Uganda: Big win for ?the big man

By By Parselelo Kantai in Kampala
Posted on Tuesday, 29 March 2011 16:20

Yoweri Museveni’s landslide victory at the polling stations in February had few people fooled, but the real question for Ugandans today is will the oil money waiting on the horizon filter down to them?

Ugandans responded in an uncharacteristically lukewarm manner to President Yoweri Museveni’s overwhelming victory in the 18 February elections. After 112 days of money-saturated campaigns and the most peaceful elections in Uganda’s recent history (only one death reported, of a campaign agent on election eve), there were no parties in the street, no villages soaked in the traditional celebratory beer.

A lone man blowing a vuvuzela was sighted on a street corner in Jinja, the second city and gateway to the Nile, late on Sunday night after electoral commission (EC) chairman, Dr Badru Kiggundu, announced the final result. Earlier in the afternoon, a hastily organised parade on Kampala Road yielded no more than a few honks issued from a brief convoy of vehicles draped in National Resistance Movement (NRM) yellow. It was an incumbent’s growl rather than a victor’s cheer.

Museveni was declared winner of the presidential elections with 68% of the vote, beating his long-time rival and former physician Dr Kizza Besigye, with 26% of the vote. The two biggest tail-enders, Norbert Mao and Olara Otunnu, together only managed a 3.44% share, less than the total number of invalid votes.

In addition, Museveni’s NRM party (or the ‘Movement’) won 76% of the 384 parliamentary seats that were up for grabs. If he is able to sway NRM rebel MPs who ran as independents back to his corner, Museveni will have an even bigger parliamentary majority and be able to change the constitution at will.

Among anticipated changes will be lifting the age limit on who can run as president. At 67, he still has some way to go before attaining the current age limit of 75 years.

How Museveni won the election – in terms of money and tactics – will shape the next few years in Uganda’s politics as the country prepares to become an oil producer. The regime’s body language remained strangely defensive. Military and regular police roamed the streets both in the north and south of the country, geared up in anti-riot paraphernalia that had been imported just before the elections. For many Ugandans, it was a reminder of the bad old days: the three decades of military rule that seemed to have ended when Museveni shot his way into power in 1986, promising a return to peace and stability.?

Soldiers in the city square

On voting day in Kampala, contingents of armed military police were camped around the city; even after the elections, a large number remained stationed at strategic junctions.

Ostensibly, this military presence was justified by the Al Shabaab bombings last July. But as autocrats fell one after the other in North Africa, the government’s fear of mass protests seemed palpable.

In Kampala, three days after the main event, the unchoreographed local council and mayoral elections seemed to reveal what roiled beneath the surface. Around mid-morning at the polling centre on Nasser Road, close to Kampala’s printing district, the small queue of voters noticed that the ballots in the box were piling up faster than the votes cast. They raised the alarm, beat up the EC officials and agents of the NRM mayoral candidate Peter Ssematimba, who is close to First Lady Janet Museveni, and broke up the polling centre.

Reports of anomalies now started popping up everywhere. In Wandegeya, roars of protest at the appearance of stuffed ballot boxes were ignored by a passing police van. Moments later, members of the Kiboko squad, a city militia reportedly on the payroll of the police, showed up and began meting out punishment, especially targeting TV journalists.

By 1pm, when a badly bruised reporter, Jane Anyango, showed up on Uganda Broadcasting Corporation’s lunchtime news, her physical appearance providing evidence of the chaos, the Electoral Commission had cancelled the mayoral elections.

The violence seemed to restore some wind to the sails of an opposition distracted by the weight of its recent losses. This, then, was familiar territory. At a town hall press briefing in Kampala’s Nsambya district, five of the seven opposition presidential candidates, led by Museveni’s longtime opponent Dr Kizza Besigye, issued a joint statement.

It was the first time the opposition had spoken in unison since the election campaigns began in October last year.

“As has been repeatedly pointed out by the opposition political parties and the civil society, the entire [electoral] process has not been free and fair,” said Dr Besigye in the statement. “The election was characterised by widespread bribery by NRM, using public funds, intimidation and threats of violence, using the security forces, pre-ticking of ballots and ballot stuffing, multiple voting, ghost polling stations, disenfranchisement of voters, arrests and obstruction of opposition polling agents and all manner of cheating. The electoral exercise has been a sham. We categorically reject the results … and will not recognise any government formed out of these elections.” ?

There were about 200 opposition supporters in the hall. A wild cheer broke out. “This is a moment of truth, of reckoning,” said presidential candidate, Olara Otunnu, of the Uganda People’s Congress, the party that had ruled the country between the two civil wars and had been responsible for the rigging of the 1980 elections, the reason that Museveni had taken up arms and gone into the bush.

“We can choose to remain slaves in our own country, to remain subjugated, or we can choose to be the owners of the country,” Otunnu continued amid cheers.

The opposition called for peaceful public protests to demand fresh elections. Later, Besigye would say in an interview that he could not rule out war. It was a rhetorical gesture, rather than an actual call to arms.

And it seemed that everybody understood this. A columnist in an opposition paper remarked that in Kampala, mass uprisings of the ­Tahrir Square kind were well-nigh impossible as most of the public squares had been privatised, turned into restaurants and shopping malls.

