Museveni and his opponents are involved in a quarrel over our past. We need a debate about our future
It seems NRM has decided to use violence to win next year’s presidential election. Problem is President Yoweri Museveni has always been a net loser when he has used violence against his opponents.
Using violence against his opponents gives free publicity to their often poorly resourced campaigns and makes them more militant. It also upsets vast numbers of educated, urbanised undecided voters who turn out to vote against Museveni even as it demoralises Museveni’s supporters in this social stratum forcing many to stay home on polling day. I have provided statistical evidence to prove this point in another article.
Why then does NRM choose violence? One reason is that the president’s main base is the poor uneducated peasants. This social stratum does not see elections as an opportunity to make a choice of who should become president. Most of them go to the polls to affirm whom they think has power. In bundling Kizza Besigye or Amama Mbabazi on a police pickup and beating up their supporters, Museveni is demonstrating to them that these candidates are weak and therefore cannot wrestle power from him.
If this is his calculation, then it is sad because it means the president is trying to win peasants at the price of alienating the educated middleclass. He doesn’t have to make such a choice because he can win both groups.
Even without violence against his opponents, opinion polls show that Museveni has a commanding lead among poor rural voters. Therefore, his main campaign strategy should be how to hold his peasant base while making inroads into the urbanised and educated social classes. He doesn’t even need to win a majority in this group to hold a comfortable lead.
The other reason for violence could be that Museveni has a profound mistrust of voters, a factor perhaps rooted in his guerrilla background which stresses constant mistrust. When he feels psychologically insecure during an election, Museveni retreats to military tactics because it is something he is a specialist in. The president’s handlers have learnt how to exploit his electoral insecurity to unleash violence in order to win his favour – for then they appear to be the most loyal and faithful. But in many ways they may undermine his legacy and tarnish his record. Why?
As I argued in this column last week, Uganda has sustained a high rate of economic growth over a generation. This has led to the expansion of education opportunities. Over 400,000 youths graduate from tertiary institutions every year. They now have access to mass media (radio, television and internet). This exposure has made them aspirational. Yet they cannot find jobs. Using violence against NRM opponents is not a strategy to win their support. The president can endear himself to them with the promise of opportunities in the growing economy.
Economic growth has also produced a large middleclass. When I was a student at Makerere in 1994, Museveni said his objective was to grow Uganda’s middleclass to 50,000 households. Stanbic Group has just produced a study estimating Uganda has 500,000 households in the middleclass. They defined such a household as one living in a house that has running water, electricity, owns a refrigerator, television, cooker, microwave, etc. With an average of seven people per household, these are 3.5 million Ugandans (10% of total population) in middleclass status. The World Bank using a more conservative baseline estimates Uganda to have about 12 million people (one third) in the middleclass. This is the class Museveni has successfully created and which gets revolted by police violence against his opponents.
Of course many of our people are still mired in poverty. This is because, in developing countries, rapid economic growth initially tends to increase income inequalities, thus creating an impression of mass poverty growing alongside new wealth. This is because people who earn less feel left out of the growing prosperity not because their absolute income or standard of living has not improved but because they see themselves as being worse-off relative to their comparison group.
Although Museveni espouses a modernising ideology, police violence shows that he can retreat to primordial political instincts. For a president of Museveni’s popularity, superior organisational infrastructure backed by the state and a solid record of achievement, there should be no reason to resort to violence to win an election. It is possible that after 30 years, sections of the electorate may be feeling a Museveni fatigue. But the president can still win over these new social groups with a smart campaign. Instead he is surrendering it to Mbabazi – on a silver platter.
It is may be one of the ironies of our history that Museveni has been successful at modernising Uganda, but proven unable to modernise his politics. Even in selecting his cabinet, he has remained stuck in the old practice of appointing people based on their command of geographically based ethnic or religious bases. Yet today’s Uganda has developed new bases of social engagement like entertainment, social media, sports, professions, etc. I am not saying religious and ethnic identities are no longer important. They are still influential. Rather Museveni seems to have remained largely oblivious of the growth of the very social forces he has always argued are fundamental in promoting his project of transforming Uganda.
Museveni has a solid record of achievement he can leverage to offer aspirational Ugandans hope in new opportunities if re-elected. Many of his supporters are even ignorant of this record, so they cannot articulate it. That is why they think what they have to do is bribe or terrorise people. This is understandable – when you have money and power, they appear a cheap alternative to persuasion. Although they can win tactical victories, bribery and violence are strategically costly. The president’s handlers have even no clue of what he can offer the country, because he has not articulated it.
Ironically, Museveni’s opponents are not offering much either. Besigye promises change but has vague ideas of the Uganda he wants. Mbabazi promises change from Museveni but maintenance of the status quo. If you want change, the choice is between Mbabazi’s calmness and Besigye’s belligerence. A Ugandan looking for a serious proposition about our future is lost. All the candidates seem to represent a quarrel over our past. But none is articulating the future we need.