Thursday February 25 2016

#UgandaDecides: Voters went to sleep in 2016, woke up in 1980!

By Daniel K. Kalinaki

Last week’s election is a disappointing reminder that we have learnt nothing, forgotten nothing from our political history.
To some, the shortcomings were merely administrative flaws, of delayed delivery of materials here, missing voter names there, with a sprinkling of fraud.

Look closely, however, and a pattern emerges: ensure peace and a high turnout in areas where the incumbent enjoys a lot of support; suppress turnout in Opposition strongholds, manage the counting and tallying process; ensure a monopoly on announcing results; and keep any would-be protestors under lock and key.
This is an all-to-familiar story for Ugandans. It is the story of 1961 and 1962 where a majority of the population was disenfranchised.

It is the story of 1980 where the announced results did not have to reflect the choice of the people. It is the story of 1996 where underage school children voted until their arms were sore. It is the story of 2001 where violence stalked those that dared dissent. It is the story of 2006 where the leading opponent spent half the campaign period in jail over unproven charges. It is the story of 2011 where a large chunk of the national budget went into buying the hearts and choices of voters.
Countries do not become functional electoral democracies overnight. Just over a century ago, a king around here could have you killed just for looking at them badly. So we must never take the right to vote for granted, but neither should we allow it to be a mere ritual in a political coronation, rather than an exercise in civic choice.

President Museveni is undoubtedly a popular politician. His humour and a personality that can be pleasant to the point of being charming make him very electable, as does his impressive track record.
It is a pity, therefore, that we might never really know how popular he is in a free and fair election, for all the five (and counting) organised under his watch have been anything but. The only time Mr Museveni went into an election as a candidate (and not as an incumbent), in 1980, he failed to win his own parliamentary race.

This creates the need for electoral outcomes to be ascertained beforehand and for necessary adjustments to be made should the outlook be uncertain but it has also created two related phenomena with potentially long-term consequences for Uganda.
The first is that the NRM has built its political dominance through a parasitic, rather than symbiotic, relationship with the State. The process of separating the parasite from the host, when the NRM eventually loses the presidency, will be painful and traumatic for both party and State (and very interesting to observe).

Secondly, because the NRM is fused with the State, political contestation and dissent in Uganda have become almost treasonable. What, in form, looks like a pluralistic contest between political parties is, in substance, a very narrow, high-stakes contest for the recapture of the State by the incumbents, or its promised release by rivals.
Unsurprisingly, what ought to be a political contest turns into a highly militarised confrontation with security agencies, making the military establishment a guarantor, not just of State sovereignty, but also of the political status quo.

Before long it becomes normal for the military, which is both respected and feared, to take on civilian responsibilities, such as treating disease outbreaks, building major infrastructure projects, issuing national IDs and overseeing the planting of crops.
In the short-term, failure to separate the ruling partisan political class from the State creates disincentives for political and electoral reforms, including organising credible elections. In the long run, it leads to State capture by a narrow ruling elite, and the evolution into a police State to control the angry masses.

The most surprising thing about the recent election was not that the two leading opposition presidential candidates were in detention on Election Day and continue to be under preventive arrest at the time of writing – it is that to many Ugandans, this is not surprising at all and was, in fact, to be expected.
The more things have changed since 1980 the more they have remained the same. You need to worry when people find normalcy in the most abnormal circumstances.

Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi. Twitter: @Kalinaki