The NRM government has done a lot of good things in its 35 years in power. Any reasonable person will agree on that although the question for many has always been whether it has done enough good with the resources and goodwill it has had at its disposal over all this time. That is a debate for another day.
But this same government has also done a lot of bad things. Some of those bad things, like the Mukura massacre, were outright ISIS-level evil. Others, like the botched sale of UCB, were greed-driven debacles that largely went unpunished and as a result inspired numerous other scandals as actors got emboldened and impunity took hold thanks to the longevity of the regime and its no-consequences indifference to such acts.
Since the tragic events of November last year, I’ve been wondering where historians will rank the government’s decision to hold the 2020 elections on the “bad things scale”. My personal take is that ranks very high on the list of catastrophic decisions although those that will write the history books may see it differently.
Holding a major election in the middle of a pandemic that, quite literally, shut down the world for months and caused unprecedented upheaval was always going to raise eyebrows. As everyone knows, the President himself said it would be madness to proceed before the pandemic was brought under control. As usual, his supporters have offered all sorts of explanations in a bid to make us believe he was either misquoted or something major changed thus rendering his earlier opinion null. Nothing surprising there given the same playbook has been used for so many of his earlier statements such as the famous “problem of Africa is leaders who overstay” or his various “this is my last term” proclamations.
Regardless of the President’s complicated relationship with the truth, it was still quite astonishing and rather alarming to see the Electoral Commission (EC) announce that it would be going ahead with it and even scheduling the Presidential poll a month earlier in January rather than the traditional February. Why was it so astonishing? To answer this, one has to understand the nature of Presidential elections in Uganda. They are – in a word – one big party. Although everyone knows that the chances of the incumbent being defeated are minimal, they still take the campaigns seriously. Campaign meetings and rallies feature lots of loud music, dancing and other forms of merriment. Passions tend to run high with rowdy processions the order of the day. Unfortunately, very little rational thought is applied by many participants in the carnival atmosphere that prevails during this period. The EC, helpfully, indicated that the campaigns were to be “scientific” and governed by SOPs. Scientific in this case meant no rallies with meetings limited to a maximum of 200 persons with most of the campaigns to be done over the airwaves (radio & TV) and digital media. Up to now, I have no idea whether the EC actually believed that this would be possible. Did they really think RDCs would all of a sudden allow opposition members unfettered access to upcountry radios? What happened instead is many people took the pronouncement as confirmation that life was back to normal. Remember the bit about rational thought? And so, predictably, they turned out en masse for the ruling party’s parliamentary primaries and continued doing the same for the presidential candidates. Even more predictably and rather sadly, the government laid the blame for this irrationality at the feet of the opposition candidates – specifically Hons. Kyagulanyi and Amuriat – and the security forces unleashed the usual cocktail of irrational brutality whose recipe they perfected during the previous four elections against Dr. Besigye.
Accusing the aforementioned opposition candidates of mobilising crowds is, of course, the easy thing to do for the ruling party and its supporters. However, I am still amused by the disingenuity of this argument. The vast majority of those who leave their home or workplaces to line roads or try to gain entry to campaign meeting venues are not cajoled into doing so by the candidates or their teams. Rather, they are drawn by the allure of sighting the candidates in question. Most of them are adults of sound mind. Robert Kaygulanyi’s crime, for which he has suffered the police’s signature brutality, is acknowledging and engaging them. But not one of his critics explains why they keep coming even though they know there’s a high risk of being teargassed, beaten or even killed. Neither does any of them explain why crowds turn out to line the roads when the President visits an area for his “scientific” meetings. Clearly, even he cannot keep them away by merely asking them to stay away. And even within his crowds, who are admittedly more orderly than Kyagulanyi’s or POA’s, it is clear that many don’t take the SOPs seriously with zero distancing and masks providing cover for their chins only even as they sing and chant. Even the admirable orderliness is probably due to the elite presidential guards who keep them at bay as well as the fact that no chemical warfare and beatings are unleashed to disperse them.
