Crowds, Clouds, Clowns: It is Raining Promises in Kampala

It is election season in Uganda yet again. It is a rainy season too. And we have a fair share of political comedy to take us through these grueling rains. Thank heavens!

For starters, debate over the last few weeks of the campaign has been about the potential of each candidate to pull crowds. FDC’s Kizza Besigye gave talking heads quite a bit of fodder to chew on as they tried to explain his (estimated) 2 million man march onto Kampala. For a man whose star seemed to be fading in light of the emergence of Go Forward’s Amama Mbabazi we can comfortably say the good old doctor needed the assurance of numbers more than any other candidate. Mbabazi and Museveni too pulled significant crowds–the latter going a step further to hire “crime preventers” from across the country to boost his numbers. All would have gone according to plan had the hired crowd been paid. They were not. And the details we were served on the nightly news; Testament to the fact, perhaps, that the NRM is such a “mass” party that payment of its “officials” is one hell of a grueling task. Incompetence that has characterised the NRM–some would argue.


Crowds at Pres. Museveni's rally. Credit: Don Wanyama/Facebook Photos

Worth noting however are the low incidents of violence in the campaigns so far. Apart from a few isolated cases, the campaigns have generally been peaceful. Even the seemingly tear-gas-thirsty police has restrained itself. This comes with a certain degree of relief to many spectators who were bracing themselves for yet another show down between Kale Kayihura and the (un)holy alliance of Mbabazi and Besigye. None of that will happen–and we have the crowds to thank for it. I will explain.

Arms Races

In evolutionary biology, the cost of fighting between organisms competing for the same resources (food, mates, territory, etc) is quite significant to both parties–the eventual winner and vanquished alike. The cost of two male gazelles fighting over a female–in terms of energy spent, exposure to potential predators and risk of losing life–is too great to be borne even if looked at in the reproductive gain that access to the female provides. Therefore, over time, species have evolved elaborate mechanisms to avoid direct confrontation with their enemies. You see this as very elaborate structures like horns, long teeth in members of the feline and canine families, extra long tails in male birds. Some have argued, interestingly, that the significantly large size of the human penis–relative to our primate cousins–is the result of a sort of “arms race” driven by our acquisition of an upright posture. Interesting…but I digress.

For the opposition and Museveni, the longer they have interacted in this political niche, Uganda, the more they have learned each others ways. Museveni has over time learned that while violence (as evidenced by the tear gassing, physical beatings, and sometimes, undressing of opponents) will cower his opponents and force many of their supporters to stay behind on election day, the cost of the same is increasingly offsetting the gains. With the expansion of the internet and social media sites like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and the blog-sphere, images of Besigye’s inhumane arrest will be broadcast all over the world, including, even more importantly, western capitals. Now if there’s anything that gives an African leader fits and shivers it is having their brutality exposed for the whole world to see. The cost is too great to bare.

For the opposition, violence serves to buy them space and coverage in the media (local and international), endears them to the masses and cements their argument to Western governments that Museveni presides over an authoritarian state. On the downside, however, violence cowers their supporters from openly campaigning for the opposition, attending their rallies and might even hinder them from participating in the electoral process. The cost of violence to this group, too, is too high to make it a sustainable option.

So for once the opposition and NRM seem to have realised that direct confrontation serves neither of them and have resorted to a “crowds-race” of sorts. Arms races too tend to get out of hand, until natural selection steps in. While a male peacock with longer, more elaborate and brightly coloured tail feathers will attract the most females (and thus stand the highest chances of passing on this trait to his offspring), conspicuous tails make one more susceptible to preying by enemies.

In Uganda’s case the “crowd-races” have resulted into interesting cases of photo-shopped crowds, “hiring” of crowds (school children, boda boda riders and taxi drivers) and all manner of camera tricks to embellish the pictures from campaign rallies. It is Photoshop galore!


One of the "photo-shopped" campaign pictures. Credit: Twitter/Unknown Source

However, in absence of a discerning citizenry, guided by a critical and objective media, these crowd-races can get out of hand. But I think we are holding on just well enough for now.

And then the (empty) Promises

No statement has perhaps generated more media attention than Kizza Besigye’s promise to double the wages of secondary school teachers to Uganda Shillings 1,000,000 (USD 300); that of primary school teachers to Ugx 650,000 and 3.5 million for doctors. For most of us opposed to his promise the difference in opinion is not because we don’t care for the plight of civil servants, quite the contrary, rather it is the feasibility of such a venture. Besigye’s argument for increment of wages is buttressed in the belief that the country is already bleeding a lot in political largesse and that by cutting the number of parliamentarians by two thirds, and doing away will all the political hangers-on he will be able to offer public servants better pay. The problem with FDC and by extension Besigye’s argument is that it is rooted in idealism and not political reality.

Whereas it would make a valid moral argument to suggest that members of the civil service–teachers, doctors, nurses, etc–who work tirelessly to serve the population should be rewarded, the argument does not sound as convincing politically. The whole civil service in Uganda consists less than 5% of the population–and most rarely vote anyway. Therefore, what pressures does a politician face from non-increment of teachers wages? Zilch. Would the same politician lose an election on account of the same? Unlikely. What on the other hand would be the political cost of not appointing a minister from Bunyoro or any other influential constituency? Significant.

So we head into another election with Besigye choosing a strategy that is discordant with the majority electorate. Where he is campaigning to cut the size of cabinet, Museveni is campaigning to increase its size and create more districts. Where he is preaching fiscal discipline and meritocracy in government appointments, Mbabazi is promising to pay war veterans.

Not to be left out in this promises galore is the president himself who promised residents of Nakaseke in Luweero district an “industrial zone”. The residents would be better off asking folks in Soroti who were promised a fruit processing factory in the last election. It has been 5 years coming!

Yet there is a section of Ugandans who think this election is a done deal. That the winner is already known. But scenes like the ones we were treated to of “hired” crowds at NRM’s Kololo rally point to the fact that even Museveni considers the importance of crowds–at least the impression they create, in this election.

The crowds will decide this one.


One thought on “Crowds, Clouds, Clowns: It is Raining Promises in Kampala

  1. The role of social media, i agree is essential in shaping these polls. Citizen journalism is on the rise and the regime is extremely cautious on its actions.
    And perhaps, crowds may actually mean much more for the Besigye campaign than just a come
    back but rather a platform to fund-raise for his race. And this seems to be working out well.

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