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The politics of crowds

By Agather Atuhaire

Reasons why Museveni, Besigye, Mbabazi are locked in fight over big crowds

On Tuesday, Nov. 02, Uganda’s main daily newspaper, The New Vision, had on its front page an almost full-page photo of an overflowing crowd at President Yoweri Museveni’s Nov.01 nomination rally at Kololo Recreational Grounds in Kampala. It was a herd of humanity. Each man, woman, and child was clad in some form of yellow attire – the colour of the ruling NRM party. Most wore a yellow T-shirt and cap. All of them had got them free of charge. More photographs of crowds at the Kololo rally followed inside. It was clear someone was out to make a political point about that crowd.

Later, on page 11 of the same edition, there was a story under the headline: ‘Two children stranded at Kololo Grounds.’ There were adults too. One of them, 53-year old Scovia Khisa, had travelled 200 kms, all the way from Buyende District in eastern Uganda, to Kololo.


“I could not trace the commuter taxi we travelled in, nor do I have the telephone number of our team leader,” she was quoted as saying. It was clear she, like many others, had been bussed in.

For most, especially upcountry voters who were ferried to Kampala, attending a rally is a joy ride, complete with free T-shirt, free meals, and occasionally a financial reward.

Most could have known that the free goodies would dry-out the farther from an urban centre the next rally is held. Apparently, the jollity of a rally should be enough to win votes of the poorest in the countryside.

Meanwhile, Museveni’s erstwhile ally and former Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi, who was nominated the same day and had his rally at Nakivubo Stadium in downtown Kampala city, presented a different case of `hired’ crowd.

Mbabazi’s crowd was big. However, the ‘Go-Forward’ posters of his party were easily eclipsed by the green-on-white of the Democratic Party. It was not clear if the crowd was for DP or Go-Forward as the scene looked like it was a DP rally with Mbabazi as the guest candidate. On the podium, Mbabazi was boxed in by several MPs from the DP, others from the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), and others from the Buganda establishment. Despite the assorted crowd, Mbabazi remained ecstatic about it.

“You have disapproved those who claimed I do not have supporters,” he told the crowd, “Thank you very much.”

Dr. Kizza Besigye, who has been the de facto leader of the Opposition in Uganda for over a decade, was nominated a day after Museveni. Always a favourite with crowds, Besigye appeared determined to draw in even more people. Although he lives in Kasangati on Gayaza Rd, barely 10 minutes from Namboole Stadium where the nomination was conducted, he opted to start his journey from the party headquarters in Najjanankumbi on the busy Entebbe Road on the other side of town. He was driven at a walker’s pace, and with a huge crowd in tow. On another day, this journey would barely take 30 minutes. This time, it took five hours and the crowd kept swelling by the minute. Besigye was using his time-tested crowd pulling technique roughly called the “drive-in ambush”.

Under the rules of the technique, Besigye first drives through the crowded parts of wherever he is campaigning to arouse excitement. He keeps waving through the sun-roof of his SUV. Usually, a crowd will follow him.

From Namboole he used the same technique to drive to Nakivubo. The 15-minute journey took him another five hours. By this time, the crowd was a real mass of humanity. If Mbabazi had filled the stadium the day before, Besigye’s crowd filled it to overflow.

“You have really outdone everyone,” Besigye said, again and again. He used the same drive-in ambush for his second rally, in Rukungiri.

Museveni shaken

People close to President Museveni say he was psychologically broken when he saw Besigye’s crowds.

“Museveni is not equipped fom such contests,” someone close to State House told The Independent.

But does Museveni have anything to fear from the crowds that his challengers draw in the campaign?

Analysts say he possibly does.

In the era of new age communication, insisting on campaigning through giant rallies looks like a stride of out step. But rallies add real value to a campaign, according to analysts.

Visible large crowds energise party supporters. Voters have a herd mentality. In a game of self-reinforcing delusions, voters believe they are cheering the winning bull when they are part of a large crowd and the candidates believe they are the winning bull when they see huge crowds at their rallies.

Dixon Okello, a manager of security at events in the city that attract huge crowds, says people should not disregard the role of crowds.

