Liam Taylor

Uganda-based journalism

Local anaesthetic

As debates about the presidential contest still rage, there was little interest in today’s local elections in Uganda (24 February). But they tell us something about power in Museveni’s regime.

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No queues in Kampala today as residents vote in local elections

This time the ballot papers arrived, but the voters didn’t. Five days after controversial elections in Uganda, marred by delays in opposition strongholds, its citizens went to the polls again today. The choice on this occasion was leaders of local government, including Lord Mayor of Kampala and chairpersons for each of the country’s 111 districts. Uganda has one of the most decentralised political systems in Africa, but few seemed bothered. The hopeful queues of last Thursday were nowhere to be seen.

‘We are just fed up,’ said one woman, passing by a polling station in Katwe, a poor area of Kampala. Long-term president Yoweri Museveni was re-elected last week thanks to strong support from the countryside – helped, say the opposition, by vote-rigging and intimidation. In the capital, where two-thirds of voters supported the challenger Kizza Besigye, many believe that last week’s election was stolen. ‘People are dying in their hearts,’ added the woman, asking not to be named.

But there is another aspect to today’s local elections. In Kampala, low turnout reflects recent reforms, which stripped elected leaders of much of their powers. In the rest of the country, the bewildering number of districts and candidates – 376 contenders are standing today – reveals a deliberate strategy by Museveni’s regime to extend its patronage networks nationwide.

The lawyer and the singer

In Kampala, the few who bothered to turn up today were asked to vote for several layers of councillors and divisional mayors. But the headline post is for Lord Mayor of Kampala, with contenders including a rebellious incumbent and a music mogul.

The favourite is current mayor Erias Lukwago, a leading opposition figure who some see as a future presidential candidate. Lukwago, a lawyer, ran as an independent in 2011, winning twice the votes of his nearest rival, a candidate from Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM). But he has been mayor in name only since 2013, when he was unseated on charges of misconduct, incompetence, and abuse of office: allegations widely seen as political, and which he has disputed through the courts.

Lukwago is a close ally of Besigye: the two were arrested together at a protest in Kiseka Market in 2013, where tear gas and bullets were fired at their supporters, killing one. Lukwago has been a prominent advocate of Besigye over the last week, while the latter has been held under house arrest: Lukwago himself was briefly arrested outside Besigye’s home last Saturday.

Lukwago’s main rival is Daniel Kazibwe, better known as Ragga Dee, a dancehall singer and businessman. Kazibwe is running on an NRM ticket, with the full force of the ruling party machine behind him – but that will count for little in Kampala. A third candidate, Issa Kikungwe of the Democratic Party (DP), is also an outsider: Lukwago leads a breakaway DP faction, and will take much of Kikungwe’s support.

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Quiet polling stations

Taking back control

The competition is intense. Tear gas was fired as Lukwago attempted to disrupt vote-rigging in the last contest, and his sacking in 2013 provoked angry protests. But, beyond the personal ambitions of the candidates, the depth of such passions is puzzling: the Lord Mayor is a largely ceremonial post.

It was not always that way. In the past, Kampala was governed by the Kampala City Council (KCC), an unloved body which struggled to address the problems of roads, sanitation and rubbish disposal that blighted the capital. In part, the KCC’s ineffectiveness was due to its own corruption and incompetence. But the scale of the challenge was formidable: addressing the ruptures of rapid urbanisation with inadequate funds and few revenue-raising powers. With a strong opposition presence on the KCC, it also faced regular interference from a suspicious central government.

Things changed in 2009, when Museveni’s government abolished the KCC and replaced it with the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), stripping elected politicians of much of their authority. There are 31 elected seats on the KCCA, but ultimate power resides with the Executive Director, appointed by the president. The current Director, Jennifer Musisi, took office in 2011: she controls the levers of finance which the councillors and Lord Mayor depend on to act. The reforms also created a new Minister of Kampala in central government, with a veto over KCCA decisions.

The changes were justified by the need for effective administration. But in the process, democracy was undermined. One of the first steps that the KCCA took to cleaning up the city was the forced removal of hawkers and informal street vendors from the city centre (a move that Museveni blamed this week for his poor performance in Kampala).

Last year the government tried to weaken democracy even further, proposing that the Lord Mayor should be chosen by an electoral college of KCCA councillors, rather than directly elected. The plan failed, but is indicative of the government’s intentions. Little wonder that few Kampalans saw any point in turning out today.

Bought-off

In the rest of the country, Ugandans today chose district chairpersons: local-level administrators, and the most sought-after positions in local government. The NRM, in a sign of its national strength, is fielding candidates in all but one of the 111 districts. By contrast the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), the main opposition party, has candidates in only 43 districts, while the DP and the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) are contesting 15 and 13 districts respectively (there are a large number of independents).

Those numbers alone give some sense of the relative size of the party machines. But consider, too, the importance of money. Since 2005, when the government scrapped a graduated local tax, local authorities have relied overwhelmingly on central funding. Museveni pledges greater resources to those areas which support him: voting for the opposition, in effect, is voting for budget cuts.

The sheer number of districts is also striking. In 1990, a few years after Museveni came to power, there were 34 districts in Uganda, with an average population of half a million. Today, there are 111, districts, plus Kampala, with an average of 340,000 people in each.

What is going on? One story is decentralisation, which has formed an important part of the NRM’s programme since it set up local ‘Resistance Councils’ during the ‘Bush War’ that brought it to power. Indeed, Uganda’s system of local governance has been widely praised, and surveys suggest that it is popular with citizens.

But another story is about patronage. New districts create new jobs, and new opportunities for Museveni to buy-off local big shots with government posts. Analysis by Elliot Green, an academic at the London School of Economics, shows that NRM support tends to increase in newly-created districts, thanks (he says) to the patronage networks that are created. In the process, much political conflict is displaced from the centre to local government, at a safe distance from Museveni himself.

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Cow outside the house of FDC candidate Kizza Besigye. He remains under house arrest.

Apathy

Today’s local elections received little coverage from the Ugandan press: page 6 in the Daily Monitor, a leading English-language daily, and page 12 in New Vision, its government-owned rival. That mirrors the apathy of ordinary Ugandans.

Of course, local elections rarely generate excitement anywhere. And the big story remains the contest for the presidency, with Besigye still under house arrest as he mulls a legal challenge. The low turnout is an indication of Ugandans’ disappointment with the events of the past week. But local elections also have something to tell us about the nature of power in Uganda: the state that Museveni built, and that he continues to rule.

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This entry was posted on February 24, 2016 by in African Politics and tagged , , .
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