Most nominations for the 2021 Uganda elections have been done, and we are on the home stretch to the February 18, 2020 vote. It is a difficult time to be a journalist and voter in Uganda.
Consider this. Forgetting the contest for the presidency, which always has relatively few candidates, in the 1996 election there were 276 elected seats in Parliament that were contested by 814 aspirants. I remember at The Monitor then, we decided that over the course of the campaigns, we would cover each constituency race, and mention nearly all the candidates.
We did cover all the constituencies, though not every candidate. By 2001, things had gotten thick. There were now 295 electoral seats, and candidates in the thousands. But the paper’s capacities had bulked up too.
The animated and novel first encounter between President Yoweri Museveni and Kizza Besigye, and the snappy freshness of the Reform Agenda pressure group, the precursor to the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) sucked up a lot of our attention, but we could still do a listing and mention most the constituencies and most candidates and get a passing grade for our civic duty.
For 2021, the thing is up to 353. No one has totted up all the candidates, but a back of the envelope calculation suggests there is an average of 10 per constituency, bringing the number candidates to nearly 3,600. The journalists are now counting sand.
If the Uganda economy expanded as dramatically as its electoral and political markets, we would be an upper-middle income economy. None of this growth, given the historical advantage of incumbency and the ability of the ruling NRM to inject steroids in its votes, will result in a change in who is declared president in February, and which party will hold the majority in Parliament.
Does then the fact that the outcomes have largely already been fixed, mean it is all in vain or the practical benefit of elections are limited? Not all. I have always believed that a rigged, or even shambolic election, is far better than none.
For a president and ruling party to rig an election, is acceptance that it is worth stealing. Furthermore, even a bad election keeps the idea of democracy alive. The thinking around these “elections without change” is now growing in interesting directions. Nic Cheesam, a professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham in the UK, who writes a lot about African politics, in an article in Africa Report titled ‘The remarkable power of African elections’ offered up some interesting thoughts.
In summary, his argument is that even where elections are fiddled, where the same party wins, or votes result in democratic reversals, there is still progress. That is because governments that changa changa elections still want to gain popularity; so, they grant goodies, and will sometimes come through with good policies.
Among other things, he lists free primary education, which has had significant impact. In Uganda, UPE resulted from the 1996 election where Museveni (he says, “If election manipulation was a sport… Museveni would be the Olympic champion) was running as the leader of a one-party State.
At base, however, there has been a change, where politics in Uganda – like in many other places in Africa - is no longer a vocation, but employment, in which the primary purpose is to earn a salary and perks. With expanded education, improved life expectancy, and a relative period of stability, the economy just isn’t growing fast enough to soak all the labour in well-paying formal work. Politics, funded by taxpayers, has become an attractive bet.
It is likely that having as many candidates as the population of a small island nation running for Parliament, to keep to the spirit of Cheesam’s argument, increases the number of platforms politicians run on, and becomes a delivery vehicle. You can’t afford to sit safely even as an NRM, when at the next nomination, you will face 20 Movement rivals, and can only scrape through after shooting half of them.
These crowded candidate fields, may also say something positive that those of us who despise the political games, will find hard to admit. They could well indicate improved access to political office, and an asymmetrical deepening of democracy at the local level.
There is something refreshing in seeing a powerful minister’s child, the head of the local cattle dip, the retired school master, the recently disgraced government official, the incumbent MP’s estranged, wife, and the popular comedian in one of the town’s FM stations, all running for the same seat.
There is hardly a constituency any more in Uganda that has a prince or princess who can’t be challenged. Even the humiliation of having no one queue behind people at an NRM nomination, is no longer a deterrence.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist,
writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3