Why Opposition might have handed win to Museveni

What you need to know:

2016 outlook. With three-time presidential candidate Kizza Besigye indicating he may not stand come 2016. Uganda Federal Alliance president Beti Kamya already doing her homework in Kampala to reclaim her Rubaga North seat and DP president Norbert Mao rumoured to have refocused his eye from State House to Parliament, a cloud of apathy hovers over the opposition, writes Ivan Okuda

President Museveni this week marked 29 years in power. A month away from the 2016 general election, he will have tossed to 30 years as Uganda’s eighth president since independence in 1962. The writing on the political wall indicates that he might scoop another term in office, securing him a comfortable seat at the table of the world’s longest rulers.

Elections in a Hybrid Regime: Revisiting the 2011 Ugandan Polls, a book launched recently by a collection of authors led by Makerere University political science Professor Sabiti Makara suggests it is almost impossible to beat Museveni in an election.

Prof Makara writes, “Elections still have little chance of changing the regime or the presidency in Uganda. This will only happen when ground for competition has been levelled.”

He adds, “Genuine, rule-bound competitive politics that produces respectable and acceptable results is still a pipe dream in Uganda. Greed for power and the unwarranted desire for incumbents to stay at the helm indefinitely rarely give rise to full democratic processes.”

Such a regime, he says, “is prone to breaking rules for the sake of retaining power, as such elections are held more for the sake of regime legitimisation than for enlisting popular consent of the governed.”

Makara’s findings in the 495-page book are not stop-press news. If anything, his viewpoint only lends credence to an increasingly growing citizen apathy evidenced by a decreasing voter turnout since the 1996 presidential election. More than ever before, Ugandans seem to have lost confidence in their power to cause regime change at the polling station by the stroke of a pen.

Three-time presidential candidate Kizza Besigye has indicated in cryptic language he may not stand come 2016. Uganda Federal Alliance president Beti Kamya, who stood in 2011, is already doing her homework in Kampala to reclaim her Rubaga North constituency seat and Democratic Party president Norbert Mao who threw his hat in the ring in the last contest, is rumoured to have refocused his eye from State House to Parliament.

Former prime minister Amama Mbabazi, who had tickled some excitement and started to emerge as the man who will turn tables from inside seems to have returned to his political arithmetic table. Clearly, a cloud of apathy hovers over the Opposition and their potential for that matter.

And yet that is not to say President Museveni’s popularity ratings are the rosiest. Arguably, a sizeable fraction of Ugandans desire a change of guard at Nakasero and Entebbe State lodges and yet, intriguingly, elections, the only legitimate tool they have, seems malfunctioned.

This is the point Prof Makara makes in chapter four of the book, that elections have a distant chance to cause regime change as and when you have 70-year-old Museveni on the ballot paper.

The NRM structure, Makara observes, “impedes participation of the Opposition, security forces and the existing laws don’t restrain the incumbent from using State resources to his advantage. You have a civil service from parish to national level working and campaigning for Museveni, you saw Resident District Commissioners vetting people going to Namboole for the NRM delegates conference.”

The political scientist opines that the operating environment of private media has since become harsher with self-censorship at its peak and State media giving Museveni extensive coverage and heroic portrayal. Even then, he says, “The NRM ideology criminalises Opposition; they are seen as saboteurs and against progressive change. The reason civil servants are taken to Kyankwanzi for indoctrination.”

Museveni’s incumbency edge
The book also explores the reality of incumbency. For instance, Mr William Muhumuza writes that the National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads), and other programmes marketed as intended to solve the poverty puzzle such as savings, credit and cooperative societies (Saccos), are all but a scheme by Museveni to propagate his own survival in power.

Naads, conceived in 2001 as part of efforts to modernise agriculture received $107.92m in its first phase (2001-2009) and $665.5m in the second (2010-2015).

“Despite this funding, the programme was bedevilled by corruption, inefficiency and ineffectiveness, the NRM government seized this opportunity to politically manipulate the programme,” Prof Muhumuza writes.

In October 2007, the programme was subjected to Cabinet review before it resumed in April 2008, and was restructured essentially driven by political calculations.

“Naads was to be used as a patronage instrument of the ruling NRM with the hidden agenda being to consolidate and win support. There was NRM chairperson and GISO on the Naads committee meant to further the interests of the ruling party as far as selection of beneficiaries was concerned,” he reveals.

This is the same effect of Saccos. Away from semantics, it’s a replication of Entadikwa (start-up fund) which crumbled on its own weight.

“When Museveni was preparing to contest for the first competitive presidential election in 1996, due to public outcry about biting poverty, he promised to initiate a start-up fund,” the scholar writes.

