How Museveni and the opposition are likely to structure their campaigns and the risks and advantages of their likely strategies
The battle between President Yoweri Museveni and his erstwhile ally and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi is likely going to be nasty. The president’s handlers are likely to brutalise and humiliate Mbabazi. Ironically, this is what Mbabazi needs to build his profile.
Mbabazi does not have a powerful message or a charismatic personality to excite voters. All he needs to do is provoke the state to brutalise him. That is what will win him sympathy. Museveni is likely to fall into this trap in part because he seeks security in brute force and in part because the benefits of this strategy may exceed its costs – if well executed.
Museveni has dominated the Ugandan political scene like a colossus. He cuts the image of a military strongman (look at him in military fatigues) and a father figure or big chief (see how he walks around dishing out cash-filled envelopes) – balancing the stick with the carrot. The first image is intimidating to opponents and reassuring to his supporters. The second image is appealing to our agrarian values – having a leader who acts like a father figure. When many Ugandans go to the polls, they are not making a choice of the president. They are expressing themselves on who they think has power. A significant share of Museveni’s vote is therefore not a choice of a president but an affirmation of his power. If someone can create a perception that power has shifted, he can cause trouble.
In 2011 voter turnout was 58%. Museveni won with 68%. But his share of total registered voters was only 39.4%. Those who abstained were more than those who voted for the president. Besides Museveni’s side was energised while the opposition was demoralised and lacking momentum. It is therefore possible that over 80% of those who stayed home were likely to vote against Museveni. Why did they stay home? I suspect it was largely because they did not think their vote would make a difference. They had resigned themselves to a Museveni victory.
Therefore Museveni’s greatest asset is the myth of invincibility, which if exposed, would render him vulnerable. Hence, Museveni’s needs to display military, financial, and political muscle to make voters continue to regard him as invincible. By displaying might (colonialists called it “gun-boat diplomacy”), Museveni will demoralise many opponents from thinking they can defeat him. This will make them stay home on voting day. Yet he has to exercise force tactfully because when brutality passes some threshold, it angers his supporters and they stay home while energizing his opponents to show up and vote as happened in 2006.
In many ways, Kizza Besigye is inadvertently Museveni’s biggest ally. By telling voters that the election ground is unequal and unfair, he is indirectly telling them that Museveni cannot be defeated and asking them not to vote. Yet the main strategy of the opposition should be to expose the myth of Museveni’s invincibility, which would encourage many potential opposition voters to vote. How do they do this especially in circumstances where the president projects personalised control over the core elements of state power – the institutions of money and security?
This is where Mbabazi brings something fresh. Mbabazi has been Museveni’s closest ally and hatchet man. So there is a myth that he understands the workings of the Museveni election machine and how to neutralise it. Secondly people think Mbabazi has money. Finally, Mbabazi has succeeded in projecting himself as the candidate supported by the Western powers. Whether it is true or not is beside the point. Once elites and ordinary people perceive him to be supported by the British, Americans, and other nations we worship, Mbabazi will roll.
Therefore, if there is to be an opposition alliance, the best chance for them is to pick on Mbabazi. Yet this is the very man who together with Museveni has been tormenting them. How will the opposition repackage him as the champion of their cause? Well, experience shows that political wounds take a very short time to heal. Most of Museveni’s opponents really do not care who succeeds the president. They just want change. They feel Museveni has been in power for far too long. Issues of principles and values do not really matter in their politics. Neither are public policy options fundamental to this campaign. This election will be a referendum on Museveni’s tenure.
Thus, Museveni can only stop the Mbabazi train by demonstrating that the former Prime Minister cannot gain power. This is why Kale Kayihura is critical for Museveni in this campaign. Kayihura needs to demonstrate to the public that Mbabazi is a nobody by picking him off the streets like a chicken thief. In the public imagination, Kayihura will have demonstrated where power lies. When Museveni goes on a rally and threatens not to hand over power, he will actually be reinforcing Kayihura’s actions and telling potential opposition voters to stay home. Those who get intimidated will. The challenge of the opposition is how to energize its potential voters to believe that change is possible – without violence.
So the opposition face a stark choice. They need to demonstrate that they can defeat Museveni and the president concedes without violence. This means they must signal a soft landing for Museveni in their choice of flag-bearer and campaign rhetoric. They could avoid being (too) adversarial in their attacks on Museveni. They could front a candidate like Mugisha Muntu whom Museveni and his inner circle are not scared of. It could convince many people that, if defeated, the president will not resort to violence to retain power.
Yet this strategy is also dicey. If the opposition are soft in their criticism of Museveni, their most passionate supporters will lose enthusiasm and the campaign will lose momentum. If they choose a candidate like Muntu, he may not project the profile of a warrior who can take the bull by its horns. It is possible that Mbabazi understands this dilemma very well. He has avoided belligerent attacks on Museveni while projecting himself as an equal to the president. Museveni has played into Mbabazi’s hands by inviting him for meetings at State House. Mbabazi has also so far avoided an open confrontation with the police where, if beaten and humiliated on the streets, he will expose his powerlessness – and that of his assumed backers, the Western powers. The thin rope the opposition have to walk cannot get any tighter than this.