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Besigye gains in the east, Museveni sweeps the north

By Andrew M. Mwenda

President Yoweri Museveni’s campaign in many parts of Eastern Uganda has run into serious trouble. From Jinja to Iganga, through Bugiri, Busia and Tororo all the way to Mbale, the president’s campaign is saddled with internal bickering, no clear message, lethargy, and an acute lack of money. Meanwhile, opposition candidate Kizza Besigye has gained a strong foothold here, winning the hearts and minds of thousands. And it is only three weeks from election.

However, Museveni’s campaign in Teso, Lango and Acholi has spread like wildfire, pushing Besigye from his traditional stronghold and thereby titling Uganda’s political and electoral map in a fundamental way. In both regions, the changes reflect that inability of each to easily relate to the changing dynamics. In the East which has enjoyed 30 years of peace, Museveni’s campaign has failed to respond adequately to increased youths unemployment and poor service delivery especially in health.


In the north, Besigye’s campaign has failed to invent a new marketing strategy in the face of a return to peace accompanied by economic prosperity.

Besigye’s campaign in the east has seen some changes in strategy. He is not only campaigning in trading centers as he used to do before. Now he is going to villages and is trying to appeal to women. He has an outpouring of support from the youths. Across most of this region, there are complaints that people are very poor. What is the cause? Is this because of central government policies? Or is it due to failure of local leadership? Or is the problem at the level of the household? To all these questions, Besigye has a stock answer: it is because of Museveni.

Besigye is favored by demographics here. Younger voters, especially male youths, are restless. Many are educated but unemployed and these form the army of militants buying into Besigye’s message of change. What is significant, however, is that in Tororo, even women, previously the bastion of Museveni’s vote, have thrown their weight behind Besigye. Yet the biggest source of setback for Museveni here is not what Besigye has done but what the president’s team is failing to do.

For example, Besigye has grown tremendously in Busoga. Even some NRM people this writer spoke to speculate that he could have overtaken Museveni in certain districts of Busoga. If claims of Besigye’s growth are true, it is largely because of the internal bickering and infighting among top NRM heavyweights from the area.

It is alleged that to consolidate her stranglehold over Busoga, Parliamentary Speaker, Rebecca Kadaga, is fighting real and perceived rivals, among them Lands and Housing minister, Daudi Migereko. It is alleged that Kadaga supported a lightweight NRM candidate to defeat Migereko in Butembe constituency primaries. Secondly, many FDC people registered themselves on the NRM register to eliminate Migereko in the primary knowing his opponent would be a walk over in the national election. Here, the interests of Kadaga and FDC coincided.

Meanwhile in Jinja Municipality, MP Moses Balyeku for Jinja West is very strong against his FDC opponent. It is alleged that he sided with Kadaga to defeat Migereko in order for him to become the new powerful figure from Busoga. It is alleged that Balyeku does not see eye to eye with NRM candidate for Jinja East Municipality, Nathan Nabeta Igeme. In the municipality, the two are bickering instead of combining their efforts to promote Museveni.  Besides, Igeme’s largest support base is composed of FDC supporters disgruntled with their MP, Paul Mwiru. But they are staunchly loyal to Besigye as well. So Igeme cannot put a lot of effort campaigning for Museveni because he would antagonise his FDC supporters. So bold have FDC supporters in Jinja become that now they are tearing down NRM posters.

Farther east, Besigye used to be very weak in Kaliro. But now he has a strong foothold there. And it has to do with the kyabazinga issue. People in Kaliro feel Muloki’s son should have been the successor. But instead the grandson of Nadiope succeeded to the throne. And people accuse NRM of helping this succeed. It is in Kamuli, the home of FDC iron lady Salam Musumba and Kadaga that Museveni has strong presence. In the municipality, Museveni may even beat Besigye. But Besigye has made inroads in rural areas and among women, the two voter segments where he has previously been weak. In 2011, Museveni got 80% of the vote in Kamuli. This may fall to 65% or 70% this year. Many Museveni supporters in Kamuli say they will also vote for Musumba, demonstrating that there is limited voter loyalty to political parties in this town. FDC has two MPs in Busoga – Abdu Katuntu (Bugweri) and Paul Mwiru (Jinja East). But now they may pick two more.

In most of the areas of Busoga, which this writer visited, the Museveni (and even NRM) task forces are idle in large part because they do not have money. They feel they should be funded but money is not coming. Across the region (as in other parts of the country) NRM is facing trouble. Its candidates spent a lot of money on the primaries. So they entered the national election when they are politically divided, physically exhausted, and financially crippled. Yet three weeks to election-day and NRM has not yet funded them; and Museveni is not sending in money.

