Ugandans go to the polls shortly, in what is billed as the most hotly contested presidential election. Depending how Ugandans vote, it is an election that could mark the end of an era and the start of a new chapter in the country’s troubled political history, with no recorded peaceful transfer of power since independence. If the vote goes the opposition’s way, it is an election that could usher in a new government with many badly-needed democratic, legal and economic reforms. If, however, this mountainous feat is not achieved, it is an election that would see the current autocratic leader (as described by his own Advisor on Media and External Relations) extend his grip on power to 35 years. This could easily turn into a life-presidency if – before the term ends – the natural causes intervene because of age and the attendant frailties. But in this thick plot that is Ugandan politics, natural causes seem to be an unlikely deus ex machina because despite his advanced age, the incumbent is not known to be of frail health.
The campaign period is over, and all is left in the hands of the electorate- although in Uganda, it is not always in the hands of the electorate. Past elections have been marred by violence, intimidation, vote rigging and other irregularities, mostly orchestrated by the state. In fact, twice has the Supreme Court of the land ruled that the elections were not free and fair, and come short of overturning the entire process.
There are eight candidates vying for the highest office in Uganda. However, many agree that the whole contest is a three-horse race. And that is being rather extravagant. President Yoweri Museveni’s fallout with his long-time comrade and Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi, may have brought a new dimension to Uganda’s politics, but in reality (at least going by the crowds that thronged their rallies), it is a two-man race between the incumbent and his bush-time doctor and comrade, Col. Kizza Besigye, who has – thrice – unsuccessfully tried to unseat him.
One may write off the other five candidates as being of peripheral significance, but the recent debates certainly demonstrated that there are many other Ugandans – with the exception of Mabiriizi and Kyalya, perhaps – who are capable of leading the landlocked East African country. Abed Bwanika continues to design the best manifesto (although one may say the issues of homosexuality and the ICC are too sophisticated for him), while Prof. Baryamureeba seems to be approaching the presidency with a university professor’s superfluous academic ideas.
In ideal circumstances, Major General Biraaro is the gentleman I would give my vote to for articulating what Uganda needs in a bold and measured way, with a promise of enforcing discipline in government. Whereas Mbabazi promises to be Uganda’s Magufuli, he seems to be oblivious of one thing: Magufuli started implementing his work ethics and discipline when he was still a minister in President Kikwete’s government. By the time he stood for president, Tanzanians already knew him as a man who delivers. Mbabazi held many ministerial portfolios in Museveni’s government and, well that’s where the story ends. If we are looking for a Magufuli-figure in Uganda’s case, Biraaro is the man that comes closest to embodying what Magufuli stands for, both in demeanour, discipline, and ideas. Unfortunately, it is not an ideal situation, and we are unlikely to have a President-elect Biraaro in four days.
Never in a presidential election in Uganda have we seen the level of enthusiasm witnessed during this electioneering season. Mr. Museveni and Col. Besigye have particularly been outdoing each other in a contest of the crowds at their rallies. With the help of modern photographic technology – including drones and Photoshop – political camps have been showing off their crowds on different media platforms, trying to make a statement. The huge crowds that have been thronging campaign rallies are perhaps a pointer to how important Ugandans view this election. It also points to a likely increase in the number of people who will turn up to vote. For Besigye’s camp especially, the huge crowds that were offering money, chickens, goats and fruits have re-energised his camp and given it the belief that victory is within sight this time round. But the NRM has not taken this lying down. With an abundance of financial resources at its disposal, it has done a lot of mobilization, including by ferrying crowds to its rallies by bus, and by distributing T-shirts and caps that turn its rallies into seas of yellow. This increased voter turnout is likely to tip the scales in favour of the opposition. Most candidates have been emphasising the need for people to wake up on Thursday and go to vote, and if they heed the call, we have an election to remember on our hands.
