The people of Uganda went to the polls to elect members of National Parliament and also the President of the Republic. It was a historical election in many ways. It was the first multiparty elections since the National Resistance Army and Movement (NRA/M) captured power in 1986 and ushered in almost two decades of No Party government under President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. It was an election in which the voters were faced with much clearer choice of candidates based on political parties or coalitions of them offering different programmes or emphasizing different aspects of shared policies. The voters were also spoilt for choice of candidates at various levels, from the plainly mediocre to the comical, the damn serious and many in between. The people of Uganda were the final arbiters of political wrangles and the ultimate employers of the political class from the president to his batman. They had the chance to award marks to all the candidates and parties and decide who governs Uganda for the next five years.
It was probably the most controversial election campaign yet at all levels including candidates of the same party slugging it out very fiercely leading to defections, re infections or some other settlements.
The Election tourism industry flourished with columnists, allied clients in the NGOs, local and international, hotels, leisure, entertainment, taxis, car hires, other transporters, food sellers, business centers wishing the campaigns had gone longer for more business.
Initial reports from different observers were typical of what one has come to expect these days about election safaris. It seemed the statements were already written before they arrived, or the templates were in their laptops and all they needed to do was just cut and paste, changing location, country and names of parties and candidates as and where necessary. A minority of the Voter tourists suggested that due to the still unleveled political balance between the government and the opposition, the election would not be fully free and fair. The majority of reports so far including that of the AU released initially suggested that in spite of a few incidents including violence, they were confident that the campaigns had been generally been ‘ok’ and looked forward to a free and fair election.
The opposition, ruling parties and their supporters reacted to these assessments differently depending on their political interests. But there was no denying the truth that the government did engage in underhand methods some of them so crude and crass that they begged disbelief. They were clearly intimidatory of the opposition and disruptive of their campaigns.
The main opposition candidate and former follower of Museveni, retired Col Kiiza Besigye was facing trial for treason and in a new political low, trial for alleged rape. He was in and out of courts, detention centers, as well as campaigning across the country. In further twists, some supporters of the ruling party claimed intimidation especially in opposition strong holds.
But it is an unequal balance of terror because the ruling party and government always have greater power and leverage for intimidation than the opposition combined. Debates and controversies continue.
It is a right that has been won with blood and struggles. It is not a gift from any leader or party. It is not just those who went to the Bush to fight dictatorship who made democratization possible. The millions who stayed in the country, kept working in spite of all odds, kept hope alive and supported the struggles in non armed ways have also made their contributions and many of them also paid with their lives. There was a tendency on the part of Museveni and his zealots to equate opposition to him as treason.
But democracy like rainfall knows no good or bad farmer. This means that even those who were on the wrong side of the democratic struggles have the right to democratic freedoms and protection within the law. Controversies and passions not withstanding, people will still inhabit the same country with their political opponents, this time, tomorrow and the day after.
It is important for every qualified citizen to exercise their democratic right to decide who governs them though it is also democratic if you feel that none of the candidates or parties represents your interest to refuse to vote.
Of course the election, though the most decisive event, is not the only proof of democracy. The process leading to it is also important in determining the legitimacy of the outcome. And voting in itself is not enough as Joseph Stalin (no pretender for any democratic values) once observed that while he was not able to influence how people voted he could influence how the vote is counted. In many countries, not just Africa, the way people vote can be influenced. However the decisive influence often tends to be the counting. People must defend their mandate by ensuring that all their votes are properly counted (remember Florida!) and the results tally with how they voted.
Whatever the outcome Uganda can never be the same again as the era of deepening multi party democracy beacons. For Museveni and his acolytes, it is the beginning of the end.
By Dr. Tajudeen Abdul
Deputy Director, Africa, for the UN Millennium Campaign based in Nairobi Kenya. He writes this weekly column in his personal capacity as a Pan Africanist and a Director of the London-Based Justice Africa
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