Uganda’s 2016 elections: same same but different?

Who are the candidates? What are the issues? Will it be fair?

The three frontrunners: Kizza Besigye (left); Amama Mbabazi (centre); Yoweri Museveni (right). Credit: Kizza Besigye; Stephen Wandera/UNDP; GCIS.

The three frontrunners: Kizza Besigye (left); Amama Mbabazi (centre); Yoweri Museveni (right). Credit: Kizza Besigye; Stephen Wandera/UNDP; GCIS.

Uganda is currently gearing up for presidential and parliamentary elections on 18 February in which President Yoweri Museveni will be contesting for a fifth term in office. Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) first came to power in 1986 after an armed struggle, and the 71-year-old incumbent is vying for his third presidential term since 2005 when the multi-party system was re-introduced and term limits were lifted. In 2011, Museveni garnered 68% of the vote, improving on his 2006 election win with 59%.

Nine candidates are competing for the presidency this time around, although it is essentially a three-horse race. Museveni is, of course, one frontrunner; Kizza Besigye, a long-time opposition leader and retired colonel, who will be running for the fourth time on the ticket of the largest opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), is another; and completing the leading pack is John Patrick Amama Mbabazi, a former Prime Minister and former NRM Secretary General, who will be running under the GoForward banner.

The Mbabazi candidacy

For most voters, there may be little new about this year’s campaigns. Familiar logics of patronage, vote-buying, and intimidation are at play. There are grand promises, cash hand outs, and arbitrary arrests. And the much debated Crime Preventers – youths trained by police for apparent security purposes – are but another new security outfit springing up before elections to help ensure the regime’s mobilisation of support runs smoothly as per usual.

Yet there is something very different in 2016 too. For the last 15 years, Ugandans have become accustomed to elections following the same plotline in which the fervent Besigye challenges Museveni in a two-way contest before ultimately losing in the face of the NRM’s quasi-hegemonic control over the state and its resources. But the entry of Mbabazi has upset these familiar logics.

An NRM lead diplomat during the bush war who later occupied various posts in cabinet and intelligence, Mbabazi was the key architect of the NRM’s decade-long control over the state. Most recently having served as Secretary General of the party from 2010 to 2014 and Prime Minister from 2011 to 2014, his network of supporters pervades the cabinet, security agencies, public service and party structures. Mbabazi is also held to be extraordinarily wealthy and, while widely thought to be corrupt, has been cleared of past corruption allegations by the courts.

Once Mbabazi’s rumoured presidential ambitions were taken as a fact by State House, the former confidante’s demise was plotted. Six months after the parliamentary caucus endorsed Museveni as the NRM’s sole candidate in February 2014, Mbabazi was unceremoniously sacked as PM (and replaced by his close friend and ally Ruhakana Rugunda); and in December 2014, he was also removed as NRM Secretary-General by the delegates’ conference.

Mbabazi’s major weakness is that there are few people who like or trust him, in the NRM and opposition alike. It is Besigye who attracts the crowds and, according to controversial surveys, is polling at 30%. Nonetheless, it is Mbabazi who keeps the regime on its toes. Besigye is a known threat and what Mbabazi fails to evoke in affection, he makes up for in respect and fear of his reputation as a brilliant strategist.

Early failure of a united opposition

While the defection of Mbabazi and others may have raised hopes for a stronger opposition, ambitions to form a united front failed early on. The Democratic Alliance (TDA), launched days before Mbabazi declared his candidacy in June 2015, aspired to bring together the opposition under a joint candidate. But the plan hit a snag when the various factions failed to agree on which candidate to support.

The TDA’s woes reflected the mistrust many harbour for Mbabazi, but more importantly underscored the internal divisions within many parties.

In the biggest opposition party, the FDC, rifts between those who support Besigye, the populist and sharp-tongued long-time opposition leader and presidential candidate, and those behind Mugisha Muntu, the more diplomatic party president. In former President Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), competing claims for the party presidency have left the party paralysed, with the group led by Obote’s son Jimmy Akena recently declaring its support for Museveni. And within the Democratic Party (DP), leader Norbert Mao has thrown his weight behind Mbabazi, while the popular, dethroned Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago and his supporters are backing Besigye.

