By Andrew M. Mwenda
Opposition leader and activist, Dr. Kizza Besigye, has been consistent in denouncing the electoral process in Uganda as a sham. In an interview with Daily Monitor last week, he said: “[Lt] Gen [Henry] Tumukunde knows that in Uganda, the election cannot cause change and bring about the announcement of a different person as president. If he wants to join the struggle for change, he should know that it will take more than canvassing for votes.”
For a man who has been beaten and teargased, pepper-sprayed and jailed for running for president, and one who has seen ballot stuffing and violence against his supporters, this grim view of the electoral process in Uganda is understandable. Although it does not reflect the full reality of elections in Uganda (I do not think Besigye has ever defeated Museveni in an election), his feelings cannot be ignored. But as a leader of an opposition movement seeking power, Besigye plays directly into President Yoweri Museveni’s hands when he tells people that elections are meaningless. I shall return to this strategic error in a second.
For now, if Besigye believes elections cannot cause change, why does he participate in them at all? In an interview with The Observer newspaper last year, Besigye again revealed his strategy. He said electoral campaigns offer him an opportunity to mobilize citizens. Since elections cannot cause change, he said he uses the electoral process as an opportunity to mobilize the masses for a popular uprising. Essentially Besigye is saying he wants to use ultra-constitutional means to gain political power, which is treason.
But how come Museveni, someone sensitive (if not paranoid) about plots and threats to his power, has not permanently jailed Besigye, but only restricted his activities? On the surface, this tolerance reflects the strength of the NRM and the weakness of Besigye’s defiance campaign. So government can treat him as a tolerable nuisance. I do not know of any other country, not even in the advanced liberal democracies, where a leading political figure can openly state such treasonous intentions and get away with it.
However, the biggest reason for Besigye’s freedom is his role in entrenching Museveni’s power, which I suspect he does quite inadvertently. It is also this factor that shows Besigye’s major strategic weakness. Over the last two decades, Museveni’s support across the country has been shrinking. Over 65% of the population think the president is tired and should retire. He has a great past behind him but he offers little or no better future for Uganda.
Therefore the only way Museveni can win an election in Uganda is by ensuring low voter turnout. How can he achieve this? It is by making a significant percentage of Ugandans believe that elections cannot remove him from power. How does he do this? First the president employs violence against the most powerful challenger who is often Besigye. By constantly arresting him and bundling them on police pickups like a chicken thief, he demonstrates that the electoral process is under his personal control. Seeing such, many people opt not to vote, believing their vote won’t count.
Museveni also knows that for many peasants, voting is not a choice of who should become president. Rather it is a means of expressing themselves on whom they think wields real power. So voting is a means to endorse power, not to change it. Consequently, when many peasants see Besigye being bundled on a pickup truck by ordinary policemen and women they recognize that he is actually powerless; it is Museveni who wields power. So they endorse the president when they go to the polls.
The second strategy of Museveni has been the creation of the myth of invincibility at the polls and the inevitability of him keeping power. People need to believe he cannot be defeated and if he were defeated, he would not concede and/or the Electoral Commission would, nonetheless, announce him victor. Therefore voting is an exercise in futility. There is one man with credibility to sell this message to Ugandans and they believe it – it is Besigye.
Besigye is a very credible person in the eyes of many Ugandans because he has exhibited in abundance the qualities of great leaders: he is highly principled, determined, resilient, and he has made enormous personal sacrifices for the cause for which he has been fighting. On many occasions he has been arrested, jailed and tried concurrently in the high court and the military court martial. He has been prosecuted for treason and terrorism, for rape and worse. He has been tear-gassed and pepper sprayed. His brother has been killed, his siblings and in laws sent to exile. In spite of all this he has remained true to his beliefs. This gives him a lot of credibility.
There are many people who have fought Museveni but after a while many have apathetically given up the struggle and resigned from politics. Some have been intimidated to go silent, some have been bribed to change sides and others have been blackmailed into silence. But Besigye, among very few others, has remained standing and fighting – everyday. It is this profile in courage, principle, integrity, consistence and resilience that makes many people trust him, knowing he is dependable even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
With such powerful credentials Besigye is the man you need to convince Ugandans to keep away from the polls. When he says that elections cannot bring about change; and that he has won four elections and got nowhere, people listen. They feel it is a waste of time to go and vote since Museveni will nonetheless be announced winner. Museveni knows this and more. He also knows that can use the machinery of the state to get out his core supporters to vote. Meanwhile he also knows the opposition has no such machinery and therefore need a lot of passion for, and faith in, the electoral process for them to show up at the polls in large numbers.
The evidence that low voter turnout works in Museveni’s favour is overwhelming. In 2011, only 58% of Ugandans turned out to vote and Museveni got 68% of the vote, Besigye 26%. In 2016, there was a 10% increase in voter turnout and Museveni’s share of the vote fell to 60% while that of Besigye climbed up by that 10% to 36%. It was very clear that most of the increase in voter turnout favoured Besigye. This is enough evidence that showing up to vote matters. Yet Besigye has remained impervious to this reality.
In many ways therefore, Besigye’s consistent campaign against elections as a vehicle for change is a reflection of the poverty of his strategy. You cannot lead a struggle where you promise your supporters defeat. Even if he has a Plan B i.e. instigating a mass uprising using the electoral process, he needs people to believe they can change government using elections for them to show up in large numbers to vote. Regardless of his subjective motivations, the objective outcome of Besigye’s campaign against elections is to entrench Museveni in power. Therefore although subjectively Besigye is Museveni’s bitterest opponent, objectively he is the president’s greatest ally – albeit inadvertently.