Peaceful campaigns in Uganda? The dirty work went on behind the scenes

Monday February 21 2011



Ugandans have just gone through another round of elections.

When polling stations opened on Friday February 18, the presidency and hundreds of parliamentary seats were up for grabs.

Ever since the controversial 1980 general elections which gave current President Yoweri Museveni the excuse to wage war and seize power by force, Uganda has not had as peaceful a campaign period as the one just ended.

So peaceful was it that journalists who had waited for dramatic scenes of violence were moaning about how boring it all was.

According to one foreign journalist, the absence of drama had led many of his friends who covered the extremely violent 2006 campaigns to stay away.

Uganda watchers will recall how during those campaigns a panicky and vindictive Museveni had drafted the entire state machinery into his efforts to defeat Kizza Besigye whose sudden return from exile had caused a dramatic rise in the number of people seeking to register to vote.

Inside the president’s camp, these developments were hardly good news.

And so began the assault on Besigye and his supporters. Whenever he was not being kept behind bars or ferried to court to answer trumped-up charges, he and his supporters were being trailed and harassed by members of one or other legal or semi-legal security outfit.

Courtesy of trigger-happy security operatives, some did not live to vote.

From what I have been hearing, for journalists the gratuitous violence and the accompanying breaking of limbs, cracking of skulls and murders, were all rather good copy. “Shame,” you may say, but then you’re not a journalist.

In looking for adrenaline-raising drama of which there has been very little, however, journalists, mainly the foreign ones who rarely venture into the countryside, have missed the below-the-surface episodes of harassment and dirty tricks directed at members and supporters of opposition parties.

Courtesy of the ubiquitous resident district commissioners, some have been prevented from appearing on local radio stations to put their case to members of the general public.

Others tell stories of hefty financial inducements to cross over to the ruling party, a move intended to demoralise the opposition.

A prominent member of the Besigye-led Forum for Democratic Change, the largest party in the opposition alliance, the Inter-Party Co-operation, has claimed he was offered Ush1.5 billion, well over half a million US dollars, to cross to the cash-loaded ruling party.

The agent, he alleges, was one of Museveni’s sons-in-law, himself the subject of media stories linking him to a variety of financial scams.

A spate of floor-crossings by some opposition politicians and sudden, unexplained withdrawals from parliamentary races by others, have intensified debates about how much they were offered.

By the time the campaigns ended, no reports had as yet surfaced of opposition-party agents offering bribes to ruling-party supporters to jump ship.

Perhaps the most exciting events throughout the campaigns, and here I use the word “exciting” advisedly, were the several releases of opinion polls suggesting or, if you like, showing, that Museveni would garner more than 60 per cent of the popular vote.

The polls, which risk sullying the names of the companies involved if their predictions do not come to pass, caused much consternation among opposition parties — some of which, it was suggested, would score zero per cent.

For reasons that are hardly obvious, Kizza Besigye, Museveni’s main challenger, was shown trailing by more than 40 percentage points.

The pollsters were accused of having let themselves be used by the ruling party, itself the subject of accusations of looting the national Treasury to fund its campaigns, to manufacture favourable polls and prepare the public for widespread rigging.

Opposition officials could not believe that, having been welcomed by massive crowds wherever they went on the campaign trail, the same crowds would turn around and vote for Museveni.

Meanwhile, in a televised interview, an ebullient Museveni predicted that he would win by 80 per cent.

Now that would shock even his most committed supporters and cause more than a few heart attacks on the other side.

Hopefully, as you read this sentence, all is well in Uganda, and the only people having a hard time coping with the post-election atmosphere are bar-owners attending to ecstatic victors and to losers trying to drown their sorrow in alcohol.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Social Research, Makerere University.