JULY 12, 2010: The Museveni Machine Grinds into Gear

The Museveni Machine Grinds into Gear

SOURCE: Africa Confidential

Dissent is growing against a leader and party that have dominated the country for 24 years. On 23 August, Uganda's diverse opposition parties aim to announce their joint candidate for the presidential election next February.

The two-year-old Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC) agreement is holding firm as the campaign gets under way. It links the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), Justice Forum (JEEMA) and the Conservative Party; few doubt that the FDC leader, Kizza Besigye, a former ruling party stalwart and colonel, will be its standardbearer. The 'spirit of cooperation' requires a delegates' conference to choose him by consensus rather than coronation, after four wise elders from each party have agreed on the man most likely to defeat President Yoweri Museveni.

Polls conducted in May for the Daily Monitor and the Deepening Democracy Programme gave Besigye more than 30% of the popular vote, with less than 5% for the other candidates. He is the obvious choice, despite successive defeats in 2001 and 2006. The decision should have been taken in June in Nairobi, but the two-month delay will allow intensive campaigning; an earlier start would have left more time for potential fractures to appear.

The Democratic Party (DP) stays outside the opposition pact, seen by its charismatic leader,Norbert Mao, as a threat to the party's identity and a vehicle controlled by the FDC. Mao, a former lawyer and member of parliament who built a national reputation on a radio talk show, has been the elected head of the northern Gulu district since 2006.

The DP dealt a blow to the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) by winning a parliamentary by-election in Kampala's Mukono North constituency on 25 May when, despite the DP's reluctance to join the IPC, the opposition parties united behind Betty Nambooze Bakireke, who had support among the local Baganda people. Museveni had made several visits on behalf of the NRM candidate; the result boosted the opposition's claims that the president has become a liability. If Museveni is not to lose even more support among the country's biggest ethnic group, he must rebuild relations with the kingdom of Buganda.


Mao argues that it is unnecessary to field a single IPC candidate in the first round of the presidential contest. He wants the full range of parties to gather as many votes as possible in the first ballot, then rally behind a single candidate in the run-off if Museveni gets less than 51%. Mao is Acholi from the north; Besigye, like the president, is Banyankole.

Mao is likely to attract votes from the opponents of Museveni who are reluctant to vote for Besigye. He promises to support the leading candidate in round two, so the DP's position does not necessarily weaken the united opposition. The threat lingers of a late constitutional amendment by Museveni, which would remove the need for him to gain a simple majority to win.

UPC President Olara Otunnu is another northerner who was foreign minister under the late President Milton Obote and then a United Nations diplomat. In 2009 he returned to Uganda after 23 years in exile to much media fanfare. He seeks to mobilise international opinion against Museveni, petitioning the International Criminal Court to investigate 'war crimes' in the north and speaking boldly about the government's human rights abuses.

Otunnu's approach gathers headlines, but he understands that his national support is limited and seems to be using this election to re-establish himself for a future run. Museveni may have helped him by appearing to be behind attempts to derail his campaign; Otunnu has twice been summonsed by the police for allegedly using sectarian language in radio broadcasts. He has so far refused to submit to questioning. In December 2009 Otunnu's car was forced off the road by a presidential security detail, and he claimed that was a bungled assassination attempt.

The threat of violence persists. On 9 June, Besigye was attacked by a 'kiboko squad' (named after the long wooden sticks they wield) during a protest in Kampala, the latest incident involving young men mobilised to disrupt opposition rallies. The FDC accuses Museveni of organising the vigilantes, who operate with impunity. The president replies that patriots have the right to self-organise against rioters.

The ruling party has quieter, more effective techniques for maintaining its support. Museveni's vote dropped from 69% to 59% between the 2001 and 2006 elections. If that had continued he would face a risky second-round run-off. The NRM has been pushing local organisational changes, using its incumbency to expand patronage in balkanised constituencies, multiple district administrations, and ethnicised bureaucracies. The strategy is to minimise the protest vote in West Nile and the north and east while consolidating traditional NRM areas and rebuilding relations with the Baganda following last year's riots in Kampala.

Faction fighting in the NRM has frozen as the election focuses minds. Museveni may postpone until after the election his push for prosecutions against ministers implicated in the corruption scandal over the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Vice-President Gilbert Bukenya, who wants to replace security minister Amama Mbabazi as NRM secretary-general, has relaxed for now.

The NRM also ensured that its supporters were registered during the Electoral Commission's voter-registration drive, whose deadline came on 18 June amidst opposition allegations of delays and fraud. The commission announced that 4.7 million new voters are now on the roll, adding to the 10.5mn registered for the 2006 election. The NRM spends big money; its delegates' conference in Kampala on 25-27 June cost over US$3mn. Though oil money from Lake Albert's billion-barrel reserves is not yet flowing, the government announced an expansionary budget for 2010/11, with expenditure increases of up to 16%. Financial support from donors shows no sign of dropping off.

Some in the opposition hope to discredit the election as far as possible, in the belief that a Museveni victory can be averted by the right mixture of international pressure and domestic unrest. An analyst in Kampala told us that the FDC hopes 'to generate a postelection crisis with a view to powersharing'. The Electoral Commission has become the touchstone. In 2001 and 2006 the Supreme Court ruled that the commission had no capacity to conduct fair elections, but its chairman, Badru Kiggundu, remains in place.

Besigye says he may boycott the 2011 election altogether if the commission is not reconstituted, but nobody takes him too seriously; a senior FDC adviser remarked: 'This is just politics.' The opposition does want representation on the commission, to monitor the NRM placemen, and a compromise may be reached. The response to the call for nationwide demonstrations against the commission this summer will be a test of the opposition's ability to bring people onto the streets en masse. Apathy and cynicism may work to Museveni's advantage next year.

Unfortunately for the opposition, Museveni plays his diplomatic cards skilfully. The United States State Department criticised his government over the election and media freedom in a report this year. But when the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Johnnie Carson, visited Kampala in May, he disappointed the regime's critics. It is said that a three-hour meeting did not include a demand for a new electoral commission.

Museveni reckons that the US hope for regional security overrides the risk posed by a democratic challenge. He has positioned himself as an indispensable ally by providing the backbone of the 5,000-strong African Union Mission in Somalia, basing US military trainers at Kitgum in the north, keeping eastern Congo stable, hunting the remnants of the Lord's Resistance Army and behaving tactfully about Southern Sudan's likely vote for independence next year.

In any case, Museveni and his durable party may win next February without blatant fraud and repression – and many in the opposition privately accept it.

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