Aided by the defection of some members to the NRM and prevailing mistrust of Mbabazi, the TDA alliance had all but fallen apart by October 2015, leaving Besigye and Mbabazi to run separately – Besigye on the FDC ticket, Mbabazi under the GoForward platform.

The NRM’s internal woes

Despite the failure of a united opposition and his lack of popular appeal, Mbabazi still strikes fear in State House. His challenge from within and then defection exposed a movement that has long been struggling with the failure to fully transform into a cohesive political party. It is notable that after the fraught party primaries, at least 60 NRM MPs (including seven current cabinet ministers) decided to run as independents in the parliamentary elections after losing internal contests to be the party’s flag-bearer.

Another internal conflict arises from the struggle surrounding Museveni’s eventual succession. Since the overwhelming 2011 election victory, there has been a simmering debate surrounding allegations that Museveni is grooming his son and head of the powerful Special Forces Command, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, as his successor. This story climaxed in 2013 when a letter by veteran general David Sejusa warning of assassination plots against those who opposed the “Muhoozi project” was published by the press. Two major media houses were shut down, the military was reshuffled and Sejusa went into exile.

On the economic front, there are also concerns for the NRM. The promise of quick oil wealth has waned with production now projected to start in 2022, while large infrastructure projects such as the Standard Gauge Railway, the oil pipeline, and the hydroelectric power dams and major road construction are lagging far behind. Furthermore, with a rapidly growing population of which about 80% are under-30, many youth are jobless. An economy still based on small-scale agriculture has failed to absorb the large number of graduates into the economy.

Securing the youth vote

Presidential candidates’ election promises mainly revolve around job creation, boosting agricultural performance, teachers’ pay increases, improvement of the ailing health sector, and veterans’ welfare. But constituting the biggest share of eligible voters in 2016, the youth takes centre stage in candidates’ mobilisation efforts.

Within the NRM party, it was the youth league that first openly disintegrated over the Museveni-Mbabazi rivalry, and factions of the party youth have since exploited the ongoing contest by defecting and re-defecting to each camp, presumably picking up attractive incentives in the process.

Besides the disbursement of youth development funds throughout the country, the regime has also sought to bind the youth vote through large-scale recruitment into so-called ‘crime preventers’, a police-trained volunteer force that assumes vague public security functions.

In terms of regions, it is eastern Uganda that has topped candidates’ campaign agenda. The region is perceived to be a nurturing ground for the opposition and has been in the spotlight over a series of killings of Muslim sheikhs and alleged recruitment and training by ADF rebels in Busoga over the past two years.

The Electoral Commission and police in spotlight

After the failure of substantial electoral reforms, the Electoral Commission (EC) has been in the spotlight over allegations of manipulating of the electoral process.

In September, the EC initially blocked Mbabazi’s voter consultation programme, alleging a breach of the controversial Public Order Management Act (POMA). In December, the EC Chairman warned that he would bring in the army if necessary to deal with Besigye’s “campaign of defiance” which he deemed unconstitutional. And the voters register compiled by the EC linked to the contentious national ID project has been accused of being fraught with errors and its constitutionality is being petitioned in court.

After the brief simultaneous arrest of Mbabazi and Besigye on 9 July 2015 en route to different public functions and clashes between police and GoForward supporters in Soroti and Jinja in September 2015, the police have largely let opposition presidential candidates conduct their campaigns freely. At one point, few believed this would be the case, expecting Mbabazi to be jailed, charged in court, or even assassinated. But the government has learnt its lesson from 2005 when Besigye’s popularity was boosted after he was arrested and dragged to court over questionable charges of rape and treason. The government’s worry about Mbabazi’s possible international backers and his revelation that he had enlisted 500 lawyers who would defend any of his supporters may have helped too.

Nevertheless, police misconduct still abounds, with the public undressing of a female opposition politician in October 2015 making international news. Dozens of cases of arbitrary detention have been reported, and Mbabazi’s top security aide has been reported to be in detention by the GoForward camp. Furthermore, since Besigye visited a dilapidated health centre in Abim, northern Uganda, and a nurse who was in attendance was fired – a story that received wide media coverage – candidates have been prevented from accessing public service facilities by police guards.

