What awaits Uganda?

The 2011 Uganda elections – some preliminary reflections

By Anders Sjögren

On 18 February 2011, the incumbent president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, and his main challenger, Kizza Besigye, faced off in a presidential election for the third time running. Just as in 2001 and 2006, Museveni emerged victorious, this time securing a landslide win with 68 per cent of the votes against Besigye’s 26 per cent. Six other contenders shared the remaining 6 per cent.

Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986, can now look forward to another five years in office. His position was made even more secure by the fact that the parliamentary elections produced a solid victory for his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, which took 216 of the 378 parliamentary seats. By contrast, Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) captured a mere 29 seats.

Museveni’s margin of victory this time was slightly wider than in 2001, and significantly greater than in 2006, when he won 59 per cent of the vote as against Besigye’s 37 per cent. Another striking difference with the 2006 elections is that turnout fell from 69 to 58 per cent. It is difficult to draw any specific conclusions from this and more careful analysis of regional voting patterns is required. More fundamentally, serious doubts have been raised about the credibility of any figures relating to the elections. Indeed, allegations of a seriously compromised voters’ register have been one of the opposition’s main concerns, and there is a general lack of faith among the opposition in the composition, competence and autonomy of the Electoral Commission (EC).

The ineptitude and compromised independence of the EC have been clearly demonstrated in the testimonies to and verdicts of the courts in the appeals against the process and the results launched by Besigye in both 2001 and 2006, and no reforms have been undertaken since. This time, though, and as a result of losing both cases after controversial and close votes among the judges, Besigye made it clear prior to the elections that he did not intend to go to court in the event of a loss.

It may be argued that although the massive amounts of money spent by the NRM during the campaigns strongly swayed the electorate, the two lost court cases were the main underlying reason Besigye could never be as competitive this time: Museveni had simply made it known to one and all that he would remain in power, no matter how discredited the electoral process. In such circumstances, it is very difficult indeed to galvanise voters to support an opposition candidate.

What awaits Uganda? On the economic front, developments are mixed. Macroeconomic indicators show relatively high growth levels, modest inflation and declining poverty rates. For most people, however, transformed living conditions are still remote. Many people on the right side of the poverty line are so by only the narrowest of statistical margins. Growth is sectorally, socially and geographically uneven. Service delivery is notoriously poor and unemployment is high. The spending spree during the campaigns emptied the government coffers for the rest of this budgetary year. If the previous five years are any guide, further corruption scandals are waiting to happen – or to be exposed. The revenue from the forthcoming production of oil can be expected to become the next cash-cow for the elites that have already allocated themselves vast illegitimate and illicit resources from almost every sector of the economy.

On the political front, Museveni and the NRM have consolidated their grip on political institutions for the foreseeable future. The opposition for its part will need to go back to the drawing board. NRM’s seemingly solid control may, however, be concealing tensions that have not found an outlet in electoral politics.

Over the past five years, two major riots have hit Kampala in rather unexpected ways, and their underlying causes – the giving away of a forest, pointing more generally to the exploitation of natural resources, and the confrontation between central government and the Buganda kingdom – have not been resolved.

The distribution of oil revenue is likely to give rise to tensions between the government and local communities. Relations between the government and the Buganda kingdom hit rock bottom in the aftermath of the 2009 riots, following successive pieces of legislation intended to rein in the kingdom’s establishment. These measures were widely regarded as punishment for the latter’s alleged opposition leanings. The kingdom has been weakened, but the stand-off remains and is likely to come to a head. The ways in which Museveni decides to resolve this matter will shape the contours of Ugandan politics and society for a long time to come.

Anders Sjögren
East Africa
Economic development
Political development
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