Thursday, March 11, 2010



By Daniel Kalinaki
March 11 2010

The picture of President Museveni visiting the landslide-stricken areas of Bududa last week while dressed in army fatigues and carrying an AK-47 rifle has dominated debate. Several commentators wondered why the President carried a rifle to a scene of mourning and not a symbolic bible or a functional spade.

The real reason is probably pragmatic; that the Presidential Guard Brigade didn’t have the time to deploy fully in the area before the visit and that the President chose not to leave anything to chance and carried his rifle on him. Nevertheless, the symbolism of the President’s rifle packs a potent political message.

In the heady days to the run up to independence across Africa, many political movements presented themselves as progressive and development-oriented, and ready to transform political power into economic self-sufficiency.

Their campaign symbols were more likely to be hoes, ploughs or guns that had been converted into farm implements. Others, to show their strength and willingness to take on the colonial masters, had clenched fists and the like.

Throughout the 60s and 70s, when coups and armed struggles raged across Africa, election campaign slogans and symbols gave way to the real thing as battle tanks jumped from party badges to city streets.

The end of the Cold War allowed us to return to western-style democracy with regular elections and campaigns but the populations remained largely illiterate and symbols ever more important to appeal to voters.

Since we were a one-party state under the Movement in Uganda, symbols had to be adapted to individuals to symbolise what they stood for. The right symbol said more to voters than a dozen campaign rallies.

Thus, when President Museveni chose to carry the grinding stone in 1996 – the year he officially became a civilian – he came off as the candidate to carry the country forward with all its problems.

Five years later, in 2001, the environment had changed and Museveni was facing a stiff challenge from Kizza Besigye, who had just quit the army and the government.

President Museveni needed to appear strong but to also represent stability and continuity so the cotter pin became the de-facto symbol of his campaign. It was a disarmingly simple message; most rural voters are familiar with bicycles and appreciate that small as it is, the cotter pin holds the whole thing together and is not easily removable – even by a hammer, which became Besigye’s symbol.

President Museveni’s 2006 symbol – dry banana leaves – came about almost by accident, as it shared a name with another term in office, which the President got thanks to a controversial process of amending the Constitution.

Although political parties are now allowed to campaign with their symbols, smart candidates acquire personal symbols that help them stand out from the crowded field.

President Museveni has the NRM bus and his distinctive bowler hat, which make him instantly recognisable wherever he goes in the country but the gun is the supreme symbol for it is recognised – and feared – by all.

The President could have turned up in gumboots and a shovel but so can Besigye, or Mao, or even Abed Bwanika. None of the other presidential candidates can turn up with a gun without being arrested, not even former Army Commander Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu.

Rural voters are drawn to power and military might, not agricultural innovations. That’s why the heavily armed Presidential motorcade draws crowds while the latest tractor model doesn’t. President Museveni knows this – which is why he turned up with a gun, not a spade.

Mr Kalinaki is the Managing Editor of the Daily Monitor