Parties to the fore

Photo: Craig Morey

BACKGROUND – Benon H. Oluka works as a journalist for Ugandan newspaper The Observer. With the general elections coming, he writes about gauging the pulse of political parties in Uganda’s elections.

After Margaret Aguti completed her tertiary education from Kyambogo University in Kampala in 2013, she returned to her home district in northeastern Uganda and attempted to secure money from a government youth fund to start an income generating activity.

However, the 25-year-old failed to get the funds, apparently because of her political affiliation. Aguti belongs to the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), the largest opposition political party in the country by parliamentary representation.

Aguti told this writer that the implementers of the programme would screen prospective beneficiaries in a bid to ensure that only youth formally registered with the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) secure the funds. ‘Before you benefit, they will first ask you which party you belong to. Then they will claim that it is NRM party which is bringing that support and yet the money belongs to the country,’ she said.

Pushed against the wall, Aguti is fighting back by contesting for the position of district female youth councilor in the 2016 general elections. She wants to advocate for the rights of all youth in her district to benefit from programmes designed for them but from which some are excluded. ‘It is not that I want to use that position to benefit myself. I want to benefit someone who is just like me who was also excluded just like me. At least all young people should be involved in youth programmes, not just a small group of people,’ she said.

Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world, many of who were born from 1986 when incumbent president Yoweri Museveni captured power. A considerable number of those Ugandans are now of voting age and, according to veteran journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo, they are making electoral choices with an eye not just on their future, but also on that of their children.

‘They became of majority age in 2004 and cast their first votes in the 2006. In that election, they were voting about their future – whether they would have a job, and so on,’ notes Obbo, a long-term commentator on Ugandan politics. ‘However, between 2008 and 2012, many of them became first time parents…. It is the first time they (and remember young people represent the largest chunk of the Uganda population) are voting in an election where they are thinking about the future of their children.’

Content of the campaigns

The changing dynamics in Uganda’s population demographics have largely shaped the tone and content of the 2016 campaigns at most levels, with the different political parties compelled to articulate their programmes for ordinary Ugandans in greater detail than before. Gone are the days, for instance, when Museveni and NRM would ride on their past track record of stabilizing the security situation across the country after years of turmoil. Today, the most pressing concerns for the majority of Ugandans revolve around the unavailability of enough jobs, safe water, better infrastructure and improved health and education services.

In a statement dated December 21, 2015, President Museveni noted that in some parts of the country, his campaigns had taken the form of ‘normal consultation meetings’ where people get the opportunity ‘to complain about NAADS/OWC, complain about roads, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) excesses, the floods and water logging of the soil, the fisheries staff that extort money from the people, etc, etc.’ In other places, where the services provided by his government have had an impact on the lives of the people, Museveni said the rallies are ‘good natured and celebratory.’

Museveni’s NRM has premised its campaigns on the slogan of ‘steady progress,’ with their key message being that despite the administrative shortcomings, Uganda still needs the incumbent’s experience to build on the foundations his government has laid down. ‘Anybody serious and not malicious knows that the numerous problems Uganda had could not be solved at one go.  One by one, makes a bundle,’ Museveni notes.

But Museveni’s opponents argue that his government has reached the end of its tether and Uganda needs a new leader. Former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, who broke ranks with Museveni after the two worked together for four decades, says Uganda needs ‘accelerated progress’ rather than ‘steady progress’ to meet the needs of its citizens.

The FDC presidential candidate, Kizza Besigye, who has faced Museveni in three elections before, accuses ruling NRM functionaries of wastefulness and failure to curb corruption, which has resulted in neglect of the majority. ‘Uganda is a very rich country,’ he told supports at a rally in Kyarumba sub county, Kasese district, promising to double the salaries of public servants such as teachers and medical workers. “The money is there. It is the way they have been using it that is bad.”

Political strides

At the start of presidential Museveni’s tenure thirty years ago, he banned political parties, reasoning that they fermented divisions along tribal and religious lines. It was not until 2006 that Uganda held a referendum that paved the way for the return to multiparty political competition. Since then, despite the government’s continued attempts to choke political parties using military coercion, opposition groups continue to gain more wriggle room. Today, there are at least thirty registered political parties in the country, although less than ten are active.

Out of the eight presidential candidates, four represent political organisations while the others are independent. The four organisations are NRM, FDC, People’s Development Party (Abed Bwanika), and Uganda Farmers Party (Benon Biraaro).

The independent candidates are Mbabazi, Maureen Kyalya, Venansius Baryamureeba and Joseph Mabirizi.

