President Museveni is gambling his presidency on his ability to isolate the monarchists in Buganda Kingdom and make it possible for Baganda to vote for him and the NRM without appearing to betray the Kabaka.
It is a high-risk political gamble, for Buganda has the biggest size of the vote and is the most urbanised region of the country, with young, educated and unemployed people who often tend to vote for the opposition. It is also in a region where Mr Museveni lost over 350,000 votes between the 2001 and 2006 election, and one where several opinion leaders and close associates to the Kabaka are openly – and discreetly – campaigning against the incumbent.
Ssuubi, the pressure group started by former Katikkiro of Buganda Mulwanyamuli Ssemogerere to campaign for Dr Kizza Besigye has struggled to breathe in the oxygen of publicity in mainstream media but officials close to the group say their strategy was to have a low-key campaign that appeals to the hearts of the people of Buganda.
The Ssubi impact
While Ssuubi has gone to great lengths to keep the Kabaka and the monarchy out of its politicking, the unspoken truth is that their views are not very different from those held by very senior kingdom officials. Officials close to the Museveni campaign team say the gamble to isolate Buganda was worth taking and long in the making.
First, they argue, although there is a lot of love for the monarchy in Buganda, the area is not ethnically homogeneous due to the massive immigration into the urban and peri-urban areas of Buganda. NRM officials then began a deliberate strategy to further erode Mengo’s influence by stocking the old rivalry with Bunyoro Kingdom and supporting renegade chiefs in Buganda, such as the Ssabanyala Baker Kimeze’s attempts to carve out a rival power base in Kayunga.
The riots that broke out in September 2009 after government blocked a planned visit by the Kabaka to Kayunga gave it an excuse to shut down the Kingdom’s CBS radio which had been very effective in mobilising against government programmes that Mengo was opposed to, such as the Land Act.
Although CBS radio was reopened at the end of last year – an act that Mr Museveni and the NRM, incredibly but perhaps unsurprisingly seek to gain political advantage from, despite being responsible for its closure in the first place – the radio has been very restrained in its coverage of the election, in a case of self-censorship for self-preservation.
NRM officials believe they can counter the influence of Ssuubi and other Buganda elders by “keeping the head separate from the rest of the body” in the region, in the words of an official on Mr Museveni’s special campaign taskforce in Buganda.
They argue that Buganda does not always vote as a block and that, in reality, there are two Bugandas; “a small minority that owes a lot of political and financial allegiance to the Kabaka”, and that in the “cattle-corridor districts” Nakaseke, Nakasongola, Mubende, Ssembabule, some of which are part of Luweero Triangle where Mr Museveni and the NRA fought most of their five-year Bush War and retain plenty of supporters.
Mr Museveni scored about 60 per cent of the vote in the central region in the last election, winning in all districts except Kampala. In Nakasongola, 89.7 per cent voted for Museveni who also scored more than 70 per cent in Nakaseke, Mubende, Kiboga, Rakai and Ssembabule.
Dr Besigye, by comparison, scored 37 per cent of the vote in central region. Officials in the Museveni campaign team acknowledge that it will be harder to win with such a high margin in Buganda in light of the breakdown in relations between the Kabaka and the President, and the influence, however subdued, of Ssuubi.
However, they say the NRM enjoys support in Buganda beyond that of Mr Museveni and will come in strong in the election. For instance, they point out that out of the 80 Buganda MPs, 72 per are either NRM or leaning towards the ruling party.
NRM has also allocated several top positions in government to Buganda, creating a self-serving network of patronage that influences local politics and voting intentions. Out of the 71 ministers, 18 are from Buganda, including the vice president, the prime minister, the finance minister, and the attorney general and minster of justice. “We have people on the ground who have genuine political support that cannot easily be shifted by a single proclamation from Mengo or from the Kabaka,” a key Museveni campaign agent told this newspaper.
The Museveni campaign, nevertheless, was thrown into panic early in the year when the Kabaka appeared at New Year’s celebrations and brandished a giant key – the campaign symbol for the FDC and Dr Besigye – to symbolically open the New Year.
The Kabaka has used the key symbol in previous celebrations but in the heated campaign period, officials in the Museveni inner circle believed the traditional leader was sending out a thinly veiled message to his subjects to vote for the opposition candidate.
It is this consideration, insiders say, that encouraged the government to rush through the Traditional and Cultural Leader’s Bill (which bars them from partisan politics) in order to ensure that the Kabaka did not wrong foot the President with a dramatic last-minute declaration that could swing voters towards the opposition.
The Bill also served two other uses. First, it forced Buganda MPs to openly choose Mr Museveni and the over Mengo and the Kabaka who had openly but quietly opposed the Bill. With many NRM MPs fighting for their political lives in the campaign, they were forced to choose between disobeying their party – with the risk of expulsion, which would cost them their seats – or betraying the Kabaka. While the latter action could still lose them their seats, it at least ensures that they will throw in their lot with Mr Museveni and the NRM, come-what-may. Finally, the NRM campaign is hoping that after repeatedly whipping Buganda with several sticks, they can still offer some carrots and make a belated peace with Buganda.
Stay of Bill
Like in the rest of the country, Mr Museveni and the NRM have poured money into villages to literally buy support from ordinary folks while reaching out to the Kabaka. When the government brought the Cultural Leader’s Bill to Parliament, Mr Museveni reportedly reached out to the Kabaka, planning to offer a stay of the Bill as an act of good faith and resume dialogue.
State House was also hoping for a photo-op showing the President and the Kabaka shaking hands, a picture that could be worth half a million votes. The Kabaka refused to take the President’s calls. Thus Election Day approaches with both sides not on talking terms but with the possibility of only one winner. Mr Museveni has gambled his presidency on isolating Buganda, and Mengo has gambled its perceived hold on its subjects on defeating Museveni. Whichever way it goes, the repercussions will reverberate long after the election.