Conveniently dodged by the incumbent (who disparaged it as a high school contest), the first debate had better moderators and focussed on pertinent issues of domestic interest, but was found to be lacking in a number of aspects which have already been widely discussed in public fora. The absence of Mr. Museveni meant that Col. Besigye and Mr. Mbabazi had to bear the brunt of the moderators’ impersonal and uncompromising scrutiny. In comparison, the second debate fell disappointingly short in many ways: it was heavily scripted, and the moderators – especially Ms. Muwanga – did a lot of unnecessary pedagogic explaining of what debate means (oh dear!) and repeatedly addressed the incumbent – rather timidly – as Your Excellency President Museveni (instead of simply, ‘President Museveni’), something that Alan or Nancy would do with so much ease.
The debates also brought out facts and lies. There were a number of falsities, especially regarding why Mr. Museveni did not attend the first debate, and about when oil was first discovered in Uganda. Both sides could argue until the chickens come home to roost, but it is not true that oil was first discovered under the NRM. There are records to the contrary, and a little on-line search will reveal the truth. Perhaps, lest history be re-written with dating everything to 1986, may it be repeated for posterity that Uganda actually attained her independence from Britain in 1962, not 1986.
There is an admixture of issues of interest in this election. Certainly, real democracy is of varied significance across Uganda’s social spectrum, but it still ranks high among the issues of this election. The economy, which has registered a good growth rate in recent years, is also an issue of concern. Many feel, though, that this growth has only benefited a few, as the majority of the masses still languish in poverty. The agricultural sector – which is the bedrock of the livelihoods of some 70-80% of the population – demands attention with funding and more robust policies. Delivery of social services is still very poor, and health and education have been issues of serious concern for many. With UPE graduates doing so badly in literacy and numeracy skills, the education sector needs a massive overhaul.
The Electoral Commission
Badru Kiggundu’s partisan Electoral Commission should have been disbanded many years ago, but it hasn’t because the incumbent has shut his ears to the cries over the Commission’s stained reputation. Perhaps that is exactly how he expects it to act. When Mr. Museveni perceived VOA’s Shaka Ssali as not impartial enough, he set his exclusion from the debate as a precondition for his participation. If the same rationale is applied to his Electoral Commission, Mr. Museveni rubbishes it as cries of people who know they are already losing. For stating publicly that if the law had granted him more powers he would not have nominated Besigye, the EC chair was not only being unprofessional, but blatantly partisan and declaring a conflict of interest in a contest he is supposed to oversee. Mr. Kiggundu should have done the right thing and resigned by now, but that is expecting too much of a man who is devoid of any decency.
Violence and the ugly rhetoric
The campaign period has been largely peaceful, save for a few incidents of violence that have threatened to rock the whole exercise. The most prominent among these incidents were the violent clashes among Mr. Mbabazi’s supporters and NRM supporters who went to a rival rally they should not have been going to in the first place. The latest, closer to the poll, was triggered by a case of an overzealously partisan police force – which applies the law differently for different candidates – arresting Col. Besigye as he headed to his rally at Makerere University. The result was an unnecessary and avoidable death and injuries to civilians. Gerald Bareebe, a Ugandan PhD candidate in Political Science, has succinctly summed up the rationale for state-orchestrated violence, in countering the notion that the opposition stirs violence to gain sympathy:
“Violence creates sympathy for the opposition, but compels people, especially property-owning/ educated/ middle class/ elites to turn to President Museveni for protection from violence.”
“In the end, violence favours President Museveni, otherwise Museveni wouldn’t be resorting to violence if he sees no value in it. If you scan through social media, you realize that most educated elites, many posting from the comforts of their Bungalows, blame the victims of violence. These elites may not like Museveni but they give him a benefit of the doubt because they need protection from him. So they think that those who are killed during violence deserve it; that they have accepted to be used by politicians; they see victims as responsible for their predicament.”
“Violence creates fear and uncertainty. When that situation arises, people are faced with two options: either to side with the group that has a monopoly on violence or side with a group that is facing violence. But human nature hates the fear of uncertainty so majority end up siding with someone who has control over the instruments of coercion, who is President Museveni.”
