Unrest in Kampala

The NYTimes and BBC have recently posted a flurry of poorly written articles (here and here, respectively) about a series of demonstrations in Kampala and Gulu throughout the last 10 days.  After two months of near silence, several of the opposition leaders from the February election have staged a “Walk to Work” campaign ostensibly to protest the rising costs of food and fuel in the country.  The participants in these walks / protests / demonstrations have numbered in the hundreds and have been certainly attracted the attention of the police and the army if not the wider population.  One police officer was seen casually tossing tear gas canisters into residential compounds that happen to line the roads being used by protesters, so that’s no good.  In the NGO neighborhoods (where I stay when in Kampala) the only indicator of unrest is the occasional siren and maybe a SMS forwarded from the UN listing roads or neighborhoods to avoid.

The headliners seem to want this to be a big deal:  “On Thursday, a former presidential candidate and leading opposition figure, Kizza Besigye, was shot during street demonstrations in Kampala, the capital.”  Thanks NYTimes, now the western world would likely assume Besigye is seriously wounded, if not dead, when in fact he claims to have been shot in the hand with a rubber bullet while he was sitting in a roadside ditch refusing to cooperate with the police (but check out the size of this cast!).  As you can tell, I’m a little skeptical.  Certainly I believe in the importance of civic engagement and the need for an opposition that has a voice and takes a stand, but the individuals leading this campaign and the methods being employed hardly seem appropriate.

Besigye has run against Museveni and lost in three consecutive presidential elections.  In each contest he has failed to capture the imagination of the general public or in any way lead a passionate charge for change; I posted here about seeing him speak in Kamwenge.  Yes, I and many other more credible observers believe that Museveni largely bought the election but at the end of the day if you manage to buy 70% of the vote, well, then apparently you win.  Three strikes you’re out doesn’t translate too well but I’m disappointed to see the opposition party continuing with same old faces and same old tactics.  I’m somewhere in the midst of reading Nelson Mandela’s very long “Long Walk to Freedom.”  In it Mandela provides great detail of the slow but steady and thoughtful processes that went into all the ANC protests of the 1950s and 60s (I haven’t made it to the 70s yet).  If the opposition parties of Uganda are in fact as thoughtful and organized as their southern predecessors they have certainly done a fine job of hiding these efforts from the public.

Yesterday my uncle emailed to ask if IPA has a policy on our employees participating in public demonstrations, with regards to protecting our reputation as an apolitical NGO and an objective body of researchers.  In short, no, we don’t, but none of our employees are even the least bit interested in getting involved in politics at all, much less political demonstrations.  Most of them view politics as a troublesome business that leads nowhere good in a hurry.  In general most of the young and well educated Ugandans I’ve met would rather keep their heads down and take care of themselves and their families – hard to blame them, but obviously not an optimal situation for the advancement of good governance and democracy.

I should add that these are just some casual personal reactions to what I’ve seen and heard around town, not at all a researched post or representative of wider views in Kampala.  Which, in reality, makes this no more valuable than the Times or BBC pieces but I hope that if I did this for a living I’d take the time to gather the opinion of some Ugandans before claiming anything about “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

Voting Ends (Friday, 5pm)

As predicted there wasn’t much to report on between 10am and 5pm on Friday.  There was one unfortunate incidence of violence against a few supporters of an opposition MP but that was well outside Kampala and nobody in the city paid it much attention.

At 5pm we watched as the final vote was cast in Kamwokya and the polling officials sealed the lids on the ballot boxes.  What followed was democracy as a spectator sport.  I don’t care about what everyone has been saying about Ugandans having little civic education or regard for democracy; they might still have been a minority but for the next several hours a group of maybe 200 people stood around the open air polling station to observe the counting of votes.  It was a pretty special moment, expectations in-check but festive and emotional just the same.  There were cheers from the supporters of one candidate as he received a tally and jeers from masses when an illegible ballot was retrieved from the box.  Although few have faith in the broader electoral institution, there is good reason to believe that the ballots counted at that polling station reflected the votes casts by its constituents.  And that alone seemed an achievement to some.

