What was supposed to be Mr Yoweri Museveni’s victory speech on January 16, hours after being declared by Justice Simon Byabakama’s Electoral Commission as winner of the 2021 presidential polls, turned into tongue-lashing.
Mr Museveni lashed out at foreigners, whom he has accused over the last months of propping up the Opposition, as shallow and unserious. The President also attacked MPs, whose endless demand for raise in wages, he said he won’t tolerate. He also took a swipe at a neighbouring state, which he said tried to meddle in the elections.
The President also criticised his closest challenger, Mr Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, whose home had already been besieged by the military and whose overwhelming victory in Buganda he lampooned as sectarian.
He hinted on dispensing an olive-branch as long as, “it is peaceful and meaningful.” Notwithstanding this, the President usually says he is open to dialogue whenever he finds himself in a spot of bother.
A week after the elections (last Thursday), the President embarked on a victory drive from western Uganda, through rural Buganda en route to Kampala but the reception on the way was lukewarm.
In one photo taken on Entebbe Road, the President’s convoy was seen driving leisurely past a group of people but none seemed concerned. City Square, his last stop, there was a gathering—ostensibly an organised one—that put up a choreographed show, climaxing the President’s supposed ‘triumphant’ return. But to many, this was a costly victory.
The week earlier, the President and his ruling NRM had performed dismally in the election in which more than a dozen party top shots from Buganda, including Vice President Edward Ssekandi and several Cabinet ministers, were trounced as they sought re-election to Parliament.
This performance in Buganda, according to some observers, is largely a culmination of an alliance that gradually frayed at the edges after government took its foot off the service delivery gas pedal and used radical means to confront growing resentment among youth, leaving the red beret (a symbol of People Power movement that eventually turned into the National Unity Platform-NUP) to sweep away the last yellow flag (NRM colour) posts precariously hanging across the sub-region.
Amid rising youth unemployment, grand scale corruption, rampant nepotism and patronage, and most recently the arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings, the voting pattern in Buganda was an outright repudiation of the ruling party.
This, Mr Godfrey Kiwanda, the NRM vice-chairperson for Buganda, admits: “If you address people’s concerns, improve service delivery, they stand with you.”
Earlier in January last year, the President, perhaps aware that there was a growing groundswell of resentment in Buganda, commenced a six-day 195 km trek in Luweero, a march, which was meant to rekindle his interest in a sub-region that warmly embraced him when he embarked on the Bush War. But this was perhaps a little too late.
Mr Museveni polled 5.8 million votes of the 9.9 million votes cast while his main challenger polled 3.4 million votes. The Electoral Commission’s official data shows NRM received a paltry 35 per cent in the central region while Mr Kyagulanyi’s NUP cruised with 62.01 per cent.
Both Mr Museveni and some election losers have attributed this turn of events to voting along tribal lines. In a story aired on NTV Uganda last week, Agriculture minister Vincent Ssempijja, who was voted out in Kalungu East, further blamed the Catholic Church.
The minister for the Presidency, Ms Esther Mbayo, at the weekend also pointed a finger at the Catholic Church and the Buganda Kingdom prime minister Charles Peter Mayiga of having influenced the electorate to reject NRM.
Mr Mayiga, in a rejoinder, described the claims as “cheap talk” that the country needs to steer away from. Mr Kyagulanyi, a Muganda, was overwhelmingly voted in the central region.
Politics of ethnicity?
FDC spokesperson and Kira Municipality MP Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, says tribal accusations are “misplaced.”
“I am surprised that both Museveni and the media have bought into that line. Buganda is the most cosmopolitan region in this country, so the people who voted against Museveni and NRM were not only Baganda,” Mr Ssemujju argues. “Museveni just failed to find reasons to justify why they performed badly; Kampala, Wakiso and Mukono have many constituencies, except that Baganda are the dominant group and perhaps easy to blame,” he adds.
Since the 1996 elections, the first election under the NRM regime and barely after the 1995 Constitution was ushered in, Mr Ssemujju says Mr Museveni had never lost in the central region. “So I don’t understand why their loss is a big story. Maybe he was taking Buganda and Busoga for granted, so they voted the way they voted,” he says.
