Why the Uganda election is so un-Kenyan and un-Tanzanian

Thursday February 18 2016

Uganda's opposition leader Kizza Besigye supporters lit a barricade on February 15, 2016 during clashes with the police after the presidential aspirant was briefly arrested. Ugandans will go to the polls on February 18, 2016 to choose a new president. PHOTO | AFP

Supporters of Uganda's opposition leader Kizza Besigye lit a barricade on February 15, 2016 during clashes with the police after the presidential aspirant was briefly arrested. Ugandans go to the polls on February 18, 2016 to choose a new president. PHOTO | AFP 

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Uganda goes to the polls Thursday, with incumbent President Yoweri Museveni seeking a seventh term, two of them unelected.

His main challengers, in order of perceived threat, are the Forum for Democracy’s Dr Kizza Besigye and Museveni’s former prime minister Amama Mbabazi.

If crowd size, enthusiasm, and emotion during the campaigns were all that counted, Besigye would probably win this one handily.

But first, there has to be a free vote, and there is that small but decisive matter of counting the votes.

When the election campaigns started in earnest in July, the police arrested both Besigye and Mbabazi and beat up and tear-gassed their supporters.

The battles with police remained a regular feature of the campaign and this week it ended the way it started — with Besigye briefly arrested and one of his supporters killed by police.

One of the interesting aspects of the campaign was the conduct of Electoral Commission chairman Badru Kiggundu.

At one point he spent more time attacking Besigye than even Museveni did and in a final revelation about the state of his impartiality, declared that if he had his way Besigye would not be on the ballot.

It is one reason the more important thing about the Ugandan election is not what the outcome will be, but from a broader view why it is so different from Kenya’s and Tanzania’s.

And, in the East African Community (EAC) context, why presidential term limits have held up in Tanzania and Kenya, and yet have been scrapped or ignored (Burundi) without even being tested whether or not they work.

On the face of it, the differences between the EAC countries that have term limits (Kenya, Tanzania) and those that do not or will not observe them (Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi) are obvious.

The former did not have military rule or civil wars and the latter had both, and thus have presidents who came to power as victorious rebel leaders.


The argument used to be that the conditions necessary for rebel and revolutionary leaders to succeed create a dynamic that makes it impossible for them to retire from office after they take power.

Then in 1990 the Sandinistas held elections in Nicaragua and lost, with their leader, Daniel Ortega, conceding defeat. They had been in power for only 11 years.

In South Africa, the ANC’s Nelson Mandela, who had spent 27 years in jail, stepped down from power in 1999 after just one term.

In Namibia, Swapo leader Sam Nujoma became the second revolutionary leader in Africa to leave in 2005.

Having come to power in 1990, the Namibians did what Rwanda just did with President Paul Kagame in their latest constitution amendment.

They changed the law to give Nujoma a farewell third term and then slapped back term limits.

And in 2011, the king of all revolutionary leaders, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, stepped down, though after a record-breaking 50 years in office, handing things to his brother, Raul Castro.

Even though one could argue that the Namibian and South African transitions were settled over a negotiation table and, therefore, were different, but so was Zimbabwe’s, where “Uncle” Robert Mugabe has gone in a very different direction.

It can no longer then be an ironclad rule that leaders who fought their way to power did not leave early and had to die in office. So where does that leave us?

An explanation could be because Kenya and Tanzania are coastal nations. But that is not enough because some of the worst dictatorships in Africa — Eritrea, Angola, and Equatorial Guinea, to name a few — are coastal nations.

We have to go back into history, then, to look at their first encounters with the rest of the world.

It seems there is a difference depending on whether the first major arrivals were pragmatic traders (especially Arab), missionaries, builders, farmers, or miners and the order in which they arrived.

Look at the most important social, political, and economic determinant in the region — the Kenya-Uganda railway.

The British engineers and Indian coolies who came to build it, and were devoured by lions in the Tsavo, were tough fellows.

However, the British and Indians who arrived in Uganda after 1930 on the finished railway might have had a pioneering spirit, but they did not have the grit of the builders.

Small things, but they have had a big impact on the structure of commerce, attitudes towards work, and politics in East Africa.

The author is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. [email protected]