After sealing the boxes and writing down some notes the Presiding Officer lined up a set of agents, one from each political party, in the front of the crowd.  He then did a pat down in front of the crowd to ensure that none of the agents had anything in their pockets.  Next he withdrew the ballots from the box and one by one read the name of the selected candidate and held the ballot up for public scrutiny.  With approval from the crowd, sometimes audible, sometimes just an atmosphere, he then handed the ballot to the appropriate agent.  With this finished the whole ballot box had now been sorted by candidate and he called forward one agent at a time and the entire crowd joined in counting.  The slow cadence of counting was interrupted by cheers as a candidate’s vote count surpassed 20 and then 50 and then maybe even 100.  At that station the crowd really went wild when the count for Museveni reached 182 – exactly double the number of votes received by Besigye.

Museveni would end with 185 which is very much representative of the preliminary reports in the papers this morning.  The good news is that there will be little reason for protests, the other news is five more years of the same old same old.  Even opposition supporters in the crowd were accepting of the fact that Museveni had clearly won their station (even though that same station went to the opposition 5 years ago) and most were understanding of the reasons their neighbors had for voting for the incumbent.  They say that after the 2006 election Museveni reached out to the people in these neighborhoods, immediately laying the groundwork for future campaigns and of course greased the wheels with cash handouts along the way.  The other thing that a few opposition supports said is that Besigye’s promise to “take to the bush” if Museveni stole another election scared a lot of opposition supporters.  Maybe Besigya was  emboldened by the actions of opposition groups in the Middle East but it appears as though he read it wrong.  To many this language was more than merely reminiscent of the past, it was a clear warning of trouble to come and Ugandans seem to have no stomach for more trouble.

Official results should be announced tomorrow and Monday it should be back to business as usual.  It’s been a fascinating few months and the next few should continue to intrigue: there’s a rumor going around that the government has now spent 85% of it’s annual budget and the fiscal year does not end until July.  The shilling is crumbling on the world markets and now all Ugandans have to look forward to is “Stability and Unity”.  On the other hand with a peaceful election outcome aid money will begin to flood into the countryside within the next few weeks as NGOs that have been quiet during the campaign will seek to push out projects, maybe this will backstop the dwindling treasury.  One thing that is certain, Besigye’s political career is over and the opposition has hopefully learned the lesson that trying the same candidate for three elections in a row is probably not an optimal strategy.  Someone needs to find a way to inspire this country, particularly the youth,  and convince the masses that there is reason to hope for a better government even if it means saying no to petty cash handouts and rudimentary intimidation campaigns.

Voting Begins

Polling stations were supposed to open at 7am.  By 7:30 there were maybe 50 people waiting in the most orderly cue I’ve ever seen in this country.  The Presiding Officer at one station in Kamwokya was going through an extensive checklist that culminated in him presenting the ballot box to the crowd upside-down over his head, indicating that it was in fact empty, and then sealing the four corners with bright orange plastic security ties.  By 8am the first voter came forward and his name was matched with his face and particulars in the voters registry and he was handed a ballot.  To mark their vote, voters proceed to a small table with a black plastic washbasin (ubiquitous to East Africa) so that others cannot see their actions. They then fold their ballot in half and place it into the slightly transparent ballot box.

The only problem is that from 20 feet away I could easily tell who voted for which candidate based on their eyes and composure – Besigye, the primary opposition candidate is at the top of this long thin piece of paper and Museveni is at the bottom.  So if the front end of the piece of paper is sticking up a bit on the rounded corner of the basin it’s obviously a vote for Museveni (or the no name candidate listed just above him who is expected to get less than 1%).  If they have directed all their attention to the top brim of the basin it is clearly a vote for the opposition.  And if I could tell from that far away the party observers could easily keep a tally of votes from their viewing point about half that distance.  Each party has an observer at each poll.  The opposition has threatened to release their own vote count if the EC delays in releasing the numbers and I guess this would be their method which is a little scary.

