On Thursday February 18, voters in Uganda will troop to polling stations to vote in a national election where there are eight presidential candidates and about 2,000 more for other elective posts.
These include Members of Parliament (MPs), chairpersons and councillors. This is the biggest number of elective posts that Uganda has had since independence.
The post of president is attracting most attention and traction among many Ugandans because in Uganda power is highly centralised and, therefore, the “winner takes all”. There is nothing for losers; they lose everything. And if the loser is a high profile candidate, the loss means trouble for him and his supporters. Thus the stakes are high in this election.
Of the eight presidential candidates, only three are front runners. These are the incumbent President Yoweri Museveni or M7 as Ugandans prefer calling him.
He is running on the ticket of a political movement, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) that he established way back in the 1980s to fight the various regimes in power then. The movement grew from a guerrilla grouping into a peasant uprising which eventually toppled the then military government.
The other front runner is Kiiza Besigye running on the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). He was a close ally of President Museveni.
He was Museveni’s personal doctor. In the bush war, he was also a soldier – a colonel. He fell out with President Museveni and became his fierce critic. He formed the opposition party FDC to run against President Museveni in the 2001 elections. He lost.
The third candidate, Amama Mbabazi, is also a former close aide of President Museveni. He is a founder member of the NRM, President Museveni’s party. He too fell out with Museveni but quite recently. He was the Prime Minister until President Museveni sacked him in 2014. He is in the campaigns also promising change and urging Ugandans to “Go-Forward”.
The three main front runners are all former military men. They have been close friends. They know each other fairly well. They are promising Ugandans the same things – change – perhaps because their familiarity with each other has not allowed room for innovative ideas.
The three candidates are also from the same region of the country. They all come from the Ankole region in western Uganda. The other candidates including those from the populous Baganda region, have not mobilised social basis of support to match these former friends.
This on its own has somehow de-ethnicised Uganda’s competitive politics. But this has not erased the perception of President Museveni’s government being viewed on ethnic terms particularly because of how he has been rewarding allies from the region.
The stakes are high because the Opposition is selling the language of change while the incumbent government of President Yoweri Museveni is also selling a similar “message of change”. He is promising hope while the Opposition is promising a better Uganda.
The Opposition is mobilising on argument that President Museveni has been in power for over 30 years. It is time for him to retire. They also argue that in 2001, he promised to be in office for only one term. However, he is seeking to change the constitution in order to be “a life president”.
They paint his regime as one where Uganda has been mortgaged to Asian business elites doing business with the President’s family.
They talk of high polarisation within the military and the potential of divisions within the military to escalate into an internal conflict within the military.
The Opposition is also campaigning on the language of rights and freedoms. They argue that President Museveni came to power using the language of rights and freedoms for all. However, to consolidate political power, he has increasingly curtailed people’s freedoms, banished civil society groups, and burnt bridges with different groups who assisted him in his rise to power.
They generally paint an image of a man who has run amok. In their view, he has personalised Uganda so much that Uganda is him and he is Uganda.
Although these are the issues that the Opposition is mobilising against, the opinion polls, including those by the Opposition allied groups, show President Museveni ahead of everyone else.
Some of the recent polls show him leading with over 57 per cent. The polls by groups allied to the Opposition show him leading with about 51 per cent. The Opposition has picked on this to plan for a re-run because they are optimistic that President Museveni, though ahead, will not garner the 50 per cent threshold to prevent a re-run.
The fact that polls show Museveni leading and tout him as the winner is not surprising given the issues brought to bear in these elections.
One, Museveni has presented the Opposition leaders, and Kizza Besigye in particular, as an angry man. He says he cannot be trusted. But he does not say why KB is angry.
They know each other too well to bring their personal life stories to public. He says the same of his former PM, Mr Mbabazi.
And to add this, President Museveni’s supporters are touting all women to have a look at Kizza Besigye; they say he is not as handsome as their man. They say his looks are just bad. They can’t vote for him. This may sound trivial and funny but these are electoral issues in Uganda.
Third, President Museveni is using the language of peasants, the language that many people understand. He is behaving like a peasant in many instances.
He is distributing hoes for farming. He is using over one quarter of Uganda’s ministry of Agriculture budget to make peasants happy by giving them hoes. His argument is that hoes to six million small holders will transform Uganda’s agrarian economy to an industrial economy.
This is 21st Century. Anyone using hoes to transform an agrarian economy to an industrial one is certainly joking. Mechanised agricultural farming method is what many countries have adopted, irrespective of terrain, to transform their economies.
But the peasants are happy with this deed because it is a direct benefit from the government. They may never see any other personal benefit from the government until the next General Election.
MOBILISING PEACE AND SECURITY
Fourth President Museveni is mobilising on the issue of peace and security. His argument is simple. Uganda was ravaged by wars for a long time since the 1960s. There were coups and counter coups, which made Uganda unstable.
To him, between 1966 and 1986 when he came to power, Uganda was so unstable that there was nothing worth talking about. There were no basic services and conditions of life had deteriorated so much that everyone was poor.
President Museveni argues that he has brought peace and general stability. Poverty levels have declined from a high of over 60 per cent in the 1980s to about 19.7 per cent today.
The number of middle class has also increased significantly during the period. From about 10 per cent in the early 1990s, he has increased the size of the middle class to about 37 per cent. He argues that he is keen now to create wealth and employment for the youth.
What Museveni is doing is quite simple: mobilise the fears of the past and ensure that people see status quo as change. He has painted the Opposition as a grouping of individuals with no idea about the journey they are travelling.
He is simply reminding the peasants about the many wars of the past. And indeed about 45 per cent of Ugandans can relate to the insecurity of the 1980s and 1970s to understand where they are coming from.
All that Museveni is not able to tell is what is next after him. With an angry Besigye and a Mbabazi whose following has dwindled, Uganda is left with Museveni. But he clearly has no succession plans. He is not going anywhere.
The hoes he has given out to peasants will indeed maintain Uganda as a peasant economy. With Museveni, Uganda is good business for Kenya.
Prof Karuti Kanyinga is based at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi, [email protected]