About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, July 23, 2018

Our biggest political question

Why NRM won local council elections amidst the `hated’ tax on mobile money and social media

  Last week, Uganda held elections for local councils. The ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) of President Yoweri Museveni fielded a candidate in almost every contested position. I obtained provisional results from the Electoral Commission. They cover 53,340 out of 60,797 contested positions (i.e. 88%) in 122 districts. NRM won 69%, independents (most of them allied to NRM) 22% and the combined opposition a miserable 9%.

There is a broad consensus among Ugandan elites that Museveni has outgrown his usefulness and has now increasingly become a liability. This consensus (in the absence of a scientific opinion poll, I am going by social media and personal interactions) is not just among opposition and independents. It is also widespread among supporters of the NRM, even its MPs including cabinet ministers. It is increasingly rare to find an educated Ugandan who believes Museveni represents the future of our country.

The elections were held a week after government introduced a tax on mobile money and on social media, which has generated a lot of hostility among the elite. They were also the first nation-wide elections after parliament amended the constitution to remove age limits on the president so that Museveni can run again. This amendment generated a lot of hostility from the elite public as well.
How does Museveni (and his NRM) continue to win elections in spite of these actions? This is the question Ugandan elites refuse to ask because it would expose their delusions i.e. show that they are detached from reality.

Social media is an echo chamber, where elites listen to themselves and get an illusion that the whole country agrees with them. In doing things that piss off elites, one would think Museveni had given his enemies a rope with which to politically hang him. However, his opponents have failed to take advantage of them. This should lead us to question whether these decisions are blunders.

We cannot blame Museveni for seeking power till he dies. Any self-interested individual would do exactly that. We can blame Ugandan society generally: why doesn’t the public rise in revolt against Museveni for corruption and mismanagement as claimed by his opponents? Are Ugandans this cowardly? Or should we blame opposition leaders who have promised salvation but delivered defeat after defeat?

I have friends who argue that society cannot be blamed for these failures. It is leaders to blame. But who holds these leaders to account? The ability of leaders to deliver depends on a vigilant population. If the leadership in government has failed to manage the country well, the leadership of opposition has also failed to remove an incompetent government from power. In both cases, Museveni’s failures have not caused his fall and neither have the failures of opposition leaders to remove him caused any change in opposition leadership. This suggests that we are a society confortable with mediocrity.

Or may be not. I believe Museveni has been a successful leader and Ugandans know it – deep inside them, perhaps intuitively – they feel it and believe it. However, for fanciful reasons, it is not cool to admit this fact and the more reason to pontificate and pretend to oppose Museveni. It makes some elites hedge their bets against being accused of having been compromised. Why? Because when Ugandans have previously felt their country is in peril, they have organised in defiance of power and pursuit of their ideals.

Take 1981. When Museveni went to the bush, many Ugandans followed him. Careers were abandoned, educations sacrificed, businesses left to waste, lives put at risk, families left behind and properties abandoned. Museveni offered no salaries to his fighters but hunger, sacrifice, and potential death. The promise of victory was remote. Yet people joined, others collaborated in this national liberation struggle until final victory was achieved. That Ugandans are not willing to sacrifice for a second liberation today is evidence that there is little evil to fight. The country is not as baldy off as we claim in the media. We are not very happy. That is true. We are merely suffering from tolerable inconveniences.

I think Museveni understands Uganda well and is exceptionally adept at managing its diverse and conflicting social groups. He has been unusually skillful and successful in placating the interests of our nation’s influential but unruly and noisy ethnic and religious elites, ascertaining the needs and expectations of the masses they represent, coopting global powers to support him, managing regional politics, and insulating himself a violent power-grab by his opponents.

Museveni has achieved this by doing things that, on the face of it, we pretend to hate but which in reality are the instruments of consolidating power in an ethnically heterogeneous poor country. He has perfected the art of political corruption by creating a large volume of elective and appointive political jobs – a huge parliament, 145 districts, 120 presidential advisors, 81 cabinet ministers, 200 Resident District Commissioners etc. This is the reason few elites want to break ranks with him. Even for his opponents, Museveni has created districts where they too can win elections and eat.

So he has sold the country to multinational capital; the better to reassure global powers that he is the man they must work with. He has kept a tight and personal grip on the military and security apparatus, the more effective way to avoid violent change of government. He has created many popular programs for the masses like Universal Primary Education, basic healthcare, Operation Wealth Creation; the sweet way to show ordinary people that he cares about them.

He has protected ordinary people from taxes (by abolishing graduated tax), defended boda bodas against the rule of law, protected poor encroachers on public land and tolerated the corruption of the powerful. Even for his most virulent critics, Museveni has allowed them political space to insult and criticise him, the better to allow them let off steam and return to sleep feeling that they have at least told him off. He has succeeded because while he is passionate in his pursuit of power, he is flexible in his morals and principles.

The mistake Museveni’s opponents have made is to imagine a world that does not exist. To delude themselves into the belief that the feelings they share against him in their social media echo chamber are the feelings of the majority of the citizens. They have also lied to themselves that they have a loyal base of supporters across the country. But as elections consistently prove, all these are delusions.

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