We quickly realized that this polling station, and the two others located right on Kira Road were going to be the most heavily observed polls in the country.  At the first we ran into the EU Ambassador, the reporter for the Times of London, IGAD, and a dozen other observers, and at the others we saw BBC radio, OIC observers, a couple cameramen and a slew of smaller observers.  Makes sense, Kira Road is the practical division between the neighborhoods of Kololo, where ambassadors live, and Kamwokya, where Uganda lives.  Going down into Kamwokya (literally down, poor neighborhoods are valleys, rich neighborhoods are hills) the other stations were much less organized and completely lacking in international observers.  The one thing that is a bit funny is that the BBC and Times reporters all came over from Nairobi just a couple days ago.  Most large media groups don’t have a full time person in Kampala but it makes me wonder why they don’t rely more on freelance work.  It would be way easier to send some journalism student here for the month leading up to the election and get a good story than have professionals come over for three days to hack it out.

At one station down in Kamwokya they divided the registry into two parts, first half and second half of the alphabet and had people line up as such only to realize that they placed the registries on the wrong side of the buildings.  This is most likely an innocent mistake – nobody could vote until either the two lines of people switched places or the registries switched sides.  The thing is, that because people are so convinced of rigging any slight irregularity is seen as intentional and malicious.  Granted, it could be a stalling tactic which many people are concerned about but in my mind its more likely an honest mistake by an inexperienced poll manager who is overwhelmed by the crowd.  It’s kinda like trying to do your job with a vocal peanut gallery of 100+ Ugandans.  The rules are that the polls close at 5pm.  Anyone standing in the cue at 5pm will be allowed to vote but if you show up after that time you will not be allowed to join the line.  Already I’ve heard from a friend up north that in certain districts the polling personnel have not appeared and so things are going to be delayed by hours.

All in all things are very quiet and calm.  Most stores are closed and many of the markets have been converted into polling stations.  I imagine that the next seven hours will be more of the same and then things might get interesting again around 5pm.  I’ll be watching on TV before deciding whether to go out and see for myself.

Election Week Anecdotes

This morning the NYTimes reported on inquiries into just how Mubarak managed to completely shut down international internet connection during the protests in Egypt.  Personally I always thought this was within the realm of possibilities for governments but apparently it was quite an achievement (article, here).  Also this morning in the Monitor there are warnings from the Uganda Communication Commission that any telecom company that is caught transmitting bulk SMS that could incite unrest will be immediately shut down.  There was no discussion of what constitutes “unrest” or how a telecom company is to screen the SMS messages sent by its subscribers but I have to assume that will all be decided on a whim by the government.

Another article in the Monitor this morning reports that the electoral observer group DEMGroup has been ordered to not release a report that supposedly shines light on the voter registry that is widely acknowledged to be bloated with ghost names and duplicates.  One interesting site I found today is this.  The electoral commission website has this simple set of dropdown boxes that allow you to look up the voters registry in any voting station in the country and then print out a hard copy.  It’s a pretty impressive website for a government that rarely has functioning ministry websites.

Here’s a story that I think I’ve heard similar renditions of before – the ballot that voters will cast has eight presidential candidates on it. The voter will put either a tick mark or their thumbprint next to the face and name of the candidate of their choice.  However, unlike in America you don’t really get to step in to a booth to make your vote in private and conveniently the ballot is a long thin piece of paper with Museveni listed at the very bottom of the 8 candidates and with Besigye (the main opposition) second from top (all the way at the top would be too obvious).  Basically from 10 feet away someone could tell whether you ticked a box towards the top half of the ballot or the bottom half of the paper.  And no, they are not in alphabetical order.

Today was the last officially sanctioned day of campaigns, not really sure what the deal is for tomorrow but then Friday morning the opposition is requesting the voters arrive at the stations before the 7am open to ensure that the ballot boxes are in fact empty when voting begins.  From a cursory look at the NYTimes and BBC it looks like the Middle East is still owning the media spotlight, I imagine that this election might otherwise be getting a little coverage.  It will be interesting to see who picks up what.

Election Week

The Presidential Election is this Friday.  The most recent poll suggests Museveni will receive 65% of the vote, but I know the survey company that conducted the poll and they’re pretty much hopeless.  For that matter a headline in the paper today reads “Spirits say Museveni to get 85%” and I might trust the spirits more on this one.  The Museveni campaign doesn’t seem to be putting much stock in those numbers either as they have put on a full court press with advertisements and government presence.  In fact, yesterday there was a prop plane loaded with loudspeakers circling Kampala playing Museveni’s unofficial campaign song, his very own debut as Uganda’s new favorite rap artist (you have to listen to this).  Going just by the advertisements in Kampala you’d be hard pressed to discover the name of whoever is facing the man with a safari hat pictured on every billboard in town.