Some days later, at his victory rally on the Kololo Airstrip in Kampala, President Museveni responded to Dr Besigye’s call by pledging to crush any uprising. Museveni and Besigye, former allies in the bush and old military men, were speaking a language they both understood – above the heads of a public cowed by their collective history.??

Tipping the hat

Unlike previous elections when the Movement used intimidation and violence on election day, this time the president pulled out all the stops in his hunt for votes. A supplementary budget presented months earlier than usual and easily approved by parliament, put about US$350m – an unprecedented sum in Uganda’s history – in Museveni’s hands, which enabled him to dole out ‘gifts’ throughout the country.

During such tours, Museveni also created new districts out of counties. Districts bring jobs and money to locals – and voters rewarded him handsomely. In 34 of the newly created districts, Museveni took more than 80% of the vote.

In Luwero, where Museveni launched his 1980 rebellion, and the north, where 25 years of war just came to an end, the ruling party used direct threats of new war to get votes.

“The president has been telling the country that there can be no peace without him,” says John Mary Odoy of the Democracy Monitoring Group (DEMGroup), an independent domestic election-monitoring body. “People still remember the 1980 elections and the war that followed. Nobody wants to go back there.”

In Jinja, Mr Gitobu Imanyara, a Kenyan MP and leader of the AU observer team, watched in amazement as Movement officials took over the town hall and proceeded to dish out 20,000 Uganda shilling notes (about US$10) to a queue of voters. The town hall sits directly behind the EC offices.

“The vote was a fraud,” says Imanyara. “This election was pre-determined … The Electoral Commission was part and parcel of the NRM. In fact there was no distinction between the NRM and the EC. The EC was taking orders from the NRM.”

Imanyara, like other observers, faults the voter-registration process which he says excluded many anti-Museveni areas. He questions how the EC came up with 13.9 million voters in a country where over half of the 32 million are under 18 years of age. “Even by the Electoral Commission’s own admission, they were not able to issue voters’ cards to more than four million voters. So the potential ghost voters are about four million,” he says.

Given these doubts, most observers – save for the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) – refused to return a free and fair verdict. “It was pre-rigged rather than rigged on the day,” said Odoy of DEMGroup.

“The incumbent is allowed to use all the facilities available to his office,” explains Charles Ochola, the EC spokesman. “This makes it very difficult for us to draw a line under what constitutes electoral malpractice.”

“People don’t know what happened,” said a news editor at a radio station in Lira, Northern Uganda, the political base of former President Milton Obote. Museveni had won for the first time in the district. “They are in a state of confusion. And what’s even worse, they were clean votes!” Like many districts in Northern Uganda, Lira had succumbed to the deadly charms of a professional.??

The shape of the future

Whether Museveni won the election fairly will be endlessly debated. While victory came at a high price politically, it has not necessarily hurt economic prospects in the long term. Budget deficits may momentarily go up, and the extraction of campaign cash from the supplementary budget has led to the Treasury reportedly calling for a freeze in non-essential spending.

However, economists see the style of the campaign politics – the arbitrary creation of new districts, for instance – as the expression of a chronic problem in Uganda. Dr John Mary Matovu, an economist with Makerere University’s Economic Policy Research Centre, explains: “The cost of government is very big, and it is expanding at the expense of delivering essential services. If you were to transfer the cost of paying for government to other areas you could raise an extra percentage of GDP every year.”?

If privatisation of state resources is what transferred the economy into the hands of the Movement elite and provided the impetus for the corruption of recent years, the cost of patronage continues to exact a toll on the taxpayer.?”

In less than a decade, the size of the cabinet increased from 42 ministers originally provided for under the constitution to approximately 72. The number of presidential advisors increased from four in 1994 to 71 in 2003 … there are approximately 278 presidential advisors, presidential assistants and presidential secretaries. A growing executive bureaucracy built around the office of the president and State House is the single most important threat to governance and efforts to eradicate poverty and achieve economic transformation in Uganda today,” says Godber Tumushabe, a lawyer and analyst.

At current trends, Uganda’s per capita income will be US$800 by 2016. Oil revenues are expected to come on stream in 2015, injecting an estimated US$2bn a year into the economy, about 20% of GDP at current prices. The latest national development plan, which focuses on infrastructural expansion mainly in the transport and energy sectors, anticipates that oil revenues will finance many of these projects.

What many question at the moment, however, is how the current economic model is actually benefiting people in real terms.

“The question people keep on asking is that while the macro-economy is performing well, the incomes of people have not improved tremendously,” says Dr Matovu. “And even though poverty has reduced, inequality has been increasing. This basically means that you only have income in the hands of a few.”

Youth unemployment is estimated at 80% in a country with one of the youngest populations in the world. With many living off the kikuubo, or informal economy, the threat of growing disillusionment and unrest is very real.

It was the dream of oil that drove Museveni’s desire to secure another term, wean the country off donor dependency and begin exerting its muscle in the region. It is his ticket to becoming the region’s big chief in a future East African Federation. But it could also be his ticket out of power, as a youthful population, already excluded from the economy, grows angry and restless.

“The election results will give Museveni the illusion that he is popular. But if Uganda blows up at some point, the world will be surprised,” says political analyst Frederick Golooba-Mutebi. “And they will be surprised, because everybody was seduced by the donors’ positive reports on Uganda. Nobody was watching what was happening on the ground.”

This article was first published in the April 2011 edition of The Africa Report

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