Is Museveni losing it?

Museveni launching his 2011 election manifesto.
Museveni launching his 2011 election manifesto. File Photo.

Kampala, Uganda | By Timothy Kalyegira | It is just over a year since Uganda held its general election of February 18, 2011. Much has happened in the 12 months that have gone by and it is appropriate to review this period.

In the 1996 general election, the NRM’s candidate Yoweri Museveni was declared the winner with 75 percent of all votes cast. In 2001, this figure dropped to 69 percent and was down a further 10 percentage points in 2006 to 59 percent.

In the 2011 general election, Museveni’s final tally unexpectedly reversed the declining trend and was declared at 68 percent.

Many analysts interpreted this rise in Museveni’s 2011 election to all sorts of developments, from it being a “peace dividend” after the ending of the civil war in Acholi to the rising incomes and Museveni’s effective election campaign .

A few weeks after the election in April 2011, the opposition political parties in a loosely agreed coalition and later made more concrete under the group called Action4Change, launched a series of protests that came to be dubbed “Walk-to-Work”, a campaign intended to show solidarity with Ugandans over the high cost of living and basic commodities.

In political spirit, “Walk-to-Work” was also meant to send a message to the ruling NRM government that the results of the election were in dispute and also to commiserate with and offer hope to opposition supporters that the announcement of the election results was not the end of the dispute.

Many neutral observers and many in the general public dismissed this “Walk-to-Work” effort — in which key opposition leaders decided to leave their vehicles at home and walk the distance to their offices — as a seeking of publicity and act of desperation by the opposition, fresh from election defeat.

The supporters of the NRM government regarded this as a threat to the state and a legitimately elected government in an attempt to emulate the “Arab Spring” at that time raging in North Africa.

The opposition supporters disputed the NRM’s claim to have won the election. A few more outspoken among the opposition did not hide their wish to see a mass national uprising and many in the opposition pointed to the high inflation that was making life difficult for the average person. At the time, this was always going to be a contentious issue.

Both the opposition supporters and critics were right in the way they viewed this protest campaign. However, some facts started making themselves clear.

On the day of the swearing-in of president-elect Yoweri Museveni, a crowd turned up at Kololo Airstrip for the ceremonies, but a crowd about five times larger lined the Entebbe-Kampala highway to greet and show support to the FDC president Dr. Kizza Besigye who that morning was returning from Nairobi where he had been flown for treatment following a ghastly attack on his car during one of the “Walk-to-Work” days.

The heavy police deployment in most parts of Kampala City that had started in January continued right through 2011 and more than a year after the election, have become a semi-permanent sight in Kampala. This partly was an admission that the victorious NRM sits uneasily in power, knows from its intelligence assessments that widespread civil discontent is real and, given the chance, a massive uprising is not impossible.

One of the first significant indications of this public attitude came in Makindye Division in Kampala City. The election for the Local Council III seat, a much more localized, village footpath office, was won by the Irish-born independent candidate Dr. Ian Clarke, proprietor of International Hospital Kampala. The fact that Clarke is white and cannot speak Luganda did not deter the Makindye locals from electing him into office. During their house-to-house effort, Clarke’s campaign agents declared, in Luganda, that “We are tired of thieves who have done nothing for us”.

This simple message resonated within the Makindye residents, once one of the best boroughs of Kampala but, like most of the city, reduced progressively to raw sewerage, mud, shanty houses, piles of garbage, congestion and heartbreaking poverty.

The residents of Makindye, most of them Baganda, had apparently suffered and were desperate enough to try anything that worked, or they thought could work and being European, there was the perception that Clarke would bring the generally recognized western work ethic and perhaps honesty that they could not find among Ugandan leaders.

Then came other more concrete indicators of the political mood.

The post-2011 by-elections

After the results of the Entebbe Municipality were disputed and a by-election called, the seat was won by Muhammad Kawuma of the opposition Democratic Party. Entebbe is the town that plays host to State House, the official residence of the head of state.

Another by-election took place in Busiro North constituency and was won by the former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya of the NRM. On the face of it, Bukenya’s victory proved that the NRM was still popular at least in parts of Buganda.

However, further probing suggests that the Busiro North residents voted for Bukenya as the individual and not the party he represented. He had been dropped as Vice President and humiliated by being sent to Luzira Prison over his alleged role in the embezzlement of money intended for the 2007 Commonwealth summit in Kampala.

