In one Ugandan town, the president and one of his rivals host contrasting rallies. Museveni’s capacity to mobilize support helps explain why he is likely to win elections.
‘I had a message from God. He said there is a mountain in this country, but the mountain must fall. And then I saw that the mountain was Museveni.’
Benon, an opposition activist, was certainly confident. But like most visions, his requires a leap of faith. Yoweri Museveni was sworn in as president of Uganda thirty years ago to the day. Four troubled elections have so far failed to unseat him. Most observers – at least those without a tip-off from the Almighty – expect more of the same when Ugandans vote next month.
To see why I went to Mubende, a small town a couple of hours’ west of Kampala. On 29 January it hosted a rally by Amama Mbabazi, one of two credible challengers to Museveni. The next day, the president himself was in town. The contrast between their rallies shows why Benon’s prophecy – an Mbabazi victory – is unlikely to come true.
‘Don’t cry to anybody’
Until 2014, Amama Mbabazi was prime minister and Museveni’s de facto number two. He was sacked amid allegations of corruption and incompetence – though the real reason is likely to have been his manoeuvring against Museveni within the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM). He retains high-level connections and influence, and his announcement last year that he would stand for the presidency energised what had seemed a predictable contest.
There wasn’t much energy on show when I arrived in Mubende. In an empty field a large truck, painted with Mbabazi’s face, blasted out local pop music. His supporters gave speeches from a temporary stage, but it wasn’t clear who was listening. Small groups of men lounged in the shade, or watched at a distance from their motorbikes.
‘I support Mbabazi,’ said one, attaching a promotional flag to his handlebars. He was worried about work. Under Museveni, Ugandan growth has averaged more than 6%, but jobs are hard to find, especially for the young. The man’s brother had found work as a mechanic in South Africa; he hoped to follow.
Some good things had happened under Museveni, he added, citing free education. But that was the result of Mbabazi’s influence, he said: ‘Everything good that Museveni has done, he was pushed to do by Mbabazi’.
It was a point echoed by Benon, the activist-prophet: ‘Mbabazi has been the engine to Museveni’. In the past Benon had supported Kizza Besigye, the other main opposition candidate, but now believes Mbabazi’s connections are the best protection against vote-rigging: ‘If we protect our vote at the polling station,’ he said, ‘Mbabazi will deal with it [vote-rigging] from above’.
But Mbabazi’s CV does not impress everyone. On the campaign trail he has struggled to distance himself from the government he so recently left: in a recent TV debate, which Museveni shrewdly skipped, Mbabazi spent much of the time defending the government’s record. His credentials as a change candidate are thin, and he seems unlikely to split the NRM vote as was once hoped. Polling, though unreliable, puts him on just 12%.
By late afternoon a larger crowd was beginning to gather, reaching around a thousand by the time Mbabazi arrived, welcomed to the stage by a rap artist and his own personal brass band. He spoke for the most part in Luganda – not his first language – switching to English to compare the struggle against Museveni to that of the Israelites in Egypt: ‘God told Moses, “Don’t cry to anybody – it is for you to determine the destiny of this country”’.
The crowd watched patiently but, apart from a few set-piece moments, with little excitement. One man walked around selling doormats. Afterwards, I asked a group of students what they thought. ‘We still like Museveni,’ they replied in unison.
Mzee comes to town
By nine o’clock the next day the centre of Mubende was buzzing. Two campaign trucks and four yellow buses drove up and down the main street announcing the president’s arrival. An army of street sellers were flogging Museveni merchandise: yellow shirts, and replicas of his trademark hat. One man had attached a small sapling to the back of his bicycle, its branches festooned with Museveni posters.
If Mbabazi had given a garden party, Museveni had brought a carnival. His campaign anthem, ‘Tubonga Nawe’ (‘We stand with you’) was played on loop, at deafening volume. A posse of street dancers blocked the traffic. Trucks packed full of supporters shuttled back and forth, people waving and hollering as they clung tenuously to the sides.
At the teachers’ college, where Museveni was due to speak, people queued patiently to get through airport-style security. ‘We are always for Museveni – forever,’ one man told me. ‘He has brought investors to this country. If it wasn’t for him, foreign people like you wouldn’t come to Uganda’.
The man’s comments suggested one reason for Museveni’s support: his record of bringing stability and economic growth to Uganda. In the fifteen years before he came to power, some 800,000 Ugandans had died in political violence. Museveni brought peace to much of the country, and poverty levels have halved.
But the frenzied atmosphere generated by his arrival in Mubende suggests another reason for his popularity: ‘Museveni will win,’ one man told me, rubbing his fingers together, ‘because of money’. Access to state resources helps Museveni to vastly outspend his rivals. A study by the Alliance for Campaign Finance Monitoring (ACFIM), a civil society coalition, estimates that in November and December Museveni outspent Mbabazi by a factor of twenty, and Besigye by a factor of 28.
That explains the contrast between the Museveni and Mbabazi rallies. The trucks full of Museveni supporters are packed with people from villages, bussed in at the president’s expense. Everything from the dancers to the enormous, rock concert-style stage spoke of the resources at his disposal. Mbabazi, despite his own considerable connections, could not hope to compete.
And there is a third reason too for Museveni’s success: his control of state institutions to tilt the playing field in his favour. Local radio stations, for example, have been shut down by the Media Council after hosting opposition candidates. Meanwhile a team of 20 journalists follow Museveni on the campaign trail, reports ACFIM, receiving a daily upkeep of 150,000 Ugandan shillings ($43).
Unfortunately I am not one of them. Security stopped me from entering the rally (‘not the right accreditation’, apparently). As I rode a boda-boda (motorbike taxi) back into town the presidential convoy rode past in a blaze of flashing sirens and blackened windows. ‘Museveni just uses the government’s money,’ complained the boda driver.
Two days in one town do not predict a presidential race. And Museveni and Mbabazi are not the only candidates: the third, Besigye, reportedly attracted huge crowds when he came to Mubende in December. Many are now predicting that Besigye could win enough votes to force Museveni into a second round.
But the contrast between the Museveni and Mbabazi rallies suggest two things. First, while the Mbabazi campaign is failing to generate the expected enthusiasm, Museveni continues to enjoy strong support from voters grateful for his achievements. Second, Museveni’s support is amplified by the advantages of incumbency. He is able to use the levers of patronage, mute opposition voices and run a national campaign in ways that his opponents cannot match. If Benon’s prophecy is to come true, and the Museveni mountain falls, it will take more than a little of the miraculous.