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Politics in Uganda: the historicals’ domain

In the end Uganda’s 2016 elections, like their predecessors, did not deliver many surprises. In an increasingly securitised political environment, incumbent Yoweri Museveni and the National Resistance Movement (NRM) emerged victorious in both presidential and parliamentary ballots. The results were contested by opposition groups and delivered by an Electoral Commission whose  impartiality was questioned.

It was Amama Mbabazi who took his complaints to Uganda’s Supreme Court despite only coming third in the poll. The unsuccessful election petition was the third of its kind since 2001, but the first to deliver a unanimous verdict. Besigye, who equalled his best performance in securing 35% of the vote, did not contest the results in court as he had done in 2001 and 2006. Instead he and the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) called for a campaign of “defiance” and an international audit of the results. Besigye was pre-emptively detained before the election results were announced and released a day after the petition ruling was announced – having spent 43 days under house arrest. Confrontations with the police continue. In the last week the Ugandan government has banned media outlets from covering the FDC’s defiance campaign, a move described by The Observer in Uganda as “insidiously autocratic and unjustifiable”.

As Museveni is sworn in on 12 May, attention is increasingly turning to the future direction of Ugandan politics.

Go Backwards?

Former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi endured a tough introduction to life outside the NRM. During the campaign he came face to face with several repressive bills that he had been instrumental in designing and implementing when in government. Museveni and the NRM recognised the potential threat Mbabazi posed.  In a worst case scenario they envisaged him securing enough of “their” votes to force a second round.

Deliberate, and sometimes violent, targeting of Mbabazi’s campaign succeeded in reducing his share of the vote to just 1.4%, lower than most expected when he first announced his candidacy in July 2015. By voting day the fight seemed to have drained from a man who as well as suffering at the hands of the state failed to capture public support. In an interview with The Observer, Dr Sabiti Makara, a political scientist at Makerere University, remarked that Mbabazi was “an office worker who would work well in a bureaucracy. He does not connect well with the masses”.

This point was exemplified during Uganda’s televised presidential debates. Mbabazi appeared uncharismatic and unsure as to where exactly the middle ground he sought was to be found. He struggled to win over opposition voters because of his long and close involvement with the regime; and many party supporters would not forgive him for his ‘disloyalty’ to Museveni. Among NRM voters I spoke to on election day there was almost as much glee regarding Mbabazi’s poor performance as there was for Museveni’s victory.

A return to the NRM fold for Mbabazi is a possibility, but he would no longer be viewed as a likely successor to Museveni (as he was after the 2011 elections). By allowing Mbabazi to stand and then doing all he could to ensure that his bid failed, Museveni robbed him of electoral credibility for the future. “Mbabazi is a spent force”, Patience Akumu, a freelance writer and lawyer, told ARI.

More of the same

For Museveni, a 7% decline in support from 2011 could be interpreted as a sign that the “steady progress” promised in his party’s manifesto holds less appeal for an increasingly youthful population. With 78% of citizens born after he came to power, and with an unemployment crisis looming in the country, the president will need to pursue a more inclusive economic strategy in the next five years. Promising, and delivering, 18 million hoes may be a successful vote-winning strategy in rural areas, but it will not deliver the sort of agricultural transformation which the NRM has been promising since it first came to power. It might also be advisable not to rely so heavily on a historical narrative that casts him as the man to bring peace to Uganda after decades of instability. For an increasing number of young, unemployed Ugandans this is a history they do not share.

By 2021, of course, a presidential age limit in Uganda’s 1995 Constitution would technically prevent Museveni from standing again. But with the NRM holding more seats than the two-thirds majority in parliament required for constitutional amendments, the removal of that impediment remains a distinct possibility; although Museveni would have to find a way of doing so that is acceptable to his party, keeps donors onside and secures a certain level of popular support. That would be no mean feat and might be attempted by packaging a number of constitutional amendments together. The removal of the presidential age limit could, for example, be accompanied by a reintroduction of term limits – a ploy reminiscent of 2005 when term limits were scrapped at the same time as multi-party democracy was introduced.

If Museveni steps aside, internal competition to succeed him will inevitably be fierce, with no obvious successor now that Mbabazi has been rendered unelectable. The replacement could come from within Museveni’s own family: both his son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, head of the Special Command Forces and his wife, Janet, the former Minister for Karamoja Affairs, have been mentioned. If a family handover were not extremely well managed it would spark further factionalism within the NRM, small signs of which were observable in the last parliament and in Mbabazi’s high profile defection. For now, “those who attempt to challenge Museveni from within the NRM will end up like Besigye and Mbabazi”, Peter Mwesige, Executive Director of the African Centre for Media Excellence, told ARI; “if they don’t jump they will be kicked out”.

