Last week’s presidential elections in Uganda had a foregone conclusion: “Museveni again…” as one local television station summed it up, nicely capturing the gloomy inevitability of President Museveni’s continuing reign, now to be extended to 35 years. His National Resistance Movement (NRM) party deployed an impressive (if ghastly) arsenal of campaign tactics ranging from cash handouts and threats to withhold social services for constituencies supporting the opposition, to repeated arrests of opposition candidates and outright promises by the NRM to kill anyone protesting election results. The recruitment of so-called “crime preventers”, or youth militias, in the 60,000 villages around the country where the party has an official presence, deserves an honorable mention for the intimidation of opposition parties and their supporters.
Sadly, few of these came as surprises to Ugandans used to similar maneuvers from past elections. And yet, the wide-spread feeling of disappointment and indeed, heartbreak, is palpable – perhaps because this time, Ugandans had several reasons to hope that Museveni might finally be on his way out.
Three factors drove this optimism: 1) the NRM had been recently weakened by an unprecedented number of defections, including former Prime Minister and NRM secretary-general, Amama Mbabazi, who ran as an independent candidate in these elections. 2) With 78 percent of Ugandan citizens now under the age of 30, the NRM’s historic appeal as the party that brought peace and stability to the country after overthrowing Idi Amin’s dictatorship is less relevant for the majority of voters, many of whom were born after that era and have never known a ruler other than Museveni. 3) The threat of reductions in international aid if elections were found to be unfair. Accounting for about 20 percent of Uganda’s annual budget, similar cuts by the international community in 2014 helped to pressure the government into overturning its anti-homosexual law.
Visible manifestation of the voters’ hope for change could be seen, for example, in the support shown to opposition candidates, especially the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC)’s Kizza Besigye, Museveni’s former doctor in the bush war against Idi Amin. Besigye ran – and lost – against Museveni in the past three elections, but the potential threat he poses to the sitting President became apparent in 2011 when he led the popular “Walk to Work” protests against high fuel and food prices. In the lead-up to the elections this year, supporters not only travelled long distances to attend his rallies in droves, but also presented him with gifts of cash and livestock, overturning the pattern of political leaders buying votes.
But on elections day, the 60 percent of the population that did not believe that the elections would be free and fair had its fears confirmed with multi-hour delays in the delivery of ballots to polling sites and rigged ballot boxes, severe restrictions on people’s ability to communicate via blocks on social media sites, and journalists and civilians alike violently attacked with tear gas and pepper spray.
In spite of all of this, about 9.7 million or 63 percent of registered voters managed to cast their ballots with many elections observers praising Ugandans’ determination to vote in the midst of such unfavorable conditions.
But of course, as Adrian Jjuuko, executive director at the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), a local NGO that has been observing the elections, summarized, “the whole [electoral] process is flawed from the beginning, and voting day simply rubber-stamps an already made decision.” Museveni was declared the winner with 61 percent of the vote and the runner-up with 35 percent of votes, Besigye was once again placed under house arrest and at the time of writing, had been moved from his house to an “undisclosed location” after announcing his intention to lodge an official complaint with the elections commission.
There is still a chance that unrest will manifest in the form of riots, and that Besigye contests the elections results in court, as he has done following previous elections (but with little success). Equally likely, however, is that the government will succeed in delaying Besigye’s release until the mass disappointment simply melts into mass resignation.
Feature image via The Guardian.
Raksha Vasudevan is a freelance writer and consultant for the development sector, currently based in Uganda.