Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Uganda goes to the polls: Bumpy road ahead


Hey Uganda, you’ve got an incoming delivery from the Mombasa port. Sincerely, your friendly Kenyan neighbours,” NTV Kenya tweeted while sharing the photos of the vehicles yesterday.The armoured vehicles, some of them embossed with the words ‘Uganda Police’ and that have features including water cannons, riot controls and wedged front plods were spotted at the G-section of the Port of Mombasa port in Kenya.The ant-riot vehicles may have been procured to quell post-election protests if they arise.

Uganda will hold its fifth presidential and parliamentary election on February 18, 2016. Around half of Uganda’s population, 15 million in total are registered to cast their votes, according to the Electoral Commission.The atmosphere is a mixture of fear of election-related violence coupled with the fear that civil and political rights will be further eroded. Reports of irregularities and election-related violence continue to surface. This has prompted local and international stakeholders to call for immediate reconciliatory measures to ease the situation.“The upcoming Ugandan elections will provide a litmus test on how the political elite conduct themselves in front of their electorate . The run up to the elections have seen a number of violent incidents, repressions against human rights groups and the harassment of journalists and free media outlets. Civil Rights Defenders calls on the Ugandan presidential and parliamentary parties to enact free and fair elections with full respect for the democratic process”

Ugandans are on edge as the election clock ticks. Yoweri Museveni, in power for 30 years now, is facing what many consider to be his toughest challenge yet. There are fears that he would attempt to rig the election or use force against the opposition to deny them victory. The country is polarized.

2016 will witness several African countries going to the polls: Uganda (February 18), Zambia, DRC, inter alia. Others will follow in 2017, and these include: Kenya and Rwanda. The electoral season is on across the continent and so the usual questions are: will these elections help consolidate democracy in the respective countries? Will these elections be free and fair? Will these elections be peaceful? Uganda is quite evidently headed for some political drama come February 18 this year. The ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) has been in power since 1986 under President Yoweri Museveni. This is a clean 30 years of rule. To heighten the political drama, two of the leading contenders along with the incumbent are former close allies: Dr Kizza Besigye standing on FDC ticket, and Hon. Amama Mbabazi on the Go Forward Ticket under the umbrella of The Democratic Alliance (TDA). Other presidential contenders are considered curtain raisers. From the media reports so far a lot seems to be at stake. What is cooking in the “Pearl of Africa”, as Uganda is affectionately referred to? Will it be more of the same or should the world expect a change of guard? Will the February 18 elections leave behind a trail of trouble?*********************


Ugandan media both electronic and print carry screaming headlines that disclose what is at stake. Elections are on course and campaigns have been going on. The three main contenders President Museveni, Dr Kizza Besigye and Hon. Amama Mbabazi have been combing the countryside hunting for votes. Promises being made include: roads, factories, better education, better health facilities, industrialization, and many more. If these promises were to be fulfilled Uganda would truly become the “Pearl of Africa.” 

However not all promises are on the positive side of things. Some promises are in fact threats and warnings. The much reported about story of late is the remark made the Inspector General of Police (IGP) General Kale Kayihura who allegedly said that Crime Preventers (a new community policing outfit) will be given guns instead of sticks if there is some election trouble. The opposition and the international community quickly tasked the IGP to clarify on this comment. He quickly said he was misquoted. 

But later another high ruling party official, Kasule Lumumba, Secretary General of the NRM, was also quoted as saying that those who cause mayhem after elections will be shot. These few comments and reactions point to some uneasiness about the forthcoming general elections in Uganda. There seems to be a bumpy road ahead.

Right from independence in 1962 Uganda is known for having highly contested elections and not having a single peaceful transition from one regime to the next. Ugandans and election observers are therefore holding their breath hoping that this coming election will be the much awaited exception.

DC Presidential candidate Col Dr Kizza Besigye says he would allow President Yoweri Museveni to live a free life once he accepts to leave office peacefully. Addressing rallies in the West Nile district of Moyo in Obongi county Besigye said president Museveni should not live in fear of reprisals.

Ballot papers have already arrived from South Africa, but this too has already sparked wild rumors. First, that the number of ballot papers that were bought is not known. Second, some unfounded report that a plane carrying ballot papers had made a stop-over in Kigali — Rwanda. The suspicion being that some ballot papers were offloaded en route to Entebbe. These could just be spicy stories to heighten the electoral mood, but they go to demonstrate how electoral fraud is much feared in Uganda’s politics.

Much more serious developments have been reported in the media and these are not rumors. There have been some election related violent episodes at campaign rallies. One such incident involved Hon. Amama Mbabazi’s supporters and those of the NRM in a place called Ntungamo, somewhere in South Western Uganda. One of the members of Hon. Amama Mbabazi’s security detail, Christopher Aine, is reportedly missing after the state security went after him alleging that he masterminded the Ntungame skirmish. There are accusations and counter accusations that Christopher Aine might be dead or hiding. His whereabouts are still a mystery.

Much more recently, one of the most feared and controversial Army Generals David Tinyefuza (popularly known as Ssejusa) has been arrested and, as we write, he is under trial at the General Court Martial. The charge: that he is plotting some mischief around election time. But he is also known for making inflammatory remarks about the current regime. Ssejusa has argued that the NRM cannot be removed by elections, but rather by popular uprising. Such remarks from an Army General have not gone well with the establishment, especially at a time of heightened political activity. The arrest and trial of David Tinyefuza just about two weeks to the elections no doubt will add to the rumour mill and help increase political temperatures.

