Uganda’s unsettled future

Tristan McConnell
27 February 2006

To no one's surprise President Yoweri Museveni has won again. The incumbent Ugandan leader achieved 59% of the vote in the Thursday 24 February election, thus avoiding a run-off with his main challenger Kizza Besigye who polled 37%. This gives Museveni the mandate to lead Uganda for a further five-year term. When he completes this next term he will have ruled for a quarter-century.

Ugandans crowded around portable radios to hear the chairman of the electoral commission announce the official results on Saturday afternoon. Museveni's victory was greeted with cheering and singing as sporadic crowds took to the streets clad in the yellow of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), blowing whistles and hooting horns.

The jubilant sounds of Museveni's supporters could be heard from Besigye's house in Kampala where the mood was sombre. Besigye was telling assembled journalists that his party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), rejected the results in light of its evidence of massive rigging, widespread electoral malpractice, and intimidation.

These claims run contrary to the reports of independent observers including the European Union, whose election observation mission on 25 February called the elections "well administered, transparent, competitive and relatively peaceful". There were numerous examples of ballot-boxes not being sealed, of voters' fingers not being inked after polling and of names not appearing on the voter register but these are down to incompetence rather than anything more sinister. Max van den Berg, head of the mission, said: "Despite the technical shortcomings, we have not observed any patterns of wrong-doing during the elections."

Tristan McConnell is Uganda correspondent for Africa Confidential

He also writes about Uganda for British newspapers including The Sunday Telegraph

Beyond Kampala

While election-day was pretty much peaceful and people voted freely without the army trucks at polling stations that characterised the 2001 elections, the pre-election period was more problematic. Everyone except the government acknowledges that the political playing-field that provided the context for the elections was far from level. Besigye's own campaign had been severely disrupted by a spell in jail followed by numerous court appearances on charges of treason and rape. There were also incidents of violence which resulted in the deaths of three FDC supporters.

The defeated candidate maintains that "all options are open" for responding to what he considers to be an illegitimate process and – as in the past – Besigye refused to rule out street protests or even force of arms which he always maintains is a constitutional response to dictatorship.

No one believes Besigye will copy his former friend and comrade Museveni who called elections in 1980 illegal before disappearing to the bush to fight a guerrilla war that brought him to power in 1986, but many fear civil unrest and a security clampdown.

Besigye called on his supporters to stay calm but this plea fell on deaf ears as, on the other side of town, a group of disappointed FDC fans outside the party headquarters threw rocks at a passing truck full of NRM supporters. It was the trigger riot police had eagerly awaited and they responded with volleys of teargas and rubber bullets. The incident was quickly over and Kampala has remained peaceful since.

But Kampala is not Uganda. "To win Uganda", one expert put it, "you need west, central and women." Almost every district in the west, southwest and central regions voted Museveni (with the exception of Kampala where Besigye is very popular with the urban underclass and the emerging middle class alike).

The west is key. Besigye is from Rukungiri, Museveni from Rwakitura, both in western Uganda. The area is Museveni's traditional stronghold and Besigye failed to make a significant dent in the president's support. If Besigye had succeeded in co-opting the support of other ex-NRM bigwigs such as Eriya Kategaya and Miria Matembe – former ministers from the west ejected from Museveni's inner circle for failing to support his constitutional removal of presidential term limits in June 2005– he would have found a stronger following among the predominately rural voters.

Museveni also commands great support among Uganda's female voters as he has claimed the credit for emancipating them, even appointing a woman as his first vice-president in 1994, Specioza Kazibwe. The president is fond of rolling her out at political rallies to prove his credentials as the women's choice.

Besigye's hopes of winning the female vote were dashed by his appearances in court earlier this year on rape charges. Although likely to be found not guilty when the judge gives his ruling on 6 March, the very accusation was enough to plant seeds of doubt about his character.

The results are not all bad for Besigye, however. His 10% increase of support since he last challenged Museveni in 2001 included comprehensive victories in northwest and northern Uganda, wresting the West Nile region from Museveni and defeating the Uganda People's Congress (UPC) in its traditional stronghold. He also ran Museveni close in the hard-fought eastern region.

Also on Ugandan political and human experience in openDemocracy:

Alexander Moorehead, "Hope deferred in Uganda" (June 2002)

Caspar Henderson, "Uganda's hidden war" (February 2004)

Richard Dowden, "In search of Ugandan democracy"
(December 2005)

Jason Parkinson, "Harriet's story: Ugandan survivor, British prisoner" (December 2005)

Richard Dowden, "Yoweri Museveni: running on empty" (February 2006)

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Ending and beginning

This election signals the end of Uganda's old-style sectarian politics, as the candidates for Uganda's two oldest and most traditional parties were crushed at the polls.

The founder of the UPC was the country's first post-independence prime minister (and later president) Milton Apollo Obote. Obote was popular in his northern Ugandan homeland where the Acholi and Lango people never had it so good as under his two periods in office (1962-71 and 1980-85). But for forty-five years (including two decades of exile in Zambia) he ran the party as a family business centred on his own personality cult, and when he collapsed with kidney failure in October 2005 at the age of 80 he left it hopelessly divided.

Unable to agree among themselves on a successor, the UPC elders anointed Obote's widow Miria as party president. Miria's only qualification was having the right surname. It proved not to be enough as she received only 0.82% of the presidential vote.

For as long as Museveni has been in power, northern Uganda has suffered from the brutality of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, and the years of NRM rule have seen a steady deterioration of the northerners' lot. Today 1.6 million of them survive in sprawling camps for internally-displaced people. These marginalised citizens shifted their support to the FDC, pinning their hopes for an end to Museveni's rule on Besigye.

The Democratic Party (DP) did slightly better than the UPC, with its candidate receiving 1.58%. Its elderly leader Ssebana Kizito has performed poorly as mayor of Kampala and failed to convince as a president-in-waiting. Ssebana even struggled to find support among the DP's traditional Buganda and Catholic constituencies.

These could be good signs of Uganda's movement towards a pluralist democratic system, holding out the prospect of the demise of parties relying on ethnic divisions to command support, and the emergence of the more inclusive FDC as an opposition force that may take the government to task in parliament. But as with so much in Uganda, it all depends on Museveni.

Over his twenty years in charge, corruption has become pervasive thanks to Museveni's style of governance through patronage. Meanwhile, the threat of the military being left off the leash is kept in the wings as a means of intimidation. Museveni has become less tolerant of criticism, turning his back on some of his oldest friends and instead surrounding himself with unquestioning loyalists, many from his own clan, and a significant minority related to the "first family" itself.

None of this bodes well for the future. Ugandans may make it through the coming weeks without bloodshed and the FDC could yet emerge as a serious and organised political party rather than just a collection of "anyone-but-Museveni" activists. If so democracy will have taken a step forward. But if the security forces are employed to clamp down on the opposition and Museveni stacks his new cabinet with sycophants from his own tribe, Uganda will have plunged off the path to democracy and will once again be trapped in autocratic, "big-man" rule.

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