The inner workings of the NRM are fascinating, if poorly understood. NRM primaries were one of the most violent features of the election campaign. According to Andrew Mwenda, managing editor of The Independent, internal conflict at the local level was in fact a sign of the NRM’s strength and opposition weakness. Many of the most contested parliamentary seats pitted NRM candidates against NRM-leaning independents. Independent MPs will number 47 to the NRMs 268 in Uganda’s tenth parliament and although they will be inclined to support Museveni, their loyalty will come at a cost.

The 2016 elections highlighted the increasing fluidity of the movement. With a new cabinet to build after 17 ministers lost their seats, there is space for the new generation of NRM MPs to exert greater influence in shaping the party’s future. In the meantime, “everything is determined in the (NRM) caucus – they then use the numbers to beat the rest”, says Flavia Nassaka, a journalist at The Independent, citing the recent sole candidatures of the speaker and deputy speaker of parliament.

Sustaining opposition

Besigye and the FDC have been where they now find themselves before. In 2006 they polled 35% of the vote. Five years later, they secured 27%. Whilst in 2011 the government benefited from a groundswell of support brought about by the end of conflict in the north, the challenging economic conditions currently facing the country could be to the FDC’s advantage – if the party can plan and operate more strategically.

Youth are often reluctant voters in Uganda, but on paper they were the largest voting bloc in 2016 – 42% of voters were aged between 18 and 30. This predominance will be greater still in five years’ time. If the FDC could secure the support of younger voters at school or through youth clubs, there would be the foundations for a nationwide grassroots network. Since its creation in 2004, the FDC’s lack of community-level party structures across the country, particularly in rural areas, has proved to be a major obstacle to its development and expansion.

The legacy of the “movement system” in Uganda means that the reach of the state and the NRM – the two have become increasingly interchangeable – extends down through the five tiers of local government to the village level. In 2016 the FDC won just 31 parliamentary seats, fewer than it held in the ninth parliament, and the party failed to post candidates in 91 of the 290 constituencies. In local government elections the parliamentary outcome was replicated: the NRM won 82 of the 112 district chairperson seats. To become a more forceful opposition in day-to-day politics and exert real pressure on the NRM, the FDC would need to increase its presence in the legislature considerably.

Who will be the party’s flag bearer in 2021? How can the FDC move on from Besigye’s populist leadership whilst also maintaining – or improving – its support? These are key questions for leading FDC figures to consider. Having stood and failed to win in the last four elections, Besigye risks turning the presidential race into a personal duel and dominating opposition politics the same way Museveni dominates the government. Perhaps it would be wise for him to step down but remain closely involved. His track record of courageous opposition to the regime and genuine popular support is extremely valuable. According to Mwesige, “the charisma of Besigye is important, but without better organisation and strong institutions the FDC can’t easily uproot the entrenched NRM”.

If it is to run Museveni more closely, the FDC might benefit from a leader who can combine Besigye’s popularity with greater political dexterity; persistently drawing attention to where the regime is failing to deliver basic services in a way that is less combative than the current approach. The party’s current leader, Mugisha Muntu, is widely seen as a good strategist but lacks popular support because he is also perceived as more inclined to dialogue than defiance. Perhaps Winnie Byanyima, a former MP for Mbarara Municipality and wife of Besigye, who was increasingly vocal during the 2016 campaign, could fit the bill. “There is a subtle Byanyima 2021 campaign going on”, Patience Akumu told ARI; “we in the women’s rights movement in Uganda certainly would like this…and Byanyima would actually give Museveni a run for his money”. However she, like Mbabazi, Muntu and Besigye would not represent a radical change; Byanyima too holds historical connections to ‘the movement’.

Uganda’s 99%

The three ageing men from the West of the country who have dominated the political sphere for so long are not representative of contemporary Uganda. While the 2016 elections have highlighted the highly polarised character of politics, they also underscored the fact that Uganda is experiencing rapidly increasing socio-economic pressures for which none of the political parties have proposed realistic policy counter-measures. Development in Northern and Eastern regions is lagging behind that of the West and Central and un- or underemployment alongside the poor provision of basic services is the reality for many Ugandans. In the immediate aftermath of the election Museveni made several visits to hospitals for unannounced spot checks and promised “many more jobs of different categories”. But it is questionable whether anything will come of the rhetoric; and who will hold the government to account if it does not?

“People will say that the government should tackle the rot in the health sector, in education and improve infrastructure, but this can’t happen if our leaders are not accountable”, says Flavia Nassaka. Noting the increasing tendency of politicians to secure political appointments for their relatives, she told ARI that “Uganda is moving in the direction of dynasties; even the opposition are doing it”. If that is the case Patience Akumu may be proved right in her belief that “change in Uganda is not about to come from pseudo MPs who hardly represent the will of the people. It will come from Ugandans”.

Significant progress has been made on many fronts under Museveni and the NRM since 1986. But if politics continues to trump proactive measures to address the needs of contemporary Uganda and ordinary Ugandans, this progress is at risk of stalling; and that would ultimately have profound consequences for political elites and the political landscape.

Jamie Hitchen is Policy Researcher at ARI