By Andrew M. Mwenda and melina platas
Election issues, trends, numbers
In the heat of the midday sun, a tall young man holds two bundles of shoes in the middle of the street in Mbarara town in western Uganda. Around him is a crowd of other youths; all in their early 20s, energetic, ambitious-looking and trying to earn a living.
The shoe seller is soft-spoken as he explains why he is out here in the sun instead of school. School is expensive, he says, healthcare is poor, and every day is a struggle to eke out a living.
As we talk and after some hesitance, he reveals a secret; in this pro-President Yoweri Museveni district, which voted 74% for the President in the 2006 election, he in fact supports Museveni’s main opponent, Rtd. Col Dr Kizza Besigye. Soon after he steps aside, walks down a side street, and disappears. This is the first time he has openly voiced his alliance to the political opposition, and he is scared.
But several of the young men reveal they support Besigye.
In Masaka, another young man is standing at his boda boda motorcycle taxi stage. Like the shoe seller, he says he worries whether there will be medicine when he falls sick and whether potholed roads will ever be fixed under the leadership of Museveni. Can a 25-year presidency exist in a real democracy, he wonders. He says he and his friends want a change, any change. Change for its own sake.
In the rocky hills of Kanungu, a young man wearing a yellow t-shirt emblazoned with the photo of Amama Mbabazi, the Secretary General of Museveni’s party, NRM.
“It is for free,” he says confidently about the T-shirt, “I can wear it, but it does not reflect my views. It is a gift I got for free from Mbabazi’s campaign. I know which side I support; and that is the Colonel.”
In Kasese a group of men are gathered underneath the shade of a makeshift sun shelter. In this town, the people complain of the same problems – bad roads, poor schools, lack of medicine – but they are not just frustrated. They are livid. A young man recounts how Museveni’s convoy raced through town one day, knocking him as it sped by. As he lifts his shorts, a swollen and scarred leg emerges, twice its normal size. The men who surround him are shouting, pointing, seething with rage. They openly wish Museveni the same harm that has befallen them.
Just outside Fort Portal, the boda drivers and young boys are staunchly supportive of the President, and flaunt their Museveni T-shirts. Their lives are no different from the young men in Masaka, Ntungamo, Rukungiri, Kanungu, Mbarara or Kasese, and the government services no better. But their commitment to the NRM is palpable, and confident.
Men outnumber women in trading centres in western and central Uganda, but the few women who emerge from shops and nearby homes often support Museveni. Some say he has brought security; others give no reason for their seemingly steadfast support. And some are simply hesitant to speak, drifting to the outer edges of the crowd.
Grey-haired men and women, propped on canes and surrounded by barefoot children, almost unanimously declare their support for Museveni along the road from Masaka through Mbarara and Ntungamo to Rukungiri, then to Sheema, Igara, Bunyaruguru, Kasese, Kabarole, Kyenjojo, Kyegegwa, Mubende to Mityana. They have seen enough change, some say, and much of it painful. They are content with the peace that has come under Museveni.
From Mbale to Mbarara, from Kayunga to Katakwi, voters have faced the same challenges. While the NRM has brought stability to Uganda, the political compromises made over the past 25 years have undermined structures of accountability and led to the deterioration of public goods and services.
In the absence of accountability, corruption has become the modus operandi. Absenteeism among teachers and health workers, the stock-out of essential medicines, the cavernous potholes and snail’s pace of road maintenance and reconstruction even along thoroughfares critical to international trade touch the lives of everyone.
But the failures of the regime are counterbalanced by many factors. Much of the voting age population have appeared unsure that Besigye is the change Uganda needs in 2011, and even those for change have not coalesced into a countrywide social movement.
The fears, hopes, and concerns of the populace remain isolated in their small local communities, a phenomenon only enhanced by the staggering proliferation of districts. The young shoe seller in Mbarara has no way of knowing his hopes and fears are also shared by young shoe seller in Mbale.
While Besigye has worked to promote a national agenda, Museveni’s message and his money have served to promote thousands of local agendas, each disarticulated from the rest. The more successful electoral strategy has often spoken for itself.
During the campaign for president, all these hopes, angers, desires, fears from Kisoro to Kapchorwa manifested themselves and can be linked to ballots on voting day. Despite the open and widespread discontent with the Museveni regime in some areas, the president’s support remains high. Museveni is a force to contend with. Here is why.
In the last days of the campaign, in Masaka, central Uganda, thousands gathered on a grassy field. They shouted, angrily at the failure of schools, of NAADS, of hospitals. Their candidate stood before them, also bemoaning the utter failure of services, the sheer scale of corruption that pervaded government. They looked up at him with commitment, passion, and trust. This was the man who would solve their problems.
But the crowd was dressed in yellow, and the candidate a president who had presided over services that had failed them for 25 years. They did not see the failure of government as Museveni’s own failure. Instead, they placed blame squarely on the shoulders of the local Member of Parliament, the Gombolola chief, the teachers, the nurses. In their eyes, the President was as much a victim of corruption as themselves. He had “sent them money”, but their local leaders had stolen it. Museveni suffered just as the child who had no teacher, the patient who had no doctor, and the farmer who had no tools.
Museveni has managed to maneuver his way out of the hot seat, while throwing into the fire local officials and civil servants who can never be responsible for the collapse of public services system-wide.
Many of those voting for Museveni attribute the collapse of public services to corrupt government agents rather than the poor leadership of a president. In the absence of accountability for the presidency, Museveni can distance himself from his own failures. He can then direct widespread anger towards the minions who in turn survive off the patronage that holds his government together. This symbiotic relationship serves a small elite class and props up a president at the expense of millions who continue to vote NRM.