In the first 1996 election, Mr Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, a Muganda, of the Democratic Party and flag-bearer of the Inter Party Cooperation (IPC)—a loose coalition of the opposition at the time, which also had the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), was overwhelmingly voted in the north than in his home turf in the central after the regime claimed that he was planning to allow Milton Obote’s return from exile if he was elected.
During the campaigns, skulls of the Luweero bush struggle were put on display and advertised in newspapers to evoke the bitter memories of the UPC regime that fell out with Buganda in the early 1960s.
In the subsequent 2001 elections, a duel between President Museveni and Dr Kizza Besigye who had fallen out with the system two years earlier, NRM still won in central region districts, while the northern and West Nile, which were partially at war, voted for the Opposition.
In the 2006 and 2011 elections, FDC’s Besigye who came second in the official results declared, the Opposition then made some inroads in Buganda but won only one district - Kampala - and in 2016 elections added on Wakiso with 59 per cent and Masaka with 50.97 per cent.
Also, for long spells, the NRM projected Buganda as a major ally largely after its monarch under Kabaka Muwenda Mutebi was restored in 1993, after the region provided ground to Mr Museveni, then a run-of-the-mill politician, and his National Resistance Army rebels fighting the Obote II regime back in the 1980s.
To further placate Buganda, the regime offered coveted positions to Buganda—from ministerial appointments—to prime ministers Kintu Musoke and Apollo Nsibambi— and vice presidents Samson Kisekka, Gilbert Bukenya and Edward Ssekandi. The monarch and the central government routinely feuded over a number of issues, including federo, the land question, power and privilege, the return of Ebyaffe—property that was taken by the Obote government in 1966.
Mr Kiwanda offers a measured riposte and discounts tribal politics as a factor in his party’s loss in the region, saying the odds were stacked against them.
“There are issues to do with insecurity; if you compare today to 1996, Dr Ssemwogerere won in the northern region, which was at war, while we won here, so our loss was a message. There are the effects of Covid; remember most of central is heavily urbanised and with most businesses closed, people here suffered more than elsewhere,” he says.
He adds: “What brings to the fore the statements of tribalism and religion is because of the pronunciations that have been made by some leaders, which we all need to desist from because it doesn’t help the country.”
Even after the deadly September 2009 protests that broke out after government blocked Kabaka Mutebi from travelling to Kayunga District, northeast of the capital, citing fears of violence in the area claimed by a breakaway faction, the Banyala, and later the burning of the Kasubi tombs in 2010, a key Buganda Kingdom heritage site, NRM remained quite popular in Buganda.
The 2009 riots shook the Museveni government but not to the core. For Mr Museveni, his government has since not antagonised the kingdom again but learnt to deal with any uprisings with an iron-fist.
When Mr Kyagulanyi announced his presidential bid in mid-2019, the President’s surrogates initially wrote him off as an embodiment of Buganda ethno-nationalism. Throughout the campaigns, the regime accused Mr Kyagulanyi’s National Unity Platform of stocking “sectarianism.” While campaigning in Hoima, the President said he would crash Mr Kyagulanyi’s group and soon it would be no more.
Mr Ssemujju argues: “Even in America, people vote depending on interest and the threats they face; the whites, African-Americans and Latinos all vote differently. Ankole has been voting Museveni; why is that not tribalism?”
Political analyst and researcher Timothy Kalyegira says there is nothing peculiar with how Buganda voted.
“This election only showed us the other ugly side of us, the voting by regionalisation. Kyagulanyi is to Buganda what Museveni is to the West, so what’s the big deal? Rukungiri that previously voted for Besigye this time around voted for Museveni, so the vote still went back to the western,” he says.
Mr Kalyegira adds that also for long, Buganda has been hurting, especially since 2009.
