Like many countries that aspire to be or remain in a league of democratic nations, Uganda goes into a general election on February 18th 2016. This will be the 5th General Election under incumbent Museveni’s 30 year reign in office as president, the first being in 1996, 10 years after he assumed power after retracting from the Nairobi Peace Deal that had a few months before agreed to a Unity Government between the then Military Commission headed by Okello Tito and the NRA rebels led by Museveni. In violating the Nairobi Peace Accord, the NRA surprised the Military Commission and took over key installations and centres of power.
In February and March 2016, over 5,000 elective political offices will be up for grabs ranging from the Presidency, Members of Parliament, Chairpersons and Local Councillors. This will be the biggest number of elective positions since independence in 1962! This huge number is less about the deepening of a democratic culture or elective politics but more about an unfortunate patronage system that has seen the exponential growth of districts from 36 in 1986 to 112 and accompanying rise of elective offices, in some cases by 100%.
Is this the most important election in a generation?
On account of the numbers involved - be they voters currently estimated at 15 million by the Electoral Commission (though others suggest about 12.5 million at most), the number of contestants and amount of money injected, perhaps, yes! A lot too is at stake with many arguing it is either now or never for change. At the presidential level, the election will feature 8 candidates, while over 1,000 candidates will vie for a little more than 400 parliamentary seats all on 18th February 2016.
Despite great ideas from fringe or perineal candidates like Major Benon Biraaro from the Farmer’s Party or Abed Bwanika of the People’s Development Party, there are three front-runners for presidency: populist leader Dr. Kiiza Besigye from the FDC Party, incumbent Museveni from NRM and former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, who until 2014 was Museveni’s ‘blue-eyed boy’. He was pushed out of NRM and is standing under a platform ‘Go-Forward’ which has support of four other parties.
The three front-runners are all from the same geographical region of Uganda called Ankole, played critical roles in Museveni’s bush war between 1981 and 1985, but have since sharply disagreed with him, like many other high profile politicians. This reflects both the ethnic nature of political rewards for the ruling elite, the betrayal that many bush-war heroes feel about their former leader Museveni as well as what is now largely considered by many Ugandans, a lie about the reason Museveni went into the bush, a lie repeated at his swearing in, in 1987 when he promised “not just a change of guard but a fundamental change.” A lie subsequently repeated in 2001 when the president talked about his last term then, before engineering a constitutional amendment in 2005 that removed 2-term limits, opening way for life presidency.
Of the front-runners, judging from the campaign so far, the contest is really between Retired Col. Dr. Kiiza Besigye and the incumbent General Museveni as was the case in 2001, 2006 and 2011, with Amama Mbabazi seen from a positive sense as ‘King-maker’ should there be no outright winner and from a negative sense as a ‘spoiler’ who will ‘steal’ votes from the camps of the other two frontrunners. Amama is also seen as an insider with influence in many state organs, including the security which it is claimed he helped set up.
What are the key issues shaping the election so far?
Away from the sad focus on personalities, there are some important issues that have dominated the campaigns. The key ones are: improving the state of our ailing health system; improving the quality of social services that are in a bad shape across the country; tackling corruption; improving pay for civil servants especially teachers; creating employment for the nearly 83% of youth unemployed or unemployable; and improving the fortunes of an ailing agricultural sector. Presidential candidates have touched on most of the important issues in the campaign and in their manifestos. However, this election, like the ones before is unlikely to be determined by the issues being raised by citizen groups or promises at campaign rallies. The 2016 elections will be yet another unfair referendum on Museveni - a choice between change or no change and less about what Uganda deserves.
So how is the election likely to play out?
To answer this question, it is important to highlight a few issues in the run-up to the election. From a positive sense, we can talk about numerous citizen led efforts to generate issues enumerated above. From the Citizens Manifesto, Women’s Political Agenda, Farmer’s Manifesto, Youth Manifesto and other citizen analysis, priority issues have been generated for debate from women’s empowerment to agricultural transformation, from the rule of law to the need for radical economic and political reforms. There have also been campaigns to get Ugandans to vote, the most visible being the ‘Topowa’ Campaign by the Citizens Coalition on Electoral Democracy (CCEDU) urging Ugandans not to give up but exercise responsibility to vote and shape the future.
