Why the U.S. president always feels compelled to lecture to Africans and my obsession with his meddling
It has become custom for U.S. President Barak Obama to constantly volunteer unsolicited advice to African people whenever a given country is going through some major event. So when Nigeria was going into elections, Obama recorded a video: “For elections to be credible they must be free, fair and peaceful,” he lectured Nigerians, “All Nigerians must be able to cast their ballots without intimidation or fear. So I call on all leaders and candidates to make it clear to their supporters that violence has no place in democratic elections and that they will not excite, support or engage in any kind of violence before, during and after the votes are counted…”
This was saddening but also illuminating. Who does Obama think he is to make this call? God? Does he think Nigerians do not know these basic concepts? Isn’t it obvious that if Nigerians do not adhere to them, that is not due to lack of knowledge but due to structural circumstances and political incentives that drive politics in that country? He recorded a similar video for Burundi, lecturing its people on how they can end their conflict. There is something megalomaniacal about Obama. Perhaps he sees himself as a special human being, a Pope for African peoples. So he thinks we need his sermons to change the political trajectories of our nations.
Obama may be well intentioned when he lectures Africans, genuinely believing - like his African admirers, that he is trying to help our continent. But we should not miss the underlying attitude that informs his lectures. To understand where he is coming from, one needs to read colonial literature focusing on its racial content. I will liberally borrow quotes by colonial officials from Prof. Mahmood Mamdani’s majestic work, `Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism’.
Why Besigye’s promise to cut down the number of political appointments in government is a pipedream
Opposition presidential candidate, Kizza Besigye has promised a 50% increase in public sector wages. According to his handlers, he will save money by cutting wasteful spending on political appointments like RDCs, on the second largest cabinet in the world, and on the 114 presidential advisors and assistants President Yoweri Museveni has. He also plans to reduce the number of districts and the size of parliament.
Besigye’s heart is clearly in the right direction but I am inclined to believe that he will not do any of that.
In fact he is deluded if he thinks he will save money this way and use it to pay for his oversized promises. I will do the math of how ridiculous his expectations are in another article.
For now I will explain why Besigye will not cut the budget allocated to political patronage if he were to win next year’s elections.
Mainly, this will be because Besigye will be under pressure to appoint many people to cabinet to build a governing coalition.
He will also need to reward his many political hangers-on for their support. If he cuts these political jobs, he will find that he has tied his hands and will be forced to recreate them under new guises. To appreciate this, we must leave dreamland and delve into Uganda’s actual politics.
Why this is likely to be a two horse race between Museveni and Besigye leaving Mbabazi a distant third
Last week the three frontrunners for the presidency kicked off campaigns showing their political muscles with crowds. If this was a measure of potential performance in the election, Kizza Besigye would knockout President Yoweri Museveni and Amama Mbabazi in the first round. While Museveni and Mbabazi had spent a lot of money to bus in people from all corners to attend their rallies, Besigye’s supporters needed little or no mobilisation. They just came by themselves and literally gave him money in expression of support.
Besigye’s candidacy excites popular passions because he presents himself as a candidate who opposes the status quo and wants radical change. But he has weak organisational capacity and financial muscle to turn this advantage into votes – and protect those votes. Amama has the most reasonable, progressive and futuristic campaign agenda – change with continuity. But it is too status quo-ish to inspire passion. And he lacks basic organisational infrastructure to promote it – his position being worse than Besigye’s FDC. Museveni has the poorest positioning in this election – maintenance of the status quo – and no grand ideals to mobilise passion. However, he has the historical legacy and organisational structures backed by the state and its financial, coercive and propaganda instruments.
So let me enjoy some bragging rights here. I have spent the last two months arguing with many people that Mbabazi cannot supplant Besigye for the soul of the opposition. Last week’s crowds proved me right. Mbabazi’s calm and sober message appeals to the enlightened but equally most fickle voter segment – the more urban educated middleclass. They may be passionate on Facebook but they don’t vote in large numbers. This class also lives largely in fantasyland – self-indulgent with superficial views on the challenges facing Uganda. It deludes itself into thinking it represents “liberal democratic” values. However in real fact it is disarticulated from the hard realities of Uganda’s actual political dynamics.
