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

Monday, February 21, 2011

NO CHANGE!... they say in Uganda.

And so it has proved once again, with incumbent President Yoweri Museveni winning another 5 years in office, which will take his cumulative time in power to 30 years, by 2016. Whilst the fact that Museveni won the presidential election on 18th February came as a surprise to no one, the scale of his victory took even some veteran Uganda commentators by surprise. The final tally gave Museveni 68%, which is a return to his 2001 level of support, and a significant improvement on the 57% he received in 2006. His main challenger, Kizza Besigye, reversed gains made across the previous two elections by polling just 26%, whilst none of the other presidential candidates secured more than 2% each.

As I've argued before, the main story of these elections was one of opposition failure. Certainly, it did not help Besigye that throughout the campaigns, he was frequently harassed by the authorities, and effectively barred from many media outlets. Nevertheless, he also made key strategic errors, in particular in his choice of locations for campaigning, and in the tone of his rhetoric in some areas (for example, in the Southwest, his discourse centred around issues of ethnicity, even though this subject is of no great concern to most voters there).

However, again this, Museveni also ran a flawless campaign throughout, using both his own (extensive) personal charisma, and his control of the levers of state, to great effect. The first element was evident from the beginning, when he kicked off his bid for re-election by releasing a 'rap song' recorded by the fashionable Fenon Studios in Kampala. The song was played on radio stations throughout the country, and played particularly well with young urban voters - a constituency that had previously been a mainstay for the opposition - thus galvanizing Museveni's campaign from the off.

From there, though, Museveni also went on to 'repair' his relations with Baganda voters (who according to some commentators, are historically the most important voting bloc in the country). He achieved this by granting two key concessions. The first was to reopen the Buganda Kingdom's FM radio station, which had been closed since the Baganda-nationalist riots of September 2009. The second was to heavily amend several contested clauses within the Institution of Cultural Leaders Bill - which was passed into law on 31st January - related to the limiting the movement of Uganda's monarchs. Many Baganda felt that the original wording would have overly restricted the activities of their own king, Kabaka Mutebi II.

In the North, too, Museveni also made significant gains among the local electorate. Certainly, this was helped by the largesse he had at his disposal following the notorious 'failed' Juba peace agreement with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in November 2008. Although Joseph Kony infamously failed to sign that peace agreement at the 11th hour, those international donors who had made commitments to the reconstruction effort that would follow its signing still made good on their commitments. Thus, over the last 2 years, tens of millions of dollars of new donor money have been flowing into the LRA-effected parts of Northern Uganda. And as Museveni has moved around those same areas during these campaigns, he left no one in any doubt as to who had to thank for this new money. Yet so too, his rhetoric also seemed more in tune with local concerns over land issues, especially in the potentially most contested areas of Bunyoro. It is for these reasons, then, that Museveni won in all but three Northern districts - an outcome that would have seemed almost impossible even 18 months ago.

Moreover, donor money was not the only largesse that Museveni distributed during these campaigns. In addition, Museveni also gave out 'new district' status to a number of regions (including Kapelebyong, in the east, and Nabilatuk, in the north). This follows his long-standing policy of using increased decentralization - and the new revenues it generates - as a means for satisfying local elites. Elsewhere, the connection between Museveni's campaign and the distribution of state funds was even more direct. My favourite example was from Mbarara Town, where National Resistance Movement (NRM) officials literally handed out cash to trading associations in the town, in return for their support.

In this context, then, the scale of Museveni's victory is not really as surprising as it at first appears. The key questions, then, are how and when Museveni might ever be removed from office? Certainly, this current result would suggest that the opposition momentum which had been built up over a decade or more has now dissipated. Yet if this is the case, then it might suggest that Museveni will simply never be beaten at the polls. Debate continues over whether Museveni might eventually hand over power to his son, Kainerugaba Muhoozi. However, this doesn't seem likely in the short term. In addition, it is possible that he might eventually face some sort of internal challenge from with the NRM (perhaps led by someone such as Minister of Security Amama Mbabazi). However, regime insiders have the prospect of impending oil production and associated revenues as an incentive to remain inside the tent, and it is thus unlikely that they are going to 'rock the boat' anytime soon.

Thus, it is NO CHANGE! as they having been saying in Uganda for many years and, it seems quite likely, will be continuing to say for some time to come.


  1. Oh this is good news, hopefully things will start to change, let's get moving.
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