By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi
Campaigns on vote-rigging, ethnicity
President Yoweri Museveni’s traditional political stronghold, western Uganda looks like the wrong place for an opposition candidate to spend two precious weeks at the end of an election campaign.
But the Interparty Cooperation (IPC) candidate, Kizza Besigye took the gamble on Feb.2 and what he found in Kiruhura, President Museveni’s home district, surprised him.
“Kiruhura is 99.9% NRM … don’t bother” read one billboard along the road into the district.
At one stop, a group of women clad in yellow NRM T-shirts of President Museveni kept grumbling noisily as Besigye spoke. When The Independent asked them why they appeared so angry, one of them said it was incomprehensible to them that Besigye was asking for votes to overthrow him right at his backyard.
“Museveni is a leader given unto us by God,” she said.
Besigye did not attract the vast crowds as he made stopovers at Byamira, Kashongi, Kiruhura epicenter, Kitura, Rwemamba, Kitongole, Kazo and Kagaramira. But his crown was to come at a place called Rwemamba. Here, Besigye was given a blue stool and a spear; the blue is the colour of Besigye’s party, FDC, and the stool and spear are symbols of authority in Ankole culture. Finally, a dot of blue was standing out boldly in Museveni’s yellow backyard.
Besigye also appeared to hit the bull-eye when he repeatedly castigated the “exclusive” nature of the NRM government, which he says enriches a select few while the majority wallows in poverty.
“Besigye is right,” a resident of Kashongi who said he is a crop farmer told The Independent, “Their milk is not taxed but when I take my bunch of banana to the market I am taxed.” He was referring to the cattle keeping minority Bahima.
He believes Besigye can even win in a sub-county like Kashongi if it were not for intimidation and vote rigging. “The military takes over the election process here and they usually vote for many people and stuff the ballot box,” he claimed.
At every stop, Besigye urged people to refuse to be intimidated and know that help is on the way. “We shall send people to protect our vote here and observers with cameras to show the world what takes place in Kiruhura.”
Vote rigging is a subject he dwelt on heavily. This, he told residents, is at the core of his disagreement with Museveni.
Inside Museveni’s hometown
Not your magnificent town, Rushere is a small township of ordinary buildings reminiscent of those to be found in most parts of rural Uganda. The residents neither have power nor piped water, and their shops are covered in dust splashed off the murram road, the main road in the district.
“Mzee (President Museveni) is a homeboy,” a resident of Rushere proudly says as he points the way to Museveni’s country home which is a few kilometers away. This, as it turned out, was expected to be Besigye’s toughest campaign spot.
Museveni’s village-mates took time to warm to Besigye. Fifteen minutes after his convoy parked at the heart of Rushere, only a small crowd had gathered around it. Most monitored events from a distance. Their aloofness appeared to say that their suspicions had been confirmed; Besigye was up to no good. Besigye had started what was to be a long day on the campaign trail relatively late, at 10.30, but he patiently explained why he would be a better president than homeboy Museveni.
He told them why in 1980 he backed Museveni in an election where he knew his candidate stood almost no chance. I was inspired by the promise of “clean leadership, unity and peace” on which the Uganda Patriotic Movement campaigned, he said.
“Museveni has now forgotten that over 300,000 Ugandans perished in the bush war fought over a stolen election and he has turned Uganda into a family company,” he continued. Vote rigging is now NRM’s way of life, he said. “They not only steal Besigye’s votes, they also steal theirs (referring to the rigging that occurred during the July 2010 NRM primaries).”
“Standing on the steps of Parliament on January 26, 1986,” said Besigye, “Museveni said the biggest problem of Africa is leaders who cling to power (but) he is now the same man saying Museveni pakalast (forever).”
Castigating vote rigging practices and communicating vote protection strategies took up almost all Besigye’s time on the campaign trail in Kiruhura and Ibanda. He promised the people of Kiruhura and Ibanda that he would discuss on local radio stations what he plans to do to transform infrastructure, education, health and raise people’s incomes.
