One month ago, Busoga sub-region did what had until then been thought to be unthinkable – vote against ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) presidential candidate, Mr Yoweri Museveni.
The region had until January 14 been known to be a stronghold of both Mr Museveni and the NRM. That belief was born out of the fact that it has consistently been voting for Mr Museveni since 1996.
That narrative changed last month when the region voted for musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, who was the presidential candidate of the National Unity Platform (NUP).
Mr Kyagulanyi took the region with 437,059 votes against Mr Museveni’s 404,862. Mr Museveni won in only three out of the region’s 11 districts, taking Buyende, Kaliro and Namutumba, but was handed beatings in Kamuli, Luuka, Bugiri, Iganga, Jinja, Bugweri, Namayingo and Mayuge districts.
The result was unexpected, but why did a region that had always been a pillar of support turn against its darling?
Impact of scientific campaign
State minister for Trade, Mr Fredrick Ngobi Gume, who successfully retained his Bulamogi South West constituency in Kaliro, believes that the outcome could have been precipitated by both the approach that the re-elect Museveni campaign team adopted following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the hostility of the electorate.
On June 16 last year, the Electoral Commission (EC) issued guidelines in which it banned public rallies and processions as part of measures to contain the pandemic. The EC later allowed meetings of not more than 70 people, a number which the Ministry of Health revised to 200 in November for as long as the gathering was to observe standard operating procedures (SOPs) aimed at containing the spread of the pandemic.
Mr Museveni then chose to campaign by holding cluster meetings where NRM leaders and flag bearers from a number of districts would be invited to a central venue where he would address them before urging them to go out and spread a message detailing the achievements and contents of the NRM 2021 manifesto.
“The absence of Mr Museveni’s personal touch was felt. Only he can explain certain things and give the kind of reassurance that people would in most cases want to get,” Mr Gume told Sunday Monitor.
However, the biggest cause of headache around the result from Busoga has been caused by the apparent failure to explain why Mr Museveni lost to Mr Kyagulanyi even in constituencies that were won by NRM parliamentary flag bearers.
For example, whereas Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga retained her Kamuli Woman MP seat, just like minister for the Presidency Esther Mbayo retained her Luuka District Woman seat, Mr Museveni was defeated in the two districts.
Mr Kyagulanyi got 65,315 or 51.52 per cent of the votes cast in Kamuli against Mr Museveni’s 56,912 which represented 39.64 per cent of the votes. In Luuka, Mr Kyagulanyi got 31,614 or 52.2 per cent of the votes, against Mr Museveni’s 27,394 or 45.17 per cent of the total number of votes cast.
Mr Gume, who comes from Kaliro, one of the three districts of Busoga where Mr Museveni won, says most of the flag bearers were cowed by the hostility that would greet them whenever they would make attempts to talk about Mr Museveni’s candidature.
Matters were not helped by the fact that most of the old mobilisers of the NRM have for one reason or another chosen not to campaign for the NRM.
For example, former members of Uganda Senior Mobilisers Association (USEMA), which was founded in the early 2000s under the leadership of Lt Matsiko, opted to quit campaigning for the NRM following disagreement with younger NRM mobilisers over campaign funds and strategy.
Giving his views on the outcome of the polls, Dr Julius Kizza, who teaches Political Science at Makerere University, says the result was not so much about the popularity or issues that Mr Kyagulanyi was raising. The result, he says, was a protest memo that they were sending out to Mr Museveni.
“Urban-based voters who are more politically conscious voted the Opposition. They voted for change. Theirs was a protest vote against the incumbent, not necessarily a block vote for Mr Kyagulanyi,” argues Dr Kizza.
In the case of Busoga, it would appear that the protest and hostility was about the government’s failure to fulfil its many promises which has been construed as ingratitude on the part of Mr Museveni.
The list of unfulfilled promises include tarmacking of the Jinja-Kamuli road via Mbulamuti, tarmacking of the Kamuli-Bukungu road and provision of a ferry on Lake Kyoga.
