The Ugandan capital Kampala was tense on Wednesday, ahead of President Museveni’s swearing-in ceremony on Thursday. Key opposition leaders have been placed under house-arrest and prevented from leaving their homes. However, Dr. Kizza Besigye, Museveni’s most credible challenger for the presidency, somehow ended up in the city centre on Wednesday, causing both excitement among the city dwellers and panic among the deployed soldiers and policemen. The opposition Forum for Democratic Change has insisted that Besigye won the February 18 elections; and as Museveni swears in for this 5th term, the FDC will also be trying to ‘swear in’ Besigye. In a bid to prevent the latter, there is heavy deployment of soldiers and police in the city. Richard M. Kavuma looks at Uganda after Museveni’s latest election.
On May 12, Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president of the last 30 years, was sworn in for this 5th elective term, the whiff of scandal from a shambolic election notwithstanding. It is nearly three months since the Electoral Commission declared Museveni winner of the February 18 polls with 60.7% of the vote; but the intervening period raised more questions than answers about Uganda’s democratic credentials. According to the EC, Dr Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change got 35.6% of the vote, ahead of third-placed Amama Mbabazi with 1.4%.
These results were immediately rejected by the two major opposition candidates, and with some justification. Ugandan polls have a woeful reputation, but 2016 seemed to have all the contingencies of a flawed, even fraudulent election. Hundreds of thousands of potential voters in the major opposition strongholds did not vote because the Electoral Commission inexplicably delivered the polling materials suspiciously late. There were anecdotes of multiple voting, intimidation by armed security, ballot papers pre-ticked in favour of the ruling party, and even candidates being declared winners without accompanying results.
Afraid that the FDC would declare its own results and possibly call for street demonstrations, the government effectively placed Dr Besigye under house arrest, locking him up each time he tried to leave. Most journalists and visitors to his home were routinely turned away, including third-placed Amama Mbabazi.
Former premier Mbabazi had reportedly considered filing a joint petition with Besigye, urging the Supreme court to cancel Museveni’s election victory. But with Besigye out of reach, Mbabazi went it alone.
As Mbabazi filed his court petition, I wrote on Twitter that Mbabazi had gone to court to get a judgment determined by the precedents of 2006 and 2001. In both years, Besigye challenged Museveni in general elections and came second. In both cases he went to court and presented evidence of noncompliance with the law and use of the state machinery to tilt the process – and the result – in Museveni’s favour. In both cases court acknowledged the evidence of electoral irregularities. In both cases court said the rigging was not substantial enough to warrant cancellation of Museveni’s victory. And so, on March 31, 2016, Uganda’s Supreme court followed its own precedent, declaring that petitioner Mbabazi had failed to provide enough evidence that Museveni and the Electoral Commission had conspired to substantially steal the election.
Interpreting court’s wisdom, even if all the voters who were denied the right to vote had voted; even if no single ballot had been pre-ticked in favour of Museveni; even if no potential voter or candidate had been intimidated by security; even if social media had not been blocked by the government on election day, which meant opposition polling agents could not transmit results to their party offices – even if none of these had happened – Museveni would still have won. The NRM was relieved.
But reacting to the ruling, a retired Anglican bishop said court had only confirmed that NRM were good thieves – good at hiding their tracks.
Even before the election day, the government had jailed one of its most acerbic critics, General David Sejusa, who fled into exile in April 2013 before suddenly returning a year later. Sejusa was court-martialled for participating in partisan politics, and denied bail. With Besigye under house arrest and Sejusa in jail, diplomats and human rights activists upped the pressure on Kampala. Perhaps most critical was the American ambassador in Kampala, who complained so loudly she soon had the Ugandan government attack dogs after her. Yet Malac did not go as far as Samantha Power, Washington’s ambassador to the UN, who accused Museveni of being a liability to Uganda.
It was not surprising when, the day after the Supreme court ruling, Sejusa was released on bail and the police announced it would withdraw from Besigye’s home. In between, the FDC, of which Besigye was the founding president, has been holding a series of “free-my-vote” protest activities. They include prayers at the party headquarters every Tuesday. In a move criticized by some members as too passive, party honchos have been appearing to the press, pictured while on their knees to seek divine intervention. Uganda’s case, said one observer, is the case of God. To add pressure, the FDC called for nation-wide peaceful protests on May 5 to demand an international audit of the 2016 election results.
As the country held its collective breath, on April 30, the government went to deputy chief justice Steven Kavuma and secured a court order banning all free-my-vote or ‘defiance’ activities.
Dozens of defiant opposition leaders and supporters have since been arrested across the country as they protested Museveni’s impending swearing-in ceremony.
The government has now banned live media coverage of FDC protest activities, with the information minister arguing that reporting about activities in defiance of a court order is tantamount to violating the court order. The media, diplomats, human rights activists, opposition and about anyone with a semblance of autonomy have attacked the media ban. But the government is in defiance – as it fights FDC’s ‘defiance’.
It is in that defiant mode that Museveni prepares to start the next leg of a journey that will take him to 35 years in power. Already a sense of déjà vu is starting to return to Uganda’s political life: the opposition, decrying another rigged election, attempts to protest but is defeated by the police – led by a serving army general – with standby backing from the military. There are already renewed calls for reforms to overhaul Uganda’s electoral systems and make political competition fair. But Museveni won’t be keen on reforms meant to make it easier for him to be defeated.
Yes, there will be some reforms – but only those that Museveni wants or doesn’t really mind. For instance, according to the Constitution, one can’t become president if they are over 75 years old. Museveni is officially 72. That means he can’t stand for reelection in 2021, when he will be 77.
If, as expected, Museveni still wants to rule after 2021, he will be expected to easily get parliament – dominated by his ruling NRM party – to amend the national Constitution to remove the presidential age-limit. On the economic front, it means largely continuation of the same problem-riddled “steady progress” (Museveni’s 2016 campaign slogan).
Progress there has been in the last 30 years, only it has hardly been steady. More children in education, but they can barely read or count; more universities, but many graduates are not better than secondary school kids; sustained economic growth, but the benefits of growth are guzzled by a small minority; more transport infrastructure, but many rural households wallow in poverty – with nothing to transport to the markets. Free medical care in public hospitals, only that many decaying facilities have no doctors, no medicines. There is increased tax revenue and public infrastructure expenditure, but quality and timelines are held back by endemic corruption. According to the budget framework paper and the recently approved budget for the 2016/17 financial year, the government will continue to prioritise transport (18.7% of the budget), energy (11.7%) and education (12%) sectors. The government, in a bid to tackle rampant household poverty, is also sinking huge sums in free agricultural inputs and planting materials, as well as microloans for women and youth groups.
There are no guarantees these efforts will change the plight of the average Ugandan – they were already in place but the real impact is difficult to gauge. Already, in its April economic outlook, the IMF has warned that economic activity is at its lowest in the last 15 years, and commodity-exporting countries such as Uganda face tough times ahead.
But for Museveni, the eyes must already be on election year 2021.
Richard M. Kavuma is the editor of The Observer newspaper in Kampala.