How Museveni’s grassroots structures resisted Besigye’s campaign momentum
Last week, Yoweri Museveni was reelected to a seventh (fifth elective) term of office as President of Uganda, defeating (or rigging – as his supporters claim) his main rival, Dr. Kizza Besigye. It was the most competitive election Museveni has faced since 2006. Besigye had big momentum.
Besigye is perhaps the most determined, inspiring and charismatic opponent Museveni has had. Among his followers, Besigye enjoys fanatical devotion. He has earned this reputation because of the enormous sacrifices he has made in defense of his beliefs (or ambitions).
Besigye genuinely believes that Uganda has been grossly mismanaged under Museveni. He also sees himself as the only one with the determination, principles and stamina to remove Museveni from power and bring deliverance to Ugandans.
His constant battles with the police where he has been beaten, tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed and jailed on many occasions in the open view of television cameras have made him an icon of folklore. That is why he had the most inspired campaign in terms of its spirit and popular enthusiasm. He was able to successfully position himself as a messiah to deliver the long-suffering people of Uganda from a decadent, greedy and corrupt regime.
Masses of people walked long distances to listen to him speak about the ills of the incumbent government. At his rallies, some of which I attended, he was an unstinting host of the anti-government dish. Many would give him their last coin or goat or chicken in the genuine hope of deliverance. His loss must be a big blow to millions.
From December, a huge pro Besigye wave began sweeping the country, gaining significant momentum in January. In the last three weeks of the election it turned into a tsunami sending shivers down the spines of many inside the NRM and Museveni’s State House. But why didn’t this tsunami sweep Museveni out of power? In fact, Museveni’s poll ratings in September, December and January were consistent with the final electoral outcome – hovering between 53% and 57%. Instead it is Mbabazi whose poll rating and final election tally suffered. While Mbabazi had poll ratings of 18 to 28% last year, his final vote was 1.5%.
Partly it is because, in the end, this election was a triumph of organisation over passion. While FDC has many passionate supporters across the country, it lacks organisational structures to convert favourable sentiment into purposeful political action. Instead of wiping out Museveni, Besigye easily swept Amama Mbabazi from becoming the third horse in the race and turning him into something less than a pony. And this was largely because Mbabazi lacked organization, a factor that made him easy prey to Besigye’s onslaught.
Museveni at weakest
Yet Museveni entered this election with several strategic weaknesses, which should have given the opposition a chance to win or at least force a second round.
First, NRM had gone through two years of internecine war against its former Secretary General and Prime Minister, Mbabazi, and his real and perceived allies. This battle was excruciating to the party and highly divisive. It left NRM and Museveni politically and financially exhausted. Therefore, unlike 2011 when Museveni’s spending binge held Besigye’s passion at bay, driving enthusiasm in the president’s campaign, in 2016 Museveni’s campaign was financially weak, a factor that allowed Besigye to roll.
For most of the election period, NRM and the state machinery expended a lot of their time and resources fighting Mbabazi and his real and imagined allies inside the party so much so that it left little time and focus on Besigye. It is in this context that the Besigye wave gained momentum and began to spread across the country like a tsunami.
Secondly, NRM went through extremely chaotic and divisive party primaries. These left its supporters frustrated and many of its leaders despondent, its flag bearers financially exhausted and heavily indebted. It was difficult for Museveni to support one faction (of the official party flag bearer) against his party members who lost the primaries and decided to run as independents across many constituencies. This was because Museveni did not want to alienate such powerful pillars of opinion fearing it would drive them into the arms of Mbabazi. Besides many had lost elections in a process filled with irregularities. Yet Museveni’s ambivalence increased internal divisions making it hard for NRM to mount relatively unified action against Besigye’s tidal wave.
Thirdly, Museveni entered this election to seek another five years term in circumstances where he had already ruled for 30 years. How do you position your candidature after three decades in power?
The fourth strategic weakness was the demographic changes. Museveni’s choice of “Steady Progress” which meant “more of the same” could appeal to the older generation who had seen worse and women because they tend to be conservative and loyal. But it could not resonate with the younger generation of male youths who do not know our ugly past. The vast majority of voters were born after Museveni had come to power. They are young, restless and highly aspirational.
To this young generation was added a fifth strategic weakness for Museveni – poor delivery of public goods and services. Ugandans (like the citizens of other nations of Africa) harbor expectations of public goods and services that are far out of proportion with the capacities of their governments. Our reference is the more developed nations of Western Europe and North America. Yet these nations have had centuries of building public institutions backed by human skills and huge financial resources to deliver a large basket of high quality public goods and services.
The nations of Africa are too poor in human skills and financial resources to do this. There is, therefore, little any government in Uganda can do to fundamentally change the quality of these poor public goods and services. This is because statistically, our public expenditure of Shs520,000 per person this year is too small to pay for a large basket of public goods and services that we demand.