By Ian Katusiime
Most turning points historically occurred at election time
Among the five East African nations of Uganda, has arguably had the most turbulent political history since it attained independence in 1962. As it celebrates its 53rd independence anniversary – with the 2016 general elections three months away, political events that have shaped the country for a period of over 50 years come into focus. Although, the country has never had a peaceful transfer of power, it has held over 15 major elections since it attained independence. Some of the major events that have shaped the country have happened during or after elections; in 1962, 1966, 1971, 1980, and 1985.
The most remarkable moments in Uganda’s political journey before the National Resistance Movement (NRM) captured power in 1986 was the military coup against then-President Milton Obote by Gen. Idi Amin in 1971. At the time of the coup, Uganda was scheduled to hold election in which, after the dominant Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) party had changed its constitution, Obote was set to be returned unopposed as president.
For anyone watching the 2016 elections, in which President Yoweri Museveni has been declared sole presidential candidate after the dominant NRM party amended it constitution, there is a sense of de javu. Observers will claim that unlike Obote, Museveni appears to have a firmer grip on the army.
Meanwhile, Museveni also came to power as a result of a fall-out from an election in 1980. The election was organised to elect a successor to the brutal regime of Idi Amin which was overthrown in 1979 by a joint army of Ugandan exiles and Tanzanian forces. Museveni led one of the fighting group, the Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) which had been active since 1971. During the 1980 election, Museveni participated in the election under the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) party. However, although he was a powerful commander and Vice President in the interim government of the time, Museveni was overwhelmingly outflanked in the election. He failed to secure any win and his party, UPM, won only one seat in parliament. But Museveni was undeterred. He put in practice his threat “to go to the bush” and fight the victorious Obote government if he judged that the elections had been rigged. Museveni with a group of other similar-minded people launched a guerrilla war.
Under the constitution, elections should have been held in 1985 even as the war raged. Obote was set to win that election. Instead, in July 1985, Obote was again ousted in a coup – this time by his military commanders led by Gen. Tito Okello Lutwa.
As the junta fumbled with the crown, Musevni snatched it from them in January 1986.
As Uganda marks 53 years of independent, Museveni has been in power for 29 of them or 53% of the period. Museveni has therefore become the most dominant for on Uganda’s past, present, and possibly future.
James Magode Ikuya, an elderly politician who has worked with UPC and FRONASA says independence should not be looked at in terms of the governments we have had and whatever they did for the country.
Ikuya says the mere fact that Uganda attained independence is a milestone itself but he says he gets surprised when he hears people boasting of structures like roads and buildings which do not mean much for the wanainchi.
“Colonialism supressed us so much that the people did not rise above to take charge of their own affairs. It is the leaders who remained at the centre of things, not the ordinary person, so to look at the various regimes is to miss the point.
“The democratic involvement did not take place, democracy goes beyond elections. Whether in Kenya or Uganda, the means of governance just took different forms, one appeared more stable than the other but the authority of the state became too powerful, in the end it sowed more discord and alienated people more”.
Museveni has presided over economic growth and restored security of life and property. Although the NRM government has recently come under fire for corruption and brutality towards opposition, it is still credited for other achievements like the fight against HIV/AIDS and educating masses through Universal Primary Education (UPE).
According to Ikuya, however, every political leadership needs to unfold processes to empower the people.
Ikuya’s thoughts have grave meaning because the country is heading into a general election in 2016 amidst a heavily divisive political landscape.
With parties jostling for political capital, intense fighting for parliamentary seats and during presidential elections, the atmosphere is heated.
This decision to return to multiparty politics in 2005 compelled many individual members of parties to forfeit their stances on issues so as to “toe the party position” or face expulsion. The multi-party dispensation was hailed for opening up the political space but some others contend that it killed the spirit of nationalism as politicians took to politicking at every other opportunity.
Wins and failures
Ikuya believes that the current state of leaders can learn a great deal from how African societies were organised through clans. “Our clans had a great value system, how they elected their leaders, their forms of organisation were solid, this value system remains intact in these units”.
He says a lot in the old society has since been ignored.
“Look at elections, they have become commercialised,” he says.
The former FRONASA and Museveni ideologue says the current state of Uganda’s polity is disjointed and should be rescued by the youth. He says they have the time on their side and so they should take interest in the present and plan for their country. But he is disappointed.
“The youth just want positions, without producing ideas,” he says, “Uganda’s political journey is in a minefield, we should demine it.”
Prof. Sabiiti Makara, a political science lecturer at Makerere University, says one of the most urgent challenges that require “demining” is poverty.
“People are still afflicted by poverty, we have so many peasants, the whole economy is industrialised and this means we cannot have good politics as people thrive on envelopes and hand-outs like soap,” he says.
Makara says Uganda has abundant natural resources but still lags behind Kenya and Tanzania in economic development. “We need to see how we can transform the natural resources to pull people out of poverty, provide social services and build infrastructure.” A country’s politics is affected by its industrialisation and how it deals with poverty of its citizens, he insists.
Makara says, however, Uganda has a lot of positives to celebrate at its 53rd anniversary. He is especially proud of Uganda’s international peace keeping missions in Somalia and South Sudan. He says the international duty has helped to build Uganda’s image not just among its peers but overseas as a pacifier of unstable notions.
But for Joseph Bbosa, the UPC vice president in the out-going Olara Otunnu administration, Uganda’s biggest problem is the desire by some groups to dominate others. He says instead, politicians should be encouraging unity in diversity.
“Unity in diversity is the key. Milton Obote went into the alliance of KY (Kabaka Yekka) because Buganda was reluctant to join Uganda. The kingdom wanted to go it alone at the time of independence,” Bbosa says.
He says such actions showed Obote to be a patriot who did whatever he could to make Buganda feel home, including appointing Kabaka Muteesa as President.
He says the tragedy is that currently, many the key positions in the army and government are dominated by one ethnic group.
He says 53 years after independence; Uganda is stuck in a rut of a third world country and needs to move forward quickly. “In many instances, we are worse off – in healthcare and other social services than we were at the time of independence,” he says, “the only good thing Uganda can boast of as a nation is that it has not disintegrated.”