Crime preventers and local militias at the centre of violence

Sabotage and violence at rallies appears mostly instigated by the crime preventers and other locally-recruited militia. Crime preventers have throughout 2015 been a matter of debate and criticism in parliament and the media. The police reports having trained up to 1.5 million civilians, mainly male youth, to support local law enforcement and carry out public order functions at polling stations.

However, since their inception in 2014, cases of extortion, robberies, and other violent crime have earned these youths the nickname ‘crime promoters’. Many see the crime preventers at the centre of potential large-scale violence surrounding the elections.

In Ntungamo, western Uganda, the so far worst campaign violence occurred between NRM supporters whose attempts to disturb an Mbabazi rally were violently repelled by the latter’s campaign youth.

The spectre of unrest and violence extends beyond the elections though. In 2011, excessive government spending during the election season heightened inflation, causing commodity prices and transport fees to skyrocket, ultimately triggering popular “walk-to-work” protests that were met with heavy handed response from the security forces and left at least five people dead.

Zero-sum game

With six weeks to the polls, much is still unclear. Mbabazi’s apparent tactics of delay and last minute declarations to keep the regime in the unknown about his strategy has many left wondering whether Besigye and Mbabazi will eventually join forces at the polls. And yet, however hopeful for change they may be, most Ugandans one speaks to on the streets have little doubt about who will win these elections.

State control has been used as a little veiled threat by Museveni who in drastic statements – such as “I own all the money in Uganda” – has warned voters that electing an opposition candidate would deny their constituency access to government funds. One friend who is relatively critical of the regime is running as a parliamentary candidate on an NRM ticket simply because it’s the only way one is able to deliver services to the people. And as a young voter in Northern Uganda told African Arguments: “This time I am not going waste my vote. This time I am voting NRM so that my village will also get some new roads.”

Voters make rational calculations in what they see as a zero-sum game. This has got the NRM more votes than love in the past and may well do so again.

Anna Reuss is a freelance analyst and researcher based in East Africa. She is pursuing a PhD in political science at the Universities of Ghent and Antwerp in Belgium.

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16 thoughts on “Uganda’s 2016 elections: same same but different?

  1. Anna Reuss has attempted to write a balanced article on the impending Ugandan Presidential elections. However a few things need to be put into context notably the issue of crime preventers. The idea was borne out of the desire to fight all forms of crime including common crime, organised crime, politically motivated crimes and terrorism. Uganda has been particularly targetted by terrorist groups including Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab because of Uganda’s role in stabilsing Somalia. In order to fight these threats Uganda was froced to involve as many people as possible in popular security programmes such as the creation of crime preventers. It is not true that crime preventers were formed as a militia group for the ruling party.
    It should also be borne in mind that there are no organised political militia in Uganda. What has been confused for militia are actually some hooligans who have been trying to create chaos under the guise of being political activists. However many of these lawless elements are usually identified through the vigilance of security organs including crime preventers and dealt with according to the law. The Government of Uganda, which has seen what havoc
    militia groups have created in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Central African Republic (CAR), Somalia, Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, can never tolerate the existence of such groups in Uganda.
    On the issue of bribing voters, no one political party or individual can claim the monopoly of such acts. In fact all political actors have been guilty of this vice albeit in varying degrees. If President Museveni has used the power of incumbency to popularise himself and his party I don’t think such a scenario is unique to Uganda. The world over politicians use the power of incumbency to their advantage. Those in opposition have also used incentives at their disposal to bribe voters. It appears some of Museveni’s personal jokes are taken too literally! Many Ugandans know Museveni as a man whose speeches are full of anecdotes, jokes, proverbs and the like in addition to serious statements. Some of his tongue-in-cheek statements could be misinterpreted by those who don’t know him well or deliberately misinterpreted by his opponents. Hence the assertions that he intimidates voters on public rallies with promises of financial incentives and service delivery.
    It would be unrealistic to apportion blame for intimidation of opponents on any one single political party. President Museveni has complained about intimidation of his supporters as have Kizza Besigye and Amama Mbabazi. Any one who lives in Uganda knows how much freedom Ugandan residents enjoy. I have travelled to all countries in this sub-region and I can competently say that Uganda enjoys the greatest freedom in the region. Uganda is perhaps the only country in this region where foreigners stay without being intimidated in any way. This can be attested to by the existence of hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring countries.
    Perhaps the writer herself has summarised what is the likely outcome of the presidential elections when she quotes several people stating that this time they will not waste their votes. Perhaps what the writer might not have got from her sources is the fact that some presidential candidates like Kizza Besigye had earlier on discouraged their voters from registering for the elections when they asserted that the elections had been rigged and were just a sham. By the time they changed their minds damage was already done and some of their supporters did not register. Who do you blame for that?
    As a general observation President Museveni has very loyal support in rural areas where the majority of our people live. This support is premised on the following factors: peace and security throughout the country; provision of basic social services such as compulsory free primary and secondary education and establishment of health facilities in rural areas; construction of tarmac roads linking all major towns in the country; poverty alleviation programmes. There are some issues which the general populace is not happy about notably corruption. However Museveni as an individual has never been accused of any form of corruption unlike some of his opponents whose names were linked to some corrupt dealings. This has put Museveni on a higher pedestal vis-a-vis his opponents.

