Introduction

On January 16, 2020, the chairperson of Uganda’s Electoral Commission, Justice Simon Mugenyi Byabakama, declared the National Resistance Movement (NRM) presidential flagbearer, fifth-time incumbent Yoweri T.K. Museveni, winner of the just concluded 2021 presidential elections. Since then, the emotive dust in the cyber-political atmosphere is yet to settle. The country’s electorate together with close observers of developments in Uganda are also yet to come to terms with the outcome of the 2021 elections.

I argue that the collective belief in universal adult suffrage as a panacea to all of the state’s political ills—what Belgian historian David Van Reybrouck describes as “electoral fundamentalism”1David Van Reybrouck, “Why elections are bad for democracy,” The Guardian, June 29, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/29/why-elections-are-bad-for-democracy. Therein, David Van Reybrouck posits that electoral fundamentalism is “an unshakeable belief in the idea that democracy is inconceivable without elections” and elections are a necessary and fundamental precondition when speaking of democracy. Electoral fundamentalists therefore refuse to regard elections as a means of taking part in democracy, seeing them instead “as an end in themselves, as a doctrine with an intrinsic, inalienable value.”—has yielded a far more disruptive outcome for both the Ugandan polity and society. The recent unprecedented prioritization of elections—in the rather bewildering context of increased Covid-19 cases nationwide notwithstanding—portends the destabilizing of an already fragile and deeply contested mode of governance under the current NRM dispensation. While credible elections based on the key tenets of liberal democracy constitute the hallmark of a democratic political order, the context within which this ideal is to be pursued must be commensurate to the historical backdrop and political contingencies.

The Birth of Electoral Fundamentalism: The February 1962 Polls

Towards the end of British colonial rule in Uganda, the 1949 Local Government Ordinance intentionally placed authority at the sub-national level (local government) in the monarchical set-up in all kingdoms. This legal framework precipitated a double move: the memorization process of many social groups in those kingdoms with the provincialization process of social groups in non-kingdom areas. The 1949 Ordinance consolidated the process already underwritten by the 1900 (B)Uganda Agreement. The subsequent passing of the 1955 District Councils Ordinance, however, presaged the future of democratization in Uganda. The Ordinance outlined the contours of the beginnings of a democratic dispensation in which the holding of elections based on universal adult suffrage became sacrosanct.

The national elections set for February 1962, months before independence set the stage for the choice of a viable system of administration for post-colonial Uganda in stark contrast: a political framework of federalism (ethnic or otherwise) was pitched against that of centralism (by premiership or otherwise). Kingdom areas, most notably Buganda had vied for the former, while non-kingdom areas (Lango, Acholi, Kigezi, etc.) preferred the latter. The report of a commission appointed by the departing colonial administration under the chairmanship of Lord Munster, and published in 1961, recommended that Uganda should be a democratic state with a strong central government. The Munster Commission Report, however, underscored that the relationship between the central government and Buganda should be federal in nature, while that with the other kingdom areas of Ankole, Bunyoro, Toro and the Territory of Busoga, should be semi-federal. As a result, the 1962 polls, with late colonial British brinkmanship, were cast in a deeply electoral fundamentalist fashion. The coming together of Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) with the Mmengo establishment (Buganda’s political “capital” since British colonial era) under the auspices of Kabaka Yekka party—characteristic of a political matrimony—provided the context for Obote’s victory and emergence as the new Prime Minister-elect. The fundamentalist belief in universal adult suffrage worked in favour of securing rather than challenging a preferred political status quo and hence set-in motion a trend in the political imagination of would-be independent Uganda.

The Coming of Age of Electoral Fundamentalism: The December 1980 Polls

The 1980 balloting was held against the backdrop of the overthrow of Idi Amin’s military government. On the morning of October 30, 1978, thousands of Idi Amin’s troops had crossed into northwest Tanzania and occupied the Kagera Salient, an area of 710 square miles. It took two months for the Tanzanians to marshal their army and push back Amin’s troops. In January 1979, they pushed through Kagera, crossed the border and invaded Uganda. In their company were militias under the umbrella of the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) composed of Ugandan exiles opposed to Amin’s government. Amin’s military put up a desultory defense. Tanzanian troops, alongside a host of armed Ugandan exiles, made rapid progress. On April 11, 1979, they marched into Uganda’s capital and put an end to Idi Amin’s government. The de-facto Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) authority established after Amin’s ousting called for national elections to choose leaders who would form a new government. The electoral commission sanctioned by the UNLF government reportedly aimed to establish polling stations for every 1,000 voters.2In the forthcoming book of Derek Peterson on the Idi Amin regime and its aftereffects.

