What you need to know:
- There is need for bottom-up discussions on how the country should be governed ahead of 2026 polls.
As the inevitable 2026 elections or an earlier unscheduled change in leadership draw near, debate about the transition from the current regime to the next is becoming more frequent without becoming more enlightening. Because the incumbent president personifies, embodies, drives and is the regime, the country has been dragged into the mind-numbing household politics of the Museveni clan.
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Part of the transition to a new dispensation is finding effective means of holding the discussion itself. Fortunately, there is progress in the mode of public debate if not quite yet in the transition itself. A new Twitter Space titled, “The Future of Uganda’s Succession Politics” hosted Mr Robert Kabushenga on March 2 introduced a development in the discussion of the succession. Until recently the options have been television and radio, long dominated by the same predictable line-ups trotting out their entrenched positions. Listeners are taken for granted as studios vie with one another to sign up the loudest, most controversial, obtuse, and offensive personalities.
The fact that the youngest adults, who form the vast majority of present and future voters, were not greatly represented among speakers and contributors to the Space is telling. If they were excluded, it was not by any administrative barriers, the Space is an open forum in which anyone can participate. It is also true that the platform itself is exclusive in that it requires technology not universally accessible.
The language of communication too can operate as a soft barrier to political debate. In the hours leading up to the discussion, there were several online appeals to the host about the language of communication, English, or “too much English” as complexity is called. A key question in the discussion was how those excluded by the language and political literacy barriers can participate. Readers will recall that the mean years of schooling of Ugandans is 6.7 years.
However, the discussion took place and the aspirations of the youth and general population received some attention. Listeners were taken through the machinations of Uganda’s deep state, the nepotistic centres of power underpinned by ownership of the means of coercion. Then the discussion moved on to the more important topic: the goals of the transition.
It quickly became apparent that ordinary people are now looking beyond political personalities to what those personalities have to offer the country. The top-down model in which candidates for the presidency present programmes to the voting public was roundly criticised as being unhelpful. A number of contributors insisted they were looking beyond contenders for the presidency, to specific economic and service delivery outcomes they would like to see, regardless of who offers them. The first speaker, lawyer, Mr. Daudi Mpanga said none of the leading contenders has articulated the aspirations of the people. D. Kalinaki added that the NUP manifesto “said all the right things” but that it was itself part of the top-down political process to which grassroot citizens may not have had an input and with which, he believes, few could identify.
It is interesting that activists and their leaders are expected to perform optimally in the most unusual circumstances. The drafting of the NUP manifesto took place against a background of unprecedented State harassment and brutality, drawing from findings of previous grassroots data collection exercises (e.g. the Women’s and Youth Manifestos). From February 2020 onwards, whenever the National Unity Platform candidate attempted to carry out his year-long consultation tour, as provided by the law, he met with opposition from the police and military. Consultation was effectively banned.
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Although the electoral commission had asked candidates to avoid physical contact by using printed material, billboards and banners; radio and television announcements and talk shows and digital means, these too were made inaccessible to the NUP and FDC candidates. One after the other, radio stations cancelled the NUP President’s appearances as he arrived. The inevitable arrests followed. Posters and banners were torn down, and the party’s social media was hacked a number of times.
After a period of uncertainty, on October 22, 2020, the electoral commission finally announced candidates would be nominated on November 2nd and 3rd, 2020. By that time the incumbent was the only candidate out of the 18 that was already verified and cleared. The President of the NUP was duly nominated but within minutes he was unceremoniously seized and tossed in to a police truck for reasons that remain unclear. Moses Bwayo, co-director of the film Bobi Wine: The People’s President (2022) and at least one other journalist was injured by a teargas cannister near the NUP headquarters.
The campaign period ran from November 9, 2020 to January 12, 2021. Covid-19 regulations were used as an excuse to shut down even open-air meetings permitted by the regulations. The incumbent and NRM parliamentary candidates e.g. the Woman MP for Lira held processions and rallies. Where Opposition rallies did take place, it was against a background of violence. It had been expected given that party supporter and boda boda rider Hakim Ssekamwa had been deliberately run over and killed by police truck UP2525 in August 2019. On August 30, 2020 Charles ‘Sipapa’ Olim accompanied by a gang dressed in NRM party colours opened fire on NUP Headquarters in Kamwokya. He returned on September 15 and fired again, this time injuring a guard in the face.
NUP activist and online TV presenter Rita Nabukenya (February 24, 2020), and bodyguard Frank Ssenteza (December 27, 2020) were deliberately run over and killed by police trucks. Party supporter Daniel Kyeyune, a car mechanic, was caught on camera being picked off by a sniper on his way back from Rita’s funeral. His injuries were also fatal.
Olivia Lutaaya, a mother of three, one of several arrested during the Kalangala campaign, has been arraigned in the military court and is still in custody three years later. The wave of harassment led up to a raid on NUP offices on January 18, 2021. Police carried away electronic equipment and Shs23 million raised to facilitate some parliamentary candidates.
