SAKWA M JAMES | In 2021, at least 15 million Ugandans will queue in their respective polling stations to choose their preferred leaders, and as always the greatest attention will focus on the presidential race. The last time this happened in 2016, many people suggested that President Yoweri Museveni was on the way out as he faced a new challenge: along with long-time opposition candidate Kizza Besigye, former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi decided to throw his hat into the ring. Against these predictions, I argued that Museveni was strong enough to retain his iron grip on the country. And sure enough, he won by 65.75% against Besigye’s 35.37%.
The same thing is likely to happen in 2021. Many commentators are excited about the chances of well-known musician and leader of the People Power party, Robert ‘Bobi Wine’ Kyagulanyi – especially since he formed the United Forces for Change alliance with Kizza Besigye, who leads the People’s Government, a Kampala-based pressure group. But like so many times in the past, there are good reasons for thinking that President Yoweri Museveni will hold on to power. While in the previous elections, claims of voter bribery, intimidation, and rigging have been cited as the reasons for Museveni’s wins, this time around the global COVID-19 pandemic has handed the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party a new lifeline.
The coronavirus pandemic will play an important role in the election even if it no longer represents a major challenge to public health. With about 1,600 confirmed corona cases and 15 deaths by mid-August, the government’s containment measures are clearly working – to their credit. But the NRM never lets an opportunity go to waste, and it has also leveraged the crisis to score some early wins.
On June 16, the country’s electoral commission released the election roadmap with activities and timelines running from 22 June 2020 until somewhere between 10 January and 8 February 2021 when the votes are to be cast. According to the roadmap, all candidates are expected to conduct their campaigns digitally, whatever that means. On face value, this looks like a fair thing to ask of politicians during a global pandemic. But wait for it …
To keep education going, the government has committed $100m to purchase at least 10 million radios and 140,000 television sets. These will be distributed free of charge to the over 70,000 villages in the country. According to the government, these will be used to relay school programs to hundreds of thousands of students across the country. But, as ever with the NRM, there is a political twist.
The TVs and radios are going to allow the president directly into the homes of millions of Ugandans just at the point when rallies and door to door mobilization – the standard strategies of political parties in a country where Twitter and Facebook have a limited reach – are being prohibited.
The urban bias of the Ugandan opposition
For decades, the opposition has tried to unseat President Yoweri Museveni and failed. There are many reasons for this, including repression and electoral manipulation. But there is also another reason. Nine out of ten times, the opposition focuses their energy in the urban centres, where they enjoy enviable support. For its part, the NRM focuses on the rural areas where it is easier to control the information that citizens receive and their access to public services. With 76% of Uganda’s population living and working in rural areas, this is a winning strategy.
To this inbuilt advantage, we now need to add the impact of the new rules and regulations. Digital campaigns mean that no politician can travel from one town to the other with droves of their supporters hanging on the sides of their fully branded campaign vehicles, blaring music, and ‘vote for me’ recitals. In turn, these restrictions will ensure that the candidate with the best communication infrastructure will win.
With an Internet penetration of just 42%, concentrated in urban centers, social media is a limited tool for any candidate. Bobi Wine’s twitter following of 700,000 followers is impressive, but it will not win an election – especially given that Twitter is not widely used in rural areas. By contrast, President Yoweri Museveni could soon have tens of thousands of radios and TVs in villages around the country and can use his control over the state broadcasters to channel pro-NRM propaganda into the eyes and ears of the electorate.
In addition to the many challenges that the opposition faces, it has a tendency to beat itself by dividing the anti-NRM vote. In 2016, the opposition alone had seven candidates, mostly scrambling for the lean and elusive urban vote, weakening its chances. Recent African history teaches us that unless the opposition fields a single candidate, the incumbent is likely to win.
This means that much will depend on the newly forged alliance between Bobi Wine and Kizza Besigye, whether they can agree on a formula to contest together in 2021, and whether they can persuade others to join their side.
Adopted from the Independent