counties (up from 11); and 52 of the 75 councillors (up from 20), including the elected district chairperson responsible for governing the district, are now NRM.
Winnie Kiiza, a former leader of opposition in parliament, argues that “the move to intertwine the NRM party with state apparatus is a way to categorically rule out any possibility of opening up political spaces to the opposition and deny us true democratic competition”.
The NRM has continued to dominate parliamentary and local council elections in Uganda even when the gap has narrowed in the presidential race.
Regardless of debates around whether RDCs should be partisan or apolitical, the reality and practice are that many are openly supportive of the current government. In 2020, Lt Col James Mwesigye, the-then RDC of Mbarara, told civil servants, to “support and campaign for the government and NRM … and solicit votes for President Museveni”.
Findings from recent research on RDCs suggest that of those in position in 2021, more than half had previously worked for the NRM in some capacity; as youth cadres, to support wider party operations or those retaining political value despite having lost out in internal party polls.
Museveni’s big political tent has continued to swell to accommodate many people who have been loyal to him. Districts have increased from 33 in 1986 to 146 today with a RDC, and in many cases, a deputy, required for each.
For Golooba-Mutebi, how much power RDCs end up with, depends on the willingness of district chairpersons to “give them space for making or interfering in decisions” because the latter “are the most powerful actors in the district”.
Kiiza the former leader of the opposition in parliament disagrees. “Under an authoritarian regime, the will of the people does not matter,” she said. “So, we find ourselves in a situation where a presidential appointee like an RDC, assumes so much power at the district simply because he or she is closer to one that wields captured power [the president]”.
In many parts of Uganda, RDCs are now de facto adjudicators in land disputes given the perceived and real failures of Uganda’s court system and land tribunals to deliver judgements on time.
They may not always be effective or impartial arbiters but like Museveni at the national level, they serve as the broker of compromise between formal structures and informal realities at the district level. In that sense, these “mini-Museveni’s”, as they are sometimes referred to, have become integral to the very function of the Ugandan state.
Su Muhereza specialises in political transitions, citizen participation and learning, with a focus on Africa.
Jamie Hitchen is an independent researcher and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, UK.