“Crowds are a major indicator of the success of any event,” he said, “a big crowd is the best way to outshine and scare your opponents.”

NRM’s Vice Chairman for Eastern Uganda Mike Mukula told The Independent that Museveni’s camp was happy about how small Mbabazi’s crowd was. “That rally made him look like a small boy,” he said, “it showed that he has always had an inflated ego and all that talk of people defecting from NRM to Go-Foward and him having a lot of money to mobilise and win an election was confirmed to be empty.”

Statements like these give the impression that the number of people attending a candidate’s rally counts a lot, that they play a psychological role and instill confidence in the candidate’s supporters.

Besigye’s supporters say they needed a huge crowd at the rally to restore their candidate’s support that was shaken by the conflicts from the engagements of the opposition coalition, The Democratic Alliance (TDA).

Many people including hitherto supporters were accusing Besigye of pursuing selfish interests by refusing to back down for Mbabazi who was the favourite of most of the representatives of party members of the Alliance.

One of the party officials admitted it was a relief to have such a crowd considering that the new opposition sensation (Mbabazi) had had a rally at the same venue the previous day.

Emmanuel Mugisha left Besigye for Mbabazi. After the first rallies, he says he is reconsidering.

“I went to Mbabazi’s camp not because I love him but because I thought he would deliver the change that Besigye has failed to deliver,” he says. He says he realises Besigye might still be the best option for the opposition.

Besigye, who has contested three times, and lost in all, believes he has always been cheated. When asked to show evidence of how he was cheated, Besigye’s supporters point at the huge crowds that attended his rallies. If they all voted, Besigye would be president.

The crowds also ensure that newspapers treat the candidate with respect. For example, two candidates were nominated on the same day as Museveni. But Museveni and Mbabazi hogged the headlines. The third, a distinguished young professor with a notable manifesto who showed up with his teenage daughters and barely raised a busload of supporters was largely ignored. The media coverage would have been different if he had a bigger crowd – even if it was hired.

Upcountry rallies

After the city rallies, the candidates moved upcountry and each chose to start at their bases. Museveni returned to Luweero, the cradle of the bush-war that brought his party to power 30 years ago. His popularity is waning in this area, and one of the top honchos of the war of liberation, old man Abdu Naduli has lost a slew of elections. But Museveni has stubbornly kept him, and others in top party positions, and insisted on returning to Luweero at the start of every campaign.

Mbabazi followed his DP-themed campaign by starting in the DP-stronghold of Masaka.

Besigye, meanwhile, returned to his home area – Rukungiri. He drew huge crowds again. Both he and FDC party President, Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu are treasured sons of the soil, but it is also deeply pro-Museveni at the ballot. Although Besigye was assured of a crowd, there possibly was another calculation. Just last month, Besigye was blocked by police from hosting a rally in Rukungiri. The police was very brutal and angered many residents. Besigye possibly wanted to ride that wave of anger and convert its energy into a protest vote.

Museveni’s camp, however, insists their candidate is not shaken by the Besigye and Mbabazi crowds.

Many analysts say it would be a mistake for someone to expect votes commensurate to the crowds they get at rallies.

People who have been in campaigns and mobilisation positions say crowds have no relationship with the number of votes.

“Crowds are not a good barometer for votes,” said former Presidential Candidate, Aggrey Awori. “These crowds are determined by factors that have nothing to do with voting or love for the candidate.”

The youth, Awori says, especially those in urban centres like Kampala, are unemployed and will find political rallies a good distraction.

“It is possible that only 10% of the people at those rallies are potential voters,” he said.

To him, it becomes worse for rallies like Museveni’s where free food and money are expected.

“People will even go there because they don’t have anything to eat at home,” he says.

Awori says that for Mbabazi, people could have gone there out of mere excitement and curiosity since he is “the new kid on the block”.

“But people should ask themselves this; how many of those people are voters with voters’ cards? How many of those who are voters actually leave their homes on voting day to go and vote?”

According to those in Museveni’s camp, the President’s rally at Kololo had over 500,000 people. In fact Mukula puts the number at 1,000,000.

