Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

It’s getting harder and harder to cheat at the elections game these days. So what’s a Ugandan strongman to do?


KAMPALA — On Friday, Feb. 18, Uganda will hold national presidential elections. Incumbent Yoweri Museveni is seeking a fourth term to extend his 25-year rule, and by most accounts he will almost certainly win.

Given all the advantages working in his favor — from state electoral machinery to a deservedly solid reputation for fostering economic growth — the winner of this contest is almost preordained. But Museveni is still dropping millions of dollars to ensure the result. These days in Uganda, it seems, it’s not as cheap to buy an election as it used to be.

It’s hard to overstate Museveni’s advantage in Friday’s ballot. He has significantly more campaign funds — both legitimate and under the table — than the opposition. He has access to state resources to mobilize his supporters, and the loyalty of the security services. Uganda has seen record economic growth in recent years under his oversight. And Museveni has strong Western backing, winning praise for example for his innovative HIV/AIDS campaign and his commitment to fighting terrorism. (It also helps, of course, that he appointed the electoral commission.)

Sounds easy, right? Yet Museveni and his party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), are leaving nothing to chance. Across Kampala, major billboards usually devoted to expensive advertisements for Coca-Cola, phone companies, or other big spenders have almost all been replaced with NRM campaign items. The party has even hired a helicopter to fly around the city dropping leaflets and blaring Museveni’s campaign song — a remixed version of his attempt to bond with young voters by rapping at a rally. And then there is Museveni’s use of government resources, like the presidential helicopter, to travel around the country and campaign.

Since it’s not officially reported, campaign spending is hard to gauge here. But Andrew Mwenda, editor of the Independent weekly magazine and consistent critic of Museveni’s regime, has an estimate: "Museveni has spent $350 million dollars on this election alone," he told me.

Meanwhile, the government is effectively bankrupt. In January, parliament passed a supplemental budget increase of $260 million, yet just weeks later, Minister of Finance Syda Bbumba announced that the government was broke and ministries would be examining emergency cost-cutting measures. According to local newspaper reports, government officials confirm that money was diverted to NRM campaigns for the presidency and parliamentary seats, and $1.3 billion, or almost a third of the annual budget was spent in January alone. (Unsurprisingly, the IMF refused last week to sign off on Uganda’s economic policies, diplomatically describing them as "inconsistent" with previous agreements with the fund.)

So why is Museveni spending so much if he’s a shoo-in?

First and foremost because the stakes of the election are incredibly high — worth, it seems, a major front-end investment. Whoever wins has access to the state treasury — and skimming off the top is common. With Uganda set to begin producing oil in the next year or so, government revenues are expected to skyrocket; whoever is in power will have an even greater ability to trade patronage for support. For now, there’s no obvious downside to the corruption. There have been no serious attempts at prosecuting government officials, even when newspaper or parliamentary investigations more or less provide all the necessary evidence.

Oil might also be the reason why Museveni isn’t worried about spending too much now. "In previous elections, you saw Museveni buying individuals," said Godber Tumushabe, a lawyer and director of prominent think tank Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment. "In this election he is buying constituencies and groups. If the oil money starts flowing, you could see that deepening, essentially putting every other group on the payroll."

But that’s not the only reason Museveni is on a spending spree. The money flowing into Friday’s election suggests that the NRM believes it can no longer resort to the kind of thuggery it has used to win elections in the past. In 2006, for example, leading opposition candidate Kizza Besigye was repeatedly arrested and his supporters beaten by official security agencies as well as un-uniformed goons who were later alleged to be government agents. In part because of international pressure, Tumushabe points out, as well as the example of the International Criminal Court indicting politicians in next-door Kenya for instigating election violence, outright physical coercion is mostly off the table.

The election system itself is also more reliable and transparent than it has been previously, according to Silvestre Rwomukubwe, chairperson of DEMGroup, a coalition of pro-democracy civil society organizations. This year’s election will use improved ballots. And it will be watched by both international and local party observers, the latter of whom plan to tally their own results. The largest opposition party, for example, will deploy 19 party agents at every polling station, a total of more than 900,000 people, to help avoid malpractice and encourage turnout. Even the Museveni-appointed electoral commission has gone to great lengths to equip observers and media with information about each step of the tallying process and provided phone numbers in each polling area where voters can report abuse. That kind of transparency will make actual vote rigging much more difficult this time around.

Efforts have even been made to tackle perhaps the trickiest form of rigging: voter bribery, which is happening on both sides of the campaign (despite the opposition groups’ much smaller budgets). With support from Western donors, Rwomukubwe’s DEMGroup created a monitoring system called Uganda Watch through which anyone can report electoral complaints by text message. The incidents are then displayed on the Uganda Watch website and, if possible, followed up upon by DEMGroup’s network of activists. The organization has members throughout the country, who, Rwomukubwe said, may call police, media, or electoral officials with the complaints.

A final reason for the NRM’s insecurity is that the opposition may have a better chance than analysts and even polls have indicated. A poll conducted in late 2010 by Afrobarometer, a respected African survey organization focused on public opinions about democracy, showed (pdf) Museveni with 65 percent of the expected vote. But Hussein Kyanjo, spokesman for the largest opposition group, Besigye’s Inter-Party Coalition (IPC), is quick to argue that more than half of respondents also said they thought the polling agents were sent by the Ugandan government, and thus overstated their support for Museveni out of fear.

Kyanjo’s own calculation is that Besigye will come in with about 60-65 percent of the vote, putting Museveni at 35 percent. Even if this estimate proves optimistic, Museveni’s popularity has dropped in every election cycle, from more than 75 percent in 1996 to just 59 percent in 2006. And many pressing issues such as corruption, poverty, and access to medical care have not improved since then. If neither Museveni nor the IPC win more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will follow, and the two other major opposition parties, the Democratic Party and the Uganda People’s Congress, as well as some smaller parties, would likely unite with the IPC against Museveni.

Nor will the opposition go down quietly if the vote is somehow rigged. Besigye has made it clear that he will not contest any malpractice in the court system, as he has did unsuccessfully in 2001 and 2006. Instead, "we will go to the court of the people who support us," warned spokesman Kyanjo. That means protests — maybe violent ones. "If the [electoral commission] tries to rig, we are going to riot," said George, a journalism student and Besigye supporter who declined to give his last name. "What has happened in Tunisia and Egypt is going to happen here." The police and army have been preparing for exactly that outcome, investing in crowd-control equipment like water cannons. On Thursday, the Uganda Communications Commission also issued a directive requiring mobile phone operators to block text messages with words like "Egypt," "dictator," "teargas," and even "people power." Yet none of this may prove enough to keep demonstrators from gathering.

Could Museveni actually lose power? Despite the opposition’s hopes, the flurry of government spending might work, and if Museveni finds his chances seriously threatened, the government has a history of cracking down on dissent. In 2006, military jamming equipment was used to shut down a radio station’s live tally of voting. Both the police and army have shown little restraint in firing on civilians in recent years during riots and protests. While Museveni values his close connections with the West and is considered a key U.S. ally for promoting stability in Somalia and Southern Sudan, Western pressure is unlikely to have much of an effect. Those same security concerns may also keep the United States from condemning any anti-democratic actions by Museveni as strongly as it has in other countries, such as the Ivory Coast or Zimbabwe.

Although he has pledged to abide by the election results, a more famous line of Museveni’s still rings in the ears of many Ugandans:

"I came to power by the gun and can’t be removed by [a] mere piece of paper."

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