Graph from http://www.monitor.co.ug
On Friday, Ugandans went to the polls in Parliamentary and Presidential elections for the first time since the controversial 2006 vote. The results are another resounding victory for President Yoweri K. Museveni. There is now a growing fear that President Museveni has secured presidency for life. In this special edition of A Crowing Hen, I reflect on Uganda’s political past and speculate on why President Museveni continues to win elections.
Until 1986, Uganda was essentially seen as a country of failed political process. The table below (click to enlarge) illustrates that 6 out of 9 heads of state were deposed by military coup or armed rebellion. One head of state – Milton Obote – experienced this fate twice. It is also worth noting that Uganda has had five heads of state that served for less than a year. Between July 1979 and January 1986, Uganda had 7 different heads of state. Essentially, Uganda has traded one military rule for the next since the Kabaka was deposed in 1966.
Given the twenty years of instability from independence to 1986, it is no wonder that many Ugandans prefer the relative stability under President Museveni’s 25-years. Despite his shortfalls and political hypocrisy – President Museveni has managed to bring Uganda into consistent GDP growth (double-digit in some years) and tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Are President Museveni’s successes over the last 25 years so great? Besides aiding GDP growth and battling HIV, President Museveni’s rule has also led to almost no change in access to improved sanitation, skilled health staff for child-birth, or malnutrition for children under 5 years old.
How Uganda can see its first true democratic transition of power
President Museveni’s successes have been limited and come at the expense of his personal credibility. He began the “bush war” in 1980 because he disagreed with fraudulent voting practices that brought President Obote into power for the second time. At the beginning of his tenure, President Museveni ran on a platform of limited authority and anti-Big Man politics. In his inaugural address, he claimed,
“The problems of Africa, and Uganda in particular, are caused by leaders who overstay in power, which breeds impunity, corruption, and promotes patronage.”
In 2005, President Museveni and the National Parliament of Uganda passed measures to end the “movement” (essentially a one-party) system and have multiparty elections. But this was at the expense of something far more important. According to former Uganda officials, that same year the president bribed MPs for as little as $2000 USD to remove term limits from the Constitution. It seems that after 20 years of fighting for solutions, President Museveni enjoyed the fruits of incumbency so much that he felt compelled to become part of Africa’s problem.
While there is growing opposition to President Museveni, the NRM still overwhelmingly controls national politics. In Friday’s election, voices for change were spread across seven candidates who ran against the president. The president’s greatest opponent was his former doctor, Dr. Kizza Besigye of the FDC party, who took 37% of the vote in 2006 and 26% in 2011. The limited footprint on the National Parliament for opposition is also indicative of how fractionalized opposition cannot offer a solid threat to the incumbency. Below is a table of party composition of the 9th National Parliament of Uganda due to begin session after May 2011. The NRM only lost one seat to opposition in Friday’s election. Without unification, there can never be democratic transition for Uganda. Ghana provides an excellent example of how unified opposition has led to the ouster of a Big Man, and consistent alternation of power.
Of course election irregularities no doubt helped President Museveni secure his fourth term. The Daily Monitor, a private newspaper in Uganda, reported live text feed from election sites nationwide. These showed irregularities in the voter registrar which led to an untold number of voters being turned away at polling stations. Changes in polling venues caused confusion for many Ugandans as well, including candidate Dr. Besigye who had to go to two separate locations before he could cast his vote. While Dr. Besigye had no transport issues moving from venue to venue, other Ugandans without the financial means are likely to have given up on voting when told to go to another location. Some districts reported that ballot boxes arrived unsealed and hours late. Voters refused to vote until they were provided with sealed ballot boxes. Others reported bribery and ballot stuffing at polling stations. And there were several incidents of violence, some of which included spats between candidates for office.
There are two other critical issues if Uganda is going to see democratic transition. Currently, only Ugandans living within the country’s borders are allowed to vote. Citizens cannot cast their votes absentee or at consulates abroad. This is no small number – over 1 million Ugandans live in the Diaspora. Second, (and probably the most difficult step) President Museveni’s extensive patronage networks must be broken up. Patronage for the NRM is not just about receiving material benefits; for many it is also an exchange of vote for security. As mentioned previously, Uganda was considered a political wasteland before President Museveni’s forces marched on Kampala in 1986. Many Ugandans still remember the dark days when they either had a brutal tyrant or weren’t sure who was president because it changed so frequently. The NRM has brought stability. And they feel that it is only right to keep them in power. Opposition candidates can promise security, but without any record of providing this, there are still swaths of Ugandans who would prefer to back a known winner.
But there are also deeply rooted patronage systems in the traditional sense as well. Elliot Green (2010) found that President Museveni has used district creation as a means to maintain his patronage networks and to make up for lost resources due to donor imposed reforms. The number of districts in Uganda has increased from 39 to 80 in less than ten years. Green argues that this district creation has helped President Museveni maintain office. In addition, Mwenda and Tangri (2005) have argued that the incessantly high foreign aid flows to the Government of Uganda have fueled patronage networks.
“High levels of foreign aid have provided the government with public resources to sustain the patronage basis of the regime. Moreover, in a context where wide discretionary authority was conferred on governing elites in the implementation of reforms, public resources could be used in unaccountable and non-transparent ways to help the government maintain its political dominance (Mwenda & Tangri 2005).”
Unification of opposition, absentee voting systems, and better oversight from the National Election Commission could help voters overcome President Museveni’s extensive patronage. This election showed some promising growth in civic engagement and knowledge – especially in areas where voters could openly see signs of ballot box manipulation. Missing names from voter registrars (despite having a registration card) and unannounced changes in polling stations can only be tackled by the election commission itself. Allowing the Ugandan Diaspora to vote will take some maneuvering by the National Parliament. But ensuring free and fair election will only go so far with a fragmented opposition movement. Until these various pieces of the puzzle can be lined up, there is little doubt that President Museveni will remain in power until he decides to leave.