It has been a year packed with violence, death. It has also been a year of preparations and counter-preparations as the country moves towards the 2011 general elections. Angelo Izama looks at what many have called preparation for violence just in case the ruling party is defeated in the poll:-
President Yoweri Museveni took time off his busy schedule to preside over the passing-out of 2,500 youth who had completed their para-military/politicisation training on December 12. The low key event that hardly made a splash in the media took place at Kololo Airstrip - a place which holds some of the strongest symbolism of Uganda’s post-independence history - from the lowering of the Union Jack to the controversial statements of Col. Muammar Gadaffi on why revolutionaries should remain in power in perpetuity.
The passing-out was officially following military science and patriotism training but it has alarmed political watchers and opposition party strategists increasingly convinced that the ruling National Resistance Movement party is muscling up for violence in the next polls.
As young men re-assembled AK-47 assault rifles the question according to Forum for Democratic Change’s spokesman, Wafula Oguttu, who caught the action on TV, is “which war are they preparing for?” This week at the signing of the Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC) a landmark all-hands-on-deck deal by opposition political parties for a common election strategy in 2011 the spectre of violence in the election was raised.
Mr Omar Kalinge Nnyago, a programme officer at the IPC secretariat which coordinates the joint strategy says the threat of violence was real. The IPC is formed to, among others, set the stage for a “smooth” transition of power should the opposition win the vote in a fair contest.
According to Mr Yonasani Kanyomozi, a veteran politician with the Uganda People’s Congress, the IPC envisages an orderly change of regime. “We are going into this fully knowing that the incumbent is intent on staying on in power and may not go quietly,” he said on a radio programme on Thursday.
The realisation of the IPC may have been the high point on the political calendar for the opposition but with just 14 months to the general election, 2009 has been an underwhelming year for the formal political opposition in Uganda.
The most significant political event was the so-called Buganda riots in September, an event which while it shook the country, also revealed the weak hand of the opposition.
The riots broke out fairly spontaneously and grew out of a stand-off between the Buganda Kingdom and the Central government - an issue in which the opposition has had virtually observer status.
The IPC deal may thus be crown jewel for regime change optimists said one diplomat working with democracy issues with all political parties.
“A year ago one would have thought it was not possible,” said the diplomat who preferred anonymity in order to give an assessment on the condition of the parties in the prelude to the 2011 polls.
According to him on the positive side, besides the IPC, the opposition especially FDC have been active outside of the capital mobilising. FDC is credited for electing new party officials countrywide in a fairly transparent manner.
“The return of Olara Otunnu also provides the UPC with the possibility of climbing out of the factionalism at Uganda House and they look also set for a delegate’s conference,” the diplomat said.
However, on the flipside internal schisms have undermined opposition politics. “They had a poor showing in by-elections and save for a few areas like Hoima lost the opportunity to turn some genuine discontent into votes” the diplomat said.
The Peoples Progressive Party is credited “to a limited extent” for having organisational success. “On the whole it is another year since the parties have been around and that’s something to celebrate even if they still continue to be largely Kampala based” the diplomat said, adding that a lot party structures up country often lacked direction and suffered from “the commercialisation of volunteerism”.
“Most of their supporters expect to be paid to do party work and to this extent the NRM has the advantage because it is fused with the state.” The biggest casualty in the political party inventory has, however, been the Democratic Party which has been weighed down by in-fighting that could render it dysfunctional several experts say.
Mr Oguttu, a retired journalist and entrepreneur-turned-politician, however says overall, organised violence is a more serious problem. “Military training and the military uniforms are for the purposes of violence. When they are defeated they will resort to violence,” he said about the pass-out of Movement’s cadres.
After the September riots again large scale violence has re-emerged as a worry. On the one hand there is no doubt that the politics of the country is wired by such high-tension topics as land, oil in Bunyoro, the dearth of public services and political transition/succession to President Museveni.
However, the Buganda riots showed how such violence could occur and the State response to it. “This is a quasi-military regime. It’s dominated by the control of partisan forces of coercion by President Museveni who has never considered multiparty competition and still runs the NRM, which he dominates, like he did the National Resistance Army in the bush,” Mr Oguttu added.
One could fault this view as coming from a political opponent but some of the evidence of “militarisation” is worrying enough on its own. According to the FDC which is preparing a secret list of authority figures within the government, the military and intelligence who sanction or are part of the alleged planning for violence, the NRM is not taking anything for granted.
They have taken note of the military training made available to Gombolala chiefs, Members of Parliament, Local Council officials, two youths per parish and now the intensive training of numerous so-called NRM “election scouts”.
This infrastructure is outside the control of the army, police and intelligence organs. “It’s more than a fancy dress party,” remarked a diplomat.
