May 9, 1996, is one of those dates that has stuck in my head till today. I was just about 13; an enthused and curious student of ‘political education’ then.
My inquisitive character combined with my childhood passion for ‘current affairs’ never let a political moment pass without interrogation. It was the first time Uganda was holding multiparty presidential elections after slightly over two decades.
I remember waking up as early as 6am to engage my parents on who they were going to vote for at presidential level. Both mum and dad were clear on their choice – it was President Museveni. I recall walking my mum to her designated polling station, playing a devil’s advocate role – grating her by juxtaposing that, had I been of voting age, I would have certainly voted for Opposition candidate Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere who seemed a decent candidate and certainly had fairly good ratings during the 1996 campaigns.
Of course my persuasions and sentiments were inconsequential – I was a minor and not a voter. Meanwhile, before the polling day, I had on several occasions eavesdropped conversations between my parents in which they would reaffirm to their own assurance that 1996 was President Museveni’s last term in office – and he very much so deserved it.
In fact, as my mother made her way to the polling station on the voting day, she animatedly snaked through the fairly populated neighbourhood asking folks to go to their respective polling stations and vote for Mr Museveni who was appearing on Uganda’s ballot paper ‘for the last time’.
My father, being a government civil servant then, remained guarded about disclosing his political positions – but his passion for President Museveni in that election couldn’t be hidden under any amount of rubble.
Indeed Museveni seemed to have a remarkable ability to relate political messages by using simple, organic ideas and tales that resonated with the ordinary citizen. On his campaign trail, his blue chip sales plan was wheeled on the narration that 1996 – 2001 was his last term in office, to complete the projects he had started in 1986, key of which was maintenance of State security and resuscitation of the economy.
His main challengers, including Ssemogerere and Kibirige Mayanja, could not match Museveni’s prowess in political messaging and dexterity in using the robust public service network to campaign.
The announcement by Steven Akabway, who was then the chairperson of the Interim Electoral Commission, that Mr Museveni had won the 1996 election with a landslide 76 per cent was greeted with extreme jubilations in Kampala and the countryside.
Hundreds of thousands of supporters dressed in Museveni’s insignia campaign T-shirts and caps took to the streets to celebrate his first electoral victory. My father explained to me that the jubilations and partying we were seeing were akin to what happened when (the then decorated general) Idi Amin seized power in a military coup in 1971.
My father was also quick to add that the mood around the country was comparable to that of April 11, 1979, when Amin was overthrown. Indeed, Museveni was the Bismark of Africa – the blue-eyed statesman. In many ways, he epitomised a renewed beginning of democratic vigour and energy. I wished to be like him when I grew up.
Once Mr Museveni was sworn into office for his “first and last term” on May 12, 1996, the talk around 1996 – 2001 being his last term in office immediately fizzled out. Instead, focus was shifted on how to secure another electoral term for an iconic man who “had indicated no interest” in running for political office ever again.
Since then, President Museveni has found himself on the ballot every five years – handing over power to himself after each election. Constitutional speed governors such as limitations on the tenure of the president; presidential powers; regular, free and fair elections have in one way or another been recalibrated largely to mean more to those who control the levers of power and less to the multitudes that are led. As things continue to be uncertain, political succession and transition remain elusive fairy tales.
As a 13 year old, I learnt from the political theatrics then that breaking promises was a normal thing. Two decades later, I see a pale reflection of a glitter that used to be. I am struggling to teach myself that ‘a man is as good as his word’.
I struggle to teach my children that leadership comes from God. I am struggling with all these things because reality hits me every other day – that values and principles are scarce in today’s leaders. I just can’t find that many public figures to point my children to, as examples to learn from.
The young people who are the majority have a responsibility to reject the lowering standards; and step in to nurture stronger foundational values upon which Uganda’s revolution was founded.
The urgency of the situation demands an active agency from all young people to be the role models that public life in Uganda is desperately searching for. The new reality is such that there is just so much that pillars like the Constitution can do; in the absence of an active, responsible and responsive citizenry.
Change, transition and succession are inevitable constants and cannot be quieted. Only Ugandans can have the last say on the last term.
The writer is coordinator, Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda