How Uganda’s elite pundits are misunderstanding the election dynamics and why Mbabazi should worry
There is a widespread perception among a large section of the Ugandan elite class that former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi has overtaken Kizza Besigye as the main opposition candidate for next year’s presidential election. It is possible this is happening but highly unlikely. There has not yet been a scientific poll to give us real numbers. So for now all of us have to work on our intuition, but most critically on our understanding of the dynamics that drive our insight into our electoral politics.
Mbabazi has a strong brand presence among young elite voters. The way he dresses in tight fitting and neat shirts and suits and the design of his “Go Forward” campaign logos are all very modern. It contrasts him sharply with President Yoweri Museveni’s oversize suits and hut and Besigye’s careless dress code. Mbabazi’s skillful use of social media is also impressive. However, all this appeals largely to a section of the electorate aged between 18-35 years that have a tertiary education and access to the Internet. True, this section of the Ugandan voter has grown massively over the last five years and if well courted can give a decisive advantage to any candidate.
For example, since 2011, Internet subscriptions have grown by 521% from 934,758 to 5.8 million subscribers. This is mainly driven by mobile Internet subscriptions that have grown by 570% from 850,200 to 5.7 million between June 2011 and December 2014. The Uganda All Media Products Survey (UAMPS) research released by Ipsos in 2013 on internet usage shows that 33% of Ugandans reported using the internet several times a day and additional 33% two to three times a week. In total 66% of Ugandans reported using the Internet more than three times a week. In addition, 39% reported spending 1-3 hours on every visit, while 52% reported spending between 15 minutes to one hour on every visit. That was three years ago and a lot has since changed as more Ugandans are spending more time online.
Now, 53% reported using the Internet mainly for emails while 50% reported being on social media. Those in the 18-29 age group reported more social media activity than any other age group. In the study 85% reported Facebook being the most dominant social media platform used, while 32% reported being on Google+ and 29% on twitter. Essentially therefore, any candidate who focuses on social media will be courting an important segment of voters. This is the voter segment where Mbabazi has the best chance of growth.
If we discount the fact that most elite Ugandans have two mobile phones with Internet access, and have Internet at their place of work and at home, actual Internet reach could be one third lower than these figures indicate. We could say the figure of potential voters among the online cohort is about 4.2 million. If we also discount that many of these people with Internet access are also members of the NRM or FDC or are children and family members of NRM/FDC functionaries, the actual unattached voters that can be won through online campaigns declines to about two million. But this is also the population segment that does not vote. Therefore, if I were Mbabazi I would estimate my likely vote from this segment to be one million – not enough to win a presidential election.
Over 70% of Ugandans still live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for a livelihood. They tend to be conservative with low aspirations. To reach them, a candidate needs to mobilise individuals who have influence in their communities. These can be traditional leaders, articulate youths, respected community elders, reputable businessmen, professionals such as teachers and well-regarded religious leaders. These are the people who influence opinion in rural communities and turn voters to one side. Right now Museveni has overwhelming support among these influencers, a factor that gives him a crashing advantage.
The second person commanding some following among these influencers in Uganda is Besigye and his FDC. Indeed, it was because of the efforts of FDC influencers like Nandala Mafabi that Mbabazi was able to pull a large crowd in Mbale. It is possible that on his own, Mbabazi would still have attracted a large crowd. This is because he has been a prime minister and secretary general of the NRM, and has lately been in the news for fighting against Museveni for more than a year. Urban areas have a large concentration of elite voters, people with a tertiary education, a slightly higher income (compared to peasants) or who are also very aspirational. Mbabazi’s message of change therefore appeals to them. The real test of Mbabazi’s appeal is if he goes to rural villages in any part of Uganda and attracts large crowds.
Mbabazi seems to have noticed the importance of such community influencers. He left NRM almost alone. Only former ambassador Edith Sempala has joined him. This means he lost ability to have impact across the country. He has thus adopted a strategy of winning over influential FDC politicians like Betty Anwar and Abdul Katuntu. But this is a losing strategy. First, most of them are not going to quit FDC for him. Second, it means that he is vying for the same vote as Besigye, leaving Museveni’s base intact. His best chance of growing the opposition voters is in winning NRM moderates and independent voters, not wrestling control from Besigye.
Finally, to win an election in Uganda, a candidate needs physical organisational, not virtual (online) presence in every village and at every polling station. This is vital to physically mobilise one’s supporters to show up and vote but also to protect one’s vote against rigging and ballot stuffing. This is a tough huddle. Mbabazi claims that when he was NRM SG he created cells of 30 people per village. But this is illusory. Ugandans can easily switch sides upon guessing who seems to be the stronger candidate. I do not think many of these mobilisers will remain with Mbabazi. NRM will give them money and I am told many have already joined the Crime Preventers group, literally Kale Kayihura’s brilliant idea of using police resources to mobilise for NRM and demobilise opposition supporters.