  2. By all means, the dictator M7 will do what is at his disposal to rig the elections. He has trained the militia’s the so-called crime preventers working with his brutal police to intimidate the opposition. We pray Trump becomes the president as he said, he will arrest M7 and Mugabe to save Uganda and Zimbabwe.

  3. Your analysis is good and extensive but it does not pay sufficient attention to the cases of real police brutality and violence. Opposition leaders are denied the chances to campaign openly, access to public facilities denied, and even venues for their rallies closed or taken over by regime elements in connivance with police. This morning I read of a story where a public venue for Mbabazi was suddenly condoned off, and he was told he could have his rally in a bushy area 5 km away. Why and how could people walk this far? It is not a fair climate, and talk of a free and fair election is just talk.

  4. I think we are discussing a subject which Mr Museveni and Dr Badru Kiggundu have from under the table, put to rest. How else could one explain the source of Kiggundu (chairperson of the Electoral Commission) moral authority to threaten opposition candidades : ”I will deploy the army to deal with you”?

    To all of you friends of Uganda, I tell you there ‘s so much poverty, so much trauma and so much adversity in our lives in Uganda. SINCE 1980 to-date, millions upon millions of Ugandans have lived in the sub-basements of the social structure. They are the ‘’have not people’’. They are discriminated against, sickened, handicapped; they are outcasts in their own land; materially & psychologically they are foreigners to their own country’s wealth and prosperity; they are taunted and haunted by knowledge of an abundancy which never reaches them! Massive embezzlement, endemic corruption, and senseless spending on non issues, have locked them out of the economic picture. They are ROBBED OF ANY SENSE of individual worth and dignity. They are cut off, forced to live outside the rest of society, deprived of the sense of belonging. Summarily, they ARE PERENNIAL VICTIMS of an endless thick cloud of frustration, so thick and deep and enveloping that hope is lost in the abyss of unrelenting mindboggling stagnation and the stammering about trivial excuses which ensues!
    And that is why:
    Angered by the reality of a perennial cruel furnace of poverty and its associated mindboggling symptoms;
    Unsure and sceptical and cynical about the empty promises being made by politics of vulgarism,
    we launched the CRUSADE AGAINST POVERTY & STAGNATION on 29th December 2015 across the country. We have mobilised and continue to mobilise resources and ideas to fight poverty from the East, North, West and Central.
    No one should stand in our way as we aim to crush the enemy number one of Uganda!

  5. Fairly well research article. The use of state resources including the civil service by Museveni at the disadvantage of the other presidential candidates need more attention.

