How Uganda’s opposition leader helps the incumbent keep winning elections
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Opposition leader and activist, Dr. Kizza Besigye, has been consistent in denouncing the electoral process in Uganda as a sham. In a recent interview with Daily Monitor, he said: “[Lt] Gen [Henry] Tumukunde knows that in Uganda, the election cannot cause change and bring about the announcement of a different person as president. If he wants to join the struggle for change, he should know that it will take more than canvassing for votes.”
If Besigye believes elections cannot cause change, why does he participate in them at all? In an interview with The Observer newspaper last year, Besigye again revealed his strategy.
He said electoral campaigns offer him an opportunity to mobilize citizens. Since elections cannot cause change, he said he uses the electoral process as an opportunity to mobilize the masses for a popular uprising. Essentially Besigye is saying he wants to use ultra constitutional means to gain political power, which is treason.
But how come President Yoweri Museveni, someone sensitive about plots and threats to his power, has not permanently jailed Besigye, but only restricted his activities?
On the surface, this tolerance reflects the strength of the NRM and the weakness of Besigye’s defiance campaign. So government can treat him as a tolerable nuisance. I do not know of any other country, not even in the advanced liberal democracies, where a leading political figure can openly state such treasonous intentions and get away with it.
However, the biggest reason for Besigye’s freedom is his role in entrenching President Yoweri Museveni’s power, which I think he does inadvertently. Over the last two decades, Museveni’s support across the country has been shrinking. Over 65% of the population think the president is tired and should retire. He has a great past behind him but he offers little or no better future for Uganda.
Therefore the only way Museveni can win an election in Uganda is by ensuring low voter turnout. How can he achieve this? It is by making a significant percentage of Ugandans believe that elections cannot remove him from power.
How does he do this? First the president employs violence against the most powerful challenger who is often Besigye. By constantly arresting him and bundling him on police pickups like a chicken thief, he demonstrates that the electoral process is under his personal control. Seeing such, many people opt not to vote, believing their vote won’t count.
Museveni also knows that for many peasants, voting is not a choice of who should become president. Rather it is a means of expressing themselves on whom they think wields real power. So voting is a means to endorse power, not to change it.
Consequently, when many peasants see Besigye being bundled on a pickup truck by ordinary policemen and women they recognize that he is actually powerless; it is Museveni who wields power. So they endorse the president when they go to the polls.