The election, on 1 June 2018, of a Woman Representative of the Rukungiri District, South Western Uganda from the opposition Forum for Democratic Change was a big blow to the ruling National Resistance Movement. Was this just an ordinary by-election that went wrong for the ruling party or there is more to worry about? In any case, President Museveni's party needs to do some soul-searching.
Uganda, like its neighbour Kenya, never seems to have enough of election fever and excitement. As soon as elections are over, they immediately resume in the form of contested elections or by-elections for one reason or another. This seems to me a nice thing since it keeps the citizenry busy politicking and the ordinary masses use this opportunity to enjoy electoral goodies in terms of food, drinks, cash, salt, sugar and bicycles. On 1 June 2018 Rukungiri District in South Western Uganda held such a by-election for the Woman Representative in Parliament that fell vacant after the 2016 elections were contested on grounds of massive violations of electoral laws. The winner of the 2016 contest was Winnie Matsiko of the National Resistance Movement (NRM), and the contender of this victory is Betty Muzanira of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). This time around, Winnie was not so lucky and Betty Muzanira won the Rukungiri women’s seat by 50611 votes while Matsiko garnered 46379 votes—quite close indeed. What do we make of this resounding victory by FDC over the formidable NRM?
Highly contested elections in a politically charged terrain
All observers of Uganda’s electoral politics agree that this by-election was the most contested in Uganda’s recent political history. Why? Rukungiri, for beginners in Uganda’s politics, is the most politicised District in the country and has plenty of political big-wigs who have dominated Uganda’s politics for decades. It is convergence zone of some of Uganda’s contradictions and forces that shape the politics of Uganda: religion (Catholics and Protestants), ethnicity (Bakiga, Bahororo, Banyankore, and Bafumbira) and economy (agriculturalist farmers, cattle herders and business people). This complex mix produces interesting political dynamics that are hard to navigate. Then a major critical factor is the fact that Dr. Kizza Besigye of FDC is a “son of the soil.” Other prominent personalities in Rukungiri like Mathew Rukikaire, Jim Muhwezi, Henry Tumukunde and Amama Mbabazi (who now belongs to Kanungu District that broke away from Rukungiri), all played a key role in the formation of NRM during its inception in the early 1980s.
It is no surprise that President Yoweri Museveni camped in Rukungiri and was busy dishing out funds and other goodies as part of his anti-poverty campaign. The timing of this poverty alleviation strategy has raised some suspicion that it was a subtle way of bribing voters in the Uganda style. It is estimated that weeks leading to this election Museveni donated close to five billion Ugandan Shillings (about US $ 1.3 million) in cash and items. Dr. Besigye, who does not have the luxury of such state resources, devised a counter strategy: “eat his money but vote for the opposition candidate.” The voters, it seems, heeded his call. Museveni in his turn after the defeat graciously stated that the poverty reduction strategies for Rukungiri would continue despite the fact that NRM lost the election.
Why did the NRM loose this by-election?
To be fair, it could have gone either way. But let us deal with the FDC victory and its implications for the days ahead. NRM invested heavily in this by-election no doubt. The president, as he usually does, took personal initiative, even though it was under the guise of an anti-poverty campaign. We may not read much into this NRM defeat, but there is some wisdom in thinking that probably the writing is on the wall for NRM. If the whole NRM machinery including security agencies, resources and leading party functionaries could be defeated in this bi-election, there is some soul-searching to be done on the side of NRM. It seems that overall the elections went on smoothly and the electoral commission did a fairly good job. Does this mean that if the playing field is level, FDC can very easily wrest power from the NRM? Of course this is just one district among numerous districts. Not all districts of Uganda have the same political passion as Rukungiri and not all have the same financial resources as the people of Rukungiri. Still, there are some lessons to learn.
The other major factor that helped FDC to win was that they were all united while the NRM had some internal squabbles. This gave the FDC candidate a huge advantage. “Unity is strength” as the popular adage goes.
After the constitutional amendment to remove age limit to the presidency, some sections of the population got angry and felt that Museveni was now headed for life-presidency. This is something that many observers had expressed fears about for years, not that it seems to have come to pass. Part of this anger could have emboldened voters in Rukungiri to demonstrate their rage against this supposed scheme to give Museveni a life presidency. So, all those linked to NRM are held guilty by association. The fact that Museveni put all his political muscle in Rukungiri’s by-election, just a mere parliamentary seat, can justify this hypothesis that the NRM was seeing this by-election as a litmus test of its strength after the constitutional amendment.
