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As elections sweep Africa, Uganda stands out

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, center, departs a reception for leaders attending the US Africa Summit on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. The gathering was hosted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. President Barack Obama and his administration are trying to strengthen ties with Africa, grappling with issues such as investment, poverty, terrorism, corruption and deadly diseases.
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, center, departs a reception for leaders attending the US Africa Summit on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. The gathering was hosted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. President Barack Obama and his administration are trying to strengthen ties with Africa, grappling with issues such as investment, poverty, terrorism, corruption and deadly diseases. AP

More than 20 African countries will hold presidential elections in 2015 and 2016. In most countries, democratic politics is as recent as 1990 for Ghana, the continent’s model democracy.

Because of that, the lead up to elections in Africa is a time of anxiety and uncertainty.

An erstwhile peaceful country could easily slump into chaos as happened in Kenya in 2007 when almost 1,500 people died in a macabre ethnic disagreement over election results.

A dictatorship can organize the elections, win by 97 percent or more, and justify its stay in power leaving the citizens in fear of rising up — it happened in Teodoro Obiang Nguema’s Equatorial Guinea in 2002 and 2009.

As the wave of democratic elections sweeps the continent, a look at Uganda, which heads to its fifth multi-party general elections in 2016.

American ally

Uganda was the United States’ go-to ally in the fight against the Al Shabab terrorists in Somalia and the end of war in South Sudan. The East African country’s leader was praised by former President Bill Clinton as a “new breed” of reform-minded African leaders during his visit 17 years ago.

With 28 years in power, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni stands out as the longest serving president not only in Uganda but also in East Africa.

He came to power in 1986 after a five-year protracted guerilla war in which 500,000 people are estimated to have died. He waged the war after rejecting as flawed the outcomes of the 1980 general elections in which he had contested for the presidency.

He had warned that he would opt for a gun if the results did not favor him, reasoning that the then incumbent political party, UPC founded by the late Apollo Milton Obote, also the country’s founding father, couldn’t organize a free and fair election.

The gun gave him the presidency after he overthrew the UPC system, sending Obote into exile in Zambia, where he died 2005.

Uganda has never tested a peaceful transfer of power, save for 1962 when Britain gave it independence.

At the time of the five-year war, Uganda had slumped into a failed state status, infested with military coups and undemocratic changes in government.

All the eight presidents before Museveni were militarily ousted, including Gen Bazilio Olara Okello, who ruled for just two days as Chairman of the Military Council — a de facto head of state

After taking power, Museveni ruled for 10 years without organizing elections, under the guise of restoring the economy.

International pressure forced him to start organizing elections and he has since organized five.

However, his support has diminished: from 75.5 percent of voter support in 1996 to 69.4 percent in 2001, 59.26 percent in 2006 and up again in the last elections in 2011 with 68.38 percent.

The opposition has accused Museveni of vote stealing through military intimidation and vote buying, in all the elections.

Unable to reach out to the masses, the opposition has slipped into personality politics, dousing itself in internal wars and fights for political status.

The incumbent is actually weak, too, organizationally but strong enough for his opponents who are lost in narcissistic wars.

“Personality politics is exciting during the campaign but it is the ability with which ordinary people see their problems to be addressed by the campaign message that they can whittle away the power of an incumbent, especially one who is only strong because they are sheltered by the hard shell of executive power,” said Angelo Izama, Kampala-based analyst and Stanford University visiting scholar.

Uganda has four major political parties: the Democratic Party, formed in 1954 but has never produced a president; the Uganda People Congress, formed in 1960, producing the country’s first prime minister and later president Dr Milton Obote.

The two are not only financially crippled but have a chronic leadership problem. In 2012, for instance, UPC’s Olara Otunu went the full length of the campaigns but didn’t vote saying he did not have faith in the process.

The most recent parties that are also at the center of the current politics are: National Resistance Movement, formally the political wing of the National Resistance Army that brought Museveni to power and the Forum for Democratic Change formed in 2004.

FDC has been led by former NRM cadres since its inception. Dr Warren Kizza Besigye, who remains the country’s leading opposition leader, was Museveni’s personal doctor during the so-called “bush war” and served as the system’s political ideologue and minister before falling out with it.

The current party leader, Gen. Mugisha Muntu, was the country’s Army Commander and one of Museveni’s most trusted soldiers before he crossed to the opposition.

That has caused the party to be looked at as a mere extension of the ruling party, an accusation the NRM has taken advantage of — portraying it as merely a team of disgruntled impatient NRM members.

NRM, on the other hand, has put all the power into its party leader and country’s president, whom they say is the only visionary leader and the only person capable of leading Uganda.

Party legislators in Parliament have passed laws that give him unlimited executive powers allowing him to do as he pleases, including having free access to public funds.

With that hard shell of power, Museveni has toured the country popularizing his party’s policies and handing out money to youth groups, and to farmers’ groups, under the auspices of sensitizing Ugandans on wealth creation and poverty eradication.

Meanwhile, the opposition is stuck in the city, unable to actively campaign because the election does not officially start until July and it is illegal for politicians to hold public meetings.

Strong challenger

If the opposition chooses to go to the polls in its current situation, it will not inflict any killer punch on the incumbent. Voting will remain what Izama calls “just a highly publicized ritual.”

“Like an upcoming music concert — its effects are limited to the political economy of organizers, vendors, T-shirt sellers, groupies and hangers on and fans,” he said.

The opposition needs a new face, one that not only understands the incumbent’s system but can easily rally the masses around a message of hope.

One of the top contenders is John Patrick Amama Mbabazi, the country’s former prime minister.

Several youth groups have, in an attempt to tap into the current animosity between Museveni and Mbabazi, trooped to Mbabazi’s home begging him to contest the presidency.

Mbabazi served in various ministerial positions, including the powerful ministries of defense and security, where he was nicknamed super minister because of the enormous power he had, before becoming prime minister.

The downside of an Mbabazi candidacy, says Tabu Butagira, a political journalist in Uganda and Fulbright scholar argues, is that Mbabazi comes with a public image albatross.

“He is the man who fervently pushed through two controversial legislations — one authorizing the state to tap citizens’ phones and another requiring mandatory Inspector General of Police permission for any political gathering.

“These undercut his democratic credentials, making him a burden especially that the two laws have rendered the opposition ineffective to mobilize,” he says.

Appetite to fight

Although such undemocratic tendencies were violently protested in Senegal, Ivory Coast and other countries, Ugandans have not only lost much of the appetite for violence, but have succumbed to Museveni’s psychological manipulation, Butagira says.

Voters in the village have been made to believe that a change in government will take them back to the insecurity of 1970s and 80s where people used to be killed on the streets.

That peace, Museveni is always quick to point out, has helped put in place a growing economy from a GDP of $3.3 billion in 1986 to $24.70 billion today.

As Butagira says, Museveni is the better devil the middle class and majority Ugandans (villagers) who turn at the voting both know while the opposition remains the angel they don’t know.

“They would rather keep him in power, even when he has ruled for 28 years than push him out and plunge into the unknown,” he said.

Isaac Imaka is an Alfred Friendly Press Partners Journalism Fellow at the Miami Herald. He covers politics for the Daily Monitor in Uganda. Follow him on Twitter @IsaacImaka.

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