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Friday, 25 February 2011

Déja vu, in Uganda

This is the third of three blogs about Uganda’s 2011 elections written by a Ugandan journalist living in Kampala who has asked to remain anonymous.

In the run-up to Uganda’s second successive multiparty elections on 18 February 2011, Ugandans keenly followed the popular protests that have swept North Africa. Dr Kizza Besigye, the main challenger to President Yoweri Museveni, indicated that Ugandans would be prepared to follow their lead and take to the streets if he did not win. It appears that the majority of Ugandans side with Museveni who insisted that “there will be no Egypt-style revolution here”.

The outcome of the elections were as opinion polls predicted. President Museveni was re-elected for a fourth term, receiving 68.38% of the vote, up from 59% in 2006. Besigye took a disappointing 26.01%. In the new parliament, Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party continue to dominate, winning over 76% of constituencies. Voter turnout continued to decline.

Reactions to the election results revealed that Besigye was not prepared for such a resounding defeat. In the past three elections – in 1996, 2001 and 2006 – Museveni’s share of the vote declined, while support for opposition parties grew. Besigye was convinced support for Museveni would further fall, but he underestimated the tenacity of his opponent. Museveni racked up a higher percentage of votes than in 2006. The seven challengers for the presidency – Kizza Besigye, Norbert Mao, Olara Otunnu, Abed Bwanika, Beti Turwomwe Kamya, Jaberi Bidandi Ssali and Samuel Walter Lubega – played right into the president’s hands, dividing any coherent opposition to his reign.

Besigye described the elections as a “sham”, and insists Museveni’s re-elected government is illegitimate. While the conduct of the elections has been criticised, with Human Rights Watch claiming that political and human rights activists were detained, accusations of voter intimidation and violence are fewer than in previous ballots. Museveni reverted to the old trick of buying voters’ loyalty. Edward Scicluna, the European Union’s election observer mission chief, told the UK’s Financial Times:

“While in the past the way of influence was with the stick and violence, now we’re getting a lot of carrots: ‘You give me a vote, I give you a bowl of rice or a goat’ – goats and money were distributed ... Definitely the ruling party has more resources and therefore a great imbalance, it uses scarce state resources as well.”

Museveni becomes East Africa’s longest-serving leader, overtaking Daniel arap Moi who ruled Kenya for 24 years. By 2016 – when Museveni completes fourth term – he will have been president for 30 years, joining an elite group of African leaders that include Angola’s Eduardo dos Santos, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and Burkina Faso’s Blaise Campaore. A real U-turn for a man, who shortly after coming to power in 1986, insisted that heads of state who hold office for more than ten years have outstayed their welcome.

Popular revolt to Museveni’s rule is unlikely, for a number of reasons. Ethnic divisions remain strong in Uganda, and divide civil society. The opposition is reluctant to incite revolt for fear that Uganda will suffer the same fate as Kenya in the aftermath of the 2008 elections, when ethnic violence rocked large parts of the country. Nicholas Sengoba, an analyst, told Bloomberg News, “Many people are fearful of rising up in case the violence turns ethnic, and goes the Kenyan way. If you entice people and then lose control, you could still be held responsible and that may end up at the ICC.”

In Kampala – Uganda’s capital – offices, shops, schools and banks are open and running as normal. But the presence of security and military personnel in the city streets, alleys and suburbs is clear for all to see. Museveni warned that anyone one who uses “extra-constitutional means” to influence politics will be “locked up”. He appears to be staying true to his word.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Uganda decides

This is the second of three blogs about Uganda’s 2011 elections written by a Ugandan journalist living in Kampala who has asked to remain anonymous.

Kampala, Uganda - The end is in sight for Uganda’s eight presidential candidates whose election campaigns began in November last year. The polls on February 18 will mark the end of a carnival-like atmosphere that has swept the country over the past months. Symbols, signs, colours and anthems of the country’s major political parties have been on near constant show since the campaigns kicked off. Supporters from all parties have been enthusiastically waving their flags, thrusting their clenched fists, clapping their palms, and giving the occasional two-finger salute!

President Museveni and his main challenger for office, Dr Kizza Besigye, have been keen to showcase their political clout through a series of high profile political rallies. Large political demonstrations are a long-standing obsession with Ugandan politicians keen to flex their muscles in public. This time, more than in previous campaigns, the youth have been the main target of election rallies. Over half of Uganda’s population is under 30, representing a significant political constituency.

Music has been the principal medium to engage with Uganda’s burgeoning young population. President Museveni has been particularly astute in this respect, releasing his very own ‘rap’ video in an attempt to reach out to Uganda’s younger voters. In a direct appeal to Uganda’s rural youth, Museveni recites the following lyrics: "I was given a knife. I gave it to the people who harvested millet and they gave me the millet. I gave the millet to the cattle keepers, who in exchange gave me a cow." At every official campaign rally, President Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party (NRM) have hired the country’s top music artists to attract hordes of young voters.

Media jostles

Behind the noise and vibrancy of the political rallies that have characterised the campaigns lies a more subtle clash for votes and influence – the ongoing battle for the airwaves. Radio remains the most popular medium of communication in Uganda, particularly the rural areas. InterMedia, a non-profit research organisation, estimates there are about 200 private FM radio stations in Uganda. But many of these stations, however, are thought to be owned by members and allies of the ruling party.

Opposition parties have accused the government of blocking their access to the media. The Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), led by Dr Besigye, paid for special announcements on the public broadcaster, Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC). But the announcements were not aired, nor was the money refunded. No explanation was given. The FDC have filed a legal case against the UBC, demanding US$600,000 in compensation for the lost opportunity.

