JUNE 13, 2010: Headed for Political Stalemate?

Headed for Political Stalemate?
SOURCE: The Monitor
By Timothy Kalyegira

With nine months left until the much-anticipated 2011 Ugandan general election, there is much that is starting to become clear and some that are not. There are three well-known players in the unfolding Ugandan drama - the United States of America, President Yoweri Museveni, and the formal political opposition.

And, despite appearances, these three power centres share one thing in common: they are all in a weak position. The weakness of these three parties ahead of the forthcoming election means that Uganda is most likely headed for an impasse in the next nine months until and after the election. How so? The first player to examine is the United States.

Obama anticipation

When Barack Obama became the first Black President of the US in January 2009 and in July paid his first visit to Africa as president, there was much anticipation that he would insist on the flourishing of democracy in Africa and be tough on the continent's many autocrats.

Many Ugandans took the decision by the US Congress to task Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with keeping a close eye on Uganda as a signal that the Obama administration was going to act as the election watchdog in the run-up to the 2011 polls. A recent visit by Johnnie Carson, the administration's main point man for Africa, appeared to confirm this view.

However, as millions of Americans are discovering, President Obama's somewhat passive leadership style is starting to exhibit itself and nowhere more so than in Africa. The year 2010 could well be one of those years in which Africa demonstrated that 20 years of the post-Cold War experiment with democracy has achieved little.

Elections in Africa suddenly seem to be turning more, not less, messy with time. Sudan held an election in April that saw many opposition parties boycott it. Ethiopia arrested and harassed many opposition leaders and despite the anger still simmering after the 2005 demonstrations, the ruling EPRDF regime in Addis Ababa claimed to have won the sort of landslide usually associated with autocratic Communist governments.

All eight opposition presidential candidates in Burundi's June 28 general election have now pulled out, citing rigging, leaving President Pierre Nkurunziza as the sole candidate.

In Rwanda, the main challenger to President Paul Kagame, Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, was summarily arrested and charges of denying the 1994 genocide and collaborating with Hutu rebels brought against her. In Uganda on June 9, opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye was roughed up by police and a state-associated vigilante group nicknamed the "Kiboko Squad" when he tried to lead a demonstration in Kampala against the widely criticised Electoral Commission. In all this, the Obama administration has been, at best, mild and ineffective in its protests and intervention and at worst, silent and almost absent.

What complicates matters further for Washington is that with Ugandan peace-keeping troops forming the bulk of the African peacekeeping force, Amisom, in the war-torn Horn of Africa nation of Somalia and Burundian troops also deployed, the United States is in some ways hostage to the governments of Uganda and Burundi.

The US is already too bogged down in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and watching over rising tensions in the Korean Peninsula, Persian Gulf and Obama's popularity at home sagging for America to risk any further engagement in Africa. Uganda and Burundi have become Washington's sub-contractors in Somalia.

The Ugandan opposition is weak financially, weak in organisation and weak in its reading of the national mood. Even with all signs glaring that the 2011 election will not be free or fair and will probably see much violence meted out to opposition leaders and supporters, the opposition still goes through the motions of registering its members, holding rallies and protesting at harassment by the NRM government.

Many opposition figures are hoping that the United States will act as the arbitrator and main pressure group in the election but, as noted, Obama has so far shown none of the decisive voice that Africans had hoped for a year ago.

President Museveni, for his part, is in his weakest position since acceding to power in January 1986. Where he once was comfortable enough to allow opposition rallies to take place, today he is not even sure that FM radio station talk shows, left to their own, will not become a rallying point for the millions of disgruntled Ugandans.

Campaigning President

In every parliamentary by-election or even Local Council 5 and (as with Rubaga Division in Kampala) Local Council 3 election since 2007, he has had to campaign in person and throw all his weight behind the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) candidates just for them to win or not to be totally routed.

An illuminating example of President Museveni's weak position came in January when he explained to grumbling NRM party leaders at a meeting at State House Entebbe why he had to take a cautious position on the proposed anti-gay Bill.

The President personally, his family, army Generals, senior party leaders and political aides, and others who form his core power base, as well as over 90 per cent of the Ugandan public, seem united in their opposition to granting legal recognition of homosexuality.

Biting pressure

But he told the NRM leaders the pressure on him from several Western leaders necessitated that he weighs what he called "foreign policy implications."

By giving in to Western demands to reconsider the anti-gay Bill, President Museveni demonstrated the proof that his real power base lies in the Western capitals and that he cannot rely on the sentiments of even his most ardent loyalists to withstand Western pressure.

Incidentally President Museveni's understanding of the role Western diplomatic, financial, and military support plays in maintaining him in power might explain his curious silence in the face of the defiance of police summons by the UPC party president Olara Otunnu.