There was much murmuring about the government’s double standards in jailing Bukenya but leaving free others named in the CHOGM probe who came from western Uganda. Bukenya himself recently seemed to echo this sentiment in Buganda following the resignations of two ministers Edward Khiddu Makubuya and Syda Bbumba over illegal payments to Kampala businessman Hassan Bassajabalaba.

Bukenya was quoted by the Red Pepper tabloid as saying “Museveni favours westerners.”

Then in the most significant by-election of all, the seat for the Luwero District Woman was won by Brenda Nabukenya of the Democratic Party. Luwero, as most people know, is the place where in 1981 the National Resistance Army (guerrillas) led by Museveni set up their operational headquarters and political home as they waged their war against the Milton Obote government.

Luwero is the home of the NRA/NRM in the same way the Emirates Stadium or Old Trafford are to Arsenal Football Club in London or the latter to Manchester United Football Club.

That the NRM could be defeated in any election major or minor in Luwero spoke more vividly than anything of how much resentment against Museveni has taken root in Uganda.

Last month yet another by-election, this time in Jinja East, was won by Paul Mwiru of the FDC.

What was significant in these Entebbe, Jinja and Luwero by-elections was that President Museveni personally campaigned on behalf of the NRM candidates and for his personality and prestige of office to be ignored by the voters alone told the story of the Uganda that the Action4Change knew exists.

By late 2011, the economic conditions that the Action4Change had warned about, if they had not been obvious before, now became clear.

Inflation reached 28.3 at some point. The shilling came close to 3,000 against the U.S. dollar and businesses premises started to require payment in dollars. Daily newspapers increased their cover price by 300 shillings to 1,500.

The purchase of Russian-made SU-30 fighter-bombers a few months after the election and supposedly as a deterrent against a future war (yet during the election campaign, candidate Museveni and his team had declared that the Acholi civil war was over and Uganda was at peace with its regional neighbours) rubbed salt into Ugandans’ wounds.

In July 2011, President Museveni visited Rwanda and donated $300,000 to a school in Kigali (after Ugandan teachers who asked for a pay rise were told there was no money).

Details leaked in October of documents that purported to show that the UK-headquartered oil firm Tullow Oil had paid bribes to some leading politicians.

Finally, when news went public that Basajjabalaba had been given yet another of the seemingly endless stimulus payments by the government, this time 147 billion shillings, it was too much for Ugandans to take.

By the end of 2011, the overwhelming national outcry against massive corruption had created an odd situation where the anti-corruption drive was seemingly led by members of parliament of the NRM.

Several ministers ranging from John Nasasira to Sam Kutesa, Mwesigwa Rukutana, Kabakumba Matsiko and now Bbumba and Makubuya have resigned since the 2011 election.

Judging from columns and letters in newspapers, feedback into radio and TV studios and the cynicism on Facebook and Twitter, the national mood by February 2012 was one of complete disillusionment and anger at the NRM government.

To many Ugandans, especially Baganda, there is a particular bitterness about the fact that Bbumba and Makubuya were forced to resign for making payments that had first been cleared by the president but somehow the man who received these massive payments remains totally free of any charges or orders to refund the money.

The reason Nathan Igeme Nabeta, the NRM’s MP for Jinja East had been stripped of his seat, in the first place, was because he was found to have bribed voters in the February 2011 election and had lacked the requisite academic qualifications to contest the seat.

However the NRM still returned this candidate, even with that record, an indication either of the NRM’s disregard of the law or their lack of credible candidates at this stage.

By this time, the national collapse that the “Walk-to-Work” organizers had warned about had almost become an understatement. The electricity shortage continued to be part of everyday life. The 50 MW of power switched on at the Bujagali Dam has not had any impact on the power crisis.

First printers along Nasser Road and Nkrumah Road staged a one-day strike protesting at the power shortage late last year. They were soon joined by the Kampala City Traders’ Association, then Makerere University lecturers, then taxi drivers and operators.

The international airline Gulf Air announced it was pulling out from the Entebbe International Airport route because the passenger numbers were too low to justify the costs.

What keeps President Museveni in the relatively good books of the West is his value to them on the geo-political fronts of Somalia and South Sudan for which the West lacks an immediate alternative.

The picture of Uganda in March 2012 is of a country barely clinging on to normalcy, barely able to pay its bills and barely able to get anything done.

Museveni’s amusing musical improvisation during the 2011 campaigns “You Want another Rap?” even to many in the NRM, now seems so embarrassingly long ago.