President Yoweri Museveni, who has led Uganda since 1986, has appointed a woman, Jessica Alupo, as vice-president and another woman, Robinah Nabbanja, as prime minister. He has also increased the percentage of women in the cabinet from 27% to 43%. This is the second time Museveni has appointed a woman as vice-president. Specioza Wandira Kazibwe served as vice-president from 1994 to 2003.
These appointments have provoked considerable debate in Uganda, reflecting both the constraints and the possibilities of women’s rights reform in an authoritarian country. Freedom House ranks Uganda as a “Not Free” country. This is due to election violence and limits on political rights and civil liberties.
Uganda has an active women’s movement that has navigated the treacherous landscape of Ugandan politics and has made significant gains. After Museveni took over in 1986 following a brutal civil war, the women’s movement pushed for increases in female political representation at all levels. Today, women hold 46% of local government positions, 33% of parliamentary seats, and 43% of the cabinet positions. The movement has also fought for and won significant legal reforms.
As I found in my research on Uganda, the inclusion of women is a double-edged sword. It has advanced the goals of the women’s movement but, at the same time, it has helped an autocratic regime remain in power and maintain legitimacy among certain sectors of society.
This is why the women’s movement’s response to these appointments has been mixed.
Museveni plays the woman card
Museveni won a sixth five-year term in office in the January 2021 elections. His chief opponent, Bobi Wine, claimed the elections were fraudulent.
Museveni and his ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), have held on to power by appealing to his rural base, while brutally intimidating and suppressing the opposition, including women. At the same time, pressure from the Western donor countries to democratize has been uneven at best.
Some activists saw the cabinet appointments as a positive response to international and local pressures to increase women’s political representation. They felt these appointments would inspire other women to engage in politics and aspire to high posts.
Others were disappointed that women did not constitute 50% of the cabinet, as the women’s movement had been demanding.
Former ethics minister Miria Matembe, a one-time stalwart supporter of the president, was critical of the appointments because she felt the president had made purposefully weak appointments to enhance his already considerable choke-hold on power. In an interview, she pleaded with Ugandans:
As far as I am concerned, I have no hope or faith in the Museveni government. [With these appointments] Museveni is clearly telling you: ‘I am the only one. Uganda is in my hands. Leave it to me.’ There are so many capable women in Uganda.
Some regard women like Alupo and Nabbanja as coopted co-conspirators with Museveni in propping up a corrupt and illegitimate regime.
Jessica Alupo, the vice-presidential appointee, ran for parliament in a race that was marred by violence. She won the primary against another NRM candidate, but election officials allegedly tampered with the vote and announced the victory of her opponent. She then ran as an independent in the second round and won. A longtime NRM supporter, perhaps she could afford to overlook these machinations for a national executive position.
Alupo is a former military officer and has served as a state minister for youth and children’s affairs (2009-2011) and minister of education and sports (2011-2015). During her time as education minister, she introduced many innovations, making the educational system more accessible to children in need.
Robinah Nabbanja, the prime ministerial appointee, had served in parliament since 2016 and was re-elected in 2020. She held a cabinet post as state minister for health after 2019.
If the past is any indication, the NRM will be keen to keep Alupo and Nabbanja in line as it has done with other women leaders who began to assert more independence.
For example, Rebecca Kadaga, the speaker of the house for the past 10 years, was recently unceremoniously demoted. She had lobbied hard to keep her position as speaker, but the ruling party dropped her in favor of her former deputy. She was appointed instead as the first deputy prime minister and minister for East African community affairs.
Political survival or co-option?
Historically women’s rights and representation have been associated with democracies. The recent cabinet appointments of women in Uganda reflect a phenomenon one finds in Africa, where autocracies are as likely as democracies to promote women as leaders.
The average percentage of women in the legislature and local government in African democracies and autocracies is virtually the same (24%-25%), and the percentage of ministers in democracies is 25% and autocracies 21%. In fact, Rwanda, an autocracy, has the highest rate of female legislative representation in the world at 61.3%, and half the cabinet ministers are women.
Thus, one finds in autocracies like Uganda a confluence of competing agendas between the women’s movement, the ruling party, the president, and the individual women leaders themselves. On the one hand, women’s rights movements seek to increase women’s political representation. At the same time, there are strong pressures to succumb to co-option or face discipline, and possibly violence.