A vote for difficult stability on the cards as Uganda goes to the polls

BLOG – Richard M. Kavuma works for the Ugandan newspaper The Observer. In this blog he explains one of the commonest problems Ugandan voters talk about when they face eight presidential candidates in the February 18 elections.

At 28, Francis Engole is fit to be called a child of the much-heralded revolution that shot Yoweri Museveni into power in Uganda thirty years ago. Engole was born two years after Museveni captured power, following a five-year-guerrilla war. Yet this youth from Ongiino, in the eastern Uganda district of Kumi, cuts a despondent pose, a month before Museveni asks Ugandans to extend his tenure in State House to 35 years. Engole says the youths in his community are living hand to mouth because of unemployment. ‘There is no work for us,’ he told Uganda’s Observer newspaper in mid-January. ‘We just look for odd jobs to survive from one day to another.’

Nearly 430 kilometres away from Engole, in the central district of Masaka, lives Rose Nakanjako, a thirty-year-old farmer and housewife. As a keen supporter of President Museveni’s National Resistance Movement, Nakanjako exudes measured optimism about Uganda’s prospects. She says the government has done a ‘fairly good’ job, although she is deeply concerned about the chances for young people in her area. ‘When it comes to jobs for young people, we have all but given up any hope. Parents struggle to take their children through institutions where they get diplomas or certificates, but once they graduate, they realise there is simply no work,’ Nakanjako said by telephone on February 6. ‘If you are lucky, you get a job as a domestic servant. Imagine a diploma holder working as a house girl and getting paid Shs 60,000 (16 euro) a month!’ Nakanjako says some parents are losing interest in pushing children through school. The young men in her area are either operating bicycle or motorcycle taxis, or doing subsistence farming. ‘But the farming is so difficult because inputs are very expensive because of government taxes. And when someone has harvested passion fruits, down here in the villages the prices the traders offer can make a farmer cry,’ Nakanjako says.

Youth employment

Engole and Nakanjako are talking here about one of the commonest problems Ugandan voters talk about when they face eight presidential candidates in the February 18 elections. Indeed they say youth unemployment could be one of the major factors that will determine whether people choose NRM’s Yoweri Museveni, Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), or former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi. Once Museveni’s chief enforcer and most powerful minister, Mbabazi, is running for president after he was dismissed from government and leadership of the ruling party, the NRM, in 2014. These three, according to opinion polls, are leading contenders for the presidency.

In Uganda, like in many other developing countries, reliable, official unemployment data is hard to find – in part because what often passes for employment is nothing but disguised joblessness. For instance in the countryside, all youths engaged in subsistence farming will be captured in national data as employed. Still, some studies suggest Uganda’s youth unemployment rate could be among the worst in Africa. According to Lost Opportunity? Gaps in youth policy and programming in Uganda, a report by the nongovernmental organisation ActionAid, 62 per cent of Ugandans aged 15-24 are unemployed. Other sources suggest the figure could be above 80 per cent.

Engole says unemployment and biting poverty is one reason he is supporting FDC candidate Besigye. Nakanjako, for her part, says the issue is not clear cut, Rather voters’ choices – whether to vote Museveni or either of his two rivals – may be influenced by age and gender. ‘The women and the elderly people are likely to base their vote on peace and they will vote for Museveni. They say at least they have peace. They keep telling us that “you young people did not see wars before Museveni brought peace”,’ Nakanjako says.

Peace and security

The theme of peace/security – just like youth unemployment – comes up across the country. Before Museveni, Ugandan had endured the traumatic years of dictatorship under Idi Amin. After Idi Amin, the country transitioned to government of Milton Obote, which took power amid loud accusations of vote rigging in 1980. But Obote’s five years in power were marred by the civil war that swept Museveni into power.

And some critics point at the irony that by waging war against an elected government, Museveni and his National Resistance Movement/army rebels unleashed debilitating violence on Uganda, before they emerged to declare themselves princes of peace and stability. It is an irony lost on many, especially rural voters. And peace remains key bait, for Museveni to get the vote. The challenge with the peace-bait is that people like Nakanjako and Engole who were born as, shortly after, or shortly before, Museveni came to power, do not remember some of the battles. Indeed, with the exception of eastern and northern Uganda, much of the country has been peaceful over the last three decades. And so, some younger voters are asking more questions.

‘Many youths want change because they do not have jobs,’ Nakanjako says. ‘Youths are likely to vote for one of the change-candidates. But if someone is working and is doing well, that person could vote for Museveni.’

Voting polls favour Museveni

Whether voters base on jobs or peace, all opinion polls conducted so far have President Museveni in the lead, followed by Kizza Besigye and Amama Mbabazi. In mid-January, for instance, the New Vision newspaper released a nationwide poll that gave Museveni a 71 per cent lead. Besigye had 19 per cent and Mbabazi had 6 per cent. Not surprisingly, according to the poll report, 56 per cent of those who said they would vote for Museveni gave peace and security as the overarching reason for their choice. Among other reasons in Museveni’s favour were the economy, health services, education sector improvements, his experience in political management, emancipation of women and Museveni’s improvement of the road network.

Interestingly, most of these are also reasons Ugandans critical of Museveni give for not favouring him. For instance, in an article in The Observer newspaper in January, Margaret Aguti, a 25-year-old graduate in the Katakwi district of eastern Uganda complained about the poor road network. ‘Last time when it was raining, you would actually not plan a journey on a rainy day because you first have to remove your shoes, lift your clothes and then move,’ Aguti was quoted as saying.

The demographics, then, seem to point to such factors as whether someone is older or younger, working or unemployed, educated or illiterate and – quite significantly – living in the countryside or in one of the major towns.

The rural urban divide is important because according to the New Vision poll, Besigye’s best ratings were in the capital Kampala (23 per cent), while Museveni’s lowest ratings were also in the capital city (61 per cent). This seems to follow previous trends, where the opposition has done better in urban areas (which tend to have better educated and more literate voters) than rural areas. Between 70 and 80 per cent of Ugandans live in villages.

Ultimately, an analysis of voter preferences suggests that collectively, there are not that many different factors that will determine the outcome of this election. It becomes a sort of referendum on whether Museveni should continue in power or whether Uganda is ready for a new leader. To the extent that peace and stability seems regarded by many Ugandans as the foundation on which other public goods can be enjoyed, this election appears to be Museveni’s to lose.

Museveni has previously declared that he cannot hand over power to opposition ‘Wolves’ to tear the country a part, and that he is not ready to retire at this time. To many Ugandans, this could be interpreted to mean that even if he lost, he would not go. That portends conflict. And the polls suggest that rather than face the prospect of conflict over power, even disenchanted, jobless Ugandans would rather vote for difficult stability.

Richard M. Kavuma is the editor of
The Observer newspaper in Kampala.

Richard Kavuma

10 februari 2016