Posted on Tuesday, 01 December 2015 11:30

Handicapping the 2016 Ugandan presidential election

By Daniel K. Kalinaki

altWhen United States President Barack Obama spotted his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni's bandaged right hand during the United Nations General Assembly opening meeting in September in New York, he quickly threw in a light-hearted barb. "Somebody was making you mad and you just took a punch?" President Obama asked, jokingly. "No, an accident," Museveni replied with an uncomfortable smile, clearly not keen to either press the flesh or the matter.


Whatever the real story behind the bandaged hand – and many conspiracy theories abound in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, about the state of the president's hand and health – Museveni has been throwing plenty of punches over the past year.

A bonfire of political vanities is clearly evident within the ruling party itself

The sparring with Amama Mbabazi is set to break out into an open contest after the former ally, prime minister and ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party secretary general finally declared his intentions to run against Museveni in the February elections.

Opposition leader Kizza Besigye also defeated his party leader Major General (retired) Mugisha Muntu to take the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) nomination.With Besigye running for the fourth time, most of the excitement has been provided by Mbabazi's entry into the fray.

Beyond the obvious advantages of incumbency, Museveni, who celebrates 30 years in power in January, goes into the election as a favourite despite the bruising internecine battle to uproot Mbabazi from the party and the government. There are at least three structural reasons why the election is Museveni's to lose: a divided opposition riven with intrigue; the closing of ranks within the NRM; and the failure of proposed electoral and political reforms.

The opposition's weakness and incoherence played out publicly and shambolically in September as it tried to agree on a joint presidential candidate under its loose umbrella grouping, The Democratic Alliance (TDA). The real fight was always going to be between the FDC's Besigye and Mbabazi, who made a belated entry into the alliance after the NRM internal nomination window was slammed and boarded up.

The TDA chose to give equal weight to inconsequential parties and players including the Democratic Party's Norbert Mao and the Uganda Federal Alliance's Beti Kamya, who together collected about 2.5% of the vote in the 2011 election when Besigye scored 26% and Museveni 68.3%.

When the smaller parties tilted in favour of Mbabazi and the former prime minister refused to renounce his NRM credentials, the FDC refused to go along and the alliance agreed to disagree by fielding both candidates.

The TDA's lack of credibility was confirmed a few days later when former vice-president Gilbert Bukenya, who had been one of the alliance's principal leaders, defected back to the NRM and Museveni.

These disagreements are mirrored in the opposition's grassroots. Many Besigye supporters remain suspicious of Mbabazi, while many others want to see a fresh face on the ballot. The public sniping between the two camps is likely to encourage many undecided to vote with their feet and stay at home.

Apathy could be decisive in the election. Museveni won 5.4m votes in the last election while 5.8 million registered voters did not bother to turn up. While the opposition hopes that Mbabazi can break away with a significant chunk of Museveni voters, all the incumbent has to do is hold his block together, win half of first-time voters and create a sense of boring inevitability to keep the undecided at home.

Aware of the numbers game and never one to waste a crisis, Museveni has used the Mbabazi uprising to close ranks and demand public declarations of support from within the party and state machinery. The spring cleaning began in the army and security agencies.

Museveni shunted to the side officers whose loyalty could not be guaranteed and who were seen as close to Mbabazi, such as external spy chief Robert Masolo. Restive army veterans were rallied together under General Salim Saleh and handed the reins to a cash- rich but ineffectual agricultural extension service while others, such as Maj. Gen. (ret.). Jim Muhwezi and Lieutenant Gen. Henry Tumukunde, who was quickly promoted from brigadier, then retired, were rehabilitated and thrown into the campaign fray.

This bonfire of political vanities has continued within the ruling party itself, where officials keen to maintain favour and support for their own re-election have been falling over themselves to campaign for the incumbent and malign the renegade.

When Maj. Gen. Matayo Kyaligonza – Uganda's ambassador to Burundi, a decorated war veteran and one of the four NRM national vice chairpersons – faced a stiff challenge from Museveni's son-in-law Odrek Rwabwogo for his party position, the younger man was locked out of the race and publicly admonished by Museveni for being too ambitious. Incumbency rewards loyalty.

When the NRM passed the hat around to raise money for a long-planned party headquarters, leading businessmen in the country – and some contractors invited through government agencies – queued up for a dinner at the State House and coughed up $4.5m overnight. Loyalty rewards incumbency.

Nevertheless, victory is by no means a foregone conclusion for Museveni. In 2012, the government statistics office put youth unemployment at 64%. The population's median age is just under 16, and the majority of voters are young, unemployed and frustrated. The government has responded by throwing money at the problem, kicking the can down the road where it can and by stonewalling on reforms that would reduce the advantages of incumbency and make elections freer and better organised.

The police have launched a brutal clampdown on the opposition, breaking up rallies, arresting officials and teargassing supporters across the country. While police say the opposition is campaigning prematurely, they have been accused of curtailing civil liberties and political freedoms. "Ugandans have the right to gather and hear information, never more so than when an election is coming up," said Maria Burnett, a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Back in September, Museveni said his hand was caught in his car door as he rushed to Japan for a recent state visit. It has been a whirlwind year of foreign visits and local politicking, campaigning, launching projects and giving cash donations across the country.

When the bell goes off in early November to sanction officially the campaign, this veteran political pugilist who has ruled Uganda since 1986 will find familiar friends and foes in the boxing ring. He is favourite to win on points after going the distance – but he will need both hands.

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