Inside the mind of President Museveni
Posted Tuesday, February 8 2011 at 00:00
He can be described as a strange blend of revolutionary, shrewd general, political thug and pan-African visionary. Charles Onyango Obbo gives us an analysis of Mr Museveni.
Uganda goes to the polls on February 18. The joke in the street is that you know that an election is around the corner when the sales of helmets, bulletproof vests, pain killers and liniment skyrocket. The reason for that is that candidates running against President Yoweri Museveni need to prepare themselves to be beaten, shot, and arrested. A common feature of Uganda elections used to be the high profile of a state-funded militia called the Kalangala Action Plan (KAP).
Led by Kakooza Mutale, a portly semi-retired major general who is also a presidential adviser, KAP would pitch up in town in a yellow bus (the colour of the ruling National Resistance Movement) ahead of Museveni’s arrival to campaign in an area. Maj-Gen Mutale would then lead a marching band through the area as an opening ceremony to their operations.
Later, having sniffed out opposition strongholds and meeting plans, KAP militants would arm themselves with sticks and metal bars, and beat up the opposition. If anything speaks to the extreme schizophrenia of the Uganda state, this is as good as any: One part of it is nearly-modern and progressive, another is a bandit regime; the state has its democratic aspects, but at election times its reflex has been to morph into a police state. However, very many things about this coming election that don’t fit the form have caught the media, the opposition, and commentators by surprise.
To begin with, Museveni’s former comrade but now his principal rival, Col Kizza Besigye, who faced off with the president in 2001 and 2006 — and was ruled by the courts to have been cheated on both occasions — has not yet (except from one incident at the start of the campaigns early last October when government officials blocking him from being interviewed on private FM stations upcountry) been whipped, or arrested. In 2006, he spent a few weeks of the campaign in prison on trumped-up charges of rape. It was a bizarre case, because the woman he allegedly raped was his previous househelp, who had taken up residence in State House for over a year being groomed for the case!
The trial was a farce, and all but collapsed when that detail, emerged; that Museveni, the man who was fighting with Besigye for the presidency, had been harbouring his accuser. He was acquitted. The fact that Team Museveni has not yet unleashed the dogs, has left some opposition elements on the back foot.
The opposition parties, which could only operate legally after the return to multiparty politics in 2005, continued to face disruption and banning of their rallies and to have their seminars broken up, even after they were freed.
However, the persecution they faced, partly because it made for great TV, press photographs and stories, gave their cause national and international exposure, and they became heroes and martyrs.
In that situation, the opposition did not need to have well-oiled campaign machines and deep pockets. The attacks on them by KAP and other security forces, gave them the kind of media play that no amount of money could buy.
Many opposition MPs say now that they are unusually free to campaign wherever they like, and are not being chased around by state militias. Because of that, they are not getting any media and don’t have the money to mount proper campaigns against Museveni and his party’s candidates for parliament.
Museveni has moved the game to a ground where his advantage is massive.
Said one observer: “The opposition was ready for Museveni the political thug, which is the position from which he has won all previous elections. Instead, he has come out with a velvet glove.” But a velvet glove itself would not be enough. This election is, by far, the most expensive in Uganda’s history.
Halfway through the financial year, Finance Minister Syda Bbumba has confirmed to parliament that the government is all but broke. The situation is so dire, parliament voted a whopping supplementary budget of Ush600 billion ($250 million). The opposition alleges that most of the budget has been diverted into the NRM and president’s campaigns.
In any event, even President Museveni’s most diligent aides must have lost count of the number of times he has handed out brown envelopes stuffed with Uganda shillings to people on the roadside at various places on his campaign trail in the past few months.
There is colourful talk about how wherever the president has been in the past few months, he has been followed around with a car carrying a “sack filled with money” for him to hand out to the proletariat. According to the Democratic Party presidential candidate Mao Norbert; “Uganda will have no economy at least for two years after this election”.
At any cost
Zie Gariyo, an independent researcher and specialist on poverty issues, summed it up aptly, “In the past, Museveni won by any means. This time, he has decided to win at any cost.” In any event, it has left an interesting contradiction. Though it is Uganda’s most expensive election, it is its most boring ever. Newspapers have not seen anywhere near the spike of circulation that elections brought in the past. There are those who think the lack of excitement is a bad sign, the calm before the storm.
According to this view, because Ugandans don’t expect that Museveni will allow a free election (he refused to reform the electoral commission, and very many Ugandans have to vote without voter cards), many don’t have faith in the process, and believe that the same method that brought Museveni to power — an armed rebellion — is the only way to deal with him. However, analysts who are sceptical of this doomsday scenario argue that all the signs are that the country, which lived with varying levels of war from 1972 to 2006 — a good 34 years — is fatigued and will not support another rebellion. What is true though, if voter turnout is anything to go by, is that Ugandans’ faith in elections is diminishing. In the famously controversial election of 1980, turnout was 80 per cent. In the 1996 presidential election, it was 73 per cent.
In the 2005 referendum that voted to return the country to multiparty politics, but also scrapped presidential term limits, it was a miserable 51.1 per cent. The 2001 election was dramatic and exciting, because that was when Museveni and Besigye first battled it out. It was the first real challenge to Museveni. Still, voter turnout was down on 1996 at 70.3 per cent. The two men locked horns again in 2006, but still the numbers slipped, though marginally, to 69.2 per cent.