WHY INCUMBENT UGANDAN PRESIDENTS HAVE NOT LOST ELECTION?

Okot Nyormoi, Editor

Nancy Kalembe is one of 10 candidates running for the Ugandan presidency against the incumbent, Yoweri Museveni. The election is scheduled for January 14, 2021. The question often asked is whether Nancy Kalembe or any of her co-contestants have a prayer to dethrone the incumbent. It is an intriguing question since in its 58 years of independence, no Ugandan president has ever lost an election.

President Obote won twice: 1961 and 1980 and twice he was booted out of power by the military. President for Life, Idi Amin Dada, did not win or lose an election because he came to power by the barrel of the gun. Professor Lule was a consensus non-elected interim president who had the indignity of being removed by the military after only 68 days in office. President Binaisa was a mere place holder for Milton Obote and never contested an election. Like President Amin, General Tito Okello Lutwa’s presidency arrived by a coup d’état. He was ousted by a gun-toting rebel, Yoweri Museveni, who will soon clock 35 years in power without “losing” a single election. 

The Ugandan record may seem peculiar, but it is not. It is more the norm despite the regularity of elections in many African countries. The list of African leaders who hung onto power by defying the will of the voters grows longer by the year. Here are some examples of the longevity, in years, of African leaders: Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea (41), Paul Biya of Cameroon (38), Idriss Deby of Chad (31), Isais Afewerki of Eritrea (27), Denis S. Nguesso of the Republic of Congo (23), and Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti (22). Paul Kagame in Ruanda and Pombe Mogafuli of Tanzania are coming along.

Back to the original question, can Museveni lose in the upcoming election? It is too easy to answer the question in the negative and give rigging as the explanation which is always given by the opposition. Yet, the response has been the same in election after election and ends up with the same result. Therefore, the question needs to be approached differently with the hope that it will lead to a different outcome.

A recently published book, “Neither Settler nor Native” by Mahmood Mamdani, may help in arriving at a better understanding of electoral problems in Uganda. Based on lessons from the experience of other countries, Mamdani’s book suggests that electoral problems as the one in Uganda are rooted in the history of nation/state, a system of governance invented way back in 1649 in Europe for the express purpose of domination and exploitation. It is a system that is based on rendering certain sections of a community permanent majority, while designating others permanent minority. The former is allowed full access, whereas the latter is allowed limited access to the political community where national issues should be debated and resolved by negotiation for the benefit of the whole nation.

The colonialists extended the system to the colonies. Without going into details, it will suffice to say that though Uganda is supposed to be independent since the colonialists left, it is still governed by the nation/state model created by the colonialists.  In Uganda, the ruling party has acted as the permanent majority by rendering the opposition parties, the permanent minority. To guarantee its position of permanent majority, the ruling party uses all state institutions: security, judiciary, executive, finance, education, legislature, etc. to criminalize any legitimate political demands by the permanent minority in the name of maintaining national security, public health, national economic interest, and others.

The only time a permanent minority broke through was by force of arms, whereby the new group saw the old one as criminals whom they sought to defeat, punish, and subsequently dominate. Such rhetoric as “we shall crush them”, “we massacred them”, “we will teach them a lesson they will never forget”, or “we sacrificed while they were eating sausage”, “they don’t deserve to be given jobs, scholarships, business”, "we shall not allow criminals to ruin the country," is a clear indication that the incoming and outgoing groups are sworn enemies. Unfortunately, by so doing, they simply replace one majority group by another without fundamentally changing the mode of governance.

In Uganda, especially in the last 35 years, anybody who tries to challenge the ruling party or expresses concerns about unequal distribution of services or opportunities are viewed as an enemy by the ruling majority. Normal negotiations in the political community cannot be allowed. Either a minority submits to the permanent majority or else it is permanently excluded from the political community. Although the law is supposed to apply to everybody, members of the permanent majority often violate the law against the minority with impunity. This is clearly seen in the ongoing campaign where the ruling NRM party thinks the president is above the law.

From this perspective, it is very unlikely that opposition parties in Uganda can ever win the presidential election. Likewise, they can never win majority seats in Parliament. If so, why does the opposition bother to participate in the usual five-year shambolic elections?

There are several reasons why the opposition contests elections. First, election campaigns offer the opposition opportunities, limited as they may be, to mobilize people about issues that concern them. Secondly, even if election outcomes are predictable, elections do offer opportunities to put the ruling majority on record that on their watch, elections were not free and fair. It is also to show the futility of treating the opposition as criminals even when they have legitimate concerns and vice versa. The third reason is the hope people have in believing that the next election will be the one that will usher the change they all desire. Obviously, that has not happened. Of course, many people also contest elections in pursuit of personal interests such as benefits which accrue to legislators.

Though the temptation to resign to being members of either the permanent majority or permanent minority is great, it is worth remembering that the European-invented nation/state system is not acquired by instinct but is man-made. As such, it can be changed. To move forward, Uganda must abandon the colonial nation/state mode of governance. To do so will require a new type of thinking, a change in the mindset. It will require forming an alliance between those who are members of the permanent majority and those in the permanent minority. Such alliance must be built on the realization that any plan by any group to defeat, dominate and exploit other groups is a non-starter because it will just lead to another vicious cycle of state violence.

The new alliance must be based on the goal to create a truly democratic system of governance, one in which no group of citizens regard other groups as enemies. Diversity in ethnicity, religion, and opinions will be respected. While political competition is inevitable, it must not be inimical. While citizens may disagree, they must have equal access to the political space where they can compete fairly and freely, respect each other, negotiate, and compromise for the good of every citizen. Since this is a tall order, one cannot be sure when, how and by whom it will be implemented. Nevertheless, the journey starts with one small step of accepting the possibility that change is going to come. In the meantime, members of the new alliance must not only believe in the principle of democracy but must also practice it.