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Will Uganda elect a new president next month?

Ugandans go to the polls on February 18, 2016 to decide who will lead the country for the next five years. TIA contributor, Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire, asks whether this year’s poll is any different from previous elections.



Since the National Resistance Army (NRA) led by Yoweri Kaguta

took over power in 1986, Uganda has held four elections (1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011) and Museveni has emerged as the victor during each of those elections. Even before the new constitution was ushered in 1995, a year before the first election, Museveni had been running the country for close to a decade. It’s now been 30 years and in all that time Ugandans have had one man in the presidential seat.

The 1996 election was held under the individual merit Movement system (which later was described as a one-party state system by another name by the courts), but the results of that election were never challenged. In 2001, Kizza Besigye, hitherto a cadre of the Museveni-dominated Movement system contested for the top seat. He later challenged the results and the Supreme Court agreed that there were irregularities in the electoral process but could not annul the election.

In 2005, Uganda abandoned the Movement system and adopted multi-partyism under which the 2006 elections were held. Museveni, representing the National Resistance Movement (NRM), the political party offshoot of the ‘Movement system,’ won again, and Besigye, in his second showing at the presidential polls, leading the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party, received 37% of the total vote. Once again, the Supreme Court ruled that the electoral process had numerous flaws, among them the imprisonment and trial of Besigye during the campaign period for a trumped up charge, intimidation of voters, etc. But again they did not annul the election.

President Yoweri Museveni says that the law is not a priority for the country’s development even as there was need to protect the family institution. Photo: PressTV

Yoweri Museveni. Photo: PressTV

In 2011, Besigye and the FDC decided they were not going to challenge the results of yet another election even though numerous things had gone wrong. Among other things, their tallying system was shut down by security agencies and there were allegations of voter bribery. Besigye instead joined the Walk to Work movement. The security agencies quashed the popular protests and Besigye’s cult status among the dissatisfied Ugandan populace became more entrenched with each attack from the state. The high point came when he was hospitalised in Nairobi. He received a hero’s welcome when he returned to Uganda on May 12, 2011, the day Museveni was sworn in for another five year term.

What is new?

Ever since he appeared on the scene in 2000, the story of the Ugandan elections in the Museveni era has been dominated by the opposition of Besigye. As Ugandans prepare to go to the polls again, it is fair to ask if 2016 brings anything different.

Allegations of the intimidation of opposition supporters alongside blatant disrespect for the electoral rules by Museveni and his campaign team are already circling in the public. Besigye and the FDC say that their campaign is of Defiance. They are in this election to win by defying the regime. They have phrased their campaign around the liberation of the country through the ballot box though there are fears that the Electoral Commission has not reformed its past ways. These are legitimate fears. The Chairman of Electoral Commission Eng. Badru Kiggundu has on several counts publicly attacked Besigye, and even gone as far as mocking his participation in the process.

Uganda Election officials counted ballots in the Lubaga section of the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Photo: Todd Heisler/ The New York Times

Uganda Election officials counted ballots in the Lubaga section of the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Photo: Todd Heisler/ The New York Times

There were loud murmurs that the entry into the race of former Prime Minister in the Museveni government, Amama Mbabazi, would change the dynamic. Mbabazi played a big role in the intelligence services and in the political mobilisation of the NRM as secretary general, and was viewed by many as Museveni’s blue eyed operator. In all the corruption scandals he has been named in, whether it is the sale of his land to the National Social Security Fund, or allegations that he was bribed by oil companies to get favourable deals, Museveni supported him through it all. Their fall-out was, however, too dramatic and it looked too scripted to be entirely believable.

Mbabazi has brought to the 2016 election an American-type public relations and marketing strategy hitherto unseen in the Ugandan election process. Middle class Ugandans who follow American and British politics could not have found a better alternative to FDC’s Besigye, whose political brand has been associated with what one senior presidential advisor once described as the ‘great unwashed of the slums.’

The Presidential debate


At the first ever presidential debate in the country’s history, which Museveni missed and ridiculed, expectations were high among Mbabazi’s many supporters, that he would show the country how to move forward, without the bitterness some accuse the FDC side of harbouring. The consensus after the debate has since been that Mbabazi’s showing was disappointing. Besigye on the other hand was his usual hard-hitting self, including confronting one of the moderators by reminding him that he has been in London for too long to know the actual situation in the country.

The debate and Museveni’s absence have been lauded as having enabled Ugandans a glimpse into what the post-Museveni era might look like. It also, however, revealed the firm place the Museveni-led NRA era holds in Uganda’s recent history. Of the eight candidates in the race, Museveni, Besigye, Mbabazi, and Major General Benon Biraaro were involved in the 1981 – 1986 NRA bush-war. The country’s future is still heavily tilted in favour of the bush generation. With a constitution barring the youth from vying for the president (a candidate must be aged thirty five and above), those of us born after 1980 are locked out of our political future by law!

Uganda elections. Photo: The Guardian

Uganda elections. Photo: The Guardian

Part of the NRA legacy is the domination of politics by people hailing from the Western part of the country. All the four ‘bush-men’ hail from the Western parts of the country, and former Makerere University Vice Chancellor, Professor Venansius Baryamureeba, who is also in the running, takes the tally up to five. The marginalisation of the northern and eastern parts of the country in the 30 years of Museveni’s rule can’t be over-emphasised. No candidate in the race hails from the northern region, ravaged by war for the better part of the Museveni reign. Abed Bwanika, contesting for a third time, hails from Central Uganda, does as Elton Joseph Mabirizi, and the only woman in the race, Maureen Kyalya, is from the eastern part of the country.

Does the debate show us that this election will bring different results from past elections? Or is it a foregone conclusion that Museveni will win again? It is hard to tell. A recent opinion poll however provides clues. The Research World International (RWI) poll gave Museveni a 51% lead, followed by Besigye at 32% and Mbabazi at 12%. This is the lowest ever Museveni has scored in an opinion poll. Could it be that the 2016 election is headed for a potential re-run situation? There is no way of telling for sure. Like all Ugandans, we just have to wait.