Politics of intimidation and donor acquiescence won’t deliver democracy

Opposition members who lost the 1980 Uganda elections waged a guerilla war because UPC had not only intimidated voters and rigged the results but also used government resources and institutions and benefited from foreign support. Although not free and fair, the Commonwealth Observers declared the voting process and results satisfactory. UPC came to power for the second time.

In justifying what sparked the guerilla war, NRM observed that Obote and Muwanga allocated seats to their party cohorts even in areas where UPC candidates had scored less that ten percent of total votes cast. It added that besides Tanzania’s support, UPC used its control of national radio, the army, police and other state machinery to rig the election. This illegal action imposed an unpopular minority clique on the people of Uganda, leaving them no option but to take up arms in defense of people’s democratic rights.

In 1986, the rebels led by NRM came to power through the barrel of the gum with foreign fighters amounting to about 25 percent of NRM rebels and foreign backers. Because of its minority status, NRM with acquiescence of the international community delayed elections until 1996.

Mindful that UPC had intimidated voters and candidates and rigged the 1980 elections, one would have expected NRM to do things differently to cement its legitimacy. The record points in a different direction. But first let us briefly examine what happened between 1986 and 1996.

Elsewhere on the continent, western donors equated democracy with multi-party politics. Any government that deviated from that position lost or received much reduced donor funding. In the case of Uganda elections were delayed and when they finally came they were held on a no-party basis. NRM had argued (like other Africans who did not succeed) that political parties are divisive, sectarian and unsuited for pre-industrial societies like Uganda. With donor acquiescence, NRM government therefore prevented opposition political parties from challenging the hegemony of the ruling movement system – a multi-ideological, noncompetitive and all-embracing political system of governance.

The elections were conducted on the basis of individual merit. Nevertheless, state resources were used to help candidates that were identified as NRM staunch supporters. Those candidates considered multi-party sympathizers were intimidated and harassed at every level.

Yoweri Museveni was opposed by Paul Ssemogere for president who represented a coalition of political groups including UPC seeking to restore multi-party politics. In order to discredit him, Ssemogerere was linked to Obote because UPC had joined DP in a coalition. Furthermore, NRM blatantly intimidated Ssemogerere and his supporters. Some opposition members were harassed to the extent that they broke ranks and joined NRM.

During the campaign NRM, like UPC in 1980, deployed state resources and institutions in favor of incumbent Museveni. Given the disproportionate resources, the level of intimidation and harassment of opposition voters, many Ugandans expected Museveni to secure some 90 percent of the votes cast. The fact that he got only 75 percent indicated that he did not have much support nationally.

Ugandans were also surprised when the observers declared the elections free and fair brushing aside the many cases of intimidation and harassment that had been blatantly committed.

In 2001 presidential elections, Museveni faced a tougher challenger, Kiiza Besigye, a military man like Museveni but also a medical doctor. Sensing trouble, NRM increased dramatically the level and intensity of fraud and coercion. In Besigye’s constituency, Museveni unleashed the military elite guard that wreaked terror, including grabbing voter’s cards. At the height of the campaign shots were fired by national security forces killing one person and injuring several others.

Museveni was re-elected with 69 percent of the votes cast an indicator that his popularity was declining. Apart from an increase in the number of districts he lost from 6 to 9 in 1996 and 2001 respectively, Museveni lost the nation’s capital of Kampala and the adjacent Mukono district. Whereas the voter turn-out was 73 percent in 1996, it declined to 57 percent in 2001 signaling the increasing unpopularity of elections in Uganda.

The 2006 elections were even more dramatic. Upon return from exile, Besigye’s rallies were so huge that the NRM government had to come up with a very serious charge of rape and treason to deny him the vote. Apart from going to jail, he spent much of his time in court at the height of the campaign. Still Besigye managed to reduce the popularity of the incumbent President Museveni further to 59 percent from 69 in 2001.

With his popularity declining, President Museveni has resorted increasingly to repression to contain challenges to his presidency (some think for life). With hunger, disease, unemployment, poverty, crime, human sacrifice, domestic violence, alcohol consumption and traffic accidents all rising, Ugandans should brace for more repression as NRM will use any means to get re-elected.

One thing is clear though: intimidation and rigging will neither save NRM nor deliver democracy.