FILE - Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Observers say police brutality, obstruction of media and a lack of accountability have undermined free and fair elections in previous cycles in Uganda.
Last week the three frontrunners for the presidency kicked off campaigns showing their political muscles with crowds. If this was a measure of potential performance in the election, Kizza Besigye would knockout President Yoweri Museveni and Amama Mbabazi in the first round. While Museveni and Mbabazi had spent a lot of money to bus in people from all corners to attend their rallies, Besigye’s supporters needed little or no mobilisation. They just came by themselves and literally gave him money in expression of support.
Besigye’s candidacy excites popular passions because he presents himself as a candidate who opposes the status quo and wants radical change. But he has weak organisational capacity and financial muscle to turn this advantage into votes – and protect those votes. Amama has the most reasonable, progressive and futuristic campaign agenda – change with continuity. But it is too status quo-ish to inspire passion. And he lacks basic organisational infrastructure to promote it – his position being worse than Besigye’s FDC. Museveni has the poorest positioning in this election – maintenance of the status quo – and no grand ideals to mobilise passion. However, he has the historical legacy and organisational structures backed by the state and its financial, coercive and propaganda instruments.
So let me enjoy some bragging rights here. I have spent the last two months arguing with many people that Mbabazi cannot supplant Besigye for the soul of the opposition. Last week’s crowds proved me right. Mbabazi’s calm and sober message appeals to the enlightened but equally most fickle voter segment – the more urban educated middleclass. They may be passionate on Facebook but they don’t vote in large numbers. This class also lives largely in fantasyland – self-indulgent with superficial views on the challenges facing Uganda. It deludes itself into thinking it represents “liberal democratic” values. However in real fact it is disarticulated from the hard realities of Uganda’s actual political dynamics.
Besigye appeals to the lower rungs of the less educated, unemployed, frustrated and dispossessed urban underclass. And this social group is growing rapidly across urban areas and rural trading centers. It enters politics not in pursuit of abstract ideals like democracy and human rights on which Besigye campaigns but out of a sense of grievance that they are left out on opportunities in our growing economy. Its main interests are mundane bread and butter issues. However, Besigye appeals to them because they see in his suffering at the hands of police the image of their own predicament. Mbabazi cannot represent their suffering because of his lifestyle: he drives luxury cars, wears designer suits, and is often seen tickling his iPad or smart phone.
Museveni has a solid base among the uneducated, poor, conservative rural voters whose voice hardly captures the imagination of Ugandan media. And these constitute the vast majority of Ugandans. The inability to understand this class by Besigye and the Ugandan talking heads has been fatal to opposition’s dreams. Peasants are not as aspirational as urban social classes. Their basic aim is not change, but preserving the status quo. They revere power and will not challenge it unless it threatens subsistence security. And Museveni has presided over a very benign administration.
Museveni does his best to project himself among peasants using the symbols of power they understand. He presides over every coronation of a local traditional chief whom they identify with. He attends all the consecrations of bishops and sheiks that represent their spiritual needs. He exhibits exaggerated generosity by giving big bags filled with cash to personages who represent peasants’ collective identity. The talking heads in Kampala denounce this overt abuse of public funds with self-righteous indignation. But the peasants applaud the president’s actions with loud admiration.
Yet there is some need for Museveni to worry. He has sustained impressive rates of economic growth over three decades. Contrary to popular prejudice in Kampala, Museveni has expanded access to education and health services to the far reaches of Uganda, building hundreds of schools and health centers across the country. The actual services delivered are poor. But for most peasants, the mere building of such health and education facilities represents government concern for their community. This symbolism has greater significance than what these facilities actually do.
Secondly, these health and education facilities employ many professionals from within the community. Combined with the same services provided by the private sector, churches and other social institutions, rural society is adding unto village tillage employment in social services. Thus, increasingly young people in rural areas are abandoning agriculture and beginning to work as petty traders, airtime and mobile money dealers, boda boda riders, schools teachers, nurses, paid local councilors, waiters and bartenders in local restaurants and bars etc. These people face new challenges. Today the price of the dollar and fuel is an important issue among rural folk. It is increasingly animating debate on the cost of living in rural areas.
It is these new social groups that turn to Besigye for inspiration. It also means that holding many others factors constant Mbabazi will find it difficult to appeal to this group. Besigye’s challenge is that he lacks effective organisational structures in rural Uganda to convert favourable sentiment into votes. Secondly and most critically, these rural youths are not in politics for grand ideals like democracy, human rights, clean and honest government, etc. – the pet subjects in Besigye’s campaign rhetoric. They want to satisfy immediate existential needs many of which can better be addressed by collaboration with, rather than hostility to the state. This makes it possible for Museveni to demobilise Besigye’s base with state patronage using his rural political machine.
Besigye’s supporters make the fatal error of misperceiving large urban crowds to represent victory, a delusion Besigye shares. With only 30% of Ugandans living in urban areas (according to last year’s census), Besigye is playing in a small field. Besigye makes his case even worse by claiming that he has won all the last three elections. If this is true, some of his supporters wonder why they should vote for him when it is an exercise in futility. In the last election, he claimed to have created “vote protection brigades” to overcome the swindle he has previously suffered. The results turned out to be worse than in 2011. Therefore, in spite of Besigye’s impressive Kampala crowds, this is still Museveni’s election to lose.