Uganda’s democracy-free election

Kalundi Serumaga
By Kalundi Serumaga

Cultural activist, film-maker and journalist. @NativeLandgrab

Posted on Wednesday, 13 January 2021 19:33
People pass by a painting on the wall of the Ugandan electoral commission compound in Kampala, Uganda 13 January 2021. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

The last thing the West needs in Africa is democracy. And yet the one thing Africa needs more than anything else is the ability to choose its leaders without obstruction or manipulation.

Elections are therefore always going to be a fraught process. Any truly free and fair election would end up producing governments whose policies would be in direct conflict with the Western economic, and therefore security, interests in the region. This is not a new story.

The creation process for the average African country (often known as colonialism), was enormously undemocratic. In Uganda’s case, there were basically ever only two elections in the entire colonial period, and both happened right at the end of it, in 1961 and 1962.

Independent Uganda’s “traditional” method was to have a violent change of power, usually a coup, in every year an election was scheduled: 1966/67 (Obote removes Mutesa), 1971 (Amin removes Obote), 1979/80 (Amin is removed), 1985/6 (Okellos remove Obote, and were in turn removed by Museveni). The year 1974 did not see a violent change of government, but there was the collapse of General Amin’s original cabinet, and with it, the end of his honeymoon period.

Changing traditions

The arrival of Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) modified that tradition. We still do not have elections, but mere ‘electoralism’. This was clever and quite effective in the first two decades following the 1986 seizing of power: Ugandans have been voting regularly, and at all levels of governance, for all manner of leasers from local village governance upwards. This changed nothing, but kept the people very busy.

It was further consolidated when we got a new constitution in 1995, created again by elected delegates. That document did three things critical to making this form of dictatorship viable in the long term.

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  1. First, it separated the matter of electing the president from the matter of electing members of parliament. This represented a complete and final break with the inherited British constitutionalism where, after the 1967 coup, Milton Obote merged the executive powers of the prime minister with the ceremonial ones of the president and then abolished the post of prime minister.
  2. Second, it created jobs and an opportunity to build or recover careers shattered by over two decades of conflict, exile and economic collapse. The middle class in general, and the politically active within it in particular, therefore embraced the new arrangement and did not seek to challenge its fundamental flaws.
  3. Third, it became an organised conduit through which the whole donor economy could manufacture a sense of self-worth by catering to the different sectors of now constitutionally defined neediness now officially laid out by the new document.

Young, energetic and praised

As a result, Uganda got a political leader – young and energetic – being widely praised in the Western media as the face of a new, democratic Africa. This was not Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine); it was Yoweri Museveni. Every expression of admiration and support being made in the Western media in support of Robert Kyagulanyi today, was once made in nearly exactly the same way, by the very same organisations, for Museveni.

Western interest in Ugandan politics is over which of the factions competing will be the most willing and able to do the West’s bidding in national and regional economic and political affairs. To them, the NRM has always been more than willing (but increasingly, less and less able); the Robert Kyagulanyi campaign offers openings, but comes with a lot of mass expectations that could create huge conflicts of interest. As for the former opposition behemoth Kizza Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change: they simply never understood the question to begin with.

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This is an old story. The creation of Uganda began with a three-way fight between a disorganised Arab empire operating through Muslim missionaries and traders, the German monopoly corporations operating through the Catholic church-backed German state and the British monopoly corporations operating through the Anglican church-backed British state. The British won, as we know.

Independence prep

Despite that, this contestation reared its head again during the elections in the run-up to the independence preparations. The 1962 election was held largely because the 1961 one had produced a victory for the Catholic, German-friendly Democratic Party (DP). This was a result unpalatable to the departing British, who wished and fully intended to leave a friendly government in charge of the shiny new ex-colony.

We have therefore been here twice before. This is now the third time, as with the DP in the early 1960s, and then again in 1980 (when everybody still holding the memory of the Obote regime of the 1960s, and its spawn in the form of the then recently departed Idi Amin, basically voted for DP).

Kyagulanyi represents that eternal thing of Ugandan politics: the hope before the hope, the idea of establishing a habit of democracy and elected government. Ideology, manifestoes and policy are the hopes that will come after that initial principle is established as a national political habit. It is for this reason that he draws support from a wide and very diverse base of Ugandans. They simply want change. And the establishment of the habit of change.

In this way, he is very similar to Museveni, who was about Kyagulanyi’s age, some 40 years ago, when he also represented change. As said, there was the similarity of him being also embraced, admired and endorsed by many Western intellectuals, organisations and their media.

READ MORE Uganda: ‘This generation is yearning for change and I am here to deliver it’ – Bobi Wine 

Since the end of the rigidities of the East vs West Cold War, Africa has remained poised at an economic crossroads. The Great Lakes Region is the future breadbasket of the world. And the current Ugandan regime in particular also serves as the security backstop for Western interests.

Can we work with him?

The critical consideration for the West therefore, is if they feel a government under Kyagulanyi can retain these abilities. If, they fully conclude that he will be someone they can work with, then we shall see him championed as the new beacon of hope, champion of democracy and all the other things said about Museveni (“new breed of African leader” gushed one senior official at the US State Department, decades earlier during his own youthful exertions).

If their calculation is that Kyagulanyi cannot deliver, then they will allow his bid to be crushed by Museveni. Their other consideration is if a now considerably aged Museveni is still a safe bet that can still be relied upon for a few more years (but then what?).

Tough questions and tough times

My own reading is that this matter was never settled at policy level within the highest levels of especially United States thinking. It would have been a tough question for them at the best of times: do they stick with their sure deal, but one that is clearly about to be taken out by old age, or do they dump him for a newer model, but one surrounded by, and beholden to an ocean of expectations from his followers, all of which would not benefit the interests of the West?

And if they pass up this opportunity for change, will there ever be another like it again? At the best of times, these would be tough questions to tackle. But now also with the distracting chaos that outgoing (except in his own mind) President Donald Trump brought to their governance, their thinking was disrupted further.

As for Britain, they remain a lot more wedded to the Museveni project, just as they stuck with their earlier murderous Obote II project until the bitter end.

It is a high stakes gamble for all sides.

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For the West, assuming Kyagulanyi can be made to work with them, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be present in the future and shift management from the old to the new, and one with a legitimacy of mass popularity as expressed by a large voting base. The wrong choice would leave them with little or no influence in the region.

A political dynasty

For President Museveni, this is the opportunity to complete the establishment of his family dynasty, largely by cementing his fealty to the West, giving him the monopoly over the supply of political agents for the imperialists. Failure to secure that would lead to the dismantling of the family-state project, as was seen with the Mobutu, Gaddafi and other attempted dynasties.

As for the ordinary Ugandans, and the youth in particular: this represents the last possible opportunity for a peaceful removal of a government that, from their life’s experience, they know in their very bones, simply does not care about them at all. Failure to secure this means final ruin, at the social and economic level.

The NRM regime has ruled for long enough and done enough service to the West to be able to understand the dilemma within the US governance. It is that dilemma that the regime is leveraging, in its determination to hang on to power. The gamble therefore is to see to it that they do this by any means necessary.

Because if they succeed in that, then the West would pretend not to see the human cost.

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