The general sentiment is that violence will be very much isolated to local scuffles in the slums and one politically charged neighborhood of Mengo.  There is already a large police presence on the roads – I’ve heard more sirens in the last three days than the preceding six months.  The security specialists at the UN have recommended NGOs to consolidate staff to Kampala but emphasize that they strongly believe things will remain calm.

I’ve gotten a fair amount of emails asking whether the turmoil in the Middle East will turn south and I think not.  Honestly a peaceful and democratic transition of power would probably be great for this country but that’s just not a reality at this point and there just isn’t the passion and fury in the Ugandan public to bring about change in any other way.  Talking to our local staff about the election and the chance of an uprising is interesting – these individuals are the smartest crop of young professionals around and some aren’t even interested in voting.  They just see it as futile or even potentially as a hazard to their futures.  When asked why there will not be a serious uprising they just shrug “Ugandans are cowards”.  Definitely their words not mine, but an interesting sentiment from some smart and well read young men.  The one thing they all agree upon is this: the election observers arrived months, if not years, too late to prevent a rigging of the vote.

One story is illustrative: in Uganda when people “buy votes” they quite literally buy individuals’ right to vote in the election.  They give out cash in exchange for a voter’s registration card that they would need to enter the polls.  In the months leading up to the 2006 election NRM strongmen went around visiting opposition supporters and convincing them to sell their voting cards.  Well now, five years later, these people are still without voting cards and the Electoral Commission knows full well that most people who claim to have lost their voting cards are actually those opposition supporters from five years ago that were bought out once, so why bother to replace the cards only to have to buy them out again?  Not that there’s any proof of any of this.

I’ll try to keep posting throughout the week.

10 day forecast

I wrapped up the baseline survey last week.  3,240 is my new favorite number.  At the end of each day when I would receive the data onto my computer a little summary statistic would pop up with the number of completed surveys.  There were definitely a few days when I thought we would never see that number but sure enough we got there on December 1st.  I’ve since been back in Kampala writing reports for the donor and beginning some preliminary analysis of the data.  None of those results can be shared here but it is interesting, if you’re into that sort of thing (what a tease, I know).

The 10 day forecast calls for mostly sunny hovering around 75* through Thursday the 16th and then 35* in Boston on the 17th.  I’ll be headed back to the States for three weeks so this is likely the last post for about a month.  I trust that when I return I will be back in the blogging mood, especially in the lead up to the election in February as the international media storms the scene and things get interesting.

There are already some fascinating developments in the buildup to the Presidential election in February.  It looks like some people are trying to take a page out of the Kenyan history books and the government is getting nervous for sure.  The Electoral Commission recently said it would pull from the ballot any candidate that refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the EC (appointed by Museveni); NRM in Parliament just strong-armed a bill that makes it a crime to criticize the EC in a manner than might incite violence; reports this morning suggest the government is arming youth militias in northern districts; and old timers around the breakfast table in Kamwenge keep referring euphemistically to the need for an “Option B” if the opposition candidates want any sort of seat at the table.  Also out today, a couple of those WikiLeaks documents quote American embassy officials calling Museveni “autocratic” which comes as a surprise to nobody except perhaps the man himself.

I nearly wrote a paper last spring about the potential dangers of the precedent set by the power sharing agreements thrown together in Kenya and Zimbabwe following election violence in those countries.  At the time I made a few friends hear me out, but now that I have a captive audience, here goes: before the era of rapid international communication (think telegraphs), if a revolutionary in a far flung land wanted to start some trouble it could take weeks or even months for the international community, or perhaps a colonizing power, to catch word of the struggle and weeks more for them to respond with words of condemnation or any sort of military might.  Since then the lag time between uprising and reaction has shrank from a matter of months to a couple of minutes.  Today where trouble is brewing somebody will have a camera and CNN will buy the reel and over the 5 o’clock news the civilized people of the world will be forced to witness blood on the streets of some faraway place.  And before you know it the State Dept will be on the ground doing everything in it’s power so that people can watch the 5 o’clock news without being exposed to such horrors.  It’s pretty hard to argue in favor of letting an ugly fight run its course, but by interfering as we now seem inclined to do we set the precedent that we will continue to do so in the future.  Opposition parties and evening waning incumbents could potentially use this as a strategy to gain / keep a seat at the table of power.  So “Option B” calls for a three prong approach: 1st, campaign and vote; 2nd, protest to the international community that the results as deeply flawed; and 3rd, when 1 and 2 fail, take to the streets and cause a stir.

