"Where Besigye projected himself as a national statesman, Museveni positioned himself as a local politician. Where Besigye articulated a grand, national vision, Museveni focused on mundane local issues. Besigye came across as idealistic with a high sense of morality; Museveni was realistic, pragmatic and practical if not opportunistic."
The 2011 presidential elections is the most intriguing in the history of Uganda. President Yoweri Museveni has won with a resounding 68 percent. Given that the president’s margin has been declining in every election since 1996, this new jump in his popularity from 59 percent to in 2006 calls for creative reflection. This has been the most peaceful presidential election ever; yet, Museveni beat his main rival Dr. Kizza Besigye even in northern Uganda where the opposition has always enjoyed unflinching support.
For many public spirited Ugandans, this truths is difficult to fathom. How can a regime that has presided over gross corruption, nepotism and incompetence; a regime that has destroyed the public spirit in our public services; a regime where healthcare for all has been turned into a private fortune for a few; a regime that has destroyed our hospitals, schools and roads and created ghosts in their stead… how can such a regime increase its popularity in spite of (I will argue in this article “also because of”) all these dysfunctions?
Given the above failures, we should have expected government to employ more violence, intimidation and outright vote rigging than in the past. Instead these ills have been less used. But money has played an important role: Museveni spent more than US$ 350m on this campaign using largely the public purse (through official government programmes conveniently deployed during the campaigns) but supplemented by private contributions. This figure is almost half the money Barack Obama spent to win elections in the US in 2008, in a country with a GDP of $14 trillion. Given that Uganda’s GDP is $15 billion i.e. 0.1 percent of US GDP, this is an unprecedented record.
Yet while money has been a big factor in this election it cannot be sufficient to explain the president’s margin of victory. How do we explain the turnaround of people in northern Uganda who have endorsed Museveni after years of rejection? How do we explain the fact that those most affected by the failures of Museveni’s government, the rural masses, are the ones who voted him most; and those who have somewhat benefited, the urban educated lower and middle-middle class, are the ones who voted against him?
Following Museveni and Besigye’s campaigns gives a slice of the answer to this disturbing paradox. While Besigye campaigned largely on a national platform, Museveni campaign largely (if not entirely) on a platform that was basically local. Where Besigye projected himself as a national statesman, Museveni positioned himself as a local politician. Where Besigye articulated a grand, national vision, Museveni focused on mundane local issues. Besigye came across as idealistic with a high sense of morality; Museveni was realistic, pragmatic and practical if not opportunistic.
Besigye came across as sincere; Museveni as skillful, if not deceitful, in his campaigns. The irony of the campaign was that both Besigye and Museveni campaigned on a similar platform i.e. of highlighting failure of state programs due to corruption. Museveni did not deny corruption in his government neither did he deny the disastrous failure of government to deliver public goods and services. Rather, his strategy was to deflect blame for government failures from himself to local state functionaries.
Besigye riled the government for failure to provide decent healthcare to citizens and good education facilities to the children of the disadvantaged. These are high moral ideals. But paid only lip service to the peculiar local problems that were of interest only to that community where he was campaigning. His message was similar to 2001 and 2006 – so he sounded like a broken record, repeating what voters have heard for far too long. While it could appeal to the converted, it could not resonate with the undecided.
For Museveni, wherever and whenever his audience seemed hostile to a list of his achievements, he would change his strategies and articulate their grievances. He positioned himself as a victim of the rapacity of local administrations. He claimed and rightly so that “he” had sent the money to local districts but was betrayed, just like ordinary voters, by corrupt local officials. The ordinary people agreed; for in all our subsequent interviews, they told us that the president is a “good man” who sends them money; that it is the local officials who are bad because they steal it.
The lesson is that politics is not always about grand issues of a national character – like the Traditional Leaders Bill, removal of term limits, etc. Often, it is about mundane issues which are of interest only to a specific segment of the society. Besigye failed to build his base because his message could at best preach to the already converted. Museveni was able to grow his because he addressed the very peculiar local problems and positioned himself as one with the people in their suffering even though – and this is the big paradox – he is largely responsible for it.
More critically was NRM’s politics for the last 15 years. The NRM has built an electoral coalition by co-opting powerful ethnic elites and buttressing this by a selective allocation of public programmes to constituencies where it commands a following. This has made it expensive for other regions to withhold their political support; for doing so means exclusion from the distribution of material benefits. For example, when a road runs through the village that supports the president but stops right at the border of the one that does not, it does not take long for the residents in the opposing village to learn the costs of opposition and the rewards of loyalty.
The NRM has perfected this game especially in northern Uganda which had been excluded from the benefits of a growing economy. Realising that opposition turns into exclusion, the people and elites in that region began to sing NRM’s song. This has led to the evolution of a pattern of politics where every region is trying to root for Museveni; a factor that is freeing him from the restraints normally associated with political accountability.
However, the benefits gained at the local level (in form of a new district or a local notable being appointed to cabinet) increasingly outweigh the losses that these deals induce at the national level – like the utter collapse of public goods and services.
The net effect of this organisation of politics – with its rewards and punishments – is to perpetuate in power a government whose policies and strategies of political survival undermine the ability of public institutions to serve the public good; and increase the tendency of public officials to divert government resources to their own pockets. Thus, competition among various groups for power may appear as a sign of vibrant civic life. But it actually reflects a political pathology because it enables Museveni and the NRM to win elections not by delivering public welfare but by distributing private benefits.
All these strategies have not actually built a large support-base for NRM as they have discouraged many Ugandans from the political process. The consequence of Museveni’s patronage, corruption and nepotism has been to create a myth of invincibility around him; a kind of inevitability about his candidature. As a result, many people who are hostile to Museveni have either become apathetic and given up trying to remove him or have actually and ironically thrown in their lot with him – calculating that since he cannot be defeated it’s worthless voting against him.