Opinion polls point to a tight race among the three leading contenders. One such poll gave the incumbent Yoweri Museveni a clear lead with 71%, with Dr. Kizza Besigye somewhere around 20% and Hon. Amama Mbabazi less than 10%. Another poll much later gave Museveni 51% , Dr Besigye the upper 20s and Mababazi the tens. Of course these polls are highly contested, with some observers thinking they are commissioned by political interest groups. What many think though is that there is a likelihood of no candidate getting a clear win of 50% plus 1. If this is the case, then a rerun is possible.
Police says it has arrested eleven people over the violence in Ntungamo district last last week in which supporters of Go-Foward and the ruling National Resistance Movement clashed. Reacting to the arrests, Independent candidate Amama Mbabazi accused the President of panicking. 


The incumbent Yoweri Museveni argues that he has brought stability to the country that was constantly at war. He further argues that he has brought economic growth to the country, more educational opportunities and infrastructure. His main rivals, both Dr. Kizza Besigye and Hon. Amama Mbabazi, make a counter argument that the achievements mentioned were brought about by the entire NRM leadership of which they were a part. In addition they are demanding a peaceful transition from one regime to the next, something Uganda has not experienced since independence. So clearly there is the issue of political transition at stake.

The other issue facing Uganda’s electoral terrain is the emergency of numerous independent parliamentary candidates, especially those associated with the ruling NRM. It is estimated that about 900 candidates are standing as independents even when the NRM party constitution demands that once one loses the primaries he or she should not stand as an independent. There is much talk of internal wrangles within the ruling party as the primaries demonstrated. Could this large number of independents point to the re-emergence of individual merit that NRM initially stood by in its earlier years?

The forthcoming elections have also witnessed alliances across parties. For instance, two of the leading opposition politicians Norbert Mao and Olara Otunnu, of the Democratic Party (DP) and Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), respectively, are supporting Hon. Amama Mbabazi. They both come from the northern Uganda. On the other hand, Akena, a leader of UPC and son of the late Milton Obote, former president of Uganda, supports President Museveni.

There is increasing militarization of the political landscape as Uganda approaches the elections. Statements are being made by top military officers as well as by the police to the effect that both forces will step in should electoral violence break out. Other statements are veiled allusions to the conviction in some quarters that the ruling party will not hand over power to the opposition, should the latter win. On the other hand, some opposition politicians are making clear that they will not accept rigged election results. 

There is anecdotal evidence that the opposition could be mobilizing masses to guard their victory while the government is referring to such mobilization as unacceptable illegal militias. The opposition has also voiced concerns about the new outfit called “crime preventers”—comprising of about 11 million security personnel under the rubric of community policing. Issues are being raised as to why these “crime preventers” have just emerged close to election time, with the fear that they may be part of the election rigging mechanism meant to intimidate opposition voters. They have now earned a nickname “Crime Promoters.” There are logistical issues of how such a force, even if it were for the interests of preventing crime, is to be financed and with which budgetary allocation. This outfit has clearly attracted the attention of the international community that is keen on peaceful elections.


Ugandan politics can be quite entertaining too. At one recent rally, a local comedian who mimics President Museveni showed up at a rally in a yellow shirt with a large hat on. Party heavy weights had shown up to salute the “President”, only to find out that it was the comedian. 

Each of the main presidential contenders has some songs composed in their honor. It is quite a spectacle to see the otherwise usually very composed and professorial Hon. Amama Mbabazi dancing on the stage to lively tunes, all in the name of trying to get an extra vote. Dr. Kizza Besigye has also been seen rocking his head to music at a rally, to thunderous applause. President Museveni has also been seen doing some marathon at a rally demonstrate his stamina.

One other comic element came from rare quarters when a Makerere University don, Dr. Stella Nyanzi, recently announced that she is ready to turn celibate and deny herself any erotic pleasures should the incumbent win the forthcoming elections. Social media is awash with comments about this form of political protest. This just goes to show how passionate Ugandans can get when it comes to politics.

Ugandans are notoriously religious and so the sacred also features in politics big time. This takes the form of politicians seeking blessings from priests and bishops. When Yoweri Museveni went on a campaign spree in the South West, one famous Catholic priest Fr. Geitano Batanyenda was seen blessing the president. Shortly after, the media was awash with stories as what the blessing was about since the famous priest is known for his open criticism of the president. The priest quickly came out clean that he was in fact praying for the president’s conversion from his political sins! Recently the same priest was seen blessing Dr. Kizza Besigye — no explanation has come out yet about what this blessing was all about. The sacred and the political get so intertwined in Uganda’s political landscape.


A lot is stake in Uganda’s forthcoming elections and the road ahead is bumpy. If there happens to be serious electoral irregularities, as some observers are suspecting, the Pearl of Africa might plunge into some turbulence. Many are, however, hoping and praying for a smooth and peaceful transition. It is too early to tell whether there will be a clear winner with 50% plus 1 of the vote. With three heavy weight contestants who were both former allies, there is quite some political drama to watch; and a high voter turnout is expected.

The contesting parties would do Uganda a great favor if they practiced fair play both in campaigns and actual voting as well as vote tallying. The election observers, both domestic and foreign, will also do Uganda a great favor if they exercised due diligence in detecting electoral malpractices. 

Uganda just hosted the Holy Father Pope Francis, and the blessings from the Roman Pontiff are still fresh. May the February 18 2016 general elections be free, fair, democratic and credible, so that Uganda can join the rest of emerging democracies on the African continent.

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