Uganda on edge ahead of presidential election

Young voters' frustration with Yoweri Museveni, who has led the country for 30 years, has raised the specter of violence

Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni waves to supporters as he arrives at a campaign rally in Entebbe ahead of the presidential elections this week, Feb. 10, 2016.
James Akena / Reuters
At a rally for Museveni on Jan. 29, in Kakindu village, Busujju County. Support for the president is strong in rural parts of the nation.
Jonathan W. Rosen

KAKINDU, Uganda — The afternoon sun hangs low over the banana trees as Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s ruler for the last three decades, makes his long-awaited entrance.

For hours, thousands of yellow-clad supporters of his National Resistance Movement have camped out on the grounds of St. Luka Baanabakintu Primary School, waiting to catch a glimpse of the man they refer to as mzee — a Swahili term for respected elder. With Uganda’s Feb. 18 election fast approaching, the 71-year-old president has been on a tear across this nation of 39 million, campaigning in towns, villages and far-flung outposts, including this rural swath of Uganda’s central region.

When Museveni finally arrives, waving to the crowd from a black Mitsubishi SUV, he presents inhabitants of Kakindu village with a brief, familiar set of talking points. Standing at a lectern atop the vehicle, draped in the Ugandan flag and wearing his trademark wide-brimmed hat, he delivers promises of roads, electricity and resolutions to local land disputes. His remarks, which last about 10 minutes, generate wide applause from this predominantly peasant farming population.

Martin Mivule, however, isn’t buying it. A 22-year-old Kakindu native, he’s spent much of his life in the capital, Kampala, and is attending the rally on a trip home to visit his grandmother. Like many Ugandans who have only known one president, he’s longing for a new face in the statehouse. Pausing at the edge of the crowd, Mivule presents an array of complaints about the NRM system. There’s the endemic corruption; the health facilities that routinely lack workers, equipment or even mattresses; the crumbling public schools that leave graduates ill prepared to join the workforce. Mivule’s biggest frustration, though, is the challenge of finding work. One independent survey, conducted in 2012, estimated the country’s rate of youth unemployment to be 62 percent.

“In Uganda, many young people are educated, they have their qualifications, but they cannot find jobs,” he says, noting that he’s been searching for work since finishing secondary school last year. “Students no longer even want to go to school. They say, ‘My brother went to school, but now he’s a [motorbike taxi] driver. My sister went to school, but she’s a farmer down there digging.’ People are so discouraged.”

Campaign posters for Museveni line a row of pit latrines in the run up to a rally at St. Luka Baanabakintu Primary School in Kakindu, Uganda.
Jonathan W. Rosen

As Mivule admits, Museveni remains popular in rural areas like this one, where voters tend to be less informed and more susceptible to NRM campaign promises. Many urban-educated youth, however, are staunch supporters of the opposition. Their frustration with the status quo has even raised the specter of poll-related violence. Already, youth aligned with Museveni clashed violently with supporters of Amama Mbabazi, the former prime minister and NRM secretary general, who fell out with the president in 2014 and is now one of his two main challengers. The other, Kizza Besigye, who has run unsuccessfully in the past three elections and insists those polls were rigged, has called for his supporters to take to the streets should they dispute the legitimacy of the vote. That prospect, his campaign team says, is highly likely. While campaigning on Monday, Besigye was arrested, reportedly as he tried to hold a rally in the capital's center that was blocked by police. 

This budding tension is heightened across the country by the presence of hundreds of thousands of “crime preventers”: civilian volunteers, trained by the police, who authorities claim are nonpartisan and are authorized to assist police in keeping peace in their towns and villages. Critics, however, say they are “strongly affiliated” with the NRM and have been used to intimidate opposition supporters. A January report, published by four human rights organizations, alleges they’ve also been responsible for “brutal assaults and extortion,” including the beating of individuals over small amounts of money, and calls their “ill-defined role” a “serious cause for concern” during the elections.

The polite and soft-spoken Mivule, who doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of a young man prone to civil disobedience, nonetheless insists he’ll take to the streets if he believes his candidate, Besigye, has been slighted. “If they announce results we don’t believe are true, automatically we will riot,” Mivule says. “We are ready for anything.”

Uganda main opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye of Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) flashes the victory sign to his supporters as he arrives to campaign in Hoima town Jan. 22, 2016, ahead of the Feb. 18 presidential election.
James Akena / Reuters
'The NRM government brought us freedom. When this president took power, life was restored.'

