Saturday, February 19, 2011

Let the people speak...

98.8%!  What an amazing vote for South Sudan a couple of weeks ago!  Congratulations.  And congratulations too to northern Sudan for standing back and letting it happen.  Here in Uganda, people worried about the possibility of violence during or after the referendum.  In fact, aid organisations have been preparing for an influx of refugees across our shared border.  Still early days, of course, and enormous challenges ahead (roads, health, education, agriculture…), but the omens are positive.

And the people have spoken in Tunisia and Egypt too, though not through the ballot box.  The reporting of the Egyptian protests has been very interesting here: lots of articles about Mubarak hanging on to power for so many years, about his intention to hand power onto his son, about his continual references to his role in Egypt’s struggle for independence and democracy in order to legitimise his continuing his presidency.  The newspapers have been making parallels with the situation here.

First you need to know that 90% of Uganda’s media is owned directly or indirectly by the ruling party, including the flagship paper, the New Vision.  The New Vision is, as you would expect, very supportive of the current regime, with occasional mild criticism just to show that it is a newspaper and not a PR circular.  Its main rival in attracting educated readers is the Daily Monitor which carries articles representing a range of viewpoints.  It is the only ‘quality’ Ugandan daily which dares to publish outright criticism of the ruling party.  During the last election in 2006, its editor and other journalists were jailed.

President Museveni with trademark floppy hat.
Good quality weeklies include the Independent, which, like the Monitor, published extracts of Uganda’s  previously banned book, The Correct Line? by Dr Olive Kifefe Kobusingye, the sister of Museveni’s arch-rival for the presidency, Kizza Besigye.  The book is well written and quite restrained in tone. It describes alleged manipulation of the polls during the last three elections.  It reports the detention and torture of opposition supporters in ‘safe houses’ in Kampala and Mbarara, the death of Besigye’s brother after months in jail, the exile of his other sister and the exile of Besigye himself.  On his return from exile to fight the election, he was arrested.  He was subsequently cleared of both allegations: rape and treason.

Museveni's main rival, Kizza Besigye.
The Correct Line? undermines the image of Museveni presented in his autobiographical writings, particularly Sowing the Mustard Seed: The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Uganda.  Whisked out of Kampala after the 2006 result, Besigye was apparently rowed across Lake Victoria into a further period of exile from which he only emerged last autumn.  The Supreme Court found irregularities in the 2006 election, but stated that the results should be upheld.  Interestingly, the reason for the ‘bush war’ of 1981 instigated by President Museveni and 40 close associates was Milton Obote’s rigging of the polls, which denied power to the Democratic Party, the party which had looked as if it might be winning.

President Museveni took over after winning the bush war, twenty five years ago. He is fortunate in the support of his loyal family: his wife the Minister for Karamoja, his brother an army general, his son at the Ministry of Internal Security and his daughter and son-in-law involved in various government projects.  National projects in recent years have included preparations for the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held in Kampala.  CHOGM is notorious for the billions of shillings which allegedly disappeared into Ministers’ pockets and are still unaccounted for.  The Ministers were absolved of responsibility by Parliament and the issue is unlikely to be resolved quickly (or at all) by the courts.

Kevin Kelly, the Irish ambassador, recently wrote a persuasive article on behalf of the Partners for Democracy and Good Governance (a grouping of ambassadors from the EU, USA, Japan, Norway and the UN), arguing for increased credibility of the election process, respect for the rule of law, active participation and a continuation of the relatively peaceful campaigning so far.  Finally he wished Uganda success with this ‘next stage of its democratic journey’.

The US Congress, concerned by the possibility of vote-rigging, issued a directive in January 2010 to Hillary Clinton ‘to closely monitor preparations for the 2011 elections in Uganda, and to actively promote, in coordination with the European Union, Canada and other nations, the independence of the election commission; the need for an accurate and verifiable voter registry; the announcement and posting of results at the polling stations; the freedom of movement and assembly and a process free of intimidation; freedom of the media; and the security and protection of candidates.’