Other promises which if fulfilled would have helped mitigate youth unemployment and poverty include turning part of the town’s industrial area into an export processing zone; provision of Shs11b for an agricultural zoning programme meant to lead peasant farmers in the region into commercial farming; providing $1.5m for the establishment of a call centre; supporting the Lake Victoria Information Communication Technology and Bio Technology to set up an ICT park and ICT innovation hub and; failure to turn Kiige Citrus Farm into a modern industrial park with a modern fruit processing plant.
Government’s handling of plans around the proposed Jinja - Kampala Expressway has also been a major issue here.
In September 2019, Mr Museveni brought an end to the tendering process saying he was rejecting “the idea of borrowing for the Kampala-Jinja Expressway”.
He directed that the Chinese firm, China Railway 17th Bureau Group Company (CR17th), be invited to discuss with government how it would recoup $1.1b that it intended to sink into work on the road. The firm intended to recover its money by collecting tolls.
That position, though later abandoned, did not sit down well with most of the elite who argued that it was unfair of government to insist on making them pay for using a road when Ugandans in other parts of the country were using roads constructed on borrowed money and due to be paid back by all taxpayers.
Mr Daudi Migereko, who represented Butembe County in Parliament between 1996 and 2016 and was a member of Mr Museveni’s Cabinet for at least 15 years, says poverty – which according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistic (Ubos) stands at 35.7 per cent in Busoga – played a part in the outcome of the elections.
“Poverty, unemployment and failure to secure markets for farmers’ sugarcane yet a majority of farmers had successfully turned to sugarcane growing were major factors. The sugarcane issue compounded the poverty conditions,” Mr Migereko says.
Mr Migereko says the army’s handling of operations intended to curb illegal fishing on the water bodies in Busoga region was a major factor in the election, but that the biggest was what was viewed as failure to address issues around the prices and markets for the sugarcane.
Farmers are stuck with acres of the crop which the existing mills cannot consume due to limited installed crushing capacity. The result has been that the prices of the crop crushed from Shs187,000 per a ton in 2018 to 96,000 per a ton as of this month.
The solution to the problem would have been to set up a sugar mill for the farmers. During an interface with the farmers in 2019, Mr Museveni promised that his government would move in that direction and also pump at least Shs12b into setting up two skilling centres attached to the sugar industry, but like the other promises that had been made before, that too has never been fulfilled.
Can the NRM recover?
Busoga has a long history of being loyal to political organisations and individuals, but the same history proves that it stays the course once it opts to cut ties with such organisations and individuals.
In the 1960s, it was in bed with the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) and its first two legislators, Kyabazinga William Wilberforce Nadiope and Mathias Ngobi were both elected on a UPC ticket.
The relationship between the region and UPC came crushing in February 1966 following Milton Obote’s decision to arrest the five Cabinet ministers, including Ngobi. Nadiope was later arrested and convicted on insurance related fraud.
By 1980 the region was predominantly DP. Though DP MPs including Dr Eriab Muzira, Alex Waibale, John Magezi, John Mpaulo and David Kisadha Nabeta were “convinced” by then secretary general of UPC, John Luwuliza Kirunda, to “cross to the common ruling party”.
Kirunda, who during his tenure as the Obote II minister for Internal Affairs signed hundreds of detention letters which resulted in the incarceration without trial of many people, issued the DP MPs with an ultimatum to either “cross” or end up in Luzira.
It was only the late Prof Yoweri Kyesimira who dared stand up to him, but at a cost. He stayed in Luzira until the Obote II regime fell.
However, the population did not follow the MPs into UPC. The brutal killings of UPC chairpersons in Kaliro and Namutumba following the fall of the Obote II regime is testimony to that.
The question now is whether Mr Museveni and the NRM can recover from last months’ reversals and reclaim lost ground. Mr Migereko is optimistic.
“My conclusion is that these problems are now well known and that solutions are being put in place to address them, but the key will be quick implementation of government programmes, hard work and publicity around the things that are being done,” says Mr Migereko.
“Quick implementation” has never been part of the technocrats’ vocabulary. Will the lashing that Mr Museveni got in Busoga help the political leadership inculcate it in them?