KAMPALA (HAN) February 5, 2016 – Public Diplomacy and Regional Stability Initiatives News. There are no prizes for predicting who wins Uganda’s presidential election on 18 February. After 30 years in office and four victorious elections in the last 20 of them, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni knows every trick in the book. Yet he’s still taking no chances. Using state funds, intimidating and outlawing the opposition, and mobilising violent ‘youth’ are all part of the presidential armoury. All this comes on top of his National Resistance Movement (NRM)’s overwhelming control of the electoral process and its unparalleled ability to mobilise the grassroots.
Museveni is further helped by a divided opposition that has split the vote between former Security Minister John Patrick Amama Mbabazi and opposition stalwart Kizza Besigye, of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Mbabazi defected to the opposition after being sacked as Prime Minister in September 2014. Having tried and failed to form an opposition coalition known as The Democratic Alliance for much of last year, Mbabazi and Besigye are now campaigning independently, separated by a gulf of mistrust and personal ambition (AC Vol 56 No 19, Opposition blues).
Some hope the two leading opposition figures may be able to unite for the second round if they can prevent Museveni from taking 50% of the vote in the first. A poll by Kampala-based Research World International, published on 20 January, suggested such an outcome is within reach. Conducted between 15 and 19 January in 89 of the 111 districts, it predicted Museveni would take 51%, followed by Besigye (32%) and Mbabazi (12%). It used an estimated five percentage point margin of error. Polling data in Uganda should be taken with a pinch of salt but the figures at least give an indication of the electoral order of battle. A percentage in the low 50s would be Museveni’s poorest electoral performance yet and is consistent with a prolonged period of declining support since 1996. Years of tough economic conditions, endemic corruption, an increasingly restricted political environment and fading memories of the 1981-86 Bush War, have all undermined his support.
None of the presidential candidates have managed to capitalise on these failings enough to stand any real chance of election. Despite the huge amount of media that has followed Mbabazi’s campaign, he has failed to mobilise nationwide support or even make inroads into the NRM’s stronghold in the south-west, where all three main candidates originate. Some claim Mbabazi’s campaign chest began to dry up as early as November, while reports of defections to the NRM from his Go Forward campaign have also undermined his candidacy. Besigye’s FDC has a far stronger organisational structure and will do well in opposition strongholds in parts of the east and south-west and in Kampala, but only the NRM can field a truly national campaign.
GOING IT ALONE
The main political contest will therefore then be in the parliamentary elections. Museveni sees a subservient Parliament as vital to maintaining his authority, particularly on key issues such as the oil agenda and governance (AC Vol 56 No 23, Museveni’s pipeline dream). An unruly legislature elected in 2011 saw repeated efforts to limit the President’s powers and increase the transparency of public finances. He is determined to prevent a repetition.
Of the 1,747 candidates registered, 909 are standing as independents, outnumbering both the NRM and all opposition parties. Many are the losers in the NRM’s October primaries, which were widely criticised for mismanagement, fraud and violence. Being a member of parliament is very lucrative and many of the losers don’t want to give up the chance of being elected.
Whom the independents would favour if elected is unknown. There was widespread faith that Mbabazi’s considerable personal wealth would garner him plenty of support in this constituency. He promised to release a list of independents leaning in his favour but he hasn’t, which many see as evidence of waning support. It is commonly accepted, however, that many of the independents will give their loyalty in the chamber to the highest bidder, thus pushing up the cost of the President’s legislative agenda.
Museveni is the most formidable candidate in large part thanks to the NRM’s vast campaign war chest. He spent 27 billion Uganda shillings (US$7.8 million) on his campaign in November and December, or 91.6% of the total spent by all candidates, according to a donor-backed study by the Alliance for Campaign Finance Monitoring on 22 January. The benefits are plain to see. Since November, Museveni has criss-crossed the country, attending as many as four rallies a day in region after region. At each rally, there are handouts of cash, food, agricultural equipment, livestock – seemingly anything that would-be voters want. All the main parties use such tactics but no other has the resources of the NRM.
The NRM’s well-funded campaign is financed by a range of schemes to divert state revenue. The most significant concern inflated infrastructure projects and defence spending. The Africa academic and activist Alex de Waal recently noted that one method Museveni uses to appropriate state funds is to exploit regional insecurity. This ‘provides a perfect pretext for maintaining an inflated defence budget, which keeps army officers content and greases the wheels of the patronage machine,’ he writes.
Conflicts in Central African Republic, Somalia and South Sudan have provided the Ugandan leader with the excuse to maintain defence spending well above the 2% of gross domestic product typical of most African governments. It rose from $42 mn. in 1992 to $110 mn. in 2001 and $260 mn. in 2010. For 2015/16, defence spending is expected to rise again to a record-breaking $460 mn.
