On a cloudy Kampala day last Wednesday, I witnessed an exceedingly rare development.
The opposition candidate in Uganda’s election was campaigning in the Makindye neighbourhood of the capital and, when he arrived, people surged forward.
They didn’t want to shake his hands. They were giving him money. Tens of them had a donation to make to Dr Kizza Besigye.
An old lady, clad in a long blue lesso, thrust a crumpled note in his hands. Several young men followed and gave the leader some money.
Others brought gifts: pawpaws, pineapples and, of course, this being Uganda, bananas.
It is a scene which has unfolded across the country everywhere the candidate has gone and one can hardly think of a more eloquent message to an incumbent than the one these peasants have sent by giving up their money to support Besigye.
The statement seems to be that Yoweri Museveni may have all the state resources, the men with guns may be on his side, but the people feel that 30 years is a little too long for one man to cling to power and they are eager for change.
So from Mbale to Gulu, people have come forward to give Besigye a donation. Some have offered goats, others gave him cows. One cheeky guy brought him a German Shepherd puppy, the better for him to catch “corrupt thieves” with.
Besigye will probably not win when Ugandans go to the polls on Thursday. The opposition in Uganda relies too much on the charisma of one man and lacks a credible national grassroots network.
It is not fielding candidates in a fair proportion of parliamentary contests.
Museveni’s NRM has all the money and is outspending the opposition almost totally.
Besigye’s FDC does not quite have the level of grassroots network and financing that its counterparts in, say, Ghana or Kenya command, partly because in Ghana and Kenya, major opposition figures have served in government in the recent past and therefore generally have fairly deep pockets.
The electoral landscape is additionally tilted in Museveni’s favour by the overwhelming role of state institutions in campaigning for him, especially in rural areas, and the ruling party’s propaganda that a loss for Museveni will result in war.
People have absorbed all that and there is general fatalism that the incumbent will remain in office.
But Museveni, once one of the continent’s foremost idealists, and a man who engineered a genuine turnaround and made Uganda a respectable country after years of war, has totally betrayed his ideals and now joins the ranks of many other personal rulers around the world. As a friend put it to me, how can a man go to the same office for 30 years and not grow tired of it?
Why don’t these fellows realise that they can enjoy a good life out of power and, with Museveni’s gift for (occasionally) amusing long lectures, he can be a celebrity on the retired presidential lecture circuit?
A country yoked to the same leader for decades loses its edge in terms of dynamism and growth as Kenya showed in 2002.
We will see who will win the election on Thursday. But the peasants of Uganda, in donating their hard-earned money to Besigye, in giving him the produce of their farms to fund his campaign for president, have delivered a ringing verdict on their view of Museveni’s quest to be president for life.
TAUGHT A VALUABLE LESSON
They have also taught a valuable lesson to other Africans. It makes little sense to expect politicians to buy votes with stolen money at election time then hope they won’t be corrupt once in office.
However, donating money to a candidate who is genuinely clean and desires real change offers a powerful incentive for them to stay clean.
The Besigye supporters have handed the FDC chief a moral victory and given other Africans food for thought.
As usual, I played the well known foreign correspondents’ game of asking taxi drivers who they think will win the election.
Due to Kampala’s traffic jams you have to use boda boda constantly to get anywhere and all the taxi and boda boda guys I spoke to want Besigye to win (which does not mean he will as I learnt in Dar es Salaam. Views in the capital often differ from what you might hear in the countryside).
Maybe the best answer came from one rider, Muhwezi, who replied thus to the question of what the outcome of the election might be.
“Aaaah!” he said. “Only God knows.”