There is a ritual that has now become a staple of Uganda politics: In the months leading to presidential elections, the dogs are let out on President Yoweri Museveni’s rivals.
With elections seven months away, the announcement that the hour had arrived was made with the arrest of two presidential aspirants who hope to challenge Museveni’s 30-year-rule.
Ex-prime minister and ruling party secretary-general Amama Mbabazi was arrested near the eastern industrial town of Jinja on his way to address a rally; and Kizza Besigye, a former leader of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), who is seeking his party’s nomination to be their presidential candidate, was arrested at his home outside the capital Kampala.
Besigye, a former minister and Museveni’s physician during their bush war in the early 1980s, has battled with him three times for the presidency.
Their first encounter in 2001, and the second one in 2006, produced probably the nastiest and most violent elections the country has ever witnessed. Both times Besigye said he was robbed, and went to court.
The courts agreed with him except, they said, the votes that had been stolen weren’t sufficient to change the final outcome. In 2011, saying it was no longer possible to find justice in a court stacked with pro-Museveni judges, he set out on months of leading civil protests.
Beaten like a snake
For his pains he was beaten, as Ugandans would say, like a snake. Since 2001, it is possible even Besigye himself has lost count of the number of times he has been arrested.
Over the next months, it will get worse, not better for Besigye and Mbabazi.
The question is, why does the Museveni government treat his rivals this way? The obvious answer seems to be that, well, “This is Africa, that is another big man clinging to power and tormenting rivals.”
But in Uganda’s case, it is a little more complex. For historical reasons, Museveni is fearful of elections — even those which he knows he can easily win.
This complex, some say, has its roots in the December 1980 polls. Those elections were hopelessly rigged, and one of the reasons why Museveni went to the bush to start a guerrilla war.
Museveni was leader of the radical Uganda Patriotic Movement, and stood in his home constituency of Nyabushozi for the parliamentary seat. He lost his deposit, coming third.
The story goes that he was so traumatised that he became deeply distrustful of Uganda’s fickle voters. And because of that, he can never bring himself to believe that they will vote even for an incumbent with all factors favouring him.
He therefore invariably takes “preventive” measures, including stuffing the electoral commission with sympathisers, giving a nod to his camp to fiddle votes, and ensuring that his main challengers spend more time fighting to keep or get themselves out of jail, than in campaigning against him.
He has now become a prisoner of history. Unable to take a risk with a free poll, Museveni will leave the presidency without knowing whether he can actually win an honest and fair election.
Perhaps he has a point. If there were a truly free poll, Ugandan voters would probably throw him under the bus.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com). [email protected]