Despite being marred by serious allegations of electoral malpractices the electoral commission declared that the bitterly contested election had been won by Milton Obote, the man Idi Amin had ousted from power in 1971. In its interim report on the December 1980 elections, the Commonwealth Election Observer Group noted that “imperfections and deficiencies [of these 1980 elections] had caused deep unease.”3Justin Willis, Gabrielle Lynch, and Nic Cheeseman, “‘A valid electoral exercise’? Uganda’s 1980 Elections and the Observers’ Dilemma,” Comparative Study in Society and History 59, no. 1 (2017): 211-38. https://doi.org/10.1017/S001041751600058X. The leaders of the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) founded and led by a Ugandan exile, Yoweri Museveni, and responsible for the defeat and overthrow of Amin’s regime—called the elections “one of the greatest farces in electoral history.”4Ibid.

However, more than the 1962 electoral experiment, the 1980 election embodied the political imagination of Uganda’s ruling elites, who were obsessed with securing the status quo ante. Universal adult suffrage had become a rubber stamp indicating approval of the ancien régime. Obote’s 1980 inaugural speech gave a rosy picture of a government which, from the onset, was set on the path to collapse. Soon after the 1980 elections the country sank into a cesspool of violence—rhetorical in the first instance and then systemic. In February 1981, a militia—the National Resistance Army (NRA) led by Yoweri Museveni—launched a guerilla war against Obote’s government. In the words of the Ugandan historian Abdu K.B. Kasozi, what followed were “four and one-half years of brute violence.”5A.B.K Kasozi, The Social Origins of Violence in Uganda, 1964-1985 (Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 1994), 145. The electoral saga of 1980 thus ended up being an additional plot in the long-drawn narrative of political violence in contemporary Uganda. That the end of the Cold War, further suffocated an already paralysed political imagination obsessed with electioneering was an indisputable fact in much of independent Africa, the façade of multi-party democracy notwithstanding.6Joseph Oloka-Onyango, “Not Yet Democracy, Not Yet Peace! Assessing Rhetoric and Reality in Contemporary Africa,” in Africa’s New Governance Models: Debating Form and Substance, ed. Joseph Oloka-Onyango and Nansozi K. Muwanga (Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 2007), 230-50.

Electoral Fundamentalism Writ Large: Bobi Wine and the New Generational Wave

In the late afternoon of Thursday, 17th August 2017, Kampala was in an uproar: the then 35-year-old Ugandan musician-turned-politician, Robert Kyagulanyi Sentamu better known as Bobi Wine contesting as an independent candidate had won the parliamentary seat for Kyaddondo East with a landslide victory in a by-election. The seat became vacant when the (declared) defeated NRM candidate Sitenda Sebalu filed an electoral petition, which successfully overturned the victory of his opponent, Apollo Kantinti, of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party. Bobi Wine put forth his candidacy when a by-election was called. His triumphant entry into elective politics and protests against unpopular government policies set in rapid motion his ascendancy to the national political stage in the countdown to the 2021 polls.

For Kampala’s youthful and opposition-leaning electorate as for the rest of disenchanted youth across the country, Bobi Wine’s parliamentary victory invigorated the belief in universal adult suffrage as the route par excellence to reclaim the country’s political leadership from what they see as a ‘non-responsive gerontocracy.’ The batteries of electoral fundamentalism—on both sides of the political divide—were thereby charged as never before in Uganda’s political history.

One important lesson soon emerged: one person can make music and make it even so great, but one person cannot make or unmake politics. Politics, Bobi Wine and his immediate entourage quickly figured out, does require mass mobilisation, association and alliances. The National Unity Platform (NUP) thus came into being at the eleventh hour of the election. From the announcement of his parliamentary candidacy in May 2017 to assuming the leadership of the NUP party and subsequently becoming its presidential flagbearer in September 2020, Bobi Wine captured the country’s political imagination with the demographics of the Ugandan electorate much in his favour.7See the latest census report from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics. “World Population Day Celebrations, Saturday 11 July 2020” Available online at https://www.ubos.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/07_2020WORLD-POPULATION-DAY-BROCHURE-2020.pdf (Accessed 29 January 2021).

For the NUP and its supporters being voted for by majority of the people during the 2021 election was the new silver bullet to end all the ills besieging both the Ugandan polity and society. So contagious was this belief in electoral fundamentalism across the political divide that politics beyond the horizons of universal adult suffrage were rendered inconceivable. It would be no exaggeration to argue that this new generational wave of electoral fundamentalism in today’s Uganda seems to have brought to the fore a category of political elites whom Jean-Germain Gros rightly labelled as “opportunistic democratizers.”8Jean-Germa Gros, “Introduction: Understanding democratization,” in Democratization in Late Twentieth Century Africa: Coping with Uncertainty, ed. J-G. Gros (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998), 5. To be sure, despite the fact that universal adult suffrage remains a prerequisite for broader democratic practices, electoral exercises and democratic political order are certainly not synonymous.

