Let’s hope Besigye’s massive crowds of supporters did not defy the registration exercise!
On Thursday February 18, Ugandans will wake up to cast their votes to elect the President and other leaders. This is one of the most confusing and unusual elections in Uganda’s short elective political history.
Unlike the immediate past, the campaigns have been fantastic. There has been less violence and more freedom given to opposition candidates to campaign compared to the past three elections I have witnessed.
In past, sections of the military, the police and the infamous Kalangala Action Plan (KAP) under Kakooza Mutale, and the kibooko squad used to harass the supporters of the seasoned opposition leader, Dr. Kizza Besigye. In 2001, the first time President Museveni faced “real” competition in the Presidential race, there were reports of widespread violence against Besigye’s supporters.
For example, on March 3, 2001, security forces allegedly opened fire on the peaceful crowd leaving Besigye’s rally in Rukungiri, killing one of his supporters, Johnson Baronda, and injuring scores of others.
In 2006, Besigye was nominated while in jail. We also heard of his supporters being shot dead at Besigye’s rallies, such as the unfortunate incident that occurred at Bulange Mengo ten years ago. In 2011, the police were also engaged in fierce fights with Besigye’s supporters. Teargas became part and partial of Besigye’s campaign rallies.
This time round, the situation has been different. When Besigye declared on the nomination day that his was going to be a campaign of defiance, many anticipated fireworks. We thought that there was going to be unparalleled violence.
To our surprise, the authorities ignored his “defiance” stance. Besigye could even be left to address supporters at times beyond the laid out rules. Mbabazi did the same. This was very unlike the Museveni we knew.
Role of “rigging” message
In the past it was only the President allowed to break the electoral rules. I will never forget the 1996 EC chairman, Stephen Akabwai, who was asked by a journalist why he was applying the electoral law in favour of President Museveni and against his rivals. He replied, “Who does not know that Mr. Museveni is the incumbent?”
This time round, the situation has been different. I think this is not accidental. It is part of the strategy of the team in yellow.
Although many NRM leaders have been drumming up messages post-election violence, which also I think is part of the party’s strategy, by and large Besigye and Mbabazi will not be listened to by many if they cited campaign violence.
Don’t even be surprised when Besigye’s and Mbabazi’s task forces, for the first time, are not barred from the tallying centre in the electoral commission. Museveni seems determined to disarm the opposition of any “excuses”. Why do I say so? Why do I sound pessimistic and appearing not to give Besigye any chance of winning, yet he has pulled nearly the largest and more widely publicised crowds during the campaigns.
First, my feeling is that the opposition politicians, media, and sections of civil society have helped the NRM and President Museveni in particular to bias the people of Uganda that elections in this country are compromised.
So people no longer trust our electoral process. Those who want change now think that the probability that their votes can determine the outcome of the election has increasingly become insignificant as long as President Museveni is on the ballot paper. This certainly works in Museveni’s favour. The “rigging” message frustrates the voters of the opposition but not those of Museveni.
The myth of crowds
Second, many of the young people who are running around with Besigye and Mbabazi are the unemployed and disillusioned youth who for years have been following Besigye’s ‘attractive’ message of defiance. Unfortunately, I guess many of them also defied the registration exercise.
They refused to register for the national ID, saying “I am a Ugandan; I don’t need Museveni’s card to prove my citizenship”. So Besigye might lose a good number of his votes simply because his visibly enthusiastic supporters woke up late to the realization that government exercises, such as voter registration are meant to serve their interests and not that of the government they hate with relish.
Third, the crowds at the rallies tend to lie. “Change” supporters tend to have more reason to attend a political rally than do the supporters of “no change” or “steady progress”. Most of the change supporters are likely to belong to the unprivileged group that is unemployed or employed in a job that they feel is not commensurate with their qualifications. So the value of their time is very low.
The opposition supporters can therefore afford to spend days pimping up the campaign venue of their likely liberator. Those of no change are too busy with work and/or business to listen to recycled speeches of their old man with a hat.
After all, many of the “no change” guys are actually not supporting Museveni per se; they vote for their jobs, businesses, gardens, peace etc. Museveni is simply the “agent” they use to guarantee the continuation of the status quo. However, this very fact may also cost Museveni some votes since some of the “no change” supporters they are too busy to register to vote or even to go and cast their votes.
Thus, the crowds that Besigye has pulled during the campaigns are indicative of mainly the frustration Ugandans have accumulated over the years. Unfortunately, the opposition is always unserious in the mobilization of their supporters until the excitement of campaigns come in.
I did not, for example, hear any opposition politicians mobilising people to go and register in big numbers back in 2013 and 2014 when the excise was ongoing. Actually the actions of the opposition politicians then could easily have frustrated their supporters and they did not register. I know a number of my friends who would vote for change but did not register.
Fourth, and perhaps more importantly, the incumbency factor. Museveni has been President for 30 years. This may appear to put him at a disadvantage especially given that nearly 60% of the voters were born after he had become President.
Although a number of young people, especially those who are educated and exposed, feel it’s an abuse for one man to rule the country for a period beyond their age, a good number others actually think Museveni was anointed as the only President of Uganda. They look at Besigye and think, “Can he really be President?”
Apart from that the incumbency provides Museveni with very many advantages. He is in charge of the state security apparatus and government. Imagine the tens of thousands of state workers and their family members who would like to protect their bread. Imagine the LC system and its network.
Imagine the newly recruited “army” of crime preventers that would provide a base support base for the incumbent. Imagine the state funds at his disposal. Imagine that expansive team of popular musicians whom the president “captured” on the account of the deep pockets. Imagine their support base. Assume only about 40% of their supporters are wooed, what would be the cumulative effect?
Anyway the factors that give Museveni an irrefutable advantage may go on and on. Today every critically thinking Ugandan, even if he or she is NRM supporter, knows that the greatest challenge to Uganda’s democracy is the “incumbency factor”.
After Museveni, Uganda must reinstate the two term limit if we are to join other African countries that are steadily building their democracy, such as Kenya, Tanzania, and others. We have to agree it is damn difficult to defeat an incumbent in Africa even if the polls were “free and fair”, whatever that means.
As we prepare to cast our (meaningless?) votes on Thursday 18th, tension is written all over the faces of the voters.
I have written in these pages before that the greatest failure of this unquestionably great hero of 1986 named Y.K. Museveni is his failure to give Ugandans assurance that their country will, for the first time, change the president without bloodshed.
My verdict is still holding. At the moment Uganda’s record stands: a dirty past, a frustrating present and an uncertain future.