Police may have anticipated trouble here. At Rushere, police personnel in camouflage uniform formed a ring around Besigye’s vehicle as he spoke to the people, since he no longer has official escort.
But the more the crowd appeared reluctant to warm to Besigye’s message, the harder he hammered away at his point. He said the Banyankore and the entire people of western Uganda have the responsibility to vote out Museveni “to avoid the curse of being unfairly blamed by the rest of Uganda” who think westerners have benefitted disproportionately from Museveni’s rule.
“People have blamed the Langi over (Milton) Obote’s misdeeds, but go to Akokoro (Obote’s ancestral home) and see whether the people there gained at all,” adding, “People elsewhere think all of you from western Uganda are enjoying and they are envious of you (but) what do you the ordinary people of Kiruhura have?”
Preparations are underway to give Kiruhura’s main road a layer of tarmac, but Besigye cautioned the residents, “Because the system collapsed due to corruption, the tarmac roads this government builds collapse after just three years.”
He said he wants to reform the system; and it is possible. “Rwandans used to come to Uganda looking for jobs but now it is the other way round,” he told them, adding that things are moving in Rwanda because President Paul Kagame has built a system that serves the majority.
His audience seemed to need more illustration: “They say we are fighting with Museveni over Winnie (Byanyima, Besigye’s wife); what is (Amanya) Mushega and (Mugisha) Muntu fighting for? My disagreement with Museveni started long before my relationship with Winnie,” he explained, prompting the only light moments of laughter.
Besigye only managed 6.8 percent of the vote against Museveni’s 91.3 percent in Kiruhura in 2006 but residents who saw the miserly crowds he attracted then say there has been remarkable improvement in interest in Besigye in this predominantly Museveni area. Besigye says he is targeting 40 per cent of the western Uganda vote and 60 percent of the vote nationally.
The results of the 2006 presidential election show that Kiruhura had the highest voter turnout in the country at 87.8 percent. Besigye’s group believes such a high voter turnout could have been influenced by practices like ballot stuffing and multiple voting. They are designing a vote protection plan, especially for places like Kiruhura where they believe rigging is rampant.
In 2006 in western Uganda, Besigye only defeated Museveni in Kasese. This time, his support there could be eaten into by Museveni’s relenting on the Obusinga issue, which saw the inauguration of the Omusinga of Rwenzururu, Wesley Mumbere. Promising to recognise Obusinga was Besigye’s most important vote winner in 2006.
But Besigye has changed tack this term and when he campaigned in Kasese, he concentrated on bread and butter issues, arguing that heavy taxation in Uganda is affecting people’s livelihoods. A bag of cement imported from Uganda costs less in the border areas of eastern Congo than in Kasese due to heavy taxes in Uganda, he told them. He promised to reduce taxes upon election. Another reason observers expect Besigye to win Kasese again is because “the Bakonzo are not very forgiving.”
Rukungiri, Besigye’s home district, is another area he has firmly set his eye at. Even though he has lost the district in the past two elections, he has blamed it on heavy military deployment and intimidation.
Museveni has also built a wide patronage network in Rukingiri involving many top appointees in public offices hailing from the district – the Chief of Defence Forces Gen. Aronda Nyakayirima; Prisons chief Johnson Byabashaija; Uganda Revenue Authority boss Allen Kagina; minister of state for public service Seezi Mbaguta; former minister and NRM chairman of the veterans league, Maj. Gen. Jim Muhwezi; among others.
Kabale is also penciled in as a possible harvest for Besigye in the coming election, in addition to several urban and peri-urban areas like Mbarara and Ibanda. Even in NRM strongholds like Kiruhura, Ntungamo and Isingiro, Besigye hopes to cut down Museveni’s margins not only by gains in support but also through preventing rigging.
As Feb. 18 draws closer, Besigye has stepped up a gear to avert vote rigging, even by appealing to members of one institution suspected of being used to perpetuate rigging.