I can’t say whether I think power sharing agreements are good or bad, but I definitely don’t believe they are something to celebrate.  Especially when you consider the type of government you get for the bargain: in both Kenya and Zimbabwe the unified governments have failed to cooperate in even the slightest manner.  So ending the violence is good, but not if it actually just provides incentives for violence in other places when they want attention from the international community.  This stuff is very interesting to me, and I will certainly continue to post about it, but it might have to move to some anonymous blog site to keep my mother from worrying too much.  On that note, I don’t think things will get too bad here in February and I believe it will be largely confined to Kampala and some isolated incidences in the north.

And finally, check this out, the 10 day forecast from Weather.com only shows the next 9 days?  I guess in these lean times everyone has to make budget cuts somewhere…

The man who won’t be king

Did I say king?  I meant president of Uganda.

Dr.  Kizza Besigye and his campaign entourage came roaring through Kamwenge on Saturday.  By most accounts Besigye is posed to claim the title of first loser in February’s election which, after all, is really what the six different opposition candidates are competing for.  President Museveni has been in power since before I was born and is almost assured a sixth term to round out 30 solid years of leadership.

It’s all free and fair of course, well, except maybe the electoral commission handpicked by the government (which here is synonymous with NRM, Museveni’s party), and maybe  for the state owned media (biggest newspaper, and a radio conglomerate owned by the communication commissioner, Museveni’s man, who won’t host opposition candidates on his airways), and then there’s always the widely acknowledged but unreported vote buying straight out of government coffers, and last but not least, hearkening back to the darker days in Uganda, there’s a disturbing rumor going around suggesting that come January if the race is getting close there will be detentions.  Gulp.  Putting aside the lawlessness and potential physicality of these threats, the fact is that people believe these rumors (mind you, with historic reasons) which in and of itself is likely enough to guarantee that the threatened actions will not be necessary.  Essentially it feels as though Museveni’s party has done an excellent job of getting out ahead of the game and rigging the vote well before poll observers and the western media starts to pay attention come January.  Bad taste, most certainly; stupid, debatable.

One trademark of campaign rallies around here consists of giving every boda driver in town one liter of petrol to escort in the motorcade with 50+ motorcycles all laying on their horns.  It’s quite a sight and a deafening sound.  The good doctor spoke to a sizable if ambivalent gathering for maybe 30 minutes.  Fortunately I had a friend to translate and could more or less follow the act (unlike last weekend when I attended a two hour Catholic mass without a word of English, that was interesting).  Besigye railed on Museveni for failing to build roads, schools and working hospitals in the last 25 years.  “Together for Change” is the moto.  I can’t think of anyway to mock that, other than the together bit being a total joke, and the change part being highly improbable.  He promised lower taxes and higher pay for public servants and teachers (more aid money?), higher maize prices for farmers and lower food prices for households (more subsidies? and lower taxes?), and said that given his knowledge of medicine he would immediately close the largest local health-care center due to it’s squalor state, which rather surprisingly got cheers from the crowd.

To be fair, he did insist that he would reinstate presidential term limits and change the public funding of scholarships to favor rural households rather than the children of ministers (the government currently sponsors all the top students to attend university, the best students come from the most expensive secondary schools and as a rule of thumb are not the neediest bunch around).  Apparently he’s famous for this lion-like purr that he sounds off whenever he’s looking for a laugh from the crowd.  Well it is completely bizarre, but it works, and everybody loved it.

Museveni is supposed to make a similar appearance sometime soon.


A collection of observations, thoughts and experienced going back to 2010.