The diplomat said donors are worried. “The militarisation of violence or direct linkage of political actors to quasi-military groups is associated with the autonomy of NRM. We anticipate that the next election will be violent,” he said.
The diplomatic community thinks the training of a political militia signals that “violence will be a legitimate tool” during the electoral contest in 2011.
“The other scenario is that it is meant to intimidate or act as a deterrence. It’s brinkmanship and could depress participation in the political process. It’s the doctrine of preventative deployment,” said the diplomatic source whose bleak forecast is shared by Lira Municipality MP Jimmy Akena.
“[These militia] is tantamount to the Kiboko squad on a massive scale. The NRM is preparing for a violent election and it is a serious concern for us,” said Mr Akena who is vying for UPC leadership as a prelude to joining the presidential contest.
Within villages, say members of the opposition, it’s no longer unusual to see a local official turn up in full dress military uniform as a show of force. And many are armed it’s alleged. “Right now terror is projected as security,” said Mr Nobert Mao the Gulu LCV boss who has made his intention to contest in the next election known. Speaking at the Buganda Conference, the first large meeting to address Buganda’s place within Uganda since the September riots, Chairman Mao warned that the “primary problem in Uganda is dictatorship”. He said this has complicated civilised political contest.
Concerns about violence are heightened by rights groups’ warnings. The US-based Human Rights Watch in a report this month said there was little accountability for election violence. “Alleged crimes are rarely investigated or prosecuted,” it said in the report titled Preparing for Polls: Improving Accountability for Electoral Violence in Uganda. The report notes that rather than be punished those accused of violence have been rewarded instead.
It notes the high profile example of Ali Kirunda Kivejinja, Uganda’s minister of internal affairs, who was stripped of a parliamentary seat after a court said his election campaign had been managed like “ a war” with the result of “ “widespread intimidation, violence and torture of [opposition] supporters and agents”.
Despite this record as internal affairs minister, Kivejinja is still responsible for the police and security sector HRW notes.
The issue of violence may legitimately cause worry for the opposition but it reflects the increasing control of the NRM. It also casts a shadow over some of the gains the political opposition has made this year.
Will the people’s power defeat President Museveni in the poll?
When ‘people power’ cut the knees of the regime of Ferdinand Emmanuel Edralin Marcos in 1986 in the Philippines, just months after President Museveni begun his own career as Ugandan strongman, it presented a case of a spontaneous reaction by citizens to what was perceived as a corrupt and broken government.
There are so many parallels to draw from history, both positive and negative, about the Marcos regime and the 23-year tenure of the National Resistance Movement under President Museveni. Much has to do with political patronage, corruption and brinkmanship that helped sustain Marcos in power and enrich his family and friends.
A good account of this is found in the book, The Marcos Dynasty by Sterling Seagrave which begins with wonderment about why for so long - despite the kleptocracy, lies and crimes of the Marcoses - they managed to maintain power.
The same has been said about the so-called people power or colour revolutions in places like the Ukraine or Romania which was referenced by Mr Omar Kalinge Nnyago in discussing the possible Ugandan chapter.
Mr Nnyago who is with the Interparty Cooperation (IPC), sees joint action on the Museveni government as the best possible course of action. After the September 10-12 Buganda riots some from this school of thought muse that it is possible for spontaneous ‘people’ protests to impose such strain on the regime that it folds.
While Ugandans are allowed to rise up in defence of the Constitution, rioting resulting from mass uprising is deemed illegal. In this context calls for the ‘people’ to stand up may be construed to be illegal incitement.
If it does, they want to offer an olive branch, possibly protection from prosecution for the crimes of incumbency.
Elections are key moments for people power revolutions which, however, are also the result of incumbents who breed the right conditions often right out of state houses.
Countries where the revolutions have occurred like the Philippines, the Ukraine or Romania or failed like in Iran recently share one thing- a legitimacy deficit. In Uganda it is possible to refer to the deficit in those 10 percentage points that the President has been losing in subsequent elections since 1996. But it is often the administrative illegitimacy of corrupt governments amplified by wanton corruption and violence against regime opponents that comes to a head when people are asked to go to the poll and offer an opinion on the future.
Trouble begins when the incumbent, despite this public discontent, emerges ‘winner’ unleashing spontaneous anger.
In Kenya in 2007, a people power revolution which even borrowed the colour orange from Ukraine degenerated into tribal violence while in Zimbabwe a similar undertaking has since morphed into a unity government.
2011 threatens to bring bad tidings on Uganda’s political landscape is all the doomsayers are to be believed. However, at the end of the day it all seems to hinge on how President Museveni will behave -- in the event that Ugandans do not vote for him.