Dispatch

A Real Debate Before Uganda’s Fake Election

Longtime President Yoweri Museveni made history by facing his challengers in a televised showdown. That doesn’t mean this week’s elections aren’t already rigged in his favor.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni (C) and his wife Janet Museveni wave from to supporters  from atop their car as they arrive for a rally of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party at Kololo Airstrip in Kampala on February 16, 2016. 
Uganda's presidential contenders held their final campaign rallies on February 16, a day after opposition supporters clashed with police leaving at least one person dead. Museveni and his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party is widely predicted to win a fifth term in power in polls, and warned at a rally against voting for his rivals. / AFP / Isaac Kasamani        (Photo credit should read ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni (C) and his wife Janet Museveni wave from to supporters from atop their car as they arrive for a rally of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party at Kololo Airstrip in Kampala on February 16, 2016. Uganda's presidential contenders held their final campaign rallies on February 16, a day after opposition supporters clashed with police leaving at least one person dead. Museveni and his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party is widely predicted to win a fifth term in power in polls, and warned at a rally against voting for his rivals. / AFP / Isaac Kasamani (Photo credit should read ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

KAMPALA, Uganda — He joked. He complained. But most importantly, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni engaged his rivals for the first time ever in a genuine political debate that was broadcast live to millions of Ugandans.

Museveni’s unexpected appearance at a presidential debate over the weekend, just days before Ugandans head to the polls on Feb. 18, came as a shock to the country’s political chattering class. Up until the moment he appeared on stage, journalists and pundits were predicting he’d skip the event — just as he had the inaugural debate in January, which he dismissed as an activity fit for “school children.” Though he has been in power for 30 years, Uganda’s cagy president rarely opens himself up to public interrogation — especially by his political rivals.

Yet there he was on stage, linking hands with his challengers in prayer and then, for more than three hours, withstanding polite questioning from the moderators and far less polite jabs from the men and women who wish to replace him.

In the midst of yet another campaign marred by obstacles to political assembly, threats to press freedom, and inconsistencies in voter registration, Museveni’s participation seemed to signal an ever-so-slight opening of Uganda’s political system. But even before such a narrative could take root, the system slammed shut again with the arrest of Kizza Besigye, Museveni’s chief rival, 48 hours later. It was a sharp reminder that in Uganda, where Museveni has perfected a carrot-and-stick approach to electoral politics, one debate does not a democracy make.

In office for three decades, Museveni has learned to precisely calibrate his benevolence-to-oppression ratio in order to retain his grip on power. Every time he seems to make room for dissent, he is simultaneously taking it away. In 2005, for instance, the president opened the country to multi-party elections (before then, Uganda had been a de facto one-party state under the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM)). In exchange, parliament did away with constitutional term limits. The president allows independent media houses and civil society groups to operate, but slowly suffocates them with increasingly restrictive legislation, such as a 2013 law that gives the police wide-ranging authority to obstruct public assembly.

Museveni’s authoritarian impulses have largely been overlooked by the international community, in part because of his willingness to contribute to peacekeeping missions and to moderate regional squabbles. A harsh anti-gay law he signed into law in 2014 dented his reputation in the West, but after the Constitutional Court overturned it on a technicality the matter largely faded from view. His NRM dominates the parliament, and there are few additional checks on the president’s near-total control of the state.

His opponents say the same goes for the election. Despite his status as the leading opposition candidate, Besigye has expressed the most cynicism about the upcoming vote — and for good reason. This is the fourth time he has challenged Museveni. Twice he took the unfavorable returns to the Supreme Court over alleged voting irregularities; after the last election in 2011 he didn’t even bother. It seems likely that he long ago arrived at the same conclusion as a European Union observation mission to the last election, which found that Museveni uses his incumbency to “compromise severely the level playing field between the competing candidates and political parties.”

At a recent press conference, Besigye said he’s running again to “create a democratic dispensation” and to “push the frontiers of freedom in this country.”

In other words, he’s not running to win.

But he certainly succeeded in pushing frontiers during the debate, pressing Museveni on three decades’ worth of decisions — from the removal of term limits to regional integration efforts — to the delight of his supporters in the audience.

Amama Mbabazi, a former presidential protégé who was unceremoniously dumped from his post as prime minister in 2014, also got in on the act. He has attempted to recast himself as the best alternative for voters who want some change, but not a dramatic shakeup to the status quo. He hammered the president on the country’s widespread unemployment and sputtering economy.

Museveni’s surprise appearance at the debate came after he was lambasted in the press and on social media for skipping the last one.

“It really cost him,” said Tom Wanyakala, a governance lecturer at Makerere University in the capital, Kampala. “The interpretation was that he fears debate.”