Politically, there were encouraging signs of political dialogue between opposition parties, including the idea of fronting joint candidates from the president to local councils and government under the auspices of The Democratic Alliance (TDA). Despite the popular view about the ‘collapse of the TDA’, it is an idea that will remain important beyond the election. There have been 2 good presidential debates, the second being attended by the incumbent president who didn’t appear for the first. These debates televised on TV and relayed on radio have strengthened civility to the campaigns outside the gutters of rallies. The campaigns have also been generally calm and peaceful, notwithstanding incidences where some candidates’ rallies have been disrupted especially by state security agencies working on behalf of the incumbent or some cases of arrests of supporters of the opposition and allegation of kidnap and killing of some. The main victim has been Amama Mbabazi.
On a sad note, the elections take place under a contested legal and institutional framework because critical reforms generated by citizens in 2014 were summarily ignored by government and parliament. The authenticity of the voters register, tampering with voting materials, procurement problems with a biometric system that many have doubts will deliver and in fact be used as a scapegoat on voting day remain serious concerns. There has also been excessive use of election money to compromise voters. There are also threats of violence evidenced from the building up of groups such as ‘Crime Preventers’ who, despite claims by the Police, are all but a state militia wielding sticks and being promised riffles, as well as hate speech from high ranking officials, most notably the Secretary General of the NRM who was recorded threatening to shoot and kill children of fellow Ugandans who protest the outcome of the election. There are also more historical groups such as Amuka in Lango, Arrow Boys in Teso and Frontier Guards in Acholi. All this has triggered the creation of counter groups such as Power (P) 10, TJSolida, amongst others. This coupled with unemployment, a disgruntled youth population, easy prey for manipulation and abuse leaves an air of fear. The fear factor has been heightened by adverts by the NRM displaying skulls from the guerrilla war in Luwero in the 80’s. All the above suggest a less than optimal build up to the elections.
While the turn up is likely to be bigger than previous elections because of what many consider a now or never opportunity for change, the election will neither be free nor fair because of sad tale above and an Electoral Commission that has so far failed to organise credible elections as confirmed by the Supreme Court in 2001 and 2006. Whether or not the incumbent gets a popular vote or win, he will be declared winner on 20th February with a percentage that will surprise many and be contested by all sides.
What will happen after the election results are declared?
Of course the opposition will reject the outcome; there will likely be isolated violent episodes especially in areas where there are intensive rivalries within the NRM after their party primaries were riddled with irregularities and discontent. The military and crime preventers will be heavily deployed across the country to quash any possible dissent. Beyond the façade of democracy, the real face of the regime that believes in settling political matters by force or rule by, rather than of law will come out strongly. But with so much at stake, the costs could be much higher as the opposition will strengthen the campaign of defiance. It is also possible that some sections of the opposition will take the legal route believing the change in leadership of the Judiciary is worth a try but those successful in the parliamentary elections will settle for their ‘catch’ and overall weaken the opposition’s resolve. The economy as in 2011 will suffer the aftershocks of primitive election finance and hording of goods and the hardships will take a while to normalize.
The donor community who have been relatively more proactive compared to previous elections are resigned to the belief that the incumbent will win and maintain a tight grip on power. They will be largely indifferent and continue to underrate the extent of discontent and perhaps play a largely fringe role in the immediate aftermath of elections with their priority being more pressing migrant crisis in Europe, war in Syria and other concerns. The international community will however pick greater interest in the longer term.
What should we do and message around?
To answer the question posed as a title for this article, I do not think the 2016 elections will be a defining moment for Uganda, rather what will happen thereafter. I belong to a group of people who don’t think Uganda’s future will be decisively determined by an election - and certainly not the type that we are preparing for on 18th February 2016, even if I believe we all should actively participate in it as part of the building blocks for dialogue and negotiations. The most urgent and critical question for Uganda is one of a peaceful transition. Elections are unlikely to deliver this, rather a process of dialogue and negotiations between key protagonists and other non-partisan actors, including the church, cultural institutions, civil society, business and elders.
Our overall message should therefore be one of creating the conditions necessary for the above dialogue to happen in the aftermath of the elections domestically and with international solidarity as appropriate. Uganda needs an inclusive transitional period to set the stage for a more sober return to meaningful elections. Inclusive dialogue is thus what I see as the path to peace as there are far too many divergent interests among the protagonists at the moment for them to think about peace, for the sake of it!
The author can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @larok_arthur