It’s election season again – Timothy Kalyegira

Anti-riot police looks on at protestors in Kampala

Almost since the 2006 elections, political campaigning has been going on all over Uganda. This time the stakes maybe higher.

The 2011 general election campaign started almost as soon as the results of the 2006 general election were announced. Campaigning has gone on virtually non-stop since then.

From district chairmanship to parliamentary by-elections to the Local Council III elections, every time they take place, the media coverage of these elections has taken on the appearance of a general election.

Most of 2010 has been dominated by elections. Elections within the parties for what is termed “flag bearers”, presidential candidates, party officials and so forth.

Since the nominations for the presidential elections on October 25 and then the nominations for members of parliament on November 25, the political temperature has soared considerably. It will continue to rise all through this month of December 2010.

Politics and politicking in Uganda today have become one of the largest national industries and almost an end in itself. Politics has turned into a life-and death affair. It is the only occupation in Uganda today where an educated person can legitimately earn over 4,000 dollars a month and gain overnight celebrity status.

It might more properly be argued that it is not so much that politics has grown as an industry as that Uganda has shrunk as a country.

Where in the countryside there were once industries, agricultural and transport cooperative societies and a civil service, today most of that has eroded away.

For example, when the country still had, until 1997, a national airline called Uganda Airlines, the airline operated several airfields in Arua, Moroto, Mbarara, Kasese, Gulu, Jinja, Soroti, and others. These airfields alone provided jobs and auxiliary services to the educated residents in these towns.

Many such government industries and enterprises, like the Uganda Railways Corporation, spread around the country, meant that there was a local economy that absorbed skilled labour.

The erosion of this corporate Uganda from the smaller towns has left them derelict and with no real economic activity and into this vacuum has entered politics as the only vibrant economic activity.

Where in previous decades senior or junior civil servants could retire to their country homes and villages and live on a pension, the pension system has all but collapsed today.

Civil servants, with basic clerical skills and experience in working for government ministries, therefore find themselves idle and it makes sense for them to re-invent themselves as politicians, bringing their years of experience with them to parliament.

Furthermore, when the NRM government came to power in January 1986, Uganda had 24 districts. Today it has 112.

At 112 districts in the country, each of them with several members of parliament, Uganda’s next parliament, the ninth, will have almost as many legislators as the United States House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the U.S. Congress.

This alone makes Uganda, in per capita terms, one of the most heavily political nations on earth.

The combination of an eroded public service and parastatal sector in the countryside and the large number of parliamentary, district, county and subcounty seats, as well as Local Council positions to be filled, has created this overly politicized environment.

Commentators in Uganda’s media and political establishment have blamed the disobedience of party rules to a holdover from the “no-party” days of the NRM from 1986 to 2005.

While partly true, the more accurate explanation could be that of the pervasive and high-stakes game that politics has become today.

There is simply too much to gain (or lose) from political office in Uganda for party rules and directives to stand in the way.

The assumption had been that by creating more and more districts, President Yoweri Museveni would expand his power base by extending the tentacles of his patronage system still further into every corner of the country. He might not have anticipated what this would result in.

An interesting feature of the 2010 campaigns has been that of the NRM party members and officials deciding to run for positions in 2011 as independents, having been warned against that by party chairman Yoweri Museveni and the Secretary General Amama Mbabazi.

Some history is essential in shedding light on the significance of these NRM independents.

In 1996, there was one large, fairly united political party or force in domination of the Ugandan landscape. It was headed by President Yoweri Museveni and brave would have been the person to publicly stand up to him or defy his orders.

When the former minister of state for Defense, Major-General David Tinyefuza, announced in 1997 that he had become disillusioned with the army and wanted to quit, his High Court trial became a national sensation simply because it was unheard of for anyone to openly criticize Museveni.

The public criticism and resignation from the army in 2000 of another army officer, Col. Kizza Besigye, for the same reasons as Tinyefuza three years earlier, received the same national headlines and launched Besigye’s career in politics.

To oppose Museveni and state it publicly made one a national hero.

This homogeneity of political position within the NRM and fear of Museveni continued right until the 2010 primaries. That is the significance of the decision by so many NRM ministers and members of parliament and the party to refuse to heed Museveni’s order for them not to contest the 2011 election as independent candidates.

It indicates the distance the NRM has come over the last 14 years and Museveni’s near-total grip on power. Today, ordinary politicians in small districts can defy Museveni and not fear or care about the consequences.

While every Ugandan general election since and including 1980 has been marked by allegations of vote rigging, never has it been as explicit and carried out in broad daylight as what the country witnessed in 2010

The climax of this came with the primaries and delegates’ conference of the ruling NRM starting in August. No amount of spinning and explaining away could hide this from the public.

The result has been an embittered political class, both within the opposition and the NRM. The Democratic Party delegates’ conference in Mbale almost caused a break up of Uganda’s oldest surviving party.

Bitter and disillusioned NRM cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and parliamentary hopefuls felt that the party either had engineered their losses or had done little or nothing to seek redress.

And, as already indicated, such are the stakes in Ugandan political office that even threats from Museveni to his party members could not deter them from a second try, returning as independents and yet careful not to desert the party altogether.

The splits within the opposition parties in 2010 weakened them, but the greatest damage will be done to the NRM.

Cries of rigging within the NRM were first heard in June 1996 during the general election for members of parliament, but the party (or the “Movement” as it was then called) was still strong enough to withstand this fallout.

What could easily happen in 2011 could be a chaotic election that, for the first time since 1986, seriously threatens Museveni’s grip on power.

Since the presidential and parliamentary elections will be held on the same day, Museveni will vote alone in his home area in western Uganda and all other NRM functionaries, having now realized the threat posed to them by the independents, will vote in their respective home areas.

It is much trickier for them now. It is easy to campaign by denouncing the opposition and highlighting the NRM’s record since 1986. But how does an NRM candidate campaign against an independent who is actually an NRM supporter as well?

What will happen, then, is that the 2011 election for the NRM will be a very individual campaign, down to local tensions and issues, with little reference to the broader national party picture.

Since rigging is a standard feature of Ugandan elections, the nature of this rigging in 2011 becomes important now that it is clear that Uganda is entering uncharted waters.

With most, if not all, NRM officials fighting for their political lives in their villages and home areas, there will be few officials available to coordinate the national campaign.

The only prospect of rigging will have to come from the security forces, be it ISO, CMI, the army, or the police.

However, the bitterness that followed the NRM primaries means that on top of international election observers,

Ugandan civic groups, the news media, and the various opposition campaign agents carefully watching the voting and the counting and tallying of ballots, a new group of election monitors will also keep a close eye on the voting: the disgruntled NRM officials, still smarting from the rigging of the primaries and determined that this time they will not be cheated.

These disgruntled NRM officials will make sure that those who cheated them during the primaries do not get away with it and if this hands victory to opposition candidates, so be it.

With all these factors at play in 2010, next year’s general election could see Museveni announced the winner but with a much reduced or even minority presence in parliament and if the temperature continues to rise as it is right now, the possibility of the kind of violence that followed the 2007 Kenyan election.

By Timothy Kalyegira