Museveni, NRM secured the vote by going back to the basics

Monday February 28 2011

Museveni supporters celebrate his win in Kampala. Photo/FILE

Museveni supporters celebrate his win in Kampala. Photo/FILE 


When government blocked Buganda king Kabaka Ronald Mutebi from visiting Kayunga, a northern district of Buganda, riots broke out, and on Monday, September 14, 1999, when peace returned, a febrile calm enveloped Kampala, the epicentre of the riots.

In scenes reminiscent of the mid-1980s, residents of the city, on turning a corner, would stop dead in their tracks as they came upon files of troops, guns at the ready.

Monday, February 21, 2011, provided a flashback to that day as careworn citizens of Kampala, like residents of all towns across the country, met companies of soldiers and policemen, this time in at least four different uniforms, on every street, sometimes one company only minutes behind the other.

Between 2009 and 2011 was yet another incident that brought the guns and camouflage out.

In mid-March 2010, the two-century old burial tombs of the Buganda kings went up in flames, setting off running battles in Kampala that saw the death of some three people.

Happening barely a year from the 2011 general elections, the Kasubi fire further inflamed a stand-off between Buganda and the central government.

By the end of 2010, a hard-to-paper-over breakdown in the relationship between the Uganda government and the Buganda palace meant only the most optimistic of NRM loyalists could foresee President Yoweri Museveni winning the Buganda vote.

The two-decades war in northern Uganda had, by 2006, spread discontent from Lango and Acholi to Teso districts with the result that the Forum for Democratic Change made a nearly clean sweep across northern Uganda.

Even with the return of peace starting in 2008, 2011 was too early for a drop in poverty levels.

So it was expected that Museveni, who had lost the northern Ugandan vote in 1996, 2001 and 2006, was due for more of the same.

Barely an hour after polls closed on February 18, with the results coming in, the country realised it was in for a surprise: Museveni won in Pader, Agago and emerged a significant second in Kitgum, Gulu and Nwoya.

This was in Acholi. If Museveni could win in Acholi, he would win everywhere. Museveni posted over 80 per cent returns in more than half of Buganda’s districts.

It was a stunning outcome for the opposition and commentators. By Saturday morning, opposition telephones were either switched off or not available as the reality sank in.

In the run-up to the 2006 elections, the main opposition candidate, Kizza Besigye, spent much of the campaign period in detention.

The notorious Kiboko Squad, so named for the canes they used to beat up opposition supporters, had been out in force.

But general feeling in the numerically influential Buganda region was in Museveni’s favour.

The riots of September 2009 soured that. The closure of the Central Broadcasting Service radio station brought home to Buganda what opposition politicians had long been telling them, that the government was heavyhanded and intolerant of disssent.

But Museveni’s active courting of northern Uganda signalled to commentators that he was desperate.

Therefore, if the beleaguered opposition had a chance at a halfway free poll, 2011 would be it.

Changing name of game

“In Uganda, we are so used to the traditional form of rigging, ballot box-stuffing, preventing agents from hanging around, beating up opposition agents, that it was what we were looking for,” Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, research fellow at the Institute of Social Research, Makerere University said. “Museveni was rather cleverer than that this time around. He did not beat up Besigye. There were allegations of stuffing of ballot boxes but so few as not to be significant.”

Post-election, the discussions started to concentrate on what won the vote.

Essentially, Museveni and the ruling party caught the opposition off-guard by changing the name of the game.

First of all, the overwhelming advantages of incumbency, which the government, in the words of Commonwealth observer Dame Billie Miller, “took with both hands,” had always been there.

As Mr Golooba, monitoring lobby Demgroup and other sources say, a combination of persuasion, coercion, tinkering and outright rigging, were deployed to bring in the votes.

Awareness of growing unpopularity spurred the NRM to make its numbers count, indeed, to behave for the first time as a political party.

Museveni’s agents fanned out ahead of his campaign route, rallying the electorate itself.

Unlike in the past, Museveni had the tangible gains of peace, after two decades, to show.

That in itself was a powerful factor in Acholi, Teso and Lango. But the NRM did not take that for granted.

At each campaign stop, Museveni left behind agents, including Members of the East African Legislative Assembly like Nusura Tiperu and former vice president Specioza Kazibwe, to make almost door-to-door stops, securing his rear.

Voters met NRM campaigners personally in greater numbers than they did the opposition, and this has changed the way elections are prosecuted in Uganda.

Party with the reach

Another crucial factor in securing votes was the basic fact that the NRM fielded candidates to all 377 parliamentary seats.

The second biggest party, the FDC, managed only 185. UPC and DP fielded 130 and 99 candidates respectively.

Even without the alleged rigging, the NRM was bound to secure the most parliamentary seats.

The ruling party claims that it got six million Ugandans to participate in its primaries in 2010.

If this were to be believed, it would potentially mean, once again, that the party circulated its manifesto to the most Ugandans.

But the run-up to the elections saw more anti-government protests than previously.

