Hours after Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe was forced out after 37 years in power, Uganda’s president, another former guerrilla in office for more than three decades, was tweeting about pay rises for civil servants and bright prospects for his army tank crews.
Supporters of long-serving African leaders dismiss parallels with Zimbabwe, where Mugabe’s former deputy – sacked during a power struggle with Mugabe’s wife – is about to take power with military and public backing.
But Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s tweets, which come amid rising anger at the 73-year-old’s attempts to prolong his rule, suggest he is one of several African leaders looking south and wondering about their own stability.
“Now that the economic situation in Uganda is improving, the government will be able to look into raising of salaries of soldiers, public servants, health workers and teachers and also deal with institutional housing,” Museveni tweeted on Wednesday.
It was unclear what improvement he meant. Uganda’s faltering economy is growing too slowly to absorb a booming population of 37 million. The number of citizens spending less than a dollar a day has surged to 27 percent, the statistics office reported in September, up from 20 percent five years ago.
President since 1986, Museveni is among Africa’s longest-serving leaders. They include Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang, president for 38 years; Cameroon’s Paul Biya, president for 35 years; Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso, president for two stints totaling 33 years.
The family of Gnassingbé Eyadéma have ruled Togo for half a century, and the Democratic Republic of Congo has been run by the Kabila family since Laurent Kabila took power in 1997. He was replaced by his son, Joseph, in 2001. Some countries allow only two presidential terms, but several have rolled back such legislation.
In Cameroon, Biya scrapped term limits and cracked down on the opposition. In Congo, Nguesso jailed an opposition leader this year for protesting against removal of term limits. Still, Mugabe’s fall has sent a shiver through a continent whose northern countries saw the Arab Spring revolts tear down repressive regimes, even though many of the new leaders proved as bad as the old.
Franck Essi, secretary-general of the opposition Cameroon Peoples’ Party, said opposition movements were closely watching events in Zimbabwe. “Leaders must put in place mechanisms for a democratic and peaceful transition that will allow new leadership. If not, sooner or later, the people who are suffocating will wake up,” he said.
Some places have already seen change. Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore was ousted by protests in 2014 as he tried to change the constitution and extend his decades-long rule. In January, Gambia’s erratic ruler Yahya Jammeh fled after regional pressure ended his 22-year reign.
Angolan president Jose Eduardo dos Santos stepped down this year after four decades in power; his handpicked successor has pushed out some key dos Santos allies.
For many nations, a Zimbabwe-style switch in the loyalties of the armed forces or a rift in the inner circle represents one of the few ways that rulers might be forced from power. Despite Zimbabwe’s well-established opposition, change didn’t come until Mugabe’s inner circle split over his succession plans, and the military put him under house arrest.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters have flooded Togo’s streets this year, calling for an end to half a century of Eyadéma family rule. It didn’t work.
Brigitte Adjamagbo-Johnson, a top Togolese opposition official, said they had hoped for a Zimbabwean-type change of power where the military came over to their side. “We’d wanted the Togolese army to fight alongside us. We were moved seeing that Zimbabwe’s army and civilian population were all in the streets dancing. That’s what we want in Togo,” she said. “There will be change in Zimbabwe this year and there will be in Togo too.”
A slump in commodities prices has deprived some nations of the resources they have traditionally used to muffle protests. In some cases, corruption has also emptied state coffers. In central Africa, Congo’s Kabila has repeatedly postponed elections after refusing to step down at the end of his term last year, sparking deadly protests.
Jean-Pierre Kambila, Kabila’s deputy chief of staff, tweeted that Zimbabwe’s protests were a colonial fantasy. “A fabricated demonstration dreamed up by those who do not accept the liberation of Africa. Other Mugabes will be born. Nothing to worry about,” he wrote.
Uganda, a key Western ally set to begin exporting its substantial oil reserves, removed term limits in 2005 to extend Museveni’s rule.
The east African nation has seen far less violence under Museveni than the two dictators who preceded him. But now tensions are rising as social services crumble and parliamentarians attempt to remove a constitutional age cap that would bar Museveni from standing in the next election.
Police have used deadly force against protesters, and repeatedly arrested the main opposition leader. Security forces dragged parliamentarians opposing the bill out of the legislature. On Wednesday, police raided a popular newspaper, detaining eight staff.
Okello Oryem, Uganda’s state minister for foreign affairs, dismissed any parallels with Zimbabwe, saying Mugabe’s overthrow was the result of Western interference. “The intelligence services of the West have worked day and night to bring down Zimbabwe,” he told Reuters. “Citizen pressure in Zimbabwe can only work if and when the army allows it.”
But another Ugandan opposition leader, Asuman Basalirwa, warned that national leaders who refused to step down risked plunging their countries into conflict. Military intervention to end dictatorships ultimately leads to more repression, he said, something that many feared might be in store for Zimbabwe.
“It is time for the continent to democratize,” he said. “Those who have not yet experienced what happened in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and now Zimbabwe should just wait for their turn because it will surely come.”