Yoweri Museveni has already ruled Uganda for 35 years – and he is now set for five more.
The veteran leader was declared on Saturday the winner of Uganda’s presidential election, cementing his position among the world’s longest-serving leaders.
The results, which have been rejected by the opposition, followed one of the bloodiest campaigns in years, with at least 54 people killed in November as security forces violently broke down opposition protests. Opposition figures, meanwhile, were repeatedly harassed and arrested, while members of the media also came under attack.
Main opposition leader Bobi Wine has dismissed the electoral process as a rigged “sham”, but Museveni, in a televised address to the nation on Saturday, said Thursday’s polls may turn out to be Uganda’s “most cheating-free election” since independence from Britain in 1962.
Shortly after Museveni took power in 1986, ending years of bloodshed and chaos at the hands of leaders Idi Amin and Milton Obote, the young president had complained about leaders who “overstayed” their welcome.
But nearly 35 years later, Museveni has joined the ranks of those he once criticised, winning a sixth term in office.
Unbound by Uganda’s constitution – it was amended twice to remove presidential term and age limits – critics accuse the former rebel fighter, who never speaks publicly of succession and has broken past promises to stand down, of becoming increasingly autocratic and wanting to rule for life.
In long, meandering speeches often laced with peasant folklore – he was raised by cattle herders in western Uganda – Museveni appealed for more time during the campaign, likening himself to a farmer leaving a plantation just as it starts bearing fruit.
Rarely too does “the old man who saved the country” miss a chance to hark back to his heroics in the bush wars – sometimes exchanging his trademark safari hat and yellow shirt for camouflage fatigues to drive home the point.
Speaking about his years in power, in an interview to Al Jazeera in 2017, Museveni had said: “[During this time, we were able to] start from zero, to where we are now, we are able to do things by ourselves.”
At 76 – though some opponents say he is older – Museveni says he is fighting fit, occasionally performing push-ups before crowds and jogging in his office.
Museveni studied political science and economics at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the 1960s when the institution acted as a kind of revolutionary finishing school for anti-colonialists.
When Amin seized power in Uganda in 1971, Museveni returned to Tanzania in exile where he founded the Front for National Salvation, which helped remove Amin in 1979.
In 1980, Museveni ran for Uganda’s president. When the polls – widely believed to have been rigged – were won by Obote, Museveni led a revolt from the bush, which eventually prevailed in 1986.
He was elected to the post of the president 10 years later and won re-election in 2001 and again in 2006 after a constitutional amendment passed the previous year had eliminated established term limits for the presidency. He was re-elected again in 2011 and 2016, although his victories were plagued by allegations of irregularities.
In his 35-year reign, Museveni has fused state and party so effectively, and crushed political opposition, that any serious challenge to him or his National Resistance Movement was made impossible.
A cunning strategist, Museveni also positioned himself as something of an elder statesman and peacemaker in a volatile region – even as his forces were marauding in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and backing rebels in other war-torn corners.
His deployment of troops to fight in Somalia, and an open-door policy to refugees, won favour from foreign donors who critics say turned a blind eye to his abuses at home and warmongering abroad.
Museveni refused these claims. This “[was the result of] fraternal solidarity … this is the tradition of African freedom fighters, I’m part of the African freedom fighters,” he told Al Jazeera in 2017.
“Because [of] our liberation struggles, because we fought two wars, and defeated them by our own means, we have a tradition of fighting,” he added.
When he was asked about the possibility of being considered a dictator, following the previous disputed re-election in 2016, Museveni replied: ” [A] dictator who is elected five times; that must be a wonderful dictator.”
“That must be a special one, elected five times, with always a big majority, that must be a wonderful dictator.”
Having now been president longer than most Ugandans have been alive, Museveni will now continue his rule over a population where three-quarters are below 30 and have never known anyone else in charge.