While it indicated courage among the electorate to defy army and police, it also signalled to the government that unless it acted, it might easily lose the elections and forced its hand: In January, the government asked for and got an additional $260 million supplementary budget, a staggering sum of money that commentators say found its way into the elections, and fuelled accusations that voters were bribed with cash to tick the right box.

“The level of poverty is very high,” John Mary Odoy the director of Demgroup told this paper. “There are also cultural issues. People feel that if someone does something for you, you have to do something back.”


At the time Museveni took power in 1986, Uganda had 33 districts. Uganda went into the 2011 elections with 112 districts, a more than three-old growth.

The decentralisation of government in the 1990s transferred local revenue collection and tendering processes and discretionary expenditure among others down to districts, with the result that jobs at district levels have become lucrative.

As illustrated by the 2011 and 2006 presidential elections in which both DP candidates Nobert Mao and Sebana Kizito sprung from district leadership, districts are the most important tool in national politics.

A total of 52 new districts were created in the past 10 years and almost all with the exception of Nwoya district in Acholi which Mao won, and Amolatar in Lango which Besigye took, returned healthy majorities for Museveni.

Gerrymandering was a stroke of genius commentators say Museveni used most effectively.

Districts bring funding to locals and are universally popular. It tied the hands of the opposition because speaking against it would have handed them even bigger punishments.

Threat of War

War and peace was the murkier card that the ruling party used to effect, particularly in the previous Luwero triangle and northern Uganda.

“That place has been going through hell,” said Odoy, of northern Uganda. “(Museveni) did it tactfully. He moved them from suffering to peace so the reaction from the people was extreme. He first made them suffer and then gave them peace.”

Mr Golooba says: “People voted for Museveni because they were afraid of what would happen. Agents of the ruling party have been telling people that if you don’t vote for Museveni, there will be war.”

However, he adds that stick was more persuasive with carrot.

Throughout his campaign, there were pictures of Museveni handing out brown envelopes, and it is an area that remains grey.

While the law forbids vote-buying, incumbency means that it becomes tricky to separate, legally, which action by Museveni is state or campaign duty.

Rewards for best-performing farmers under the National Agricultural Advisory Services, such as handing out chicks, were a big part of the campaign.

In northern Uganda, government provision of iron sheets and other services to returning IDPs were made selectively, and denial of these to constituencies under opposition control may have tipped the balance against FDC’s Prof Morris Ogenga-Latigo.

“People were fearing the threat of war,” a news reporter at Radio Wa in Lira told The EastAfrican. “But it was also the posture adopted by Besigye in the past that partly undid him. In 2006, he premosied action if there was rigging,” the reporter, who spoke on point of anonymity said. “The election was rigged but Besigye did nothing so people lost trust in him.”

Beyond the observable, the opposition has made scathing attacks against the Electoral Commission.

President of the Conservative Party, and also chairman of the Inter Party Coalition, John Ken Lukyamuzi, makes the charge that “The rigging was in-built. It was part of the system”.

Voter’s cards supposed to have been supplied by German company Muehlbauer Ag by November 2010 did not materialise, leading to charges that it was intended to obscure the true number of voters, deny voters their rights and allow ineligible voters vote.

The contentious voters number about four million. Says Lukyamuzi: “The supreme court ruling of 2006 not only said the EC was irresponsible but wondered whether it existed at all, so how could the same, machinery have taken on an extra 4.5 million voters?”

He further charges that recently registered names were scattered across polling stations with the result that voters did not find their names in their traditional polling stations or had to walk long distances trying to find them.

The Demgroup said late delivery of ballot boxes in some polling stations, even in Kampala, has riled the opposition

Mr Golooba-Mutebi said there might be some credence to opposition accusations against the EC: “What their (NRM) agents did was strike off on the register, people who were not NRM supporters, but these are allegations. But registration of NRM supporters rallied their members.”

It is polling officials with alleged loyalties to the ruling party which may have played an important role in tilting the support in Buganda to Museveni’s favour. 

“The odds are that the EC stopped delivery to create room for rigging,” Mr Lukyamuzi said.

EC spokesman Ochola said more time for study was needed before drawing conclusions: “Preliminary observation reports are only made on polling day and polling day is only one segment of the process,” he said.

Of vote-buying, Ochola said: “They may be right, but issues of monetisation does not come from the EC. The lacunae we have in our law is that incumbency is allowed to use facilities in his official status so this makes it hard for us to know if its his capacity as candidate or head of state. It becomes difficult for us, even impossible, to know his intention.”

On the legitimacy of the EC, Ochola says that while the current commission was created under the one-party status before Multiparty politics, the constitution still puts nomination power in the hands of the president, which can only be changed by amendment of the constitution.

It is difficult to see how the constitution will be amended by a parliament with an NRM majority.

Mr Ochola counters the confusion mentioned by several observers by saying that in a number of places, previously designated polling stations have been developed, new property owners taken over and that this forced the commission to shift polling stations.