Besigye’s camp estimates the crowd at Nakivubo stadium at 100,000. Mbabazi’s camp on the other hand, says they had between 50,000-60,000 people. Each camp accuses the other of inflating their numbers.

Mukula says the contest about who had the biggest crowd should not include NRM.

“The contest is between them (Mbabazi and Besigye) but not between them and us (NRM) because there can’t be any comparison,” he told The Independent.

He says it is simple to solve the “crowd contest”. “Nakivubo Stadium’s capacity is 14,000 and there’s no way a space for 14,000 people could have accommodated more than 30,000.”

He adds that Kololo on the other hand is an airstrip that is over 1,000 metres long, 10 times bigger than Nakivubo “and it was filled to capacity.”

“That’s why the contest of numbers shouldn’t include NRM. It is between Mbabazi and Besigye because they occupied the same ground, and trust me, Besigye made Mbabazi look like a small boy,” he says.

Mukula says, however, “Crowds are very deceptive, they are not votes and people have all sorts of reasons they attend campaign rallies.”

Besigye’s supporters insist, however, that they had the biggest crowd. They say that the people that were outside the stadium were even more than those inside.

“Is that even contestable?” asks Ronald Mubiru, a bodaboda rider in the city, “Even a blind person could tell there were more people in Nakivubo at Besigye’s rally than in Kololo.”

FDC’s Secretary for Mobilization Ingrid Turinawe says she does not know who had more numbers, but she knows that the organisers were overwhelmed by the crowd.

Dixon Okello, a manager of security at big events in the city, says the number of people at Museveni’s rally could have been about 80,000 while those at Besigye’s rally could have been 50,000 or slightly above.

Freebies binge

People attend campaign rallies for various reasons, the main one being as supporters of the candidate. But increasingly, a large number are attending because they have been hired to be part of the crowd. This is mainly in urban centres. In a stretch of cynicism, the candidates appear unbothered that they are hiring the same crowd. The boda bodas are the classic example.

Ronald Mubiru, the bodaboda rider, told The Independent that he and many of his colleagues went to Museveni’s rally to get free fuel to use on Besigye’s nomination and rally the following day.

“I attended both rallies. I went to Museveni’s rally for one simple reason; I was told we would be given money and fuel. And I knew I would need that facilitation to escort my candidate (Besigye).”

Another bodaboda rider who feared to be named says he attended the rallies of both Museveni and Mbabazi. He told The Independent that they (cyclists) were each given Shs 30,000 for fuel at Museveni’s rally, free lunch, and Shs 50,000 as a ‘reward.’ He says some of them did not get the money because the rain disrupted the event. Meanwhile, some were in a hurry to reach Mbabazi’s rally at Nakivubo. At Mbabazi’s rally, the cyclists were given Shs 10,000 for fuel and a ‘reward’ of Shs 50,000. He is convinced more money was dished out at Mbabazi’s rally than Museveni’s. He told The Independent of an incident where a motorist was given Shs 5 million to share amongst his colleagues and he ran off with it. All the organisers insist they did not pay anyone to attend.

The NRM Deputy Treasurer, Kenneth Omona, insists no one was paid or promised anything to attend the rally. Mathias Mpuuga, the Masaka Municipality MP who was one of the organisers of the Mbabazi rally, also denies they paid for the crowd. Only Besigye’s camp appears not in need of defending itself as their candidate was being given money and other gifts by supporters instead.

As the debate rages, Ingrid Turinawe says the FDC cannot be part of the talk of who had the biggest crowd. Since 2001, she says, crowds have never been their candidate’s problem. So why were the candidates and their supporters excited then? Why was it important for them to have more people to the extent of some ferrying and paying entertainers to lure crowds to their rallies? Do the crowds matter anyway? Do they translate into votes on polling day? Okello says his experience with crowds has taught him that they have little to do with the love for the person at the event. In other words, a crowd of 100,000 at a rally does not mean the candidate has 100,000 votes in the bag.

Over the next 90 days or so of campaigning, the numbers game is likely to only get even more interesting. It’s only after the polling date on Feb.18 that people will get to know whose crowd did actually translate into real votes.

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