At parliamentary level, only the ruling NRM was able to field candidates in all 402 constituencies countryside. As a result, the NRM was able to secure nine MP seats before a ballot was cast. According to analysis carried out by The Observer newspaper, the NRM also stands to secure up to 51 other seats from 290 directly-elective positions and 40 of the 112 women seats where pro-NRM politicians are pitted against each other.

‘FDC has fielded candidates in 262 constituencies out of the 400 available slots. Of those, 203 are competing for direct seats while 59 are gunning for women parliamentary seats. The Democratic Party (DP) follows closely with 103 candidates, of which 85 are competing for direct seats and 18 for women parliamentary seats. Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) has only 32 candidates while Justice Forum (Jeema) has 11. The rest of the opposition parties have less than five candidates,’ notes The Observer in a January 18, 2016 article.

What those numbers mask, though, is the fact that Uganda is yet to overcome the hangover from the at least 20 years of political party inertia. During that time, Museveni’s government promoted political engagement on ‘individual merit’ rather having parties groom and front candidates for election. In the last two general elections, the ruling NRM has faced internal revolts as most political aspirants who lose in the party’s primaries decline to back the flag bearer and instead contest as independent candidates.

Museveni has attempted to discourage the practice, saying the pursuit of individual ambitions cripples the party. However, his efforts have so far largely been in vain. ‘Individuals do not cause changes.  It is the Party that has caused those changes.  Be humble and subordinate your ambitions to the plans of the Party.  Do not be dishonest.  Be truthful.  Even when you are disappointed by the dishonest, work for the Party loyally,’ Museveni noted in his December statement.

Other parties are grappling with similar problems, although to a lesser degree at the moment. However, the FDC president, Mugisha Muntu, told this writer that political organisations need to continue growing their structures if they are to be effective vehicles for service delivery in the country. ‘I don’t believe in those who use a party as if it is a jacket; you put it on in the morning and in the evening you take it off; that in the case of politics, a party is only necessary when you are going into an election,’ he said. ‘To me, a party is a 24-7 thing in terms of grooming a new set of leaders so that when one set of leaders is leaving, there is a new set of leaders that comes in their footsteps ready and able to manage the country.’

Electoral laws

Since the start of campaigns, election observers and monitors have noted incidents where different camps contravene electoral laws and guidelines from the Electoral Commission. For instance, nearly all the presidential candidates regularly flout Section 21 of the Presidential Elections Act, which bars campaigns beyond 6pm. Also flouted is Section 23, which prohibits candidates from using language that could incite public disorder, insurrection or violence, as well as using language to be defamatory or insulting.

On December 18, 2015, Mbabazi released a statement complaining that his campaign had suffered persistent provocation by NRM supporters. Mbabazi’s letter came a day after violence broke out in the south-western district of Ntungamo, apparently after the former premier’s supporters physically retaliated against the interference in their campaigns. ‘Since the beginning of this campaign, my supporters have had to deal with incidents including the defacing of my posters, the superimposing of candidate Museveni’s posters over mine, luring away boda boda cyclists with inducements of money, fuel and T-shirts,’ Mbabazi wrote.

The NRM campaign has also been accused of using state resources to bribe or coerce voters. In a country where the ruling party and the state are virtually fused together, the NRM gets away with most of its transgressions. For the FDC, its officials are unapologetic about flouting some electoral laws, with the party’s secretary for mobilisation, Ingrid Turinawe, saying they intend to fight back whenever they are faced with any form of injustice or a tilting of the playing field in favour of one party. ‘We will defy everything that abuses our rights during and after the election process. Even after the announcement of the results – whatever happens – we will defy anything that oppresses the choices and rights of Ugandans,’ Turinawe told this writer on February 9, 2016.

With President Museveni threatening not to hand over power to the ‘wolves’ in opposition if he loses, analysts fear that the uncompromising positions taken by the leading political players are a pointer to the fact that Uganda could erupt into violence after polling day. The coordinator of the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy (CCEDU), Crispy Kaheru, believes the law enforcement agencies need to bite – without fear or favour – those who act with impunity if political temperatures are to be kept under control. In a December 17, 2015 interview with this writer, Kaheru said failure by the Police and the Electoral Commission to maintain a level playing field by calling to order those who flout rules could also dent the credibility of the process if it disenfranchises voters. ‘People want a dog that can bark and bite,” Kaheru said. “The Electoral Commission is under a lot of scrutiny at this time so they must be seen to be acting professionally and impartially. But issuing warning after warning without biting can’t answer any questions in the minds of voters.’

Op donderdag 18 februari zetten we de discussie live voort in Den Haag tijdens de verkiezingsavond ‘Uganda Votes’. Klik hier voor meer informatie over dit evenement.

Benon H. Oluka

17 februari 2016