Why Uganda’s opposition is going to hand Museveni an easy victory next year
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | As we approach the 2021 general elections, it is apparent that the opposition, as expected, has handed an easy victory to President Yoweri Museveni and his party, the NRM. Yet after the election the same opposition politicians will fret and cry that the election has been rigged. It is even more interesting because the opposition claim to be fighting a dictatorship. I wonder then why they expect such a government to create a level playing field in the elections.
It follows that the opposition in Uganda must strategise to win an election where all the decks are stacked against them; where the incumbent will dominate the media, use the army and police to disperse their rallies, harass and intimidate or even buy off their polling agents, and even stuff ballot boxes.
There are many governments across Africa where incumbents have used all the unfair advantages of incumbency and lost. So, controlling the state and using it to harass opposition candidates does not guarantee any incumbent as easy victory. Why does it succeed in Uganda?
This is the question the opposition in Uganda has failed, actually refused to confront. In a battle with an entrenched system like that which Museveni runs, the opposition have to plan and win an election that is neither free nor fair. So agitating for a level playing field should only be a political prank to win sympathy but not a precondition, or even strategy, for victory. The strategy for victory has to be how to turn their apparent weaknesses into their weapons for success.
There are structural and organisational reasons why Museveni wins, even if unfairly. One of them is that Uganda politics is not based on identity. So the opposition lacks an ethnic or religious base that can supply rock-solid, faith-based and emotion-driven support. The strongest opponent of Museveni is Dr. Kizza Besigye. In a peasant society where horizontal identities have disproportionate appeal compared to vertical identities, the two bulls in Uganda’s political kraal share a common political origin, a common tribe (Banyankore/Bahororo) and a common religion (Anglicans).
In other parts of Africa where opposition political parties have defeated incumbents, it has been largely because their support is rooted in some identity group. In Kenya, the unity of the Kikuyu and Luo, the largest and fourth largest ethnic groups in that country, led to the defeat of KANU, then under Daniel arap Moi. His Kalenjin ethnic group, even though the third largest, could not defeat an alliance involving these two. Although he was not in the race and had propped a Kikuyu with the brand name of the founding father, Uhuru Kenyatta was seen as Moi’s poodle.
What does an ethnic or religious base do for the opposition? It allows them to rally supporters emotionally to the polls and also to massively rig against the incumbent. By driving voter numbers in their strongholds while literally suffocating the other side, they are able to hold a great advantage. So the real contest shifts to allied and or “neutral” ethnic groups. Here, both the incumbent and opposition have limited possibilities for rigging. Therefore rigging favours the strong. This lesson is apparent from previous elections in Uganda.
If you look at the electoral map of Uganda, you will see excessively high voter turnout in Museveni’s ethnic strongholds. In 2016, there was 100% voter turnout at polling stations in 20 counties all of them based in the cattle corridor: Nyabushozi, Nakaseke, Kazo, Rwampara and Mawogola. And these had fallen from a high of 52 in 2001, 42 in 2006 and 31 in 2011, reflecting the steady decline of intense support for Museveni in his ethnic tuff. In fact wherever there is 100% voter turnout at a polling station, Besigye would get zero votes (47 polling stations in 2016) and Museveni would get 100% of the vote (in 22 polling stations).
I do not want to tie down the reader with a litany of statistics but it is interesting to note that this rigging is not restricted to the incumbent. During the 2001 and 2006 elections, there was a lot of animosity to Museveni in northern Uganda; especially in Acholi but also Lango political sub-regions. Although Besigye did not hail from these areas, the population wanted to get rid of Museveni. So there was massive voter turnout and even rigging against Museveni.
For instance, in 2001 there were 1,590 polling stations where voter turnout was over 80%, and 1,024 where it was over 90% and Besigye got over 90% of the vote in each one of them. All these polling stations were based in Northern Uganda. This number remained steady in 2006. However it dramatically fell to 134 (over 80% voter turnout) and 155 (over 90% voter turnout) in 2011 (marking Besigye’s vote collapse that year and then rose again to 285 (over 80% voter turnout) and 236 (with over 90% voter turnout in 2016) – signaling Besigye’s resurgence in that election. Clearly loss of an ethnic base for Besigye has been crippling.
Without an ethnic base, the opposition in Uganda has rallied politics around social class by appealing to the young, educated but poorly employed and unemployed in urban and peri urban areas. This constituency is not loyal and many of them do not vote. Besides their economic grievances can best be addressed by working with, instead of in opposition to, the state. In Ugandan parlance, Museveni can easily buy them off with state largesse and he does.
So, to have a chance, the opposition in Uganda cannot build a majority to win unless they position themselves in the center to catch everyone. This means they have to admit everyone who shows any signs of wavering against Museveni. But the leading forces in the opposition to wit Defiance (led by Besigye) and its bastard child, People Power led by Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, have adopted a politics of restriction. In their ranks, they insist on total and absolute loyalty. Only those who can fanatically support these two cults without any questions are allowed to be members.
Thus over the last few years they have accused anyone and everyone who has voiced even the most mild criticism of being a Museveni mole, thereby turning many potential supporters and leaders away. They have demanded such high levels of ideological purity that has turned their supporters into worker bees in a hive or ants in an anthill where they are expected to work like robots. This has been intolerable to many and they have massively moved out to form other smaller parties (which fail to gain traction), joined or rejoined NRM of simply walked out of politics. Theirs is a politics of self destruction, and they cannot see it.