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Reflecting on last presidential election

By Andrew M. Mwenda

NRM had historically suffered major defections before every election but it enjoyed a big infusion of opposition figures in 2007-11

It is almost a year since last year’s presidential elections. The dust over the recriminations over it has settled. We have had sufficient time to reflect on that election and see what made Kizza Besigye lose ground in the north; what made President Yoweri Museveni retained his support in Buganda in spite of his many run-ins with Mengo and why voter turnout was at an all time low.


Two things influence voter behaviour – persuasion and motivation. Persuasion works on people who are undecided; here they need a strong argument to persuade them to support a particular side. Motivation is important when people are decided; all they need is to be mobilised to turn out and vote. It seems many voters in Uganda are decided against Museveni. In 2011 they were not motivated enough to brave his intimidation and warrior reputation to turn out in large numbers vote against him. The 58 percent voter turnout was evidence of this.

Indeed, the signs that the opposition was likely to be routed in 2011 were all there. The first signal of this shift being manifest during the Temangalo scandal in late 2008. The forces of opposition to Amama Mbabazi were led by NRM insiders (major generals Jim Muhwezi and Kahinda Otafiire) supported by Mrs. Janet Museveni. It was an internal fight over control of NRM, not against it. External threats to its power had always forced the NRM to unite and thereby submerging deeply entrenched internal tensions. The greatest battles always take place where the potential for power largely lies. That it could afford this open fight was an early sign that the NRM was now in a stronger position than before.

Then came the NRM primaries; media coverage of and by implication public interest in them was unprecedented. They were also characterised by high levels of violence and rigging; and loads of money was spent during these primaries. Some observers like Timothy Kalyegira argued at the time that this was evidence of NRM’s weakness. I counter argued at the time that it was actually a sign that NRM was the major player in the race and the opposition was not inspiring confidence among voters.

Indeed, this observation was soon confirmed by the post NRM primaries mess. Many NRM candidates came from the primaries angry at how their own party bribed and intimidated their supporters and how it rigged and robbed their votes. Yet the victims did not quit the party to join the opposition – even though many shared its views. Indeed, those who decided to run for elections preferred to run as independents allied to the NRM in spite of the injustice their own party had meted to them.

Most critically, the NRM had historically suffered major defections of senior leaders or coalition partners in the period proceeding every election: in 1996 it suffered the exit of Paul Ssemogerere and his DP allies; in 2001 it saw the defection of Kizza Besigye, Sam Njuba, Winnie Byanyima and many other progressives; then between 2003-2005 it suffered the largest exodus of its senior and most respected leaders as people like Eriya Kategaya, Amanya Mushega, Richard Kaijuka, Bidandi Ssali, Mathew Rukikaire, David Pulkol, Mugisha Muntu, John Kazoora, Miria Matembe, Sarah Kiyingi, Augustine Ruzindana, etc.

However, from 2008 to 2010, NRM saw the first reversal of this trend as many opposition leaders now began to cross to it: Chris Rwakasisi, Omara Atubo, Badru Wegulo, Jacob Olanya, Henry Mayiga, Osindek Wangor, Alex Onzima, John Butiime, etc. Many people who had publically supported the opposition in 2006 and were not re-joining the NRM like Richard Kaijuka, Matthew Rukikaire, Miria Matembe, etc went silent. Even opposition politicians like Milton Obote’s son, Jimmy Akena, who did not join NRM kept quiet throughout the campaign. He showed up on voting day and openly voting Museveni saying “Lango has changed.” The opposition refused to recognise the import of these trends and went on blindly thinking the public was behind them.

It was therefore clear that the opposition has its heart in the right place but its brains are misplaced. It has been unable to conduct a cold analysis of the political dynamics. Instead, it socks its reason into its feeling. Yet for the opposition to beat Museveni, it needs to be brutal in its internal criticism by acknowledging these developments and taking measures that respond to this reality. However, opposition leaders seem afraid to confront this reality. Instead, they seek to satisfy their self esteem by claiming that they lose because Museveni rigs. Of course that is true. But it is also a given; Museveni will use every advantage he has to win unfairly over rivals. It is human nature; very few human beings would accept to lose a coveted job of president unless they have to.

Therefore, the responsibility of the opposition is not to win in a free and fair election. That is asking for the impossible. It requires that Museveni acts like an angel and allows it to happen; and we are going to see Saint Museveni soon. Therefore, the real challenge for the opposition is how to win an un-free and unfair contest against Museveni i.e. they have to win in spite of an unlevelled playing field.

And it is not true that entrenched incumbents lose only in free and fair elections. They lose even when they have tried to intimidate, kill and rig. Kamuzu Banda in Malawi, Mathew Karikou in Benin, Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Ferdinand Marcos in Philippines, Leonid Krafchuk in Ukraine etc lost elections which they tried to rig. Museveni has previously been resoundingly trounced in northern Uganda – popular support for the opposition rendering his ability to rig almost impossible. That Museveni’s margins increased in the north was another sign of the opposition’s inability to see the writing on the wall and respond to protect their position.

So while it is important to drum the bells of intimidation and rigging, it is also necessary to put in place counter veiling measures to resist an entrenched incumbents’ ability to rig. Besigye seemed to have noticed this in this year’s elections. So he claimed to have created vote-protection brigades across the country. After the election, Besigye claimed Museveni had stolen the vote, a clear repudiation of his claim that he had created capacity to insure against such an eventuality.

Going forward, the opposition need to take stock of these developments and make a response that is appropriate to the reality. Yet it seems the forces of opposition are now dominated by a small fringe of fanatics incapable of host self examination. They listen only to their own echoes and intimidate anybody who calls for internal criticism. They use blackmail by accusing anyone who raises alternative view points of being bribed by Museveni. Thus, many opposition leaders are scared of speaking about the major weaknesses in opposition ranks, a factor that has make it difficult for internal  self examination. The opposition is therefore unable to develop a strategy or  question existing assumptions or even ask for a different type of politics, organisation and coordination.

The extremist, fanatical and intolerant wing of the opposition dominates the debate against Museveni. But because its views are based on feeling rather than reasoning, they have scared many Ugandans from the political arena. Most potential Museveni opponents keep away because they do not want to hear extremism dressed in a language of opposition to him. But they have also undermined the cause of the anti Museveni forces as many Ugandans have opted out of the electoral process.

Uganda needs a third force – an alternative opposition platform that seeks to understand Museveni’s source of strength and vulnerability. Then it also needs to appreciate its internal weaknesses and strength, and in fact turn many of its weaknesses into strengths.

The Museveni regime is growing weak and fraut with many internal contradictions. However, this weakness is born of a contradictory process whereby it is largely because of Museveni’s achievements that the opposition can build a platform to use his failures against him. Museveni has presided over 24 years of rapid economic growth. This growth has produced a sizable and diversified private sector, a bourgeoning and increasingly educated and urbanised youth, a rapidly growing middleclass and civil society with growing access to modern communications technology.

Yet at the same time, the Museveni administration has presided over the utter collapse of the public sector in Uganda. Because of institutionalised corruption and incompetence, schools, hospitals and roads they have fallen into disrepair – if they exist at all. Education, health and agricultural extension services are either unavailable or poorly delivered. There is widespread theft, absenteeism, foot dragging, incompetence and apathy in the public sector. Museveni faces these public sector failures against the backdrop a society that is increasingly more and more educated, urbanised and therefore exposed to new ideas of freedom, liberty and economic betterment and is increasingly ambitious and aspiring for bigger things.

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