The myth of monetisation of politics in Uganda might also have been laid to rest—that, henceforth one cannot use state resources to win elections. Voters can “chew” the money and still vote with their conscience and intellect. This is what political maturity is all about. Having a lot money will therefore no longer give an upper hand to one who vies for political office.
Amama Mbabazi factor: Missing link?
One major political actor in Rukungiri’s politics is the former powerful Prime Minister and Secretary General of NRM Amama Mbabazi who since fell out of favour with his ally Museveni. Mbabazi’s work ethic and calm strategising was well known. They are no longer in the NRM party machinery and so the ruling party has lost a key strategist. Could this factor also have contributed to the defeat of NRM in Rukungiri? No compelling evidence has emerged but one cannot rule out some small contribution. Mbabazi can clearly have about 20 percent of supporters in Rukungiri. This alone would have helped the NRM win this by-election given that it was very close. So NRM should look inside and see if the gradual leaving of staunch members for whatever reason has gradually weakened the NRM to a point of no return.
What is Africa’s problem? Museveni’s own diagnosis
In a much-cited book, What is Africa’s Problem, Museveni offered his diagnosis of some of the root causes of African problems. He cited the problem of leaders who overstay in power. Journalists have constantly put this question to him, to the effect that he seems to have contradicted himself by doing exactly what he was condemning in others. This was the case on 2 June 2018 during a CGTN Straight Talk Africa programme, when the interviewer put the same question to him. Museveni, in his characteristic shrewd manner, evaded the question and instead lectured on ten major bottlenecks that face African countries. Among them he mentioned lack of proper ideology.
A rejoinder to Museveni’s argument about bottlenecks can be that probably leaders who overstay in power have in fact failed to develop an ideology that can stand the test of time and live on after them. If an ideology is such a crucial thing in politics, and it is, it should provide clarity for whoever can take over power. If we can borrow a lesson from Christianity, the largest religion by followers on earth, Jesus Christ preached for only three years, and after he was crucified his followers spread his good news to all parts of the world. A good ideology or doctrine attracts followers regardless whether the founder of the ideology is alive or dead. Jokes have been made that if the Museveni of today were to meet the Museveni of the 1980s they would not recognise each other! Only President Museveni is able to explain whether he is currently a solution to Africa’s problems or whether he has betrayed the very principles he so well elaborated in his What is Africa’s Problem? Methinks that President Yoweri Museveni might have become the 11th bottleneck in Uganda’s politics.
We do not know for sure what lies ahead on the political horizon. We can only speculate. First, there is some general feeling of fatigue with the ruling party that has been at the helm for over 30 years with one leader. This fatigue can easily be translated into antipathy. So the million dollar question for the NRM is: for how long will President Museveni continue as the head of the NRM and still expect voters to have the same excitement as they had since the 1980s?
Secondly, there are some younger ambitious politicians like Bobi Wine (the famous musician turned politician) who are nursing political ambitions. Dr. Besigye and Mugisha Muntu, both formerly of NRM are still at it. Amama Mbabazi is now quiet but could be hatching out something for the rainy days—once a politician ever a politician. If these ambitious Ugandans were to come together, would the NRM survive the political tsunami that they would unleash?
Thirdly, the continental mood seems to be that there is some wind of change sweeping the continent if we go by what happened in South Africa with Jacob Zuma, Zimbabwe with Robert Mugabe, and Ethiopia. For how long will Uganda resist this so called wind of change? President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has been giving hints that there are better things to do after retirement, including studies! He has since engaged in some very innovative marketing strategies to boost Rwanda’s tourism. Can Museveni learn a thing or two from Uganda’s neighbour to the South West? Still on the change of mood in the continent—Kenya has surprised many by President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga (self-declared people’s president) with the handshake that slowly became an embrace. Many are asking whether Museveni can extend a handshake to Dr. Besigye in this emerging African political theory of affection, which Uhuru Kenyatta has charmingly inaugurated.
This will suffice. I hope Museveni and his handlers will heed the writing on the wall and do the needful. Know when to stop the dance, lest you spoil the excellent previous performance. The Rukiga/Runyankore proverb that Museveni knows too well says it all: “Wazina munonga orarugaho orashobya”—that is; you dance for too long, you will eventually make a mistake.
* Doctor Odomaro Mubangizi teaches social and political philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where he is Dean of the Philosophy Department and Editor of The Justice, Peace and Environment Bulletin.