The Resistance Council elections in February 1989 were conducted by lining up. Candidates stood next to each other at the end of the queue and voters lined up behind them. In some cases, the returning officer would have to come down the line while loudly counting, but only for closely-fought races.
Often the verdict was brutally transparent; you looked behind and knew instantly whether you had to suspend all financial support to the clan. Sometimes flaky voters shifted to join the longer queue, making it even more certain of victory.
These bros weren’t loyal – even if you’d just spent your bread on them – but they knew all about self-interest. The elected RCs had wide-ranging powers. They could allocate scarce groceries like sugar, adjudicate disputes and sign off on important stuff like passport application and land transfer forms.
Whatever love Voter X had for Candidate Y, it made no sense to stick with them and risk years of painfully slow bureaucracy or unfair judgments in village disputes if it was clear Candidate Z was going to win. Better to sin by jumping queues and seek forgiveness later, than to be sinned against for years to come.
It was pragmatism over principles, self interest over ideology.
At its meeting in Kampala last week, the NRM’s National Executive Committee resolved to conduct its party primaries later this year using the same method applied 30 years ago.
The decision was arrived at after the frustration of flawed previous internal elections where, in many cases, the rigging was orchestrated by the party’s deep state to punish unwanted candidates and favour others.
But could the move signal, even sub-consciously, the end of a decades-long pantomime of political theatre in which a dictatorial dragon struts around a stage like a democratic sheep – with the wool over the voter’s eyes?
The NRM’s attitude towards democracy has always been neither of belief or conviction but of insincere pragmatism.
Whether it was loading the dice in the composition of the NRC or stacking the deck in all the elections that followed, democracy was a walking stick to be used when needed by the military government, not a central pillar to hold up strong institutions.
Two major concessions – the writing of a new Constitution and the return of multiparty politics – were conducted amid much screaming and gnashing of teeth and promptly followed by sustained and deliberate sabotage efforts. First was the attempt to force all Ugandans to belong to the ‘Movement System’, another wolf in sheepskin.
When that failed under intense international pressure and local legislative resistance, the opening up of the political space was conducted with the same enthusiasm as the Pharaoh towards the Israelites: Let them go!
Not surprisingly, the decade-and-a-half that followed has been filled with the dust of the Pharaoh’s chariots chasing the Israelites through the desert. Political opponents and their supporters have been threatened, arrested, assaulted and in some cases killed.
These off-balance-sheet actions have been matched, in tandem, by brazen attempts to undermine constitutional rights. After courts ruled against illegal restrictions on political activity, the same restrictions were brought back to life through the Public Order Management Act and its flawed implementation by a ruthless and partisan police force.
Thus, while the NRM was free to hold its meeting at Namboole stadium last week, similar attempts by the FDC opposition party to meet at the same venue in early November were violently broken up. No prominent NRM member has publicly spoken out against these obvious double standards, and few would dare. Self-interest over ideology.
When the incumbent released a remixed folklore song around the 2011 election it was widely acknowledged, even by opponents, as clever politicking that resonated with younger voters. But when a full-time musician joined Parliament then spoke about running for President, his concerts were banned under the newfound premise that it is not good to mix music with politics. Pragmatism over principles.
These restrictions are increasingly being clothed in the threadbare fabric of flawed legalistic argument, and baked into the sticky pies of constitutional interpretation. A leaked legal opinion from the Attorney General’s office cited circumstances under which political activity could be restricted but made no reference to the constitutional safeguard that such restrictions must be demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society.
Next year’s election will be the sixth under the 1995 Constitution and the fourth since the return to multiparty politics. Yet, with the passage of time, both landmarks now seem like false dawns. In that case voting by lining up is a throwback to 1989, when wolves were still learning how to dress up like sheep.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter. firstname.lastname@example.org.