One week before Uganda’s elections, a rally for the incumbent president shows why he is still popular.
‘I’m here for the party,’ says one man. It isn’t clear which party he means: the all-singing, all-dancing jamboree unfolding on the stage in front of us – or the National Resistance Movement (NRM), Uganda’s ruling political party, which is organizing it.
This is election time in Uganda: a three-month carnival of noise and colour interrupted by the odd sonorous speech. All candidates compete to put on the biggest rallies, have the most popular song, and plaster the most walls with their image. But when it comes to the spectacular none can quite match ssebo, the old man in the hat: Yoweri Museveni, who last month celebrated thirty years as president of Uganda and is now running for a fifth elected term.
It’s one week before the vote, and Museveni is expected at today’s rally in a suburb of Kampala. But before he arrives the crowd is entertained by some of Uganda’s biggest performers: Afrobeat star Chameleone, reggae artist Bebe Cool and singer Catherine Kusarisa. They are among a group of musicians who together recorded ‘Tubonga Nawe‘ (‘We stand with you’), Museveni’s oddly addictive campaign anthem. The president even has one popular singer, Ragga Dee, running on an NRM ticket for Lord Mayor of Kampala.
Critics accuse Museveni of buying support, an exuberant update of bread and circuses. The all-star cast of ‘Tubonga Nawe‘ have reportedly fallen out over the 400 million Ugandan shillings ($120,000) that Museveni paid them for the song. Meanwhile the scale of the NRM’s national campaign, busing in supporters to attend mammoth rallies, dwarfs the best efforts of his rivals.
Without doubt, many are just here for the show. But to his supporters, of which there are many, this event represents something else about Museveni’s rule. Joyous, public, and relaxed, it seems to embody the peace and freedom which they say Museveni has brought to Uganda.
Stability and security
‘You would wake in the morning to find bodies in the streets,’ says Acleo Mwongyera, 61, remembering the time before Museveni. He recalls listening secretly to the BBC with the radio turned down, and hiding his money from soldiers and thieves. ‘We have seen so many regimes,’ he says, ‘but we have peace now – real peace’.
Under the rule of Idi Amin and Milton Obote, some 800,000 Ugandans died in political violence. Museveni restored peace to much of the country, for which many are still grateful. Apollo Muhumuza, a coffee trader, describes how he could not safely take his goods to market in the bad old days. Now he sells his produce internationally. ‘This president has brought stability and security,’ he says. ‘I will support Museveni whatever happens’.
Most people at the rally are doing well: they have jobs, and are hopeful for the future. They are wary of jeopardising their newfound prosperity under a different leadership. ‘I have a kid of ten years,’ says Bbossa Aggrey, a boda-boda (motorbike taxi) driver. ‘He’s immunised, he’s going to school. Change can wait.’
I wonder about the jobless young men I had met at Besigye rallies. There are few such men here. ‘If you don’t fit the competition you won’t get a job,’ scoffs Kisarita Baker, a private secretary. Like many Museveni supporters, he accepts that there is still work to be done. ‘But you can’t just change the system in one day,’ he says. ‘If you do that, the system is bound to collapse’.
It is the campaign motto of ‘steady progress’ that I hear again and again. Even after thirty years, people say, Museveni needs more time: change comes gradually. ‘Yes there is corruption,’ says Steven Mutenyu, a teacher; but now, he says, you can report it without fearing for your life. Others wave their hands at the shiny towers on the horizon, a new Kampala that has been built upon the bullet-scarred capital of old.
The people here are sceptical of Kizza Besigye, the main opposition candidate who has lost three previous elections to Museveni. Some say Besigye is a good person, but naïve and hotheaded. Others accuse him of pursuing a personal vendetta against Museveni: the two men are former comrades turned bitter rivals. He is stirring up the youth, says Acleo Mwongyera. He has warned his own son, a Besigye supporter, to stay clear of possible violence: ‘I told him, “If you follow Besigye, you will be killed”’.
By contrast Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister, invokes bemusement among the crowd. Fatimah Nabulya cannot understand why Mbabazi is running against Museveni. ‘Mzee [Museveni] helped Mbabazi’, she says, aghast at the latter’s ingratitude. ‘I’m speechless’.
It is late in the day by the time that Museveni finally arrives, sweeping through the yellow-shirted crowd amid cheers of adoration. ‘He loves us,’ one woman tells me, as her hero climbs to the podium in his trademark broad-brimmed hat. Thumbs are raised in the air – every party here has its own hand gesture – and there are shouts of ‘yes, ssebo!‘ (‘yes, sir!’) as he begins his speech.
Museveni speaks in Luganda, the language of the Baganda people who dominate Kampala and south-central Uganda – it is not his mother tongue, but one he has come to master. An NRM supporter standing next to me gives a rough translation as Museveni begins with a history lesson: ‘I was seventeen when Uganda got its independence, but I never saw a government that helped the people’.
Museveni talks about development, listing the roads his government has built, and promising money to every constituency imaginable: women, the youth, villages, savings cooperatives. But like his supporters, he emphasises gradual change and the importance of self-reliance: ‘becoming wealthy is your own journey,’ my translator says, ‘and you have to follow it by yourself’.
There are moments of patrician wit that delight the crowd, as Museveni recounts his efforts to teach marksmanship to misfiring youth during Uganda’s ‘bush war’. And the opposition are dismissed with a vivid metaphor. ‘They are like rats,’ he says (according to my translator), trying to eat the millet that Museveni has stored for the people. But he will go back to the garden and plant more millet – and lay traps to catch the rats.
The crowd is ecstatic. Few here worry about vote-rigging and stolen elections: ‘the opposition are liars’, I am told repeatedly. Where Besgiye supporters often use the word ‘dictatorship’, the people I meet at the Museveni rally talk only of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. The gulf in perception is obvious.
The devil you know
After speaking for half an hour Museveni drives off, to rapturous cheers. People head contentedly home, like a victorious crowd after a football match. Sceptical voices are few – this is a campaign rally, after all – but some are unimpressed. ‘Museveni gives people a fish,’ says one student, ‘but he does not give them a hook’. Another man, a jobless teacher, pulls me aside to complain about conditions in schools: ‘this is not a democratic government’, he argues, pledging his support to Besigye.
Most are simply contented. It has been a fun day out, and life is good. The oldest man I meet is Dismas Karasi, aged 67. Born before independence, he was a young man during the days of Amin. He recalls a time when there were no roads, no electricity, and no industry, and ‘people were not sleeping’ because of the violence that cursed the country. Things now are not perfect, but much better than they were. The people want Museveni to stay on, he says; the opposition are mere ‘hooligans’.
For the last thirty years, Dismas adds, he has written a daily message on a blackboard for the people of his village. What was his message today, I wonder? He smiles. ‘Better the devil you know, than the angel you don’t’.