Forgotten voters and the empty promise of our political equation

Author: Daniel K Kalinaki. PHOTO/FILE. 

My ancestral village, Buyende, is 154 kilometres from the Main Post Office in Kampala. You can breakfast in the capital, lunch in the sticks, and return just in time for high tea. But doing so would require time travel into a previous century.

 I know the place well, from many long school holidays. The land is fertile, and the wider area is generously endowed. Toyota Stout pick-up trucks thundered down the road from Lake Kyoga, hurrying fresh fish cargo to processing plants in Jinja before it went off. 

 They sped past thick natural forests teeming with hardwood Mvule (Milicia excelsa), Musita (Albizia lebbeck) and Msizi (Maesopsis eminii) trees, past clearings in the forests where fruit trees surrounded simple mud-and-wattle homesteads, and through ridges where money grew on cotton and coffee bushes.

 Wealthier residents kept herds of indigenous cattle whose lazy feeding sessions in the verdant stretches of the savannah, which competed for space with the forests, were bookended by majestic dust-raising treks to and from the watering holes in the valleys.

At peak we had a couple-hundred, but the Dhamuzungus down the valley in the Bacwezi compound were believed to have several hundred more. 

 No one knew for sure. It was bad manners to count cattle. In any case, the frenzied chanting and drumming that could be heard from the compound on many nights was enough to dissuade us from any exploratory expeditions, even in daytime.

 It wasn’t happy valley. It wasn’t a rich place. But it was a place where no one slept hungry. It was a place with potential. So, why are we reminiscing about small villages in the heart of nowhere? There are two reasons.

 The first is that Buyende is one of many villages, places and spaces in Uganda that have stagnated, gone backwards or simply failed to fulfil their potential, despite four decades of half-hearted effort.

 The second is that the question of political succession appears to be underway in a manner that suggests it will be fought over who replaces Museveni, rather than over what replaces the super-powerful but ineffectual imperial presidency that has emerged from almost two generations of political “reform”.

 In seeking to influence the latter, we must hold at the centre the lived reality of places like Buyende where the outcomes of political choices are clear to see. Many of the key negative social-economic outcomes in such places emerge from wrong inputs at the macro policy level, both in design and execution. 

 The destruction of farmer’s cooperative societies, for instance, decimated rural economies. Smallholder farmers used to receiving inputs and being assured of a ready off-take market were left high and dry, and without help to nudge them into alternative agro enterprises. This cut them off from the money economy just when new cost-sharing initiatives in the education and health sectors required them to have access to cash. 

 Unsurprisingly, subsequent government programmes like NAADS, which sought to use public money to pay for private agricultural extension expertise, or Operation Wealth Creation, which seeks to promote agro enterprise, forget to mention that many rural farmers were already doing commercial agriculture before, thank you very much. 

 Another flawed premise emerged in the post-war political economy equation: voting for the ruling party and its candidates was a condition precedent for receiving services and development spending.

 In March 2018, the President attended a thanksgiving event for the District Woman MP Buyende and thanked the locals for always voting for him and ruling party MPs. He handed out some cash and made some of the usual promises; tarmac road, milk coolers et cetera. Similar promises would be made ahead of the 2021 election, and will, indeed, be repeated for 2026.

 If voting for the incumbent is a ticket to “development”, the good people of Buyende have done their part. In 1996 Candidate Museveni got 95 percent of the presidential vote cast in the counties that were then part of Kamuli District. In the next three elections he received 89 percent (2001), 86.5 percent (2006) and 89.5 percent (2011). In 2016 it was a robust 83 percent, before dropping to 59.3 percent in 2021.

 With this level of support, the district would expect to receive a solid return on political investment, right? Well, as we shall see next week, the facts tell a different story. 

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter. 

Twitter: @Kalinaki