Edward Katumwa

Kikundu villager at Museveni rally

Amama Mbabazi, the former Ugandan prime minister and presidential candidate, addresses his supporters during a campaign stop over in Kirihura district on Jan. 24, 2016, ahead of the Feb. 18 election.
James Akena / Reuters

Should Thursday’s vote prove controversial, it would not be the first disputed poll on Museveni’s watch. Uganda’s Supreme Court, responding to petitions filed by Besigye, ruled unanimously that serious malpractices had occurred in the presidential elections held in 2001 and 2006. Each time, however, the court narrowly voted against nullifying the results, arguing the irregularities would not have changed the final outcome. In 2006, the first election held after a constitutional amendment abolished presidential term limits, the court documented instances of ballot stuffing, voter bribery and intimidation and voters’ names being deleted from the register. Besigye, who officially garnered 37 percent of the vote, claims to have won the poll outright.

After the 2011 election, in which Besigye’s vote count fell to 26 percent, he decided against another court fight. Instead, two months after the poll, he summoned his supporters to the streets for Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations. Dubbed “Walk to Work,” the protests condemned rising food and fuel prices, as well as government expenditures deemed wasteful, such as a $744 million purchase of fighter jets and a $1.3 million swearing-in ceremony for Museveni. Over the course of several weeks, security forces broke up demonstrations with tear gas and, at times, live ammunition, resulting in at least nine deaths. Besigye himself was arrested at least four times, including one particularly brutal incident, caught on video, in which plainclothes security operatives smashed the window of his vehicle with a hammer and doused him in the face with pepper spray.

For Ugandans, this event was especially poignant, in part because it undermined Museveni’s most important selling point: the stability long associated with his regime. Under his predecessors Idi Amin and Milton Obote, hundreds of thousands of Ugandans are believed to have died through campaigns of targeted killings and a five-year civil war. But after Museveni’s rebel NRM army captured power in 1986, much of the country gradually returned to normal life. (The north, where Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army launched a subsequent insurgency, remained at war for two more decades.) Today, older Ugandans who remember the pre-Museveni period are often quick to defend their president. Isaac Katende, a 45-year-old farmer who attended the rally in Kakindu, recalled Obote’s soldiers ransacking households and raping women in his village. Edward Katumwa, 68, another member of the crowd, spoke of living in fear under the notoriously eccentric Amin, a ruler described in one obituary as a “sadistic and telegenic despot.”

“The NRM government brought us freedom,” Katumwa said. “When this president took power, life was restored.”

Some Ugandans, including Katumwa, also credit Museveni with raising the country’s standard of living and level of development. In January 1986, when Museveni was sworn in on the steps of Uganda’s Parliament building, much of Kampala was in ruins. Today, after three decades of steady economic growth, the city of 1.5 million pulses with life, from corner bars thumping homegrown Afrobeat, to upscale shopping malls that cater to the growing ranks of the affluent. With the help of more than $1 billion per year in foreign aid — linked, in part, to Uganda’s status as a key Western military ally — Museveni has also overseen a number of improvements in public health. Between 2000 and 2015, according to World Health Organization statistics, the rates of maternal and child mortality fell by 45 and 63 percent, respectively. During the same period, life expectancy rose from 45 to 59 years, in part due to a widely lauded national program to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS. 

A member of the crime prevention crew, whose monitors are said to be aligned with Museveni's party, at the rally in Kikandu.
Jonathan W. Rosen

Critics, however, point to major gaps in public services. The national budget, they say, allocates too little money to health and education and too much to security and defense. One 2013 World Bank survey of the country’s public health facilities found that more than half lacked basic medicines and proper staffing. Funding shortfalls and logistical mismanagement led to shortages of HIV/AIDS drugs, interrupting treatment for more than 750,000 patients during the second half of 2015. And while the government introduced tuition-free primary education in 1997, a 2012 U.N. study reported that 68 percent of students drop out before finishing the prescribed seven years. That’s in part due to families’ inability to afford incidentals such as uniforms, books and pens. Among African nations, only Chad had a higher dropout rate.

Over the last decade, meanwhile, high-profile cases of corruption have eroded public confidence in the ruling elite. In one case in 2012, officials within the office of the prime minister embezzled an estimated $12.7 million in foreign donor funding meant for projects in Uganda’s north. The government says it has taken steps to curb corruption. In an interview, Shaban Bantariza, a retired army colonel and government spokesman, noted the establishment of internal watchdog organizations, as well as an anti-corruption court that has prosecuted hundreds of cases. Activists, however, say these bodies are rarely effective in targeting the country’s most powerful individuals. As a 2013 report by Human Rights Watch notes, only one government minister has ever been convicted of a corruption-related offense during Museveni’s 30 years in office. And that ruling was eventually overturned. The report blames a “lack of political will” linked to an “entrenched patronage network” that, for the purpose of securing loyalty to the regime, “has rewarded devotion with financial enrichment.”

Zac Niringiye, a retired Anglican bishop and prominent anti-corruption campaigner, calls Uganda a “predator state” and describes corruption as a key tool employed by Museveni to ensure his longevity in power. “Museveni has increasingly gotten better at his job,” he says “Essentially, this is perfecting the art of ensuring that this state serves his personal interests.”

