President Museveni was yesterday sworn in for his sixth electoral term in office and eighth overall. The sun reappeared after days of incessant rain warming proceedings; fears of protests or public disorder to protest the swearing-in had, at least early in the day, thankfully not materialised.
To supporters, the theme of the day and possibly of the new term – securing the future – speaks of confident strides forward with purpose, credibility and legitimacy. Critics will look back at the empty promise of kisanja hakuna mchezo (a no-nonsense term in office) declared five years ago with frustration and despair.
In reality, there’s plenty of work to do and it will take more than slogans. At a point where there is less time ahead of the current leadership than behind it, the most difficult choice is deciding where to spend political capital with guaranteed high returns on investment.
Three areas are worth considering. The first, fighting corruption, is probably beyond salvation. Corruption has become entrenched in the regime like a bullet lodged in the spine; keep it there and continue suffering chronic and often debilitating pain, or remove it and suffer potential catastrophe, including multiple organ failure. It long became the way the system works, not the way it fails.
The second, building competence, offers higher rewards and a more realistic chance of at least partial achievement, but it is not something that can be done overnight, is hostage to the corruption above, and requires the breaking of too many eggs to make an omelette. It is easier to boil eggs.
An injection of young, smart technocrats in government could potentially help, but this is chalk to a cheesy system built on the sometimes loyal but often incompetent foundations of patronage and patrimony. Public jobs and key board appointments could go to the best and brightest, but what, then, to do with all the losing ruling party MPs, failed ministers and their ilk? So here even if the spirit was willing, the body is flaccid and weak.
The third area, rebuilding political legitimacy, is both more feasible and offers more sustainable rewards. We could deconstruct the legitimacy deficit by unpacking the conduct of the political campaigns or the lack of transparency in the electoral exercise itself, but let’s use more empirical and less contested data.
In the 10 years since the 2011 election, the number of registered voters has increased by four million to 18 million, but the number of those actually turning out to vote has increased by only half, or two million. In fact, between 2016 and 2021 the number of new voters actually bothering to turn up increased by only 400,000.
This, in all likelihood, reflects a combination of growing apathy about elections and electoral democracy, low civic education, and high voter suppression, including by the use of violence as we saw last November and throughout the campaigns.
In absolute terms it means that while the number of voters throwing their lot for the leading Opposition candidates has risen by just over 1.5million between 2011 and 2021, those voting for the incumbent have only increased by 600,000. In fact between 2016 and this year’s election, President Museveni increased the number of his votes by only 100,000.
In relative terms the incumbent has gone from being voted for by four out of every 10 eligible voters in 2006 to just three in 2021 – and that is before taking into consideration the impact of voter suppression or inflation documented in many areas.
The ruling NRM party’s majority in Parliament, a lot of which is the accumulated proceeds of patronage, crime, corruption and gerrymandering, and the control over the Judiciary by dint of the length of tenure by the appointing authority, would tempt anyone to keep governing for the narrow cadres and supporters of the party.
Mr Museveni’s biggest challenge, therefore, is to reimagine himself as the legally declared leader of all Ugandans, including those who dislike him and did not vote for him.
It requires him to govern, not to rule, and to be empathetic and accommodating, not dismissive and partisan. Done earnestly, it would go much farther in rebuilding legitimacy and even securing the future than any clever slogans.
To whom much is given – be it by the voters or by the Electoral Commission – more is demanded.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.