Uganda poll flawed but better than Kenya’s census democracy

Sunday February 21 2016

A Ugandan woman folds her ballot paper at a polling station in Kampala on February 23, 2006 during the country's first multiparty election in two decades.  PHOTO | AP

A Ugandan woman folds her ballot paper at a polling station in Kampala on February 23, 2006 during the country's first multiparty election in two decades. PHOTO | AP  

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Kenyans have had a field day over the last few days mocking their Ugandan cousins for the chaos and confusion that characterised their election.

#Musevenidecides was a popular hashtag on the eve of the election, referencing the way the electoral landscape was heavily skewed in favour of the incumbent while another witty chap came up with provisional results of a “close contest”:

“News from Kampala indicates that Yoweri is leading with (42 per cent), Kaguta is second with (30 per cent) and Museveni third with (28 per cent).”

Yet much as the Ugandan authorities embarrassed themselves with their conduct – arresting opposition leader Kizza Besigye every few days and blocking social media with eye-watering impunity on voting day – Kenyans have little right to mock anyone for the way they conduct their elections because at least they have an election.

Voters in Uganda made their call on a set of issues, not simply on what ethnicity each candidate was from.

They were essentially invited to make a decision on whether they wanted continuity (or “steady progress” as the Museveni campaign ads called it) or if they favoured the change Besigye promised.

Along the way, it is true the incumbent may have helped himself to an unknown number of votes thanks to the rather biased electoral commission.

In Kenya, by contrast, there will be no election in 2017, only a census. Look at the way we are conducting our voter registration.


Kameme FM is telling the Agikuyu to register in their numbers to “protect” the presidency. Radio Nam Lolwe is urging the Luo Nation to register in much larger numbers than they did last time because that’s essential to helping Jakom “capture” the presidency.

An election which will be won or lost solely on the question of which coalition of ethnic groups registers their people in the largest numbers is surely a farce.

It is true that mobilising voters is a facet of elections in many democracies, especially in America.

Barack Obama defied the opinion polls and crushed Mitt Romney last time mainly through a clever, quiet campaign of pushing voter turnout among black and Latino voters who favoured him and went to the polls in droves.

But the trouble with Kenya is precisely because the political system is modelled after America’s.

The American system is based on division and polarisation. Even the Supreme Court judges are card-carrying members of one or the other party.

Their legislators in Congress and the Senate are sharply divided along party lines and will rarely find consensus on anything, except when they decide to invade a country whose leader they don’t like to impose “democracy”.

The Americans can afford to be so divided because they are far and way the richest nation on earth. Can a poor country like Kenya afford the unending polarisation which is created by the winner-take-all electoral system we borrowed from the Americans?


Shouldn’t we consider changing our system so that we find one which has checks on misuse of power but which gets the whole nation to move in the same direction to achieve development goals?

The more one thinks about it, the grand coalition which was birthed in violence and bloodshed in 2008 showed Africa that there is an alternative path to the American style polarisation Kenya is mired in now, where people differ on everything simply because of the accident of their birth. In Uganda, all the main candidates, Museveni, Besigye and Amama Mbabazi hail from the same region and can converse in roughly the same mother tongue.

That would be unthinkable in Kenya. So while it is true that Kenya’s elections are the most competitive in Africa alongside Ghana’s – the opposition can credibly challenge the incumbent in both countries – in a sense Kenya’s elections are also among the most primitive.

The two main parties now are busy mobilising their core voters to register to help their co-ethnic candidate at the ballot box in 2017.

As Obama said when he visited Nairobi that politics based solely on ethnicity is a “failure of imagination”.

Kenyans have no business laughing at Ugandans. It would be wiser to think of reforms to the current system which revolves around nothing else but the wheel of ethnicity.


Kenyans are a forgiving and forgetful lot. But it was surely stretching it for a minister to leave office, felled by a grand corruption scandal no less and, before allowing memories to fade, to re-emerge within weeks demanding to govern the capital city.

Dear Kenyan politicians – You can get away with many things but, please, don’t take the joke too far.