President Museveni marking twenty five years in power.
Lucky Hillary has to submit regular reports to Congress on how Ugandan democracy is faring.  In exchange, Uganda receives $70,650,000 of assistance.  Uganda’s Electoral Commission was appointed by the President's office.  Four main presidential candidates (not including Besigye) have recently written to the Commission raising issues such as failure to issue voter identification cards, a flawed National Voters register, recruitment and training of vigilantes, corruption and bribery of voters by the NRM, inadequate civic education of the electorate and public media black-out of certain opposition candidates.  Still, not much violence by 2006 standards.  The army has reassuringly announced that it will not tolerate election violence and will ‘respect poll results’.

Besigye campaigning in the north.
Bribery, direct or indirect, is instead alleged by the press to be the tactic for 2011.  Local chiefs receive nice new bungalows, perhaps in the hope that they bring in villagers’ votes.   In Lira (north), all traditional chiefs in Lango sub-region have received pledges that they will receive ‘palaces… similar to the ones built for Acholi chiefs’.  The paramount chief received a new Toyota Landcruiser.    The people of Lango were also promised compensation for cattle raided by the Karamajong (report in the Daily Monitor).  Huge quantities of money have passed into the hands of traditional, local government and religious leaders and potential voters at all levels of society up and down the country.  It has been alleged in the media that this money has come from government coffers.  It is certainly money which could have been used to save the lives of women in childbirth and feed and educate their children.

So what issues are citizens voting on in this election?  Religious and tribal, as in Sudan?  Well, not really.

One of President Museveni’s significant achievements has been his deliberate and largely successful efforts over many years to encourage those of different religious beliefs and ethnic backgrounds to understand and live alongside each other.  Though apparently a committed Christian, he attends Muslim festivals, for example Eid ul Fitr.  Muslim and Christian children usually attend the same schools.  Uganda shows little evidence of Islamic fundamentalism or Islamophobia, despite last year’s bomb attacks.  Indeed, rather more disturbing is the widespread Christian fundamentalism, with its vicious homophobia and cash-for-miracles campaigns.

What about tensions between tribes and clans?  Are they an election issue?

The state of ‘Uganda’ is a relatively recent and quite artificial construct.  The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 based Uganda on the well-organised and cooperative kingdom of Buganda, putting the Kabaka at its head but bringing in kingdoms and tribes which were hostile to Buganda and had completely alien cultures.  And the languages were different too.  Uganda is more or less bisected by the Nile.  To the north are the tribes which speak Nilotic languages and to the south are the Bantu-speakers: over 40 languages in all, some say 60, and many of them mutually incomprehensible.

Most of Uganda’s tribal groupings were partitioned by the new borders.  Tribes like the Banyarwanda were split between French-colonised Rwanda and Burundi and British-colonised Uganda. Indeed, the Rwandan divisions between Tutsi cattle rearers and Hutu cultivators are replicated in the west of Uganda (Bahima and Bairu).   The various clans of the Masai were split between Kenya and Uganda.  To the immediate south, a straight line was drawn between German-colonised Tanganyika  (now Tanzania) and Uganda.   In the far West Nile region, tribes which were basically Sudanese (indeed, often called ‘Nubian’) were brought into the mix.  Directly north and many miles from Kampala, warlike tribes like the Acholi, Langi and Karamajong with completely different cultures were also added.

Europe’s blind refusal to acknowledge these differences meant that problems were built into the very foundations of the new country resulting in many of the terrible events of the last fifty years.  Amin came from West Nile, Obote from Acholi-land and Museveni from Ankole (previously Banyankore).  Both Amin and Obote are accused of using their tribal and regional origins as motivating forces for the policies they enacted and actions they took.  Ugandans, those most courteous, friendly and welcoming of people, have killed other Ugandans in enormous numbers over the last half century.

