Something often strikes me when I interact with Ugandans who dislike the country’s current government on the one hand, and on the other with Kenyans who dislike or are ambivalent about their current government.
For the Ugandans, their government is a dictatorship, pure and simple. That it is elected in competitive elections matters not. The elections, they argue, are rigged; aren’t they? And the government does not listen to them; does it?
My Kenyan acquaintances and friends tend to talk up the “vibrancy” of their democracy and about all the freedoms they have. Their elections, though, they dismiss as rigged, and the government as corrupt. I am yet to meet anyone, however, who calls it a dictatorship.
We could debate this all day. However, it seems to me as if there are some things Ugandans and Kenyans can agree about quite easily: The poor quality of their political parties and their internal processes, and the growing importance of politics as a source of employment and as a livelihood strategy.
I was in Kenya earlier in the week. I had the opportunity to observe and follow, mainly via media and in some instances directly, the conduct of party primaries for a variety of positions. Up and down the country members of political parties were choosing the people they wanted to be their candidates and if they won, represent or lead them.
The competition was very keen and the stakes very high. The voters were more than a little animated. Stories of candidates attempting to buy support with cash and other inducements and being implicated in organising for supporters of rivals to be obstructed or even beaten up, were legion.
There were many tales of pre-ticked ballots and weapons of various kinds being found in candidates’ vehicles or those of their supporters or agents. Candidates’ vehicles were overturned or their windscreens shattered. It was as if Kenyans were at war, not out to participate in a civic activity. That is what happens in the “dictatorship” across their western border.
The fact that candidates were caught with or accused of ferrying pre-ticked ballots into polling centres points to something quite fundamental. Just as in Uganda, the vote rigging said to characterise national elections goes on even within parties when they are holding internal elections.
The result of all this is that, although participants in the primaries claim to support the parties in whose processes they participate, they do not believe that their leaders are people of integrity. Which is why voters refuse to leave polling stations before the ballots have been counted and the results declared.
They do not trust those in charge to declare the right results.
And, in many cases when the results are declared, new fights break out, as losing candidates and their supporters refuse to accept defeat. They allege rigging and accuse their party leadership of bias, bad faith, and lack of transparency.
In Kenya, in some instances, the ballots would be grabbed and set alight in protest and possibly to cause new elections to be held.
As if all this were not bad enough, the performance of the parties in terms of preparedness, organisation and logistical management left lots to be desired. As with national elections, some voters would turn up and find their names were missing from the registers.
That, too, would spark new rows, as did parties failing to deliver ballots on time, forcing voters, some of whom would have arrived at polling centres as early as 4am, to wait all day. And then the ballots would arrive, sometimes in smaller numbers than members waiting to vote. More rows. Again, something very familiar to Ugandans who still have the time and energy to participate in party activities.
Clearly, not unlike their Ugandan counterparts, political parties in Kenya are yet to master the art of managing internal polls and other processes. And that almost all party primaries exhibit the same chaos every so many years, testifies to the parties’ inability or unwillingness to learn from past failures. There are many reasons for this state of affairs, of course.
Some have to do with politics in both countries having become a source of jobs and an avenue to self-actualisation. Others have to do with lack of civic education. If voter satisfaction comes only from defeating the other side, even if the contests are among members of the same political outfit, it says something about the lack of and need for focused civic education.
Perhaps more important, if parties are unable to manage their polls properly, it is also about presence on the ground or lack thereof. Lack of presence often has to do with poverty, especially in these “modern times” when individual supporters expect money from their parties and not to contribute anything.
In Uganda as in Kenya, it seems to me as if while some aspirants have lots of money and can afford to throw vast sums around, many parties are hardly able to finance even the most basic of their needs.
We may not debate this enough or even at all, but perhaps we need to think of how parties can be enabled to manage their affairs and to be better prepared for when they could be in power one day.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]