In the face of adversity, the opposition supporters have taken the battle online, using the popular social media site Facebook to call for President Museveni’s resignation. But with internet penetration currently at 7.9% of the population, such initiatives will have limited impact. The government are well aware that the radio remains the most powerful tool to inform, educate and mobilise Ugandans.

Third time lucky?

The elections on Saturday 18th February will be the third time that the retired colonel, Dr Besigye is contesting the presidency. He has failed in the two previous attempts to unseat Museveni who has ruled Uganda since 1986. Museveni is the longest serving president of Uganda, outstripping by nearly three times the rule of Idi Amin Dada whose oppressive junta lasted nine years. Ugandans born in 1986 when Museveni took power are now women and men with families.

Since 2000, Museveni’s popularity has been dwindling, and his share of the national vote is expected to further decline this year. Such realities have spurred the opposition. Dr Besigye has tried to persuade voters that President Museveni is yesterday’s man: “The trend shows that Museveni’s vote has been declining while our vote is increasing. In 1996 he got 75 %. In 2001, he scored 69% of the vote. In 2006, even when I campaigned in handcuffs, Museveni got 56%. With such a trend, what would you expect Museveni to get this time round?”

Opinion polls continue to favour President Museveni and his NRM party. Most predictions suggest Museveni will capture between 60 and 65% of the vote. These figures have been widely published in the state and private media. But opposition parties maintain that the opinion polls are simply propaganda, and that the government is trying to hoodwink Ugandan voters. Both Museveni and Besigye have announced that victory will be theirs on February 18th. In the event that neither candidate received 50% of the vote, a re-run will be required.

The scene is set for a gripping contest, one that will likely push Uganda’s young democracy to its limits. Dr Besigye maintains that past election victories were stolen from him by a combination of voter intimidation and vote rigging. While President Museveni still holds substantial political support in Uganda, he cannot rest on his laurels. With popular protests sweeping North Africa, the political climate for the polls has changed dramatically since the beginning of the campaigns – a reality that is not lost on his main contender for office.

In a written statement to the armed forces on February 6, 2011 as they commemorated the 30th anniversary of the armed rebellion against former president Milton Obote, Besigye noted: ‘If the election is rigged again, I will not go back to the court; the struggle is not mine alone. It belongs to our supporters across the country. If our victory is stolen it is the court of public opinion to which I will appeal’.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Campaigning in Kampala

This is the first of three blogs about Uganda’s 2011 elections written by a Ugandan journalist living in Kampala who has asked to remain anonymous.

Kampala, Uganda – On February 18, 2011 Ugandans will go to the ballot box to elect their president and parliament for the next five years. In the run up to the polls black-and blue-uniformed police are much in evidence on the streets of Kampala, patrolling in twos and threes. More than 50 tear-gas trucks and other riot control vehicles have recently arrived, imported via Dar-es-Salaam from Chinese manufacturer in Tianjin. Police spokesman Vincent Ssekate has insisted that the equipment was ordered early in 2008, but the timing of its arrival has raised suspicions that it would be deployed against opposition demonstrators.

In the five decades since independence, none of Uganda’s heads of state have been voted out of office. President Museveni came to power by coup d’état or civil war in 1986. In 2005, Museveni amended the constitution to secure a third term in office. Most Ugandans believe that whoever controls the army will win any election. Although his National Resistance Army metamorphosed into the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), Museveni’s opponents believe that it remains a presidential guard.

The army has sought to reassure Ugandans that it is impartial and its remit is to maintain peace and stability during the polls. The UPDF’s code of conduct forbids soldiers from campaigning activities of any description. But most high-ranking officers come from western Uganda, Museveni’s homeland. A number of them attend the president’s campaign rallies. An army general – Kale Kayihura - heads the police. If there is electoral violence, opposition candidates believe that the UPDF and police will display their loyalty to the president.

President Museveni’s main challenger is his erstwhile ally and personal doctor, Colonel Kizza Besigye, who leads the Forum for Democratic Change. Among Bisigye’s prominent supporters is General Mugisha Muntu, a former Chief of the Defence Forces who retains considerable respect in the army. There are six other candidates, including former UN under-secretary-general, Olara Otunnu, and Norbert Mao president of the Democratic party. All but Besigye can be considered ‘also-rans’, and the opposition is riven by in-fighting.

Peace Baagi, from the south-west, speaks for most Ugandans when she says that all she wants is a peaceful country in which to raise and educate her children. But the older generation – those who witnessed Uganda’s tremendous, and traumatic, upheavals before Museveni came to power – are apprehensive about the prospects for a trouble-free poll, and aftermath. Stick-wielding militiamen have attacked and dispersed campaign demonstrations in Kampala, and attacked Besigye himself. Electoral Commission boss, Badru Kiggundu, has warned that nine militias are preparing to disrupt voting.

Opposition candidates have also moved to prepare ‘vigilantes’ to protect their voters at polling stations. The Uganda Police has made it clear that it is the only institution legally mandated to provide such protection. Thousands of special constables are undergoing training. The opposition and police seem set on a collision course. Besigye supporters have already clashed with supporters of the ruling NRM party in Alebtong, northern Uganda.

Hostility between supporters of rival factions is increasingly evident in pubs and on the streets. Posters of presidential, parliamentary and council candidates are being defaced and torn down – a crime which can carry a one year jail sentence. In Kampala, areas which witnessed violent riots last year between Bagandans loyal to their monarch, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi, and government supporters are potential flashpoints.

Southern Sudan’s vote for independence, the ongoing power-struggle in Côte d’Ivoire, and the wave of protest sweeping North Africa and the Arab world have all overshadowed Uganda’s upcoming elections. The international media have paid little attention. It’s possible Uganda’s presidential and parliamentary votes will pass with little commotion . But a peaceful outcome to this month’s polls will depend on whether the security services act as agents of the Ugandan state or the incumbent president’s henchmen.