There are still rumblings of discontent, for example, that the Ankole region has been ‘favoured’ and is consequently more prosperous.  The south distrusts the ‘warlike’ north and the north believes it has been starved of resources and allowed to suffer under years of internal conflict.  The Bagandan Kabaka has been involved in a long-standing standoff with the President and was banned from visiting part of his kingdom.  Only last year, Baganda’s famous Kasubi tombs, a world heritage site, were burnt down in a riot during which about 25 people were killed, allegedly by the police.  

Kasubi tombs as they were (picture from official website).
And inside - the 'forest' - the resting place of the Kabakas.

Kasubi tombs as they are now.
The Karamajong warriors continue to carry out cattle raids in a huge area of Uganda which is out of bounds to foreign travellers because of its instability.  The various presidential candidates, as you would expect, can call on particularly strong support in their home regions, or in areas where they are seen to be attending to local concerns.  Despite the overall result in 2006, for instance, about 75% of northerners voted for Besigye.  The Bagandan Betty Kamya, interestingly, has been standing on a federal ticket. Nevertheless, the issues on which this election is being fought are country-wide rather than regional or tribal.  They are also quite straightforward and inextricably entwined: poverty and corruption.  

Of corruption I have already written.  Poverty?

In the election, jiggers have been used as the symbol of poverty.  Poor areas of the country like Basoga, in the Jinja area, have had an epidemic of jiggers.  Jiggers are caused by poor hygiene, mud floors and inadequate living conditions.  If the ulcers are untreated, you can die of jiggers.  If you are poor, you try to keep the fleas down by smearing cattle dung on the floor.  Concrete is rather more effective but costs money.  Rather amusingly, the opposition took the NRM slogan pakalast (forever!), and came up with jiggers pakalast to irritate them!

Even pleasant Entebbe has its poorer areas.
The National Household Survey report released in autumn last year indicated that although the number of poor had declined from 8.4 million (2005/06) to 7.1 (2009/10), the gap between the rich and poor had increased.  A longer term view shows that in 1992 56% lived in poverty, whereas ‘only’ 31% do so now.  The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) target is 25%.  As in Europe, poverty levels vary from region to region, with the east and north being significantly poorer than the centre and west.

  • 435 women out every 100,000 births die in childbirth.
  • Out of every 1000 live births, 78 children die shortly after birth and 137 before the age of five.
  • Uganda adds 1 million people to its population every year and by 2050 will have a projected population of 91 million, compared with 10 million in the 1960s and 31-32 million now.
  • Out of its current population, 30% find it difficult to find enough food to eat, 15% of the population is malnourished and 40% of child deaths are due to malnutrition (UN figures released on World Food Day 2010).

Yet there is hope.  Oil has been discovered in western Uganda and the revenue, if used wisely by the new government, gives the country real prospects of achieving the MDGs.  An increasing proportion of the younger population have no memory of the bush war and will base their voting on what they observe now, rather than on emotional attachment to the past.  Despite the enormous challenges within the education system, the proportion of literate and educated parents will increase.  The children in school today will have higher aspirations for their own children and higher expectations of their elected representatives.

So, we await the results of 18th February.  Let the people speak.


  1. Hello,
    I recently finished serving for 27-months in Uganda as a US Peace Corps volunteer. I lived in Kasambya, Mubende district.
    I found your blog by searching for an Enthographic map of Uganda. I am working on my masters degree based on my time in Uganda and I would really appreciate being able to use the map you have in my report and presentation. I would not use it for any commercial purpose.
    Would you be willing to allow me the use of it?
    please e-mail me at
    Thank you
    Steven Wright

  2. Dear Ritchie,
    Thanks for an informative blog. One notable inaccuracy is Obote's ethnicity: Obote came from Akokoro in Lango district. He did not come from Acholiland. The two tribes live in neighbouring lands and share the Lwo language but whilst the Acholi are Nilotics, the Langi are Nilohamites; they share some customs with the Teso and Karamojong peoples.

  3. Dear Anonymous, Thank you very much for correcting my mistake. It is much appreciated. Elisabeth