Besides the incidents noted this week, there have been all sorts of threats regarding what will happen after the election, if the poll goes one way or the other, with a top party official promising that the state will shoot people’s children. One hopes that sanity will prevail during and after the polls, and that no life or property will be lost during this process.
In general, the coverage of the campaign trail was average. There were a few cases of good analysis, but the reports from the campaign rallies simply regurgitated what the candidates said, with limited or no analyses of whether the candidates’ messages resonated with the needs of the target audience in different parts of the country or not. As expected, the state-owned/run New Vision skewed its coverage in favour of the NRM. As expected, The Independent magazine followed closely in the contest for the most pro-NRM leaning coverage. Although The Daily Monitor is often branded ‘pro-Besigye’ by the establishment, it offered more balanced coverage, as did The Observer. Similar balanced reporting could be traced online, with ChimpReports and Kampala Express. Kampala Express takes most of the credit for its in-depth analyses of the debates, which it shares with Daily Monitor.
The hoi polloi, the elites, and paid pipers
For the poor masses in the villages, this election means everything, or so they believe. It represents the promise of a better life, a better education for their children, and whether their plight will change or remain the same. For some, the electioneering period presents a golden opportunity for them to get some goodies from the unscrupulous politicians who believe in winning hearts by appealing to the mouths through voter bribery. For the uneducated peasants, whose expectations are so low, their focus is on improving their immediate means. These ones don’t care much about macro-economic policies or democratic principles. They want to survive now. Politicians take advantage of such masses, and this might be happening today. For the elites, there are two classes: On the one hand are the corrupt beneficiaries of an inept regime that creates a conducive environment for their graft to thrive. These ones are too scared of regime change because of the uncertainty a new government brings, in terms of sustaining their graft chain. They fear the supply lines of dirty deals and dirty money will be cut off. On the other hand, are the elites who are hungry for change because they have been locked out of many opportunities for far too long. The trouble with these, is that some of them neither register to vote, nor actually go out to vote. They analyse everything on social media, and share images of different incidents without really getting involved. One hopes that this time, they will go out and vote.
The campaign also brought out all shades of analysts, with some purportedly offering objective journalistic analyses when in actual sense, they were paid pipers masquerading as journalists. A clear distinction must be made, though, between journalists who crossed to the other side and started doing publicity work for their employers. These are honest individuals who sought paid employment in order to continue providing for their families. However, Ugandans are familiar with another class of unscrupulous individuals who write and talk as though they were doing honest, objective analyses of the politics of Uganda, but in real sense, they are intellectual fraudsters who are in the business of manipulating facts and data to favour the person who feathers their nests. These are not useful idiots, because they are not naïve, unsuspecting individuals being used to achieve political ends. These are street-smart individuals who know exactly what they are doing. Also, they use insults, personal attacks, and blackmail, to silence those who challenge them. If you are looking for more objective analysis of Ugandan politics and the matters of this election, you are more likely to find better analysis with Tamale Mirundi than with these pseudo-intellectual fraudsters who peddle any claptrap to get a cheque into their bank accounts.
A Museveni win would mean the continuation of corruption, the same policies, same pace of transformation, more militarisation of the state and more crackdown on voices of dissent. It would also mean a dedication of the next five years of his presidency to lifting the presidential age limit so that he can accomplish what Idd Amin failed to do with regard to a life presidency.
A Besigye win would offer a transitional political dispensation, and a start of the all-important political and legal reforms. However, there are too many around him who think it is their turn to eat, and this is of concern. If Besigye becomes president, he might face a lot of pressure from these individuals, and feel obligated to reward those who have been loyal to him. This would, in turn, breed cronyism, and establish a new brand of rot. But this might not be the case, since Besigye is also a very principled man. In this case, he needs the benefit of the doubt. The future looks bright though, and Ugandans are ready to take charge of the affairs of their country.