Uganda:Of Elections and the Diaspora

By Shout-Africa Correspondent – Overshadowed on Western newspapers, probably because of the revolutionary wave in the southern Mediterranean countries, Ugandan presidential elections have just come to an end. The official results have been announced by Badru Kiggundu, chairman of the hotly contested Electoral Commission. Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986 (a constitutional amendment in 2005 lifted the time limit for presidential term) has won again. He got 68.4% of votes, while his rival, Kizza Besigye of the FDC (Forum for Democratic Change) got 26%; they are followed by a large distance from the other six candidates, including Beti Kamya, a fervent promoter of federalism and the first woman candidate in the history of the country.  Besigye, even before official results were confirmed, said he would not accept them and announced that a way will be found to put an end to this “illegitimate government”.

The Ugandan Diaspora in London has followed with anxiety the last days of campaign, waiting for communication from Kampala on how to act in the post-election. “We are waiting to know what we actually already know: the guy has won again, but again we can not define elections ‘free and fair'”, says one of the guests of the program Uganda Eyomummaaso (literally, Uganda’s future) on Kyeyo, a radio for the Diaspora. “We have to find another way to chase him, it’s time for him to leave” says Richard Semitego, political activist and a member of the British Conservative Party. The Conservatives supported the Ugandan opposition coalition IPC (Inter-Party Coalition), founded in 2008 and led by Kizza Besigye. They provided logistical and economic support and trained the electoral agents about their rights and duties. In a recent meeting between delegations in London, in the same days of student protests against Cameron government’s cuts, Tories representatives encouraged the Diaspora to fight for a country “where young people can stay without being forced to flee abroad for self-fulfilment”.

Several calls reach Kyeyo Radio from Kampala: on the evening of the vote, many describe it as a ghost town. One clearly perceives the disappointment of those who have invested everything in yet another failed campaign. The slow but powerful electoral machine has helped the NRM (Museveni’s movement), the only party allowed to participate in elections until 2005 and widely rooted in local councils. It is known now for repeated practices of corruption and vote-buying. The candidate Besigye, arrested twice, already appealed to the Supreme Court in 2001 and 2006 elections, alleging fraud and violence. The Court acknowledged the irregularities occurred, nevertheless validating the results; the Electoral Commission, main responsible of the scandals, was reconfirmed almost in its totality this year. “He will not go to the Court this time, he is tired of fighting and not getting anything”, says another representative of the Diaspora who has rushed to Radio Kyeyo to comment on the provisional results. And, indeed, Besigye has been claiming in the last interviews that he will not try again.

International observers have claimed to be “disappointed” by the lack of awareness in the electorate. “The army has directly participated in the electoral process, but Western countries have not taken any position” laments on the opposite Steven Lubwama, from Radio Sapientia in Kampala. “The revelations of Wikileaks show that the U.S. are aware of Museveni’s authoritarianism, but unlike North African countries revolutions, which have caught media’s attention, our elections have not”.

On social networks and on the pages of the Daily Monitor, independent newspaper in Kampala, we still receive information on the frauds of these days: violence on voters and journalists, delay in delivery of the voting material, names missing from the voters’ registers and “ghost voters. “In Gulu, northern city symbol of the civil war that Museveni failed to eradicate for decades, the candidates distributed chicken to voters lining at the polls; in Kasubi, Kampala suburb, the ballots were being found pre-ticked for the NRM.

Many Ugandans in London have left their own country for political reasons: Albert (not the real name), father of a child born here, escaped the death penalty when Museveni’s troops turned their weapons against each other after being united against Obote (1980-1986). “We made war on his side for freedom. Now he is a dictator worse than those against whom he fought”. Twenty-five years of corruption and scandals have marked a country that, however, is still highly regarded by the West. This is also because of its role in the containment of Islamic fundamentalism in East Africa (Uganda has strengthened its military presence in Somalia after a bloody terrorist attack in August 2010 in Kampala). Neoliberal reforms, foreign investment and an apparent rooting of democracy through elections have eclipsed widespread poverty and a lack of medical care and rights suffered by citizens (just few weeks ago a gay activist was killed in the wake of the homophobic campaign launched by the Parliamentary Bahati). Far from the lively Kampala, in the rural areas where a meal costs less than 30 euro cents, it is easy to buy a vote with a pack of salt or a bar of soap. “But the soap will end, and Museveni will still be there”, tells me on the phone Joel, a young trader in a slum of Kampala. He, like many others, did not vote convinced that in any case his vote would be manipulated.

The disappointment is rife especially (but not only) among the Baganda, largest ethnic group of the country united around the Kabaka, traditional king often at loggerheads with the President. The Baganda in the Diaspora remember their family members who died to protect Museveni during the war against Milton Obote. In the Luwero area, thousands of skulls of those who gave their lives for the liberation are still preserved. “My family has hosted, supported and nurtured Museveni when Obote fled and now they look at him sitting in parliament as they have nothing”, says an informant. While phone calls and messages arrive from all parts of Uganda, an inspiring song is broadcasted on Kyeyo: “… But now the dawn is breaking/ and the morning sun is rising now/ are we gonna sleep/ or are we gonna rise and fight…”.

The electoral struggle is now lost; let us see if the opposition, inspired by the Mediterranean wave, will rise and take to the streets to protest.