Official funding for parliamentary parties also favours the NRM. A widely abused 2010 amendment to the Political Parties and Organisations Act provides for state funds to be allocated to political parties, ostensibly to level the playing eld. Funding is determined largely by the number of seats each party holds in Parliament, rather than the number of votes it wins nationwide, as the opposition would prefer. That gives the NRM a clear advantage. Opposition parties also complain that the payments they are due are often late, undermining their ability to organise. Independents and unofficial political movements such as Mbabazi’s Go Forward receive no state funding.
JOBS FOR THE BOYS
Part of the reason for the NRM’s success is its infiltration of virtually all state institutions. Senior party officials boast privately that it employs more than four million people, including 30 mobilisers in each of the country’s 60,000 villages. These figures may be inflated and the activists are more likely to receive occasional cash payments than wages but they give an impression of the party’s reach and the vastness of its network of electors whose livelihood depends on its success.
Among the most important people in this structure are the local political, intelligence and security officials, who keep tabs on dissent and disrupt opposition campaigns. They include regional and district officers of the Internal Security Organisation (ISO) and senior civil servants personally appointed by the President to chair the district security commission, the Resident District Commissioners. State House has on many occasions reshuffled the RDCs in the run up to the elections as part of a long-running plan to consolidate the President’s authority.
The police play a similarly important role under the leadership of Inspector General of Police, General Kale Kayihura, a close ally of the President whom some see as his potential successor. Kayihura, who was previously with the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), reshuffled the District Police Commanders in September and October as part of a seemingly endless effort to weed out any of Mbabazi’s residual allies in the security services. Police officers and RDCs have been breaking up opposition campaign rallies and harassing journalists throughout the campaign. On 20 January, the authorities closed down the private, Mbarara-based, radio station Endigyito FM after it dared to broadcast an interview with Mbabazi.
TUMUKUNDE IS BACK
The deployment of the UPDF to provide election security is another attempt to intimidate and clamp down on dissent. Kayihura’s police have joined with the Chief of Defence Forces, Gen. Edward Katumba Wamala, to create joint command centres across the country centred on areas where opposition support is strong, such as Kampala and Mbale in the east. An especially prominent figure in the NRM’s election campaign is Lieutenant Gen. (rtd.) Henry Tumukunde, once head of the ISO and the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence. Tumukunde was among the most powerful intelligence figures in the country until he fell out with Museveni in 2005 after he was suspected of harbouring presidential ambitions (AC Vol 43 No 15, Henry’s parachute). He was placed under house arrest for two years but rehabilitated in 2013 and returned to prominence at the end of last year with a promotion from Brigadier to Lieutenant General. He then promptly retired from the military to take up an undeniably partisan role in charge of political mobilisation and election strategy.
It is Tumukunde who is reportedly in charge of the hundreds of thousands of ‘Crime Preventers’, the yellow-shirted volunteers recruited by Kayihura on the pretext of providing security in the villages but whose real role is to intimidate opposition supporters and break up their rallies. The government has made little effort to hide the scale of the mobilisation campaign, holding widely publicised passing out ceremonies at parade grounds across the country and adding to the air of intimidation.
One of the opposition’s main complaints is that a biased and ineffective Electoral Commission does nothing about these abuses. Its Chairman, Badru Kiggundu, has managed to remain in his post despite the Supreme Court ruling in both 2001 and 2006 that the Commission cannot organise free and fair elections (AC Vol 46 No 16, Prizes for all). Kiggundu, appointed by the President, has been notably selective in his application of electoral rules. He has heavily criticised the security teams set up by Mbabazi and Besigye without mentioning the abuses by the RDCs, police and Crime Preventers.
Anticipating defeat, some opposition members are already preparing post-election protests. Claiming the Electoral Commission is partial, Besigye has said he will refuse to comply with any orders from the authorities that are deemed unjust. Many see this as a scene-setter for mass unrest if he loses the vote. Mbabazi, too, is expected to reject the result if he loses, though he has been more explicit in his rejection of violence.
The looming stand-off leaves Uganda’s foreign partners in an awkward position. Most Western donors have already suspended or substantially reduced direct budget support since a $13 mn. embezzlement scandal at the Office of the Prime Minister in 2012, when Mbabazi was Premier, and in response to the 2013 controversy over the anti-homosexuality law (AC Vol 54 No 7, West divided on aid scandal). This leaves Western governments with few diplomatic levers with which to respond in the event of mass unrest or allegations of electoral fraud.
The donors’ main judge will be the European Union’s Election Observation Mission, which was deployed in late December. Few expect its conclusions to differ wildly from those issued in 2011: that although the playing eld is uneven, the results broadly reflect the will of the population. Diplomats privately admit that no serious effort to deter Museveni or to criticise the elections will come from the industrialised countries. Their embarrassment is likely to increase in two years’ time, when Museveni reaches the age of 75, the upper constitutional limit for a president. Health permitting he will, no doubt, remove this obstacle to his continued rule, as he has all others. The only true uncertainty about the leadership of Uganda at this moment is what plan Museveni has in mind for his succession.