  6. Compatriots and friends of Uganda, one of the best prisms thru which to see Mr Museveni’s nauseating failure to help the country is here:

    There is little or no effort to help us as a people, to take pride in ourselves, and develop a “can-do-it attitude”, our traditions have not changed towards encouraging self-help and reliance on one another. The wealth of Uganda ought to be created by Ugandans in the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship, alongside the realities of globalization. But again with such mind-blowing corruption, nepotism and near buffoonery in decision making, few can expect real wealth creation to happen in our life time. Even on small fronts like reducing poverty, Mr Museveni has done badly:
    His PAPSCA program made little sense, (PAPSCA=Program for Alleviation of Poverty and Social Cost Adjustment). The Entandikwa economic program failed badly; the YES (Youth Enterprenuership Scheme) died before it started; ‘’Bonna bagaggawale’’(Wealth for all) is not taking off! Now to complete the cycle of foolery, someone from his govt, a very senior, bold headed man, was heard promising to buy hoes for the people to get out of poverty! This is very unfair. We are running out of patience! We have to take the fight to another level.
    We shall not wait for him to grow hair all over the body like a chimpanze before we push him out by force if need be!!

  7. Thanks Anna Reuss for a very good article about the political campaign in Uganda. Your article was articulate and to the point. The local media especially Tv stations look compromised as of late they are giving wide coverage to one candidate ie President Museveni leaving the rest out or even relaying only their weak moments in campaigns. we need more of such balanced articles that goes beyond our borders. Thank you once again.

  8. Thanks Anna,
    Your article really gives a quick snapshot of events that have come through the campaign period that we have so far had but there is a lot more to the realities that you highlight. That young man in the North you talked to is doing only what the first sense would tell any one. How dare you not vote for the almighty president who owns all the money in Uganda plus the oil that took hundreds of years to form?
    Past experiences however show a different reality and you can advice that young man (if you still have his contact)because he seems frustrated like most Ugandans are; let him know that even in places where NRM is voted 100%, there are still bad roads, sickening health care and education system etc and so let his vote not give him false hope less he breaks down with another load of frustration.

  9. Dear Anna Reuss, i would like to congratulate you upon this comprehensive article. Indeed it explicitly details what is happening in our country(Uganda) right now. Many people seem to be stuck in this political quagmire, an unfortunate environment freedoms of assembly, association etc. have been curtailed using the so-called Public Order Management Bill. We call upon the international community to rein in on our greedy leaders.

    I wish you success in your PhD studies.

  10. The dictator want to die in office. He is worse than any living or dead dictators . He is a killer a thief and a corrupt thug. Goes out and buys love with sacks of money.

  11. Thanks Reuss, The international community has to pay attention and send officials to supervisor election process and not wait until situation turns violent.

  12. But you accuse M7 of anything ask your that was their any election in Uganda before if it’s true then how was those people opposing the at that time when Mbabazi still in gov’t being treated by himself because he was the engine of NRM according to some of you but to me I kwon that Ugandan vote M7 as a person not as a Leader of NRM if it was true then which ever polling station M7 have won it will also apply to the NRM MP which is not true, but back to the point of Mbabazi’s allegation harassing his support and opposition at larger is what Mbabazi did when to others when he was still in gov’t so let him feel it also

  13. This article, while great on several points, relies a lot on cliches about some of the candidates and Ugandan political figures. Many of the assertions display a lack of depth that is characteristic of outsiders writing about Ugandan politics. A Ugandan journalist would have done more justice to this.

    To substantiate:
    1. Kizza Besigye’s character and politics is more mature and principled than what this writer calls populist and sharp-tongued.
    2. No one knows how popular Lukwago is outside Kampala.
    3. Mbabazi had the backing of every other party in the TDA apart from FDC. She makes it seem like he was mistrusted, yet he was clearly the more popular option in that coalition, managing to even attract some FDC members.
    4. Uganda does not have large numbers of graduates. They are miniscule compared to the large number of youths, as a total percentage.
    5. What is that stuff about the Eastern region being an opposition stronghold? There is no proof that the Muslim leaders are being killed by people from the East. Most of them have actually been killed in Kampala. And heck, no one knows yet who is killing the clerics.

    I could go on, but I could not read this to the end. It is misinformation and based on conjecture more than anything else.

  14. if all we can die when musevin is going its chip than all to stay when he is the presdent of uganda and we are ready to die becose of da dictator but he is going this tym hopelesss man

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