23 February 2016

Democracy on trial in Uganda


Provisional results for last Thursday’s elections in Uganda have come in, and the outcome was confirmed officially on Saturday that President Yoweri Museveni had won 60.8% of the vote in presidential elections, while the main opposition candidate, Kizza Besigye, secured 35.4%. Former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi did surprisingly badly in third place with only 1.4%.

Not everybody is convinced by the outcome. Despite reassurance and promises from national electoral commission spokesman Jotham Taremwa and Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda that the elections would be free and fair, the Ugandan people and world press have extremely strong reason to doubt this occurred. Both Besigye – The Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party leader, leader of the Opposition, and Museveni’s former physician – and Mbabazi rejected the results. There was also a terse statement from Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, Museveni’s former army commander now heading the FDC, who asked Ugandans and the international community to reject the results.

There was trouble from the outset with delays opening the polling stations in the morning due to difficulties in transporting electoral materials. Other issues noted on election day included reports of pre-checked ballots and vote buying, ongoing blockage of social media sites, and excessive use of force by the police. Facebook, Whatsapp and mobile money networks were shut down temporarily. Despite the electoral commission denying any knowledge that the Uganda Communications Commission had ordered the shut down, mobile operator MTN, which has 10 million users, confirmed it had received an order to shut down social media services, including Twitter.

The estimated impact of the delays and communications crackdown is that it effectively locked out hundreds of thousands of voters in opposition strongholds.

The FDC has called on its supporters to reject the election result, now that its leader has been detained by Ugandan police for the fourth time in eight days. Besigye was briefly detained on February 15th after his supporters clashed with police in Kampala, leaving one FDC supporter dead. He was arrested again on Thursday when he attempted to enter a police station to report on vote rigging. He was placed under house arrest on Friday after he planned to expose supposed vote rigging that was occurring in a suburban house (he was about to hold a press conference at the FDC headquarters when the Kampala site was surrounded by armed officers). A black van believed to be carrying Mr Besigye later left the grounds. He was then arrested on Monday after attempting to leave his house. It is thought he was planning on joining his supporters in a march on the electoral commission offices to demand proof of election result.

Ugandan police spokesman Patrick Onyango said: “We got intelligence that Besigye and some people were mobilising others to come and cause havoc in Kampala and that is unacceptable. We cannot have business at a standstill and we are trying to prevent that.”

On Sunday, Besigye posted a three-part video on YouTube titled “Democracy is on Trial in Uganda” in which he claims that the country had just witnessed “the most fraudulent electoral process” in its history. At the time of writing, it has yet to reach 1000 views.

Electoral candidates in Uganda have 10 days following the announcement of results to challenge the vote in the Supreme Court. A senior official with the FDC, Ingrid Turinawe, told Reuters that Besigye is being held by police in order to stop him gathering evidence to put together his challenge.

This re-election for Museveni seems to signal the persistent advantages incumbents in sub-Saharan ‘puppet democracies’ have in controlling the political process. “It is very difficult for opposition parties or candidates to compete with national structures, finance and support from partisan government institutions,” said Magnus Taylor, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Human Rights Watch director Ken Roth tweeted on Thursday that:

Some have accused Museveni of being “unable to imagine that anyone would make a better president than him”. However, I doubt Museveni suffers from a lack of imagination. He has already has enjoyed a three-decade grip on power – as his final term was meant to end in 2006, but in 2005 he won a campaign to lift the constitutional term limits – and is now one of the continent’s longest-serving leaders. Who would let that go without a fight?

Many people acknowledge that Museveni has done a lot to bring Uganda to where it is. In the past decade, the country has experienced strong GDP growth, averaging 7% annually, and the Universal Primary Education (UPE) program (started in 1997) is credited for enrolling more than 86 percent school age children – more than 8 million pupils – in primary schools and achievement of gender parity. His regime has also seen remarkable strides in the fight against HIV/Aids, an end to active conflict in most parts of the country, and increased economic liberalisation and direct foreign investment.

But many of these gains have gone into reverse in recent years, and this GDP growth has not generated jobs, or translated into wage increases, a trend seen across the continent.

Museveni’s great selling point is that fact he “brought peace” to Uganda but this does not matter a lot to young people now. More than 75% of young people in Uganda remain unemployed. Uganda gained independence from British colonial rule in 1962, Idi Amin was defeated in 1979, and Museveni’s own triumph in guerrilla war was in 1986. Whilst desperately tragic political repression, ethnic persecution, extrajudicial killings, nepotism, and corruption was experienced during this time, a rapidly shrinking portion of Ugandan society remains who remember it. This in itself has resulted in very interesting demographic challenges for the incumbent ruler.

Uganda has one of the youngest and most rapidly growing populations in the world: about 53% of the population is younger than 15, well above Sub-Saharan Africa’s average of 43.2%. Put another way, more than 60% of the registered voters in Thursday’s elections were born after Museveni came to power.

Counter-intuitively, this is an increasing problem for Museveni. About 500,000 people are expected to enter the labour market every year. They need opportunities. Preparing them for productive jobs is a social and political priority for the government, not least because it is an issue for the citizens.

Part of the problem lies in the education system. Despite the UPE having huge initial success, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) has estimated that 68% of children in Uganda who enrol in primary school are likely to drop out before finishing the prescribed seven years. The country is also stuck in the colonial education system that trains students to be clerks, teachers and lawyers. The emphasis on office work is feeding into the employment crisis as it has created an estimated 40,000 university graduates each year where the market can provide only 8,000 suitable jobs annually.

Another problem is the bulk of the population continues to work in the agricultural sector, often engaged in subsistence activities, with only a small proportion of agricultural workers engaged in the cultivation of high-value, commercialized crops. It is estimated that 22 million people, 67% of Ugandans, are vulnerable to poverty (both those currently poor and in serious danger of falling into poverty) with chronic poverty most evident in rural areas and worst among crop farming households.

Yet the surge to the cities (particularly the capital) is offering no respite. Businesses in Uganda are constrained by the high costs of doing business, characterized by exorbitant tariffs and taxes, corruption, persistent power outages, and high cost of credit. According to the Doing Business 2015 survey, Uganda is performing worse than a selection of its East African neighbours, particularly Rwanda and Kenya. Uganda does have its successes, such as the winning project of the World Bank Group’s 2015 Youth Innovation Fund: The Connect to Implement Development project (C2iDev), which aims to help young entrepreneurs from various stages of life and business development develop their ideas into jobs, in a 10 week program based in Kampala. But it still takes 18 procedures over an average of 36 days and costs 77 % of average income per capita to start a company in Uganda.

As it stands, Ugandan Government debt to GDP is set to increase to almost 50% by 2020 . It is becoming increasingly apparent, even to his “babies” who have known no other leader, that Museveni is no longer essential to Uganda’s economic growth. If GDP does continue to slowly increase, and terms of trade can improve to regain foreign investment, the country can achieve a high rate of human development. It seems that Robert Nuwamanya, a 28 year-old from Hoima, is right: “Museveni has done his part. It is now time to move on.”

This will be easier said than done. Museveni is only 71. Robert Mugabe has, depressingly, just celebrated his 92nd birthday lower down the continent in Zimbabwe. Like ZANU(PF) in Zimbabwe, the NRM is a revolutionary party, and its leader is a revolutionary guerilla fighter. Elections serve only to legitimise their stay in power. As Dr Kabumba Busingye, a leading lawyer at Makerere University, points out: “for such leaders, because elections are not the way they obtained power, elections cannot be the way they lose power”.

Olivia Archdeacon is Assistant Editor of CapX.