Almost six million voters, more than the total votes Museveni got did not show up to vote. To inspire these apathetic voters (voter turnout was only 58 percent compared to 70 percent in 2001 and 2006) will require a new message. But Besigye was stuck with the same message as in 2001 and 2006 which is a good critic of Museveni’s failures to which he added a new message of what he intended to do if elected. He was unable to show voters what they can do to change their own environment. His message therefore could not mobilise the apathetic to have enthusiasm to vote.
Thus the opposition in Uganda today is facing a similar dilemma as did the Labour Party in Britain during the 1980s and the first half of the 90s, albeit with different set of factors. Because when she came to power as British Prime Minister in 1979, Margaret Thatcher proceeded to destroy the social fabric of UK society – at least in the image of her left wing critics. She began by systematically dismantling many social welfare programmes and entitlements that a section of the British society cherished.
For example, she abolished free milk for children in schools and was nicknamed by her left wing critics as the milk snatcher who was literally taking milk from babies’ mouth. She froze unemployment benefits so that their real value fell over time due to inflation. She also declared government could no longer commit to full employment and that the private sector should be responsible for creating jobs. She privatised utilities including gas, electricity, telecoms, British Airways and rail services. She also sold off a huge amount of government owed houses to sitting tenants.
On trade unions she passed a wave of reforms reducing their power and made them liable for damages incurred during ‘illegal’ strikes. With healthcare she encouraged the use of private providers and outsourced many of the functions of the National Health Service in a drive for what she called efficiency savings. To many of her left wing critics, handing over their treasured assets to the private sector was tantamount to corruption. For years, they fought back by defending these old programmes.
For many years the Labour Party was unable come to terms with the fact that however passionately they felt about these entitlement programs, the British public did not feel so; it was their core base that cared. Consequently, the Conservative Party kept winning. It took them 15 years in the political wilderness before Labor could elect Tony Blair, abandon its class warfare politics, rethink its message and reposition itself from the left to the center to get another chance at coming into government. A similar repositioning took place in America through Bill Clinton after the reforms of Ronald Reagan caused a major realignment in American politics.
The lesson of Museveni’s 2011 victory is similar. There has been a major change in public perceptions about politics. The old message of attacking Museveni for the corruption, nepotism and incompetence of his government is stale. It still finds passionate support amongst his most ardent critics; but its effect is to appeal to the base without growing it. It seems that many Ugandans have moved on; for Museveni’s greatest triumph has been to make these failures banal, routine and normal. Few are shocked by them anymore.
For example, during the mid 1990s up to the mid 2000s, big exposes of corruption scandals sold newspapers across the country. Not anymore. Newspaper editors have learnt to keep corruption off the front page; only fronting it when it is tied to internal power struggles inside the NRM as it was in the Temangalo land saga. Telling Ugandans about 100 ghost hospitals or that civil servant X has stolen a huge chunk of money is like reporting that the Pope is Catholic – many would say “what do you expect from a pig but a grunt?”
By sinking to the very bottom of moral depravity, Museveni has inadvertently made Ugandans abandon the high idealism they had in politics. He has tolerated the worst forms of corruption, so graft is now normal. He paid MPs to remove term limits thereby exposing the major shortcoming of our political class. Now bribing parliament has also become normal. There is little more Museveni can do that will shock voters. Because he has reduced the standard of political morality to its lowest, he has caused a fundamental shift in the political landscape of this country.
The net result of this process has been double: On the one hand it has made many formerly public spirited individuals abandon their idealism and join him and his apparatchik in official loot – witness how many former DP, UPC and FDC officials have crossed over to the NRM; while on the other, it has made others so cynical of politics that they have lost faith in it as a vehicle for improving the lot of the people. The latter group has opted out of voting, a factor that explains why Museveni is able to be reelected president with only 38 percent of the total registered voters.
The opposition and other critics can no longer profit from the old attacks on Museveni – they are banal. It has to adjust and make a different argument lest it sounds like a broken record – and that was Besigye’s problem in this election. There is need for a new political realignment in this country, a new repositioning and a new vision. The old attacks on Museveni for corruption and nepotism worked well in 2001 and 2006; and they still work well in appealing to the already converted. But they resonate less the undecided in 2011 and are unlikely to work in 2016.
Appealing to the base that is already passionate in its opposition to Museveni is not enough; attracting the most disinterested voters makes all the difference. If 80 percent of Ugandans had voted, it would have meant another 2.7m votes, most of which I suspect would have voted for the opposition thus giving it 5.2m against Museveni’s 5.4m. If you add the 330,000 spoilt votes, Museveni would not have won in the first round – and he cannot survive a second round. It is not that these people are intimidated; they are apathetic. The challenge for the opposition is to make them enthusiastic to vote.
But the opposition that is largely pro Besigye is hostile to any realistic message; it is stuck in desiring to listen to its own echoes. It only understands the language of 2001 and 2006 that attacks Museveni’s venality but which is losing resonance with many new voters. This section of the opposition has thus disarticulated itself from the new mainstream of supporters in favour of its base. It is in the same trap at the British Labour Party in the 1980s.
And the message will not be about fighting corruption by jailing the thieves, but about removing the state from provision of public services and restricting its role only to financing them. If Besigye is Uganda’s Neil Kinnock or Michael Dukakis, then our country needs a Tony Blair or Bill Clinton; a leader who will move to the centre by pick fights with his extremist supporters on the left in order to win the more independent minded voters. Who will stand up to this new challenge?