Truth be said, the nature of presidential elections was always going to raise excitement and the leading opposition contenders would always draw crowds, thus heightening the risk of increased Covid-19 spread. One of the curious aspects of the state of our nation is that the political arena has evolved into one where challenging for the top post calls for immense courage and ability to withstand brutality, harassment and intimidation of colossal proportions. This in turn ensures that contenders like Hon. Kyagulanyi are viewed as gladiators, thus attracting thousands upon thousands wherever they go simply because regular folks want to see the “man courageous enough to oppose Mzee”. This is exactly why brute force was applied to stop him from holding concerts long before most of us had ever heard of Wuhan. Remarkably, many of his vocal detractors seem not to remember this period in recent history. The campaign crowds and excitement were therefore to be expected if the election went ahead and the blame for the mass gatherings should, in all fairness, be placed on the masses that choose, of their free will, to gather. Blaming the candidates for the behaviour, however irrational or illegal, of their supporters does not make sense. It is therefore heartbreakingly sad that so many people died at the hands of security forces when Hon. Kyagulanyi was arrested in Luuka in November. Campaigns were always going to be like this – for all levels. Right from the start, I have seen processions and gatherings of different colours. Enforcing SOPs was always going to be impractical because the simple act of proceeding with the elections was always going to be interpreted as a signal that the lockdown was firmly in the past. If this wasn’t obvious to the EC and the other bigwigs in government, then they really shouldn’t be occupying the offices they do. Did they really think that they’d allow candidates to criss-cross the country and people wouldn’t show up to chant and sing? Equally – did they really think that so-called scientific campaigns were possible in a country whose ruling party can’t maintain a register of members?
Ultimately though, for me, going ahead with the election finally confirmed beyond doubt something that’s been rather clear to me for a while – our leaders don’t have the spine to make difficult, unpopular decisions for the long term common good as opposed to short-term populist ones. Postponing the election would have been such a difficult but correct decision. Difficult because it would have involved all kinds of legal wrangling, a possible state of emergency and, probably, constitutional amendments. But no matter how difficult, it should have been possible. The ruling party boasts a huge parliamentary majority that would have seen the necessary legislative changes through in minimal time. Remember these are the same MPs that have not shied away from amending the Constitution multiple times for the benefit of their Chairman – an individual. How can you say it would have been impossible to do the same for the good of the nation? It would also have been the correct decision because we’re in the “untraceable community spread” phase of a pandemic which should have been the focus of undivided containment efforts. The resources we’re sinking into the election would have been better utilised in booking/purchasing vaccines and further investment in healthcare facilities as well as for strategic economic interventions. The hypocritical weaponization of the pandemic against the opposition would not have happened (although it appears many in the ruling camp don’t think this has been a bad thing). The killings on our streets in November would have been averted! A postponement would have demonstrated to the citizenry that the war against the coronavirus was as serious as the earlier measures had suggested and they would therefore not have been lulled into a false sense of normalcy. In going ahead with the election, the government did the convenient thing and shied away from the hard, unpopular one. It is also entirely possible that calling for the election was a cynical ploy to have it at a time when it was clear campaigning would be difficult and the governments ratings were high due to the low pandemic death toll. But, as earlier intimated, appeasing populist demands has been the norm for a long time with this government. For proof, consider the proliferation of districts, the bloated cabinet and parliament and the presidential budget for gifts and donations. This could have been an opportunity to do things different – to lead the people instead of being led and blown about by them. Alas! Old habits do die hard.
It is 8 days to go to the election. Two things happened yesterday that pushed me into publishing this. The first was the news that members of Hon. Kyagulanyi’s entourage, including some of his most loyal comrades, that were arrested in Kalangala had been remanded till after the election. I can’t imagine how gut-wrenching it must be for some of them to be denied the opportunity of voting for their guy. I was still thinking about this when I tuned into a radio programme in the evening where the discussion was about “peace”. While listening to the discussion, I couldn’t help wondering whether the discussants knew what kind of impact things like the Kalangala arrests and other perceived injustices have on the target market for their “peace messaging”. The second thing that happened was hearing of chaotic scenes arising in different places during the distribution of voter location slips. The pictures showed masses of voters with no regard for SOPs clamouring for their slips and seemingly little order. Neither Hon. Kyagulanyi nor Hon. Amuriat was present in any of those places. Further proof that even if they had been locked up for the duration of the campaign, the election would still have provided enough unnecessary super-spreader events. It’s not the candidates. It is the people.