'Should the elections be rigged, we are asking the population to rise up.'

Ibrahim Ssemujju

spokesman for opposition candidate

For all the corruption that has festered on Museveni’s watch, many Ugandans wonder whether another leader could do any better — particularly since his two main challengers also have deep roots in NRM politics. Museveni, Mbabazi and Besigye all fought against the Obote regime in the “bush war” of the 1980s. (That conflict was launched — ironically — after Museveni claimed the 1980 elections, won by Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress, had been rigged). Besigye, formerly Museveni’s personal doctor, fell out with the regime in 2001 after accusing the NRM of veering “incorrigibly off course.” Mbabazi, once considered the second most powerful man in government, defected in 2014.

Although it has drawn some support from the urban middle class, the Mbabazi campaign has failed to live up to early speculation that it might draw a critical mass of voters away from the NRM. A January poll conducted by the Kampala-based firm Research World International, estimated Mbabazi’s support at only 12 percent, trailing both the president’s (51 percent) and Besigye’s (32 percent). Although these figures suggest that a runoff, mandated if no candidate receives a majority of the votes, is possible, few Ugandans believe this to be likely. To start, the NRM has a far more enduring brand image, a more effective grass-roots apparatus and far deeper pockets than its rivals. According to a January report by the Alliance for Election Campaign Finance Monitoring, which tracked candidate spending in November and December, Museveni spent 12 times more in the 16 districts surveyed than the other seven candidates combined. The report also documents systematic voter bribery, including handouts of cash, food, hoes, seeds and other agricultural staples, though it notes this was prevalent “across political parties.”

The impartiality of Uganda’s Electoral Commission, whose leadership is appointed by Museveni, is also in doubt. Independent observers have questioned its ability to conduct a free and fair election. However, Jotham Taremwa, an Electoral Commission spokesman, calls fears of rigging “unfounded.” He insists that new biometric voting technology that uses fingerprints to verify voters’ identities will help prevent irregularities. But electoral watchdogs note that the machines, which only arrived in the country last month, have never been piloted. Crispy Kaheru, coordinator of the Kampala-based Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, says that similar biometric kits have malfunctioned during polls in several African countries, including neighboring Kenya, where they had undergone far more extensive testing.

As doubts linger over its credibility, the vote and its aftermath are shaping up to be tense. Last month, the U.S. State Department expressed concern over “an electoral climate of fear and intimidation,” characterized by reports of police obstructing opposition rallies and intimidating media, as well as the disappearance of Mbabazi’s head of security. (The former prime minister’s team alleges he was abducted by police last December.) The opposition, meanwhile, is encouraging supporters to watch out for possible rigging. Solome Nakaweesi, the Mbabazi campaign’s chief of staff, said their team has instructed its supporters to speak out if they suspect their votes have been improperly counted. But, she said, the campaign will not advise them to “take to the streets.” Besigye’s camp, however, has been explicit in its plans to protest the results. Ibrahim Ssemujju, a member of Parliament and spokesman for Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change, told Al Jazeera America the FDC has been mobilizing volunteers to monitor polling stations and “fight for the will of people to prevail.” Ssemujju insists the network, dubbed “Power 10,” will not be armed, nor instructed to use violence, but rather will forge a campaign of civil disobedience that is better organized and more entrenched than the Walk to Work movement of 2011.

“Should the elections be rigged, we are asking the population to rise up,” he said. “That is all we are saying.”

Ugandan authorities, however, appear unlikely to give much breathing room to a movement intent on disturbing public order. Calling Power 10 a “militia,” Bantariza, the government spokesman, said police are prepared to arrest anyone causing “insurrection.” Independent observers, meanwhile, worry that the so-called crime preventers might turn violent against election protesters. In a January speech, Kale Kayihura, the inspector general of police, suggested that the volunteers could legally be given guns “in case of war.” Although few envision Uganda descending into full-fledged armed conflict, many say the war of words by political actors has left the country on edge.

Museveni supporters at the Kakindu rally.
Jonathan W. Rosen

Kaheru, who faults the main candidates for projecting a “poisonous message,” fears the election’s aftermath may be far more violent than was the case in 2011. “There’s a real sense of uneasiness in the air,” he said. “The drivers for violence are very imminent.”  

For all the concerns in Kampala ahead of the poll, however, the mood at the Kakindu rally is largely festive. Aside from a few dozen crime preventers, who wear matching white T-shirts and assist the police with security, there are no visible signs of looming conflict. Instead, younger villagers dance to music blaring from a yellow “Vote Museveni” truck.

Others, including Katumwa, the 68-year-old farmer, stand back and absorb the spectacle. Like most Ugandans — even those longing for change — he is confident about the election’s outcome if not its aftermath. “I have no doubt about it,” he says, when asked if Museveni will win another five-year term. Minutes later, the crowd breaks into cheers as word arrives that the old man and his entourage are approaching.

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