Why the chaos and violence in the ruling party are a signal of its strength and weakness of the opposition
The just concluded parliamentary and district primaries of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) were characterised by unprecedented violence, vote rigging and organisational chaos. For many analysts, this is evidence of NRM’s organisational incompetence and therefore a sign of its imminent collapse. These analysts predict that those who lost in the party primaries feel aggrieved and are now easy prey for the opposition. Sadly, this is a false hope. On the contrary, the opposite conclusion holds more water – that NRM’s chaotic election is a sign of its strength, not weakness. It is evidence that the opposition has little chance in this election. Here is why.
In Kenya, parliamentary candidates who lose in one party’s primaries contest in another party primary, to get a chance at winning the same seat. In some rare but dramatic cases, a candidate can hop from one party to another such that by end of election season he/she would have contested in four party primaries. This is because such party affiliation offers a real chance of success. This is the opposite in Uganda. In 2011, many NRM candidates were openly rigged out of the primaries and none joined other opposition parties. They chose to run as independents. There are hopes that many losers in NRM primaries will join Amama Mbabazi because he has money to finance them as Go Forward candidates. Even if this turns out to be true, very few will join him.
Put yourself in the shoes of a Ugandan politician. There are many people who want to be MPs because they genuinely want to serve their constituents and the country. However, many such public spirited Ugandans recognise that NRM is too strong to be defeated. The best way to win is run on the NRM ticket.
There are others who join NRM opportunistically as the numbers of service-minded people have been dwindling as NRM lost its ideological soul to become a cash and carry organisation. The vast majority of politicians want to serve their personal interests and winning an election on the NRM ticket is an opportunity for self-advancement.
Does beating, jailing and killing of opposition supporters improve Museveni’s electoral fortunes?
There is one thing on which President Yoweri Museveni and his opponents agree: that employing violence against them gives the president an advantage. Museveni and his handlers use violence perhaps in the sincere belief that it weakens his opponents. The president’s opponents always complain that violence meted out against them is the reason they lose elections. Both sides are wrong and here is the statistical proof.
In 1996, Uganda had 8.5 million registered voters of whom 6.2 million (73%) voted. It was a largely peaceful election although Museveni used some minor violence against his main opponent, Paul Semogerere, breaking down his rallies in Kamwenge and Rukungiri. The president got 4.46 million votes (74.3%) against Semogerere’s 1.4 million (23.6%). This result was at variance with the only opinion poll of that year done by Monitor newspaper which gave Museveni 67% against Semogerere’s 28%. I have a suspicion that this variance is actually a “theft margin.”
Then in 2001, Kizza Besigye challenged Museveni. There was a lot of violence against Besigye supporters (and a few deaths) but not against Besigye himself. Total registered voters were 10.8 million of whom 7.5 million (69%) voted. Museveni got 5 million votes (69.4%) against Besigye’s 2 million (27.3). This means Museveni grew his absolute vote by 500,000 (11%) while Besigye grew the opposition tally by 600,000 votes (42%). And here I am assuming there was no ballot stuffing, which in 2001 was quite rampant.
Museveni and his opponents are involved in a quarrel over our past. We need a debate about our future
It seems NRM has decided to use violence to win next year’s presidential election. Problem is President Yoweri Museveni has always been a net loser when he has used violence against his opponents.
Using violence against his opponents gives free publicity to their often poorly resourced campaigns and makes them more militant. It also upsets vast numbers of educated, urbanised undecided voters who turn out to vote against Museveni even as it demoralises Museveni’s supporters in this social stratum forcing many to stay home on polling day. I have provided statistical evidence to prove this point in another article.
Why then does NRM choose violence? One reason is that the president’s main base is the poor uneducated peasants. This social stratum does not see elections as an opportunity to make a choice of who should become president. Most of them go to the polls to affirm whom they think has power. In bundling Kizza Besigye or Amama Mbabazi on a police pickup and beating up their supporters, Museveni is demonstrating to them that these candidates are weak and therefore cannot wrestle power from him.
If this is his calculation, then it is sad because it means the president is trying to win peasants at the price of alienating the educated middleclass. He doesn’t have to make such a choice because he can win both groups.