“That vote was a show of that pent-up anger; that the romance between Buganda and western Uganda forged in the Bush War has since reached its disillusionment; NUP is just a climax,” he says. “Buganda is bleeding land, especially towards the north, all reportedly owned by top shots in government, the youth have no jobs and yet they see the economy booming in their front yard; basically all the deep resentment in the country is much more felt here.”
This, Mr Kalyegira, says is, “something ideological and not ethnic; the same feeling of resentment is starting to emerge, especially in Bunyoro andsomewhat in the north, where land wrangles are common lately.”
The rejection of the NRM, he says, also explains the fall of more than a dozen ministers in Buganda as a result of the party’s arrogance.
“Fifty-four people are killed and all you hear is ‘we will crash you;’ not even ‘a sorry’ or an emotion of contrition. But you keep showing images of Uganda Airlines, the dams and roads, that you are securing their future; these are human beings and they have feelings,” Mr Kalyegira says.
Last November, military personnel killed at least 54 people, injured dozens, while hundreds were arrested and are yet to be tried in courts of law, during protests that broke out following the arrest of Mr Kyagulanyi in Luuka District for allegedly flouting Covid-19 regulations.
Kabaka Mutebi, in an address last month, weighed in on the matter and called for an independent inquiry.
Since Mr Kyagulanyi’s ascent on the political scene, he has been met with violence at every turn, resulting in many needless deaths and injuries. The violence in the last two months of political campaigns were some of the worst the country has ever seen, with the police, the army and other security outfits acting out-rightly partisan.
NRM’s loss and Mr Museveni’s waning star power in Buganda can be easily discounted. However, history shows that whenever the two sides pulled in different directions, it never ended well for one of the sides.
With the Opposition now mutual, how will President Museveni respond? Will he alienate the region or seek dialogue with it?
Political researcher Frederick Kiseka Ntale says there is no doubt as “the Buganda question is an old one and one the President is concerned about.”
“The considerations are that first Buganda has been his long-time ally pre and post [Bush War] rebellion, and secondly, the sub-region is a key constituency,” Dr Ntale opines. “Previously the north resented him but he has since courted them with the peace and infrastructure; if Buganda voted that way, what message were they sending?” he wonders. Dr Ntale, however, says this should create an opportunity for a national dialogue “one that merits big debate not retaliation as there could be some issues troubling Buganda; retaliation would be costly.”
“What I know about the President is he believes in thought and strategy, and it will give him food for thought in hindsight of deep reflection on history and revolution,” he explains.
History has chronicled bitter fallouts between Buganda and the previous governments, which propelled the country into turmoil.
As he seeks to extend his rule for nearly four decades, President Museveni, who has defied many odds stacked against him, will need to discard political expediency and tokenism to rely on pragmatic solutions such as improved service delivery to repair his relationship with Buganda.
Experts speak out
Tim Kalyegira, analyst. “That vote was a show of that pent-up anger; that the romance between Buganda and western Uganda forged in the Bush War has since reached its disillusionment; NUP is just a climax. Buganda is bleeding land, especially towards the north, all reportedly owned by top shots in government, the youth have no jobs and yet they see the economy booming in their front yard; basically all the deep resentment in the country is much more felt here.”
Frederick Kiseka Ntale, researcher. “Previously the north resented him but he has since courted them with the peace and infrastructure; if Buganda voted that way, what message were they sending? This should create an opportunity for a national dialogue “one that merits big debate not retaliation as there could be some issues troubling Buganda; retaliation would be costly.”
Godfrey Kiwanda, NRM vice-chairperson for Buganda: “There are issues to do with insecurity; if you compare today to 1996, Dr Ssemogerere won in the northern region, which was at war, while we won here, so our loss was a message. There are the effects of Covid; remember most of central is heavily urbanised and with most businesses closed, people here suffered more than elsewhere,” .
Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, FDC spokesman. “I am surprised that both Museveni and the media have bought into that line (secterianism). Buganda is the most cosmopolitan region in this country, so the people who voted against Museveni and NRM were not only Baganda. Museveni just failed to find reasons to justify why they performed badly; Kampala, Wakiso and Mukono have many constituencies, except that Baganda are the dominant group and perhaps easy to blame.”