Still, when one undertakes to lead, one has no choice but to meet the expectations of those one hopes to govern. While it is true the grassroot consultation exercise was forced off the road during the elections, there was and still is scope for making contact with the voting public and finding out their priorities. But new members of parliament have not shown much interest in consultations and they are as unresponsive and inaccessible as the old crop. For example, in the first year after the elections, the Office of the Leader of the Opposition planned forty-five outreach activities and public hearings. These are provided for in the budget but only six were conducted. If the cash was not released by the Treasury, there was no noticeable protest from the Opposition. Besides, Parliament managed to overspend, by 100%, on purchasing motor vehicles. Similarly, there was an 89% overspend on MP’s personal emoluments and welfare.
It is therefore odd that opposition MPs chose to devise a legislative agenda (originally discussed during the campaigns in the context of consultation) without the benefit of consultations. As listeners to the discussion heard, it is easy for party administrators to defend this poor performance by citing the general, known difficulties of being in opposition.
However, grassroot activism is still very much alive. A young lady from West Nile shared her initiative of educating her community about their specific challenges, in this case the fact that W. Nile has never been connected to the national electricity grid and is still powered by generators. She believes that it is because of this it is the second poorest region in the country, saying, “The succession means different things to different people.” The young lady talked about how discussing the electricity question led her community to begin to identify other economic barriers it faces. They have now resolved not to “sanitise governance processes” that have no benefits for them. She calls their approach ‘relational politics’ i.e. issues-based politics as opposed to party politics. She expressed the hope that a roundtable discussion at which different communities can discuss their different priorities will become a reality.
Judging from contributions made to the discussion, stalled human development and growing inequality are a major concern for the general population. This writer proposed that in order to be able to identify economic barriers to advancement and devise methods of removing them, the population requires civic education. The general public needs to be made aware, for example, that over seventy percent of them are at risk of being financially wiped out (catastrophic expenditure) if they should fall seriously ill – that is, high out-of-pocket expenditure on healthcare is a barrier to economic advancement.
The younger generation has never lived in a Uganda in which public services work smoothly. They were not born at the time when, for instance, mosquitoes were routinely sprayed by government, or when the City Council used to trim the hedges in the suburbs, or when there was running water in all public health facilities. If public services are lacking, the causes need to be identified before solutions can be found. Developing realistic plans together with voters, for which elected leaders can be held accountable, requires more effort than the current scenario of ceremonial visits to the constituency to dish out charity to ever-needy voters.
The link between an absence of water and/or electricity or medicines at the health centre and the Shs600 million a district spends every five years on gifting their three MPs vehicles may not be immediately clear.
A doctor tagged me to say that that is his health facility’s quarterly medical supplies budget. Voters are entitled to know this.
Voters are entitled to the information that amount is more than the annual Public Health grants for maintaining three Health Centre IIs in one year. It exceeds the cost of constructing a maternity wing at a HCII. If they can’t have all their needs met, service users should have the opportunity to prioritise and demand that their representatives make a commitment to delivering their specific priorities.
Mr David Mpanga hit the nail on the head when he said the societies we envy have active and vigilant civil societies able to take the lead in disseminating such information.
In Uganda, the majority of the vigilant and active happen to be disadvantaged youth. They may not have careers or pensions to protect by standing aloof from activism, but for those same reasons they do not have the means to carry out much of the political work seen as lacking by the elites.
However, there has been a breakthrough in elite apathy by the online week-long #KampalaPotholeExhibition. So effective is this method of awareness-raising and protest among internet users that the Kampala City Authority began long-delayed roadworks the second day. It has been followed by the #UgandaHealthExhibition in which photographic, video and written evidence of the deplorable state of health facilities is being exhibited by health professionals and health service users alike.
On its first day the Health Exhibition trended in Uganda with over eighty thousand tweets, surpassing the popular European football leagues. The exhibition encompassed the treatment of medical pre-interns marching with a petition to Parliament. They were attacked by the police in one of the most shameful displays of State Brutality to date.
Civic Education goals
Lessons to learn include; encouraging and helping the electorate to take responsibility for their own human development. That involves documenting service failures as is being done now. It involves encouraging voters regularly to collect and use available data (and there is plenty) in making an evidence-based case. It involves the leaders making the analytical links between service failures and policy decisions.
What remains to be seen is whether political leaders will harness the new awakening. A quick search shows, members of Parliament did not come on board with anywhere near the public’s vigour. Most have not responded to online exhibits of dilapidated buildings and equipment in their own constituencies. Others continue to post personal photoshoots, oblivious to current developments.
Many of those that have joined the online protest, have done so without proposing a way forward. Now would be a good time to roll-out the discussion about the health service to the offline, rural electorate. Clearly, civic education is sorely lacking in Parliament as well.
The author is a social-political commentator