An anthropologist's take on Uganda and the Great Lakes region...

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Besigye raises the temperature

Kizza Besigye should be doing better in the current campaigns. Having eroded Museveni's share of the vote across the last two presidential elections (Museveni received 75% in 1996, but only 69% in 2001 and 57% in 2006), everyone - including Besigye himself - anticipated another strong showing this time around.

Moreover, in late August, Besigye emerged from the nominations as the sole Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC) candidate, and therefore in his strongest position ever. At the time, the IPC was made up of Besigye's own Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) as well as the Uganda People's Congress (UPC), the Justice Forum (JEEMA) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Besigye secured the nomination after seeing off a strong challenge from UPC leader Olara Otunnu, thanks in part to a major strategic error that Otunnu made in the latter stages of the nomination process, by calling for the IPC to withdraw from the election, in protest at the perceived bias of the Electoral Commission (EC).

Otunnu's suggestion to withdraw may well have been influenced by recent events in Burundi, in which opposition parties similarly withdrew from the June 2010 presidential polls, in a move which significantly undermined incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza's eventual victory. However, in Uganda, the very suggestion of just pulling out appeared to contradict the main opposition parties' proud democratic traditions (which are most keenly felt among Otunnu's own UPC). After all, most opposition groups had even stayed in through the notorious December 1980 elections, long after it became clear that those polls were badly flawed. Thus, although most members of the IPC, including Besigye himself, have long decried the EC's connections to the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), Otunnu's plan was flatly rejected by the IPC, and by large sections of the UPC. Otunnu later withdrew from the IPC, to stand for the presidency on a UPC ticket. However, a number of UPC MPs, led by former party leader Jimmy Akena, announced that they did not support him, leaving his challenge dead in the water.

With Otunnu out of the picture, Besigye was well positioned to mount a strong challenge against Museveni. However, his campaign has faltered from the outset. Certainly, a significant factor has been his near-constant harassment by the authorities. Moreover, the IPC has been in effect blocked from many media outlets (in one example, the IPC Campaign Bureau claimed in mid-December that nine regional radio stations had refused to carry any opposition content whatsoever. In addition, Museveni himself is running a much better campaign this time around than many had expected.

Nevertheless, Besigye has also made a number of key strategic errors. Firstly, in mid-September, he chose to launch his manifesto in South Africa, in an effort to appeal to the international community, and to the Ugandan Diaspora. By doing so, he presumably hoped to bolster his backing in the event of another contested election result (Besigye eventually won a partial High Court victory over the 2006 election, when it was ruled that 'irregularities' had taken place in those polls). However, in light of the Otunnu affair - during which Besigye was in effect forced to confirm his faith in the EC (he went on to say on radio that there will be 'no rigging' in the current election, and that he will not contest this result through the courts) - the move to South Africa now appears to have been wasted.

Secondly, Besigye has made a huge mistake in these campaigns by concentrating his own campaigning upon the rural areas. The problem is that much of the IPC's appeal to date has been to a mainly urban base (especially of young, educated voters), and thus may not address rural concerns. This was highlighted, for example, during Besigye's recent campaigns in the north-west, during which he spoke a great deal about the distribution of future revenues from the region's recently discovered oil reserves. While this issue will affect the political landscape in years to come, few people in the rural areas would today regard it as nearly as pressing as, say, the region's land issues.

As a result, then, Besigye's support has slumped in recent opinion polls. His response has been to file a High Court injunction, compelling the EC to postpone the elections, on the basis that as many as 4 million new voters will not have been issued with voter cards by the time of the 18th February polls. The move was a new tactic, in that it again attacked the EC, although this time not for its bias, but for its incompetence. However, the injunction was rejected, the High Court ruling that the elections can go ahead without the voter cards.

It is in this context, then, that over the last couple of weeks, Besigye's rhetoric has become more confrontational, and he now claims that the IPC may withdraw from the elections after all, given that the elections will be rigged. This latest move is doubtless designed to renew his appeal to the international community, and to the Diaspora. However, in light of his previous rejection of these same arguments when Otunnu made them, and his own subsequent statements about his faith in the electoral process, the current rhetoric sounds quite peculiar indeed. In addition, in recent days Besigye has sought to raise the temperature still further, by raising the spectre of Egypt, by referring to the current government as a 'dictatorship', and by making oblique references to 'popular unrest'.

If tensions continue to rise here, then Uganda may well be in for a bumpy few weeks. We will find out soon enough.


  1. For all the latest election news follow the links to The Independent's blog - Uganda Talks - from

  2. Uganda's case is very special. No way can an opposition candidate be allowed to occupy the presidency. Don't get me wrong, not by the people, but by the army. The army is too privatised. For instance, the PGB, which is a special force of 13, 000 strong armed force, is set up specifically set up to guard the president, his family, and now, after the discovery of the oil deposits, it is the force that guards the oils fields. It is more funded and better equipped than the usual Uganda Army. Its high command is pro NRM and its commander is Museveni's own son. Now tell me, with Ugandans' selfish attitude and vindictiveness, will such an army salute Besigye, or even take up to guard him if he wins? Kenya's case, during the Moi- Kibaki handing over, was a unique case, and made so by the professional nature of the Kenya Armed forces. That is my perception on Uganda, I hope I am wrong.

  3. Very interesting article, great stuff.
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  4. I think you've got it spot on Benny, thank for your insight!
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  5. Well I agree that "Nevertheless, Besigye has also made a number of key strategic errors." don't you?
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