Museveni has also maximised his incumbency to settle debts accrued from pledges whose fulfilment comes to tilt the electoral scale to his favour. Between July and October 2010, the President was reported to have spent Shs741m in cash and Shs4.3b in pledges while touring the country, purportedly to educate people on how to increase household incomes.

On the other hand, Opposition parties are left at the mercy of donor groups in a country where party members do not pay membership fees to their parties and crowd sourcing funds for candidates remains far from achievable.

Forum for Democratic Change secretary general Alice Alaso agrees with Makara. She says, “I think Professor is right to a greater extent because if there are no reforms and with this unfair atmosphere, it is a contest between Opposition and the State, not just Museveni as a person.”

The Serere Woman MP hastens to add, “But we don’t want to give in to the idea of a boycott, we shall continue to push for electoral reforms so that by election time we have a fair atmosphere.”

Ms Jacqueline Asiimwe Mugarura, a lawyer and civil society activist campaigning for electoral reforms, looks at the fusion of the State and the President as part of a larger dynamic of African politics.

She says, “Incumbency in Africa is hard to beat, especially where we have a fusion of State and the president, as well as skewed election rules (both formal and informal), and no guarantees such as term limits - to make the ground level.”

“Comes the control of coercive instruments, in the form of arms and security forces, as well as unlimited access to state coffers. Sometimes I think we are asking a bit too much from the Opposition, given the ground is so tilted in favour of the incumbent. It is a miracle to expect the Opposition to win in such circumstances.”

It is still possible
Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago says, “If forces of democracy rallied behind one candidate it becomes like a referendum on Museveni, we should go the Kenya or even Sri Lanka way. There we can beat him. Museveni can still be beaten especially now that his party is weaker. We have people in NRM who work with us to undermine Richard Todwong and Kasule Lumumba.”

The only challenge, Lukwago says, “Is that parties like DP are still reluctant to enter a coalition because of the bad history of the UPC-KY alliance.”
But Makara pours cold water on the joint Opposition candidate idea.

He says, “That is a good idea but those people cannot have a joint candidate because they are greedy and have no common goal. Even so, the current legal and institutional framework is not changed to make the field levelled, it won’t yield much.”

With a well-constructed grassroots network of more than two million local party cadres, a rubber stamp Parliament far from passing reforms, and struggling Judiciary, let alone apathetic citizenry, electing Museveni out of office remains a dream but politics and the fate of politicians is a mystery only time can demystify. Anything can happen.

Ugandans not desperate for change?

“I think Ugandans need to appreciate that they are stakeholders in this exercise, they should not leave it to political parties. In Kenya, politics is a matter of strong private sector and civil society, in Uganda the narrative is about political actors,” MP Alice Alaso says.

Tororo County MP Sanjay Tanna says, “Museveni has been campaigning all through, he takes his politics seriously. He starts traversing the country after swearing in, politics is like a garden, you abandon it, weeds grow and eat up the crop. Museveni has been weeding his garden while our colleagues in Opposition have only started tending to the garden now, but the weeds have over grown.”

Senior lawyer Edgar Muvunyi Tabaro seems to read from the same page with Mr Tanna, “Mr Museveni is fully devoted to his cause and interacts more regularly than any other
politician with the critical mass that either votes or delivers the vote,”
“Secondly, Museveni, more than any politician, can ensure that one’s means of livelihood can improve with his direct intervention. Reason we see mobile vaults with the President presiding over cash hand-outs. This may not necessarily seat well with the elitist populace but is a vote winner for the masses.”

The Opposition’s attitude is defeatist, he says, “Benin, Congo, Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, Mali, Ghana, Senegal, Burundi have had the opposition unseat deeply rooted incumbents with similar arguments obtaining!”

Uninspiring opposition?
Sarah Kagingo campaigned for Museveni in the 1996 then as a Makerere University student and has since remained a Museveni diehard.

She says, “His method of work is winning over not belligerence, he reaches out to those opposed to him and creates convergence of views. Other than the campaign to uproot the incumbent for reasons they do not satisfactorily explain, the Opposition provides no alternative policy or programmes. For majority of Ugandans, therefore, better the leader you know than the angel you don’t.”

Nicholas De Torrente, a contributing author in the book argues that the Opposition could be misreading public sentiment about governance and public services.

“While the Opposition consistently decried the erosion of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Uganda, making it a cornerstone issue in their campaign message, would-be voters largely had a different view,” he says.

The Opposition therefore, remains uninspiring and has failed to craft a message that could change their fortunes.

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