Having shown up to the second debate, Museveni was mostly dismissive of the process, complaining more than once that the format made it impossible to fully answer his critics. Still, some of his responses were unexpectedly revealing.

At one point, Museveni and Besigye got into a back-and-forth over Uganda’s five-year occupation of parts of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo that ended in 2003. Museveni’s administration claimed it was attempting to flush out rebel forces, but Congolese officials said that was just a cover for widespread resource exploitation. The International Court of Justice eventually found Ugandan troops guilty of committing “acts of killing, torture and other forms of inhumane treatment of the Congolese civilian population.”

Besigye left alone the allegations of war profiteering, but dinged the president for intervening without consulting his cabinet.

Museveni defended his unilateral action with perhaps the most memorable line of the night: “Nobody can play around with the security of Uganda when I am president.”

The candid, if caustic, exchange offered the kind of insight voters in Uganda rarely get into the temperament of their president, who is usually content to rattle off vague talking points or promises of far-off improvements when he’s on the stump.

More significantly, the debate introduced a dose of civility to Uganda’s democratic process, which has been marred by violence over the years and characterized by colorful insults. After Museveni and Mbabazi supporters clashed earlier in the campaign, the president said his former prime minister’s followers had put their “hands in the anus of a leopard” and that they were now “in trouble.”

“People who were considered enemies can now shake hands,” said Wanyakala. “They can debate issues face to face and smile at each other. It’s about disagreeing on issues and then having a consensus for the purpose of collective development.”

The new climate of comity hinted, he said, at the maturation of Uganda’s political system and suggests that a Besigye victory, while deeply improbable, is at least possible.

“I don’t want to be a false prophet,” he said. “But I can see the leader of [the] opposition is really coming close and might have a run this time.”

The mood was far gloomier across Makerere’s expansive campus two days after the debate. Thousands of students had gathered in anticipation of a Besigye rally, wearing red undergraduate gowns to prove they were really enrolled. (A Museveni rally on campus a few days earlier had been attended mainly by outsiders, the students claimed, because the president wasn’t capable of drawing a significant crowd on campus.) Besigye had been arrested and briefly held by police earlier in the day, after his convoy attempted to travel through downtown Kampala. The police later issued a statement saying the route, which they claim had not been arranged in advance in accordance with electoral requirements, “would paralyze business and easily promote tension within the city and attract violence.”

The Makerere appearance was to be Besigye’s first since his temporary detention, and the campus was tense.

“They won’t allow it,” said Eddie Ssentamu, gesturing to a line of police officers, some in riot gear, outside the main campus gate. The business administration student, who was born the same year Museveni took power, described the president as “selfish”

“[Besigye]’s going to win, but they won’t allow it. The vote won’t be fair,” he said.

Meanwhile, the police were busy proving Ssentamu right. Besigye was ultimately blocked from entering the Makerere campus, his convoy surrounded by police on a side street just short of the main gate. Supporters who came out to jeer the police were met with tear gas and flash grenades. At least one person was killed in nearby protests, security officials confirmed. Eventually, security forces towed Besigye’s car, with the candidate still inside, into the settling dusk.

“This is our usual life,” Besigye said at a press conference the next morning. “Abuse of our rights and powers with impunity is exactly one of the major elements we are challenging in this election.”

Mike Sebalu, a spokesman for Museveni’s ruling NRM, dismissed complaints of heavy-handedness by security forces as falsehoods perpetuated to undermine the president’s campaign. He told Foreign Policy that Besigye is “not exhibiting the discipline expected of a leader. He provokes security so that it acts and he takes advantage of it.”

Besigye’s most recent arrest came on the same day that a local human rights NGO, Chapter Four Uganda, released a report on threats to freedom of assembly and expression ahead of the vote. They documented 72 incidents, most involving the police. One featured the forcible public undressing of an opposition candidate; others included the arrest of Gen. David Sejusa, an outspoken critic of the regime, and threats to journalists attempting to report from the campaign trail. It’s a playbook opposition forces accuse Museveni’s security organs of reviving from previous elections to stymie the opposition.

“The stakes are high,” said Magelah Peter Gwayaka, Chapter Four’s program manager. “When the stakes are high, you get high-handedness of the security agency.”

The stakes are indeed high — high enough not only to provoke harassment and intimidation, but to convince Museveni to debate his challengers face-to-face.

At one point during the historic tilt, the president, exasperated by his rivals’ potshots, declared: “Listening to the talk here, I am convinced that there is only one person who is qualified to manage Uganda.”

His regime is doing everything it can to make sure that person remains in power.

Image credit: ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Feb. 17, 2016: Amama Mbabazi was sacked from his post as prime minister in 2014. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that he was sacked form his post as attorney general.  

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