Saturday, October 24, 2009



By Norbert Mao
The Monitor

The Chinese have a saying: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me”. That is the premise from which I begin my reflections on the last presidential elections. We have allowed ourselves to be fooled more than once by President Yoweri Museveni and it’s time to examine what we have been through.

The 2001 election was for all intents and purposes a two-horse race. While Dr Kiiza Besigye had a strong organisational machinery, this was nullified by Mr Museveni’s heavy reliance on the state apparatus. The top brass of the army made pointed statements showing intolerance for a victory other than Mr Museveni’s.

Dr Besigye encouraged this militarisation of the process too. He held out as the “hammer” capable of removing the “cotter-pin”. Thus the voters lost confidence in any other candidate no matter how good their manifestos were. But all along it was clear that Dr. Besigye’s tough rhetoric was caged in a reformist attitude. If he had come out as a true hurricane of change, seeking not to reform but to demolish the Movement, he would have even done better.

Nevertheless the people still took him as the most serious standard bearer of change. The lesson here is that ultimately people will always choose “leadership and organisation” over “labels”.

Ideally the contest was to be one of fear versus hope. Since the Museveni campaign generated so much fear in the electorate, his opponents had to generate enough hope to counter the fear. There is a parallel between Mr Museveni’s campaign and the one that Charles Taylor ran in Liberia. The parallel is both in the process and the outcome.

Like Mr Taylor, Mr Museveni projected himself as the bully of bullies, the “baddest” of the bad and therefore unless he held the reins, there would be chaos. He is on record saying that he wanted to re-organise the army so that it does not cause problems for the country. But even while saying that, his lack of faith in the rank and file of the soldiers showed when he started relying more and more on his Presidential Protection Unit.

Listen to a typical Museveni campaign line: “I’m not ready to hand over power to people or groups of people who have no ability to manage a nation… It’s dangerous despite the fact that the constitution allows them to run against me… At times the constitution may not be the best tool to direct us politically for it allows wrong and doubtful people to contest for power.”

And so, like Mr Taylor, Mr Museveni bullied his way to electoral victory. In a country with low urbanisation - over 60 percent of Ugandans live in rural areas - by keeping the war drums within earshot, and the guns within full view of the populace, many Ugandans especially in the South thought the safe thing was to crown the Bully King. These things used to happen in the Wild West (excuse the pun) of America when a terrified citizenry would make the most savage cowboy Sheriff. He would become Sheriff not because he was the best leader but because he had the fastest gun in town.

Unless our politics stops leaning towards gunmen we shall remain in a vicious cycle carrying the burden of militarism around our necks. That is why it is accurate to say that the Besigye candidature presented a solution and a problem; an opportunity and a threat; a fear and a hope.

The UPC/Obote bogey is still Mr Museveni’s unique selling point. This is the reason why Washington, London and Paris have given him the longest post cold war honey moon of any African President. Like a driver obsessed with his rear view mirrors, he speeds on unmindful of what lies clearly in front of him. By concentrating on the past, the hopes and aspirations of Ugandans remain neglected.

The bogey was portrayed in most of the adverts published or broadcast by the Museveni task force and was intended to portray Dr. Besigye as a Trojan Horse of the “past leaders”.

This showed the double standards that Museveni played by. While he is free to welcome back former “enemies” and even take money to Obote’s family, others must not be seen to associate with “past leaders” in a similar manner.

Then there is the question of rigging. Rigging is not a one-day affair. Many people think election rigging is only done on Election Day. In reality rigging is a process. The laws governing the process bogged down the opposition while the incumbent had free rein. These processes tilted the playing field heavily in favour of the incumbent to an extent that even without rigging the poll on election day itself, the process could not pass the free and fair test.

It is for this reason that some international observers like one Constantine Huber naively marvelled at the orderliness and transparency of the whole process. While elections are won and lost on Election Day, one must not wait until that day to deal with evils that culminate into an unwarranted electoral defeat.

Mr Museveni had the Movement structures to help him right from the LCs. His opponents are constitutionally denied the right to organise. One cannot run an effective campaign in the absence of the right to organise.

In 1996 we were said to be weak and hopeless by many in the Movement. Today they would take their hats off for the IPFC.

When all is said, we have learnt a lot. First, to allude to the poet John Donne, when the bell tolls, do not ask for whom it tolls, for it tolls for thee. In 1996 after the IPFC was rigged out of the polls, our complaints fell on deaf ears. We were ridiculed as an apparatus comprised of political deadwood. While this could not be entirely denied, the truth is that restrictive laws and the heavy hand of the state could not allow a meaningful contest. At that time many of Mr Museveni’s current opponents were chanting “no change” — they did not know that they were riding a tiger.

I am reminded here of a folktale. A family decided to set a trap for a rat. The cunning rat saw the trap and avoided it. But because of the imminent danger, the rat appealed for help from the other “members” of the household namely a chicken, a goat and a cow.

“There is a dangerous trap which has been set ostensibly for me but I think it can cause problems for all of us”, cried the terrified rat.

The chicken told the rat in no uncertain terms that rat-traps are for rats not chicken and so would the rat mind its own business. The goat also laughed off the rat’s appeal. The cow looked at the trap once and walked away without even bothering to honour the rat with a reply.

In the night, the family members heard the trap go off and they thought that at last they had got the stubborn rat. The lady of the house went in the dark to feel the trap. But alas, it had not caught the rat but a poisonous snake! It was too late. The snake bit the lady and killed her. During the funeral, custom had to be followed strictly. A chicken has to be killed at the gravesite followed by a goat. So the indifferent chicken and goat were slaughtered.

Since the family was a well-known one, there were many mourners. The insolent cow was slaughtered to feed the mourners. The rat watched all this from a safe distance. A stitch in time saves nine!

This to me sums up the story of the last election. Solidarity is the single most important lesson of the last election. Do not wait for the floods to reach your backyard before throwing a life jacket to those already drowning!

© 2003 The Monitor Publications