Experts say the special mix of dictatorship and democratic rituals has made citizens lose hope in elections
As Masaka Municipality MP Mathias Mpuuga announced the return of protests on July 4, he acknowledged the odds his campaign is up against, but dismissed them.
“The notion that political and social agitation is now irrelevant ... is a lie,” Mpuuga said.
Having coordinated the Walk-to-Work campaign under Activists for Change (A4C), now For God and my County (4GC), Mpuuga must realise that protests as a political tool in Uganda have been losing steam over the past six months. Those who hoped the strategy would galvanise regime change seem to have had their faith shaken with the passage of time and the failure of the protest movement to upset the force of the police or to achieve any significant political gains.
Instead, brute force has been declared heroic. President Yoweri Museveni singled Inspector General of Police boss Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura for praise in his State of the Nation Address on June 7, for crushing opposition protests in a manner even human rights organisations have found objectionable.
It is instructive that at the re-launch at the Forum for Democratic Change’s office at Katonga Road, the most notable figure was Kampala Mayor Erias Lukwago, who mostly spoke about his issues at Kampala Capital City Authority. Others present were Jeema President Asuman Basalirwa, FDC’s Francis Mwijukye and Ingrid Turinawe and Kawempe Mayor Mubarak Munyagwa. Where were the rest?
Mpuuga must have looked back with nostalgia at April 2011, when the call of the first Walk-to-Work protest had key opposition leaders and their supporters, fresh from the disappointment of the general elections, pouring on the streets in droves. With the economy in the toilet and Police violence the daily feature of day-time television, Walk-to-Work captured the imagination of the disenfranchised.
Votes don’t count
But if protest has lost its allure, so have elections. Preliminary findings of an international study released last week showed that most Ugandans do not think a change of regime is possible through elections.
Professors Sabiti Makara and Sandrine Perrot of Makerere University and Jérôme Lafargue of France, who are editing the findings into a book, argue that regular elections repeatedly returning President Museveni have only succeeded in fostering despondency, making Ugandans disbelieve their ability to vote out the ruling National Resistance Movement.
The study, based on a survey of views of ordinary Ugandans, found that many Ugandans turn out to vote not sure their votes will count.
Ugandans do not trust the Electoral Commission to be an impartial arbiter of elections because most believe its commissioners are partial to the NRM, whose chairman, the President, appoints and dismisses them.
The manner of reappointment of the EC commissioners in the run-up to the elections made a free and fair election impossible, and was a major factor in the opposition’s threat to boycott the elections, it was found.
“The seven commissioners are appointed by Museveni and he can dismiss them,” Jonathan Fisher from the University of Birmingham said. “And most of them were former NRM mobilisers.”
Fisher said international politics had jeopardised the push for the EC’s reform. While donor countries like Netherlands had wanted to sustain pressure for the Commission to be reconstituted by withdrawing funding, the bigger powers let them down as their interest turned to the war in Somalia and Museveni’s leadership of it.
“US pressure dropped off at a similar time as the [July 2010 Kampala] bombings as their attention shifted to Somalia,” Fisher said. He said the US didn’t want to jeopardise the regime in Kampala, which was leading the war against the Al Shabaab militants in Somalia, who were understood to have master-minded the bombing.
At around the same time, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, took a different approach in Nigeria than in Uganda, insisting on the reform of the electoral commission there, but not in Uganda.
That a similar team will be in place for the next election has UPC President Olara Otunnu and FDC President Kizza Besigye, and their supporters convinced that there will be no election in 2016.
Otunnu, who famously did not vote in the 2011 election even though he was a presidential candidate, says the opposition should not have participated at all. At the time Otunnu urged a boycott to put pressure on the NRM to implement electoral reforms, but was overruled by Besigye who argued that the opposition could win in spite of rigging. That is how most opposition politicians in Africa win anyway, Besigye argued.
But the opposition performed much worse than expected, as Museveni polled 68.38% against Besigye’s 26%, as opposed to 59% against 37%, respectively, in 2006.
Fusing politics, army
Makerere University’s Prof. Sallie Simba Kayunga, says the security forces, whose presence around polling stations at elections is conspicuous and serves to unnerve voters and opposition polling agents, are “more concerned about the survival of the regime and not the state”.
Many believe that even if Museveni were voted out, the army would reject such a result and chaos would ensue. This, according to Simba, has bred the “notion that it is only one man who can provide security.”
Going forward, he argued, it is important to separate the army from the ruling party, a task that he admits will not be quick or easy.
David Mafabi, a political assistant to the President, says it is worth considering that NRM is too strong for its opponents,
“If the opposition is strong, why didn’t they field candidates in all constituencies and at every level?” Mafabi asks. “How did they expect to win the election without fielding candidates?”
Mafabi’s question cuts at the heart of a major challenge facing the opposition. Even in elections in which they participate, some opposition candidates are unreliable and drop out of races. Some cross to the ruling party soon after they are elected, to pay debts, vie for ministerial positions or otherwise gain access to state resources.
Whenever despondency sets in, Makerere’s Kiiza says, NRM is likely to exploit the situation to further entrench itself; hence, the growing helplessness not just among the voters, but the opposition as well. Disappointed as the electoral process becomes less transparent, they ‘boycott’ the vote. Galvanised the ruling party’s supporters come out in droves. The margin between the incumbent and opposition keeps growing.
It is a vicious circle.
In the 2011 election, only 58% of the registered voters turned out. Although President Yoweri Museveni polled 67.8% of the votes cast, he was in fact returned by just 39% of registered voters.
How can a disillusioned opposition convince apathetic voters that they can change the government?
The apathy doesn’t just stop at the elections, but runs throughout public life and policy making. Joseph Bossa, vice president of the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), joined politics after a 22-year career in the Bank of Uganda.He says he wants to be involved in major policy debates about the direction of the country, to challenge the ruling NRM’s poor leadership, but finds himself entangled in petty party squabbles, unable to engage in anything constructive.
“Under the current situation there is little the opposition can do to change things,” says Bbosa, who claims most of the disagreements in his party are engineered by the NRM.
Even the writers know that many of their findings are not new to most Ugandans.
But they have important “implications for what it means to be in the opposition and marked a turning point in Uganda’s electoral trajectory”, Makerere University’s Perrot said.
Perrot said the findings raised new questions, particularly about the meaning of elections in “the very specific case of hybrid regimes”, i.e. the strange mix of dictatorial practices, cronyism and democratic rituals that exists in Uganda.
Do elections make sense any more in Uganda’s current politics? Is civil protest of the kind Mpuuga champions a viable political option? Is it possible to change a regime in Uganda today? By what means? Even the experts are still puzzling this out.
Answers are expected in December, when the study, titled Uganda’s 2011 elections: A step forward for democracy?, is expected to be published as a book.
The study was borne out of the frustration of European donors who, through the Deepening Democracy Programme, had invested significant sums building the capacity of political parties in the run-up to the elections.
Having expected the opposition parties to perform much better than they did, it is believed the donors wanted to understand what happened and how to proceed.
Nicolas de Torrente, the programmes manager of the Deepening Democracy component of the Democratic Governance Facility, said they wanted the scholars to capture the “whole story of the election, processes and outcomes”, and what it meant for Uganda’s democratisation process.
Perhaps then it will be possible to form an informed opinion of the renewed protest movement – and the 2016 elections - which has supporters excited, the government nervous, and some ordinary citizens simply unconcerned. Afterall, they cannot change a government.