Wednesday February 10 2016

Election 2016: Where God boils his yam, is where the devil roasts his fish

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

I don’t think I have missed watching more than five episodes of Fareed Zakaria’s “GPS” (Global Public Square) since it was launched on CNN in 2008.

Many times, as the young people say, I “don’t feel it” but I keep the faith. The “What in the World?” is often wonderfully wacky, but it is the one-liners and sometimes casually offered insights that can be a gem.

In the weekend episode, a panelist said something that got me thinking different seriously about the Ugandan election.
She said one of the most unusual things about the 2016 US presidential elections is that two things that generally don’t happen at the same time are actually taking place.

On the one hand, there is a surge of right wing populism with the disagreeable loud-mouthed billionaire and reality TV man Donald Trump leading it on the Republican side.

On the other, is a swirl of left wing populism led on the Democratic side by mzee Bernie Sanders. Here is a 74-year-old man and he is the candidate of young people who are fed up with business as usual politics.

That is not the way stuff is supposed to happen ordinarily. When revolutionaries are on the rise, usually it is because the factors favour them and the ground is not fertile for counter-revolutionaries.

And when the reactionary forces win, it’s because the revolutionary and progressive forces are in disarray or decline.
But maybe it’s not so strange, after all. In Uganda, we are fairly used to the phenomenon when our man kick boxer Moses Golola fights. When he loses, he wins. And when he wins, he loses.

African elders too were aware of this possibility, so they came up with that “Where God boils his yam, that is exactly where the devil roasts his fish.”

In our current politics that is like the popularity of FDC’s presidential candidate Kizza Besigye rising to new heights, while Museveni’s is also doing exactly the same.
It doesn’t make sense when put that way, so a better question is to ask what it means.

Clearly, it is all informed by how we are accustomed to how change happens – political, economic, and social – happens.
Usually, those who are alert, can “see” it coming. That kind of change produces neither surprises nor unusual things.

Thus in 1985, it was obvious to all that Milton Obote’s rule was collapsing and the army leadership had usurped power from him.
Today, there is a sense that something is going to, or has to, give in Ugandan politics. It might be at this election, and the way Museveni sees it, it’s going to come via an Opposition uprising following the result, hence the “crime preventers” and ordering of some very mean anti-riot equipment.

On the Opposition side, there is a reading that Museveni’s number is up, and he has never been more electorally weak and his campaign, shorn of the shrewd NRM veteran hands that used to “deliver” victory, is shambolic.

The possibility of victory, and Besigye’s own notable improvement as a candidate, has energised them.
But many people also think the election will just be the start of “that something” and it will play out between now and 2021. They don’t know what.

The sense that the Opposition is highly mobilised, and the uncertainty about what will come next, would have the effect of rallying the pro-Museveni constituencies, and result in a large turn out and significant vote for the status quo.

But the same exact factors, leaving the strong scent of a very high possibility in the noses of the Opposition about a victory, could actually get a larger turn out by its supporters.

We don’t have to look too far. Something close to that happened in the Tanzanian elections last October. The result was the most close-fought election in Tanzania, with the smallest margin of victory for President John Magufuli.

To achieve that, the ruling Chama Cha Mapunduzi (Party of Revolution) had to put on its best game face, to fend off Edward Lowassa. However, though he was little known, and got a relatively small margin of victory, Magufuli didn’t emerge weak. Because the party had to dig so deep to get a victory for him, even with his small margin, he emerged with a bigger mandate than his predecessors who had won with large margins. And though the Opposition put in their best performance, they ended up looking worse than previously when they did worse. The reason is that this was their election to win. That they didn’t is almost like they threw it away.

How one wishes Uganda was not, to borrow someone’s expression, and “electoral thievocracy”. We would have spoken of the outcome of the February 18, election for generations to come.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian AFRICA ( Twitter:@cobbo3