Wednesday, February 23, 2011

uganda rocks the vote

This past Friday, Uganda held its Presidential elections, with results Sunday declaring Yoweri Museveni the winner. Again. The next five years will mark his sixth term in office. Despite over a year of buildup, which for me started the first day I set foot in country, the elections passed with very little incident. The fairness of the vote may have been called into question by the opposition, but despite the failed candidates’ call for public outrage, nothing has materialized.

Some people will probably find it quite surprising that Museveni could peacefully win a sixth term. After all, consider the fact that Uganda sits near the top of nearly all global corruption statistics. Even the Ambassador of one their biggest allies was leaked in a memo stating the man had autocratic tendencies. Also consider the fact the claims of fraud and bribery of voters was substantiated by European overseers. Place all of this against the backdrop of the wave of political turmoil sweeping North Africa and the Middle East and serious, credible terror threats from al-Shabob and al-Qaeda, and it really does seem incredible that things went as well as they did. Although I am by no means an expert on the politics of Uganda, I do have some theories as to why.

The first reason is the Ugandans themselves. Uganda is a country, like much of Sub-Saharan, that was formerly under European colonial rule. Borders were drawn with little regard to the identity of its inhabitants, and as a result, the country is made up of dozens of different tribes and multiple ethnicities, all with their own cultures and many with their own languages. The disconnect and rivalry between these groups makes it very unlikely that a large enough band of tribes would stand together to oppose much of anything. The last time such an alliance did form, Museveni himself was leading it on his way to seizing the Presidency. Similarly, if Ugandans have a difficult time identifying with rivaling tribesmen, they have no connection whatsoever to Tunisians and Egyptians, whom most would claim aren’t Africans. The stories of protesters taking to the streets and toppling regimes is certainly news, but it does little in the way of inspiring the people to stand up themselves.

The opposition itself is probably another reason for the lack of unrest. Many Ugandans nd even the leaked Ambassador cited earlier have said that the opposition candidates did little to set themselves apart from Museveni. I heard more than a few people claim that almost all of the opposition was just as corrupt as anyone else already in office, so why vote for a change that could possibly destabilize the country? Furthermore, there were eight opposition candidates. Eight! I can’t imagine trying to defeat an entrenched incumbent with eight people splitting the opposition vote.

The final reason that I think prevented the riots and protests seen elsewhere in the region was the Mzee (old man), Museveni himself. First of all, he promised to crush any political uprising. After his brutal handling of riots in the Central region of the country in 2009, I think most people were inclined to take him at his word. Secondly, and probably the most important of all, people still like Museveni. Even in the freest, fairest elections known to man, I still think Museveni would have won easily. He is wildly popular in the West and Southwest of the country, and also amongst the elderly. I have talked to a few people who are old enough to remember what this country was like before Museveni came to power. I even met a few who fought alongside Museveni and his National Resistance Army (now the political party National Resistance Movement). I won’t go into a history lesson here, but the stories of life then are truly horrific. They still idolize their President for taking them into a time of relative stability and freedom, even if some admit that he has overstayed a bit.

There's certainly a lot of disappointment out there for people who wanted a change. This is even true amongst some Volunteers. I don’t really know enough about the political issues here to be able to comment what five more years will mean for this country. I am just relieved that things remained safe and calm in a volatile environment.

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