Another problem with NRM and Museveni’s election is the expectations of its/his flag bearers, campaign managers and mobilisers. Everyone expects to get money from the president or the NRM headquarters. Many have done little to mobilise their own resources. Hence their ability to work is based on Museveni and/or the secretariat sending in money.  Besigye’s supporters on the other hand have no expectations of any money from their candidate. Thus for most of the time, they work with their own enthusiasm and their own personal money. And yet Besigye has not campaigned in Busoga – saving it for last.

Museveni’s worst nightmare is not Busoga. The President may still get anything between 45% and 55% – depending on how his campaign team reacts to this challenge. His real trouble is Tororo where in 2011 he got 59.8%. Now even pro-NRM observers speculate that it will be hard for the President to even get 20% here.

There has been a marked change that even NRM flag bearers and NRM-leaning independents avoid mentioning the President in their campaigns because his name is toxic here. There is poverty in the east. But Tororo people say they are worse off than even Busoga. Here land holding is very small, with an average of one acre per family. The countryside is a rural slum. There is a lot of Museveni fatigue in Tororo. And many people accuse the president of making promises he does not fulfill. But the real problem here is the disorganisation of the president’s campaign.

Museveni visited Tororo from Palisa from December 18th to 19th and did three rallies –Tororo County North, Tororo County South, West Budama North and then went to Busia. He returned to Tororo and did West Budama South and Tororo Municipality. It is alleged that the president had the least attended rallies in his visits to this border district.

Museveni’s campaign sent Shs20 million for mobilization for each constituency. NRM flag bearers had just come from primaries and were broke. And this money was given to them to mobilise people to come and attend Museveni’s rallies. But the flagbearers are alleged to have used the bear minimum, reserving most of it for their own campaigns and paying old debts. So there was very low voter turnout on all Museveni’s rallies in Tororo

Take a concrete example of West Budama North which has 69,000 registered voters and is the constituency for Museveni’s long serving legal assistant turned area MP, Fox Odoi. Less than 5,000 attended the president’s rally. People were taken to the rally grounds at 10am and given water. Museveni showed up at 5.30pm and they had not even eaten. After the rally the president’s campaign literally abandoned people they had ferried there at the ground, creating anger and animosity.

According to local political pundits, Besigye heard of this disaster and rushed to Tororo. He visited every sub-county in Tororo. He arrived in Tororo on Jan.22; a few days before this writer visited the district as well. And he got a heroes welcome. He went directly to the voters and people walked from far and wide to receive him. They brought him chicken, money, and everything for his campaign. The people who contribute to Besigye’s campaign are very poor. But they give their last coin to him. People blame their poverty on Museveni, and Besigye in his campaign message affirms this view.

Amama Mbabazi is the biggest missing force in this race. He had visited Tororo before Besigye and got some crowd in the municipality but did not go to the villages and did not make a great impression. However, he tricked police. His team misled the people of Paya that they were sending his daughter Nina Mbabazi Rukikaire with Shs20 million for them. They then leaked information to police about it. Police deployed. When Nina arrived police used tear-gas to break-up the rally. If Nina did not have the Shs20 million to give, police intervention helped her save face.

In terms of organisation, Museveni has the most elaborate machine in this part of eastern Uganda. His campaign task force has structures of 30 agents per zone (LC1) which is a good number if they were all campaigning and if they were all going to vote for him. The problem is that some of them are Besigye and Mbabazi sympathizers hobnobbing with Museveni opportunistically. Most of them were just waiting for the President’s cash – Shs250,000 per zone (30 people) and share it among themselves.

The problem with the president’s campaign is that his agents look at their candidate as a garden where they go to harvest. The solution for the sluggish Museveni campaign is to find a trusted few people that may actually work. It seems the president’s campaign in the east is in the hands of vultures. This makes it hard for him to spend and win. Many of his agents in this region, seeing Besigye’s tidal wave, think they are going to lose. So when they see money, they feel this is theirs to keep. The only way to overcome this handicap is to have a trusted team, however small, on the ground that can do real work.

If Museveni is to salvage his campaign in the lower eastern parts of Uganda, he will need to focus it on women. Investing money to win over male youths is difficult. And it seems late to turn the hands of the clock. Besides, it is more fruitful to focus on women because men can mislead. You give men money and they will go drink it and the next day they may not show up to vote.

