Opinion

Uganda election was reality check for Africa, West

We're not likely to see Uganda or other African countries revolt against corrupt governments as the Arab world has done. With the election of Museveni in Uganda, citizens chose short-term stability, with long-term consequences – not just for Uganda, but the entire region.

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Yoweri Museveni’s decisive victory in Uganda’s elections will, despite complaints of election fraud, extend his 25-year rule by another five years, putting to rest any thought that winds of change from North Africa would blow south across the Sahara. It looks instead as if the veteran leader, who came to power at the head of a rebel army, is settling in for a Life Presidency in the old, African style.

Western donors will, or should, feel some discomfort at the political longevity of a man who they have helped to empower. And in a year that will see another 17 elections in Africa, the Ugandan case offers a reality check. While the election was good for Mr. Museveni, it is not necessarily good for Uganda – or the region, long term.

Power based on patronage is hard to sustain and encourages corruption and opportunism. The longer a party stays in power, the more the lines between party and state blur, and the more traumatic eventual change may be.

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Why Ugandans elected Museveni again

So why did Ugandans re-elect a notoriously corrupt, and in some ways autocratic, government that, despite steep revenue growth, has performed poorly in delivering basic services and infrastructure?

One reason is that the fractious and divided opposition ran a lackluster campaign that sought to exploit anti-Museveni sentiment rather than offering any positive vision of Uganda’s future. This impressed the electorate so little that fully 41 per cent didn’t bother to vote at all, while 68 percent of those who did vote chose the devil they knew best.

That choice was not surprising. Steady economic growth has been highly uneven, benefitting an expanding urban elite much more than the rural population, who remain the overwhelming majority. But enough wealth has trickled down to reduce absolute poverty in most areas, and there is little rural demand for civil liberties (such as the right to be gay, which interests the opposition as little as it interests the ruling party.) Rural Uganda was not seething with discontent.

Vote-buying and patronage

It is also broadly true that Museveni bought the electorate. His rule has increasingly relied upon networks of personal patronage, starting with his senior military officers, 27 cabinet members, and 44 other ministers of state. Over the last decade, patronage networks have reached downward through the multiplication of local government districts, which have doubled in number (from 56 to 112). Ostensibly this is decentralization to bring services closer to the people. In practice, it has added layers of government staff indebted to the ruling National Resistance Movement.

A cruder form of patronage is vote buying. Opposition parties were not above greasing palms, but no match for Museveni, who allegedly raided state coffers for bribe money. Countless Ugandans received brown envelopes stuffed with cash.

This leaves the opposition complaining of daylight robbery. Yet the poll itself, although messy, was transparent enough – with each polling station publicly counting and declaring votes – to rule out fraud on a scale large enough materially to affect the result. If Ugandans were bought, they allowed themselves to be.

Short-term stability isn't good for long-term

Another factor in Museveni’s favor was that the north of the country is finally at peace. Remnants of the Lord's Resistance Army rebels have been chased into neighboring countries, if not finally extinguished; reconstruction programs in the north are under way, bankrolled by international donors; and cross-border trade with Sudan is booming. This bought Museveni support in the north, where he polled well, despite ample, local grounds for historical resentment.

Northerners are not alone in prizing stability. Mindful that there has never been a peaceful transfer of power in post-independence Uganda, many voters across the country doubtless figured that stability would best be preserved by leaving the big man in power.

Such a move to preserve stability may have made sense in the short-term, but it doesn’t portend well for Ugandans down the road.

Meanwhile, the kind of power built and maintained on patronage breeds corruption – clearly visible in the vicious contest, late last year, to select NRM parliamentary candidates.

Role of Western aid donors

This is not an ideal atmosphere in which to have oil revenues coming on stream. Museveni has declared that he expects Uganda’s oil finds to enable the country to reach “middle income” status by 2016 – but resource wealth may just as easily further stimulate corruption and infighting.

If Museveni negotiates these difficulties and spreads enough benefits to remain popular, he may, come 2016, want to stay on even longer. Or, as some Ugandans fear, pass the ruling party baton to his son, Colonel Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who commands elite special forces guarding the oil fields.

Although relieved that violence has not erupted, the international donors, particularly Europeans and Americans, whose aid supplies roughly 50 percent of the Ugandan government’s budgets and who have spent millions of aid dollars on “deepening democracy” will probably feel lukewarm about this result. Museveni has been pro-market and, through his deployment of troops in Somalia, a strategic ally.

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But donors – who Museveni himself calls “pesky” – have winced at his autocratic tendencies and the homophobic evangelizing that he and his wife, Janet, have encouraged. But patronage, gerrymandering, vote-buying, and dynastic tendencies seen in Uganda’s recent election, are likely to remain features of sub-Saharan politics until populations become more urbanized, educated, and determined to hold their governments accountable as many Arab nations are doing now.

Nick Young is a British writer based in Kampala, Uganda. He blogs at www.nickyoungwrites.com.

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