Even without violence against his opponents, opinion polls show that Museveni has a commanding lead among poor rural voters. Therefore, his main campaign strategy should be how to hold his peasant base while making inroads into the urbanised and educated social classes. He doesn’t even need to win a majority in this group to hold a comfortable lead.
The debate about the future of Uganda that our presidential candidates should be conducting
We are in the middle of an election campaign and, because our country is poor, the biggest issue should be how to make it rich. For about 30 years, the incumbent, President Yoweri Museveni has been working to grow the economy. To get the best assessment of how he has performed, I go to an organisation that is very good at measuring such things; the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF has data on the economic growth rates of 189 countries since 1950. Its website shows how Uganda has grown over the past 25 years. It also allows us to compare Uganda against the rest of the world.
For a country to develop i.e. transit from being poor to rich, it needs to sustain growth over generations. For instance per capita income in the United States of America today is $54,000 at Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) – the 10th highest in the world. This is because the U.S. sustained an average annual rate of per capita income growth at 1.5% over the last 150 years. Economists agree that this is a result of the U.S. sustaining good public policies supported by sound political institutions.
Another point is that sustaining high rates of growth over the long-term is extremely difficult. Many countries enjoy brief periods of fast growth and retrogress to slow, stagnant, or even negative growth. This has been the problem of most nations of post-colonial Africa and Latin America. It has been most typified by Argentina.
How Uganda’s elite pundits are misunderstanding the election dynamics and why Mbabazi should worry
There is a widespread perception among a large section of the Ugandan elite class that former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi has overtaken Kizza Besigye as the main opposition candidate for next year’s presidential election. It is possible this is happening but highly unlikely. There has not yet been a scientific poll to give us real numbers. So for now all of us have to work on our intuition, but most critically on our understanding of the dynamics that drive our insight into our electoral politics.
Mbabazi has a strong brand presence among young elite voters. The way he dresses in tight fitting and neat shirts and suits and the design of his “Go Forward” campaign logos are all very modern. It contrasts him sharply with President Yoweri Museveni’s oversize suits and hut and Besigye’s careless dress code. Mbabazi’s skillful use of social media is also impressive. However, all this appeals largely to a section of the electorate aged between 18-35 years that have a tertiary education and access to the Internet. True, this section of the Ugandan voter has grown massively over the last five years and if well courted can give a decisive advantage to any candidate.
For example, since 2011, Internet subscriptions have grown by 521% from 934,758 to 5.8 million subscribers. This is mainly driven by mobile Internet subscriptions that have grown by 570% from 850,200 to 5.7 million between June 2011 and December 2014. The Uganda All Media Products Survey (UAMPS) research released by Ipsos in 2013 on internet usage shows that 33% of Ugandans reported using the internet several times a day and additional 33% two to three times a week. In total 66% of Ugandans reported using the Internet more than three times a week. In addition, 39% reported spending 1-3 hours on every visit, while 52% reported spending between 15 minutes to one hour on every visit. That was three years ago and a lot has since changed as more Ugandans are spending more time online.
Besigye’s messiah complex and the triumph of power over values in The “Democratic” Alliance
For most of the last week of September, leading opposition figure, Dr. Kizza Besigye, was a subject of vitriolic attacks by many of his former admirers. All because he refused to endorse former Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi, as joint opposition flag bearer for next year’s presidential election. Yet none of his critics cared to hear Besigye’s reasons. Instead he was accused of being selfish and power-hungry.
Besigye’s objections are legitimate. For example, the main issue of the opposition against President Yoweri Museveni’s government is corruption. Mbabazi has been named in corruption scandals like Temangalo, CHOGM and oil bribes. For the last seven years he has been a subject of opposition vilification. I argued then (and still hold) that there was no evidence against Mbabazi. The same people cuddling with him today then accused me of having been bribed by Mbabazi. The former Prime Minister must be smiling at how easily gullible they are.
If the opposition think corruption is an evil in our society and believe (even if wrongly) that Mbabazi was corrupt, that is an important ground to contest his suitability to be their flag bearer. Otherwise they are looking at the election as only a contest over power, not values or policies. Therefore Besigye has legitimate grounds when he rises these objections, his personal motivations notwithstanding. To try block any open and candid discussion of Mbabazi’s leadership of the opposition struggle is not any different from NRM selecting a sole candidate.