Teso and Lango

Museveni’s electoral fortunes take a dramatic turn when one drives northwards through Palisa, Bukedea, Kumi, Ngora, to Soroti; and when one continues through Kaberamaido, Dokolo, Lira, Oyam and Amolatar. Here, there has been a sea change from 2006. The problems that have bedeviled Museveni’s campaign in the East are absent in this region and the president may win these previously hostile areas with above 70%. It is only in Alebtong and Amolatar that mishandling of election primaries by the NRM has angered voters. Yet even this only reduces the president’s margin, not the overall outcome of the election. In Ajobi village, Katini parish and sub-county in Soroti district, one can hardly find Besigye supporters. This village composed of the Kumam, an ethnic group close to the Iteso and Langi used to be a UPC stronghold. Now Museveni is the new kid on the block. People here speak of better roads, improved security, and the construction of health centers and primary schools in their community. And when asked about corruption, they say it is not because of Museveni but local leaders. But there is general agreement that there are limited drugs in hospitals and the performance of their schools is very poor.  Across Lango, the decline of UPC has only been matched by the rise of NRM as the party of choice. This writer visited the districts of Lira, Dokolo and Oyam and was surprised by the enthusiasm with which local people especially young men and women have embraced Museveni. Lango has changed.

NRM mobilisers here do not have FDC supporters around to heckle them as was the case in Tororo and Busia. Instead they enumerate the reasons Museveni will sweep their sub region. Elders of 60 years and above are being paid Shs25,000 per month and now it has been increased to Shs50,000. This is a pilot in Lira and Apach in Lango, Katakwi and Kabaleramaido in Teso and is also being taken to Moroto and Napak in Karamoja. In west Nile it is Nebi, Zombo and Moyo.

People here talk of compensation for livestock that were stolen by Karamojong. Many people in villages have been getting between Shs10 million to Shs15 million for cattle. As the insecurity in the area receded and people returned from internally displaced people’s camps, there has been increased farming of simsim, ground nuts, sunflower, soya, sorghum, etc. and for the first time in decades they are making money.

This region used to be a stronghold for Besigye. But his message for change has become stale. Like Museveni’s message of “steady progress” in the east, Besigye’s message of change is anachronistic here, unable to address the reality of the situation. For many people in Lango, change has happened. The end of insecurity was the real change. Now they are beginning to enjoy the benefits of growth and increased income. Besigye won this region because insecurity had reduced people here to paupers who could not trade or farm to earn.

It is in Alebtong District that NRM generally and by extension Museveni specifically, has a big problem. Rebecca Otengo who is the minister for Northern Uganda in the prime ministers office lost the primaries. Local NRM leaders here claim there was a lot of harassment, intimidation to steal the votes for her. In Ajuri County, they claim, incumbent MP Hamson Obua, spokesman for NRM caucus was defeated by Isaac Apenyo in the primaries and conceded. But one month later NRM secretary general, Justine Lumumba visited. They changed the results and announced Obua as flag bearer. Now Apenyo is running as an independent and is going to win. But this has created a lot of anger in Aleptong district. Museveni had a lot of support here but popular anger is giving Besigye a foothold.

But across most of Lango, people say Museveni has built health centers and fixed their roads. Medicines may not be enough in hospitals, they agree, but there is progress. And now there is tarmac from Soroti and from Kampala up to Gulu and there is a ferry in Apach and Amolatar. This has increased the movement of goods, especially their agricultural produce from the countryside to commercial centres. And there is increased commercial farming.  The war in South Sudan has slowed down commerce with Lango but people here appreciate Uganda’s intervention to maintain the peace. They say if Museveni had not sent in UPDF, their opportunities to sell their produce in South Sudan would have been destroyed. They admit the war in South Sudan has reduced their incomes. The candidate with the least presence in Lango is Mbabazi. In Kamudin, 80% of the people this writer talked to and who were largely male and urban said they would vote for Museveni. They said they are tired of voting Besigye and he loses. Most people who support Museveni are those born during his administration. Many older people want change, perhaps because they have seen the situation before the war and therefore don’t see return of peace as new.  A young man gave this writer a long lecture on how during the presidency of Milton Obote people did not construct houses and commercial buildings. “They only bought cows, booze, and big radios,” he said, “but under Museveni people are building big houses. Also under Museveni we are free and can begin business and make money. Under Obote there were two houses here. All the rest have been built under Museveni. And see how big our town has grown.”

How Museveni and Besigye respond to these realities in these last three weeks will have powerful implications on their votes. Besigye has not yet campaigned in Lango and Acholi. Museveni may need to return to the east and pull some new tricks. But in these two regions, Mbabazi’s campaign is dead as a dodo.

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