Most polls before the Feb. 18 vote put Museveni’s support at 65% and above, a huge disappointment to the opposition. As the polls were released, one after the other, many opponents of Museveni wanted to believe that the president’s “support” in such polls is largely the result of fear. Indeed, 64% (Afrobarometer) or 65% (Daily Monitor) of Ugandans today say people sometimes or often have to “be careful of what they say about politics”. And yet, in 2005, the “fear factor” was equally widespread, at 66% (Afrobarometer), and the polls showed Museveni and Besigye in a much closer race – a January 2006 poll by the Daily Monitor put Besigye at 32% and Museveni at 47%.
Museveni’s strong showing this time around cannot be explained by fear alone, though intimidation remains prevalent. The demographics of the voting population has favoured Museveni. Despite the burgeoning population of youth and urbanites, a large percentage of the electorate remains rural, less educated and old enough to remember the bad old days. However disappointing or unfair, supporters say Museveni’s overwhelming support in 2011 is real. The president’s strength, they say, is the result of five key factors: change of attitudes in the northern region, money, intimidation, voter apathy, Museveni’s legacy of security, and perceptions of accountability that direct popular discontent away from the presidency.
This election will go down in history as the one that broke the bank to buy the vote. This election, Museveni was prepared. Five years ago, Besigye’s sudden entrance left Museveni scrambling. In the face of such an ambush (in military parlance it is called “maximum tactical surprise”, Museveni resorted to the military tactics. People were beaten, caned, jailed, and even killed. From Masaka to Kasese you can still find those who still tell stories of the beatings, for whom the name Maj. Kakooza Mutale and his Kalangala Action Plan goons still brings chills. The 2006 election was won by brute force.
Museveni has not taken his election for granted. His campaign and countrywide mobilisation began early. The plan was not to win with brute force, but with money. The campaign began in northern Uganda, where, whatever the failures of the Peace Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP), Museveni has ensured that because of the peace over the last five years, business has boomed, roads were paved and schools and hospitals renovated. Museveni has gone out of his way to make inroads into a part of the electorate that rejected him by huge margins in 2001 and 2006.
More recently, 4 million Museveni T-shirts littered the countryside. In western Uganda, LCIs received Shs 100,000 each, veterans received up to Shs 200,000, and villages received Shs 1 million for what are called “Village Development Forums”. For every 100 people, NRM had 30 mobilisers each of whom were given Shs 5,000 – a lot of money in a village economy. NRM candidates for parliament, together with local officials, have mobilised their constituents day in and day out. There is money, they would tell them, but it is up to you – do you want the crumbs, or do you want to eat at the table?
Already, several ministry budgets have been exhausted. Shs 600 billion has been added to the budget mid-fiscal year. Money designated for budgets; from the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) to Defence has been redirected to mobilise NRM supporters during the campaign. Flooding the countryside with cash, Museveni has mortgaged the state for his presidency. The next government is starting off broke.
The “fear factor”, while not the only reason for Museveni’s dominance, has been real. Voters are intimidated not just by past abuses, but also by the threat of social isolation within their own homes, villages, and towns. In areas where Museveni has historically been strong, there are many who have been afraid to openly resist the trend. A shoe vendor in Mbarara, a boda driver in Kyenjojo, a shopkeeper in Ntungamo, a student in Masaka – all have worried that a declaration of support for Besigye would result in rebuke, if not physical harm.
There has been much to lose, both socially and financially, with an open condemnation of Museveni. Often this has contrasted sharply with the intangible benefits of supporting an opposition candidate whose greatest contribution is change for its own sake. Many voters have been indeed intimidated, as much by the NRM apparatus as their own neighbours and family. However, judging by opinion polls in 2006 and 2011, levels of intimidation have not changed, while Museveni’s support has jumped from 47% (Daily Monitor, January 12, 2006) to 70% (Daily Monitor, February 13, 2011).
More detrimental to Besigye’s campaign than intimidation is the defeatism that has reigned among those dissatisfied with Museveni’s government. At Besigye’s height in 2006, he was unable to garner even 50% of the vote. A tally of 3.6 million votes by KFM was showing Besigye at 45% and Museveni at 47% before government shut it down.
There are those who are frustrated, tired and angry with Museveni. Some have turned to Besigye, Mao, Otunnu, and the rest. But others, seeing little to gain from a protest vote that would not alter what they viewed as an inevitable outcome, gave up.
During the campaign, on a quiet Sunday morning in the western district of Sheema, a middle-aged hospital administrator, a man in a pro-Museveni district, just shrugged in confirmation of his vote for Museveni, “What else can I do?” he smiled wearily.
A defeatist sentiment has echoed across the region as frustration and rage have emerged even within the West – from Mbarara to Kasese to Ntungamo, much less opposition strongholds in the North or the highly contested Central region.
A Legacy of Security
Most of the country’s youngest voters have never known war, but their parents and grandparents can never forget the fear and pain that has all but ceased to exist under Museveni’s rule today. Even the war in northern Uganda, oft forgotten by those for whom peace is decades old, has ended. Peace prevails nationwide.
An old man in Kanyantorogo, an aging woman in Kanungu, still digging, still working, and still poor, say Museveni has brought security and peace. Some of these older people have voted for Museveni before, some are doing so for the first time. For these, despite bad roads and absentee health workers, Museveni’s legacy of security has ensured their unconditional and unwavering support for the rest of their lives.
By 2016, those born when Museveni came to power will be thirty years old and raising families of their own. A generation of voters born after 1986 will be over 10 million in number. Their needs will be central to next election campaigns, their votes critical. The 2011 election is the last to be driven by the memory of the bush war, of soldiers raiding villages, of family and friends disappearing in the night. This new generation is on its way to power – but it has not yet arrived.