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Money talks in Ugandan election

This piece was first published on the Royal Africa Society website

For a country whose President sits 7th in the league of longest serving African leaders (and could have climbed to 6th by the time this is published), Ugandans appeared remarkably relaxed about awarding Yoweri Museveni another five years in office. The election campaign was largely peaceful, a welcome change from the violence and intimidation inflicted on his main opponent Kizza Besigye in 2006, and the result was decisive. On a significantly reduced turnout of 58% Museveni took 68% of the total, winning by over 3 million votes – a figure predicted almost exactly by an independent opinion poll three weeks out.

The opposition have predictably cried foul, with legitimate complaints about the massive use of state resources to support Museveni and National Resistance Movement candidates. What they lack is an Election Day ‘smoking gun’ to explain Museveni’s wide margin of victory. There was relatively little evidence of the NRM’s favoured rigging methods: ballot box stuffing, pre-ticking and ghost voters.

Instead the election will be remembered for money. In total Museveni used $350 million to bolster his campaigns, most of it state funds. Some of the spending was in the form of crude vote buying, with the undignified sight of Museveni handing over brown envelopes full of cash to local luminaries a daily occurrence. In January the NRM-dominated parliament passed a $250 million supplementary budget, much of which was funnelled into the campaigns. Parliament also awarded each MP a $8500 grant 3 weeks before the election, effectively a campaign donation to boost incumbent candidates.

Other methods were less obvious, but just as effective. Veterans had their arrears cleared, local councillors received a facilitation fee for the first time in several years and government building projects across the country conveniently kicked into action.

It would be wrong, however, to underestimate the value of Museveni’s political genius in this election. As he toured the country he perfected the art of putting himself on the side of the people he was addressing. His stump speech would list all the money his government was allocating the various districts for agriculture, health and public services. ‘Have you not seen it?’ he would ask, before calling up the relevant local government official and lambasting them in front of the crowd for failing to deliver on his programmes. In this way he insulated himself from complaints of corruption, and reinforced his popularity with the rural and less educated people. It is a paradox of Ugandan politics that the areas which voted most heavily for Museveni are the poorest that have benefited least from his government. The educated middle-classes and elites, who have tended to prosper under his laissez-faire economic management, continue to lean towards the opposition.

Museveni also showed himself adaptable to new methods of campaigning. On the eve of polling his party used ‘robocalls’ to phone up millions of Ugandans with a recorded message asking them to vote for the ‘old man with the hat’. SMS messages were also sent out offering $3 of free airtime if the recipient forwarded the NRM’s official line to seven of their friends. Infamously, Museveni also tried his hand at rapping in his native Runyankole language, much to the delight of his younger supporters. The ‘rap’ was subsequently remixed and released as a hit single. A plane spent the days before the election traversing the Kampala sky playing the song in an unusual ‘get out the vote’ method.

Conversely, the opposition failed to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. They took for granted their previous electoral base in the North, which allowed Museveni to capture the region with a message of peace, stability and promises of better services if they voted ‘wisely’. The opposition failed to find a message which truly resonated, instead pitching the same ‘time for a change’ mantra they had used in 2006. A lack of coordination also hurt them. Despite a formal inter-party cooperation agreement there were seven challengers to the incumbent.

The parliamentary races were more competitive with 19 government ministers losing their seats, although the NRM easily held control of the house. Many of the ministers lost to independent candidates who had been defeated in the NRM primaries and will now largely vote with the government.

So what next for Ugandan politics? Besigye’s attempt to call people onto the streets to protest against the results appears to be falling flat. There is little appetite amongst his supporters to test the formidable army and police deployments in the country’s urban areas. The political analyst and journalist Andrew Mwenda compares the state of the opposition to the tough new political realities the UK Labour Party faced in the post-Thatcher era:

The lesson of Museveni’s 2011 victory is similar. There has been a major change in public perceptions about politics. The old message of attacking Museveni for the corruption, nepotism and incompetence of his government is stale. It still finds passionate support amongst his most ardent critics; but its effect is to appeal to the base without growing it. It seems that many Ugandans have moved on; for Museveni’s greatest triumph has been to make these failures banal, routine and normal.

As for Museveni’s future, close watchers of his career will tell you to never second-guess the master tactician. However, you will struggle to find anyone who believes ‘the old man in the hat’ will not be on the ballot paper in five years time.

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