One of Uganda’s Bottlenecks beyond Electoral Fundamentalism: The Land Question

There is no longer doubt that land policies and land reforms in particular have moved to the very center of discussions about development in most of the global South, including sub-Saharan Africa and Uganda. Two main positions have emerged in the discussions about land reforms and economic development in Africa, namely, the neo-liberal and the evolutionary. The neo-liberal position argues that indigenous customary land tenure is static and a serious stumbling block on the road towards capitalist development in sub-Saharan Africa. Hence, it makes the case that customary law should be replaced by individual land titles to fuel economic development. On the contrary, the evolutionary position argues that customary land tenure in sub-Saharan Africa is dynamic and gradually moving towards individual ownership. Its protagonists are of the view that the titling programs implemented by the state are doing more harm than good and simply not making capitalism work.9For an extended discussion of this topic, see for instance Havnevik, K. “The Land Question in Sub Saharan Africa” IRD Currents no. 15 (1997): 4-9. The case of Uganda demonstrates that there is no single answer to this debate. Some forces within the country advocate for large-scale mechanized agriculture, arguing that the land is underutilized. Other forces within the country want to maintain the status quo, and simply argue to be left alone to pursue the way of life they have known for generations. Within this debate, questions linked to opposing perspectives to access to resources, the role of government, rights and responsibilities of citizens, and the most appropriate drivers of development remain unresolved. It is pertinent to note that the mere casting of ballots cannot put this existential debate to rest. Yet, these debates and challenges linked to the nature of politics remain relevant to Uganda’s quest to achieve its developmental goals within the globalized world of the 21st century.

The tension between locals who wish to remain insulated from many of the drivers of globalization and those who seek to embrace these forces as a way of modernizing or developing the state is evident in many places where land deals are being discussed in Uganda.  One basic indicator of this tension is the characterization of the phenomenon by different stakeholders. Those in favor of the modernization of the agriculture sector, such as the government of Uganda or the World Bank, utilize terms such as “large-scale land lease” or “large-scale land investment,” while those opposed to these types of deals utilize the term “land grabbing.”  Each terminology for the phenomenon brings with it an implied ideological orientation and competing vision of the way forward. The bottlenecks relating to the land question in Uganda today—now looming large under the neoliberal order mostly characterized by market fundamentalism—will certainly not be fixed by the mere holding of elections, however free and fair, as currently professed by the localized liberal democracy script.

Conclusion

Uganda is currently gravely suffering from electoral fundamentalism in the same way macroeconomists from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank not so long ago suffered collectively from market fundamentalism. To market fundamentalists, like their election fundamentalists counterparts, meeting the formal requirements of a system is enough to “let a thousand flowers bloom in even the most barren desert.”10David Reybrouck, Congo: The Epic History of a People, trans. S. Garrett (London: Fourth Estate, 2014), 312. For a country that, since its founding moment in modern times, has been gripped with deep-seated antagonisms along religious, ethnic, class and political lines, the elitist organization of general elections in the quest for a democratic political order ironically suffocates all opportunities for a ‘democracy-from-below.’ An adamant belief in elections here à la Western liberal democracy script runs against the prospects of a truly democratized system of governance.

Those who, alongside Lancincé Sylla and Arthur Goldhammer, argue that periodic and popular elections provide a rational solution to the problem of succession would still have to remember that the early optimism about Africa’s democratic transition has met with new skepticism.11Lanciné Sylla and Arthur Goldhammer, “Succession of the Charismatic Leader: The Gordian Knot of African Politics,” Daedalus 111, no. 2 (1982): 12. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20024783. Political liberalization under the dispensation of liberal democracy has shortened rather than enlarged the time horizons of African heads of state at the expense of the development of institutions for the common good.

The litany of predicaments of social existence in today’s Uganda—from systemic impoverishment of society by the neoliberal polity to political violence with remarkable impunity—are not simply incidental problems which the holding of periodic and popular elections can easily fix. Rather, these are structural pitfalls sustained by a kind of political imagination deeply entrenched in a neoliberal mode of governance. Another, fresher mode of political imagination is indeed due. This, in the very least, ought to take a critical distancing from the exclusivist citizen adult suffrage. In doing so, it should embrace opinion from all willed agents within the polity. Lastly, this new political imagination should bring society back into the still overbearing market-state relations. Hence, unless so envisioned and then institutionalized in the always uneasy trilogy of state-market-society relations, a truly democratic political order in Uganda today will remain elusive.

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