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2011 Ugandan Presidential Election: Pre-Election Report

- February 17, 2011

We are pleased to welcome “Elliott Green”:http://www2.lse.ac.uk/researchAndExpertise/Experts/e.d.green@lse.ac.uk, a Lecturer in Development Studies at the London School of Economics, with the following pre-election report on tomorrow’s Ugandan presidential elections.


President of Uganda Yoweri Museveni has just celebrated two important events: last year his reign overtook the tenure of all other presidents of Uganda combined, and last month he marked his 25th year in power. If he wins the national election scheduled for tomorrow and completes his term, he will surpass Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and William Tubman of Liberia as one of the longest-ruling heads of state in modern Africa.

In other words, Museveni appears to be heading towards territory previously populated by Africa’s more notorious autocrats and dictators like Banda, Eyadéma, Houphouët-Boigny, Mobutu and Mugabe, among others. Yet this was not the way things were supposed to turn out when Museveni first assumed office in 1986, when Uganda was a country synonymous with Idi Amin and economic collapse. Indeed, in Museveni’s first ten years in office he oversaw significant poverty reduction, economic growth, decentralization, the creation of a new constitution adopted by a democratically elected constituent assembly and presidential and parliamentary elections in 1996. Museveni’s rule was – and still is – also marked by a very adept foreign policy, which has led to close relationships with both Clinton and Bush despite Museveni’s previous history as an African socialist. (In his 1996 book _What is Africa’s Problem_ you can still find a 1981 speech where he praises guerrilla leaders like Castro and condemns the My Lai massacre.)

Since 1996, however, Museveni has increasingly focussed his attention away from economic development and towards his maintenance in power. Perhaps most notoriously, in 2005 the Ugandan Parliament overturned presidential term limits in an implicit quid pro quo for allowing the restoration of multi-party politics. But so far Museveni has managed multi-party politics well, in particular by creating numerous patronage opportunities which allow him to buy off potential opponents and gather electoral support. Thus with 71 members Uganda now has the “third largest cabinet in the world”:http://www.independent.co.ug/cover-story/3824-uganda-has-3rd-largest-cabinet-in-the-world.html after Kenya and North Korea, thereby allowing Museveni to reign in old colleagues (known as “historicals” in Uganda) like Eriya Kategaya.

But a large cabinet cannot deliver votes at election time: for that Museveni has relied upon the creation of new districts – the highest level of local government – which I have written about in more detail elsewhere (“gated”:http://www.springerlink.com/content/045gq2p844141460/?p=c44723933cfa4fecb65d8976f358e4a4&pi=3; “ungated”:http://personal.lse.ac.uk/greened/SCID%202010.pdf). When Museveni assumed power there were 33 districts, with 56 by 2000, 80 by 2006 and 111 today. Such has been the pace that Ugandans have invented a new word – districtization – for the process. While the government has claimed that new districts lead to better service delivery I found no evidence for their claims (in terms of health or education); I did find, however, that citizens in new districts have tended to vote more for Museveni and his party than in older districts across the 1996, 2001 and 2006 elections. Moreover, as would be suggested by political science literature on patronage and clientelism, Museveni has created more districts as his electoral support has dropped over time, with five districts created in the five years before the 1996 election compared to 16 in 1996-2001, 24 in 2001-2006 and 31 in 2006-2011.

What makes district creation so attractive to Museveni as a patronage device is that they provide a large set of new government, construction and NGO jobs at the local level while not threatening his rule in Kampala. Thus, while Uganda recently surpassed Russia (with 83 federal subjects) as having the largest number of highest-level local government units in the world, the number of MPs per citizen in Uganda is lower than in nearby countries like Chad, Rwanda, Sudan, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the future state of South Sudan. The fact that district creation is a win-win situation for both the administration as well as voters has made Uganda merely the most extreme example of a large set of African countries that have created new local government units within a year or two of elections, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ghana most recently.

This shift within Uganda from a regime previously concentrated on spurring economic growth and strengthening democratic institutions towards one focussed on the creation of patronage has at least two implications for tomorrow’s election. First and most obviously, what makes patronage so powerful as an election strategy is that Museveni is the only candidate who can credibly commit to continue the flow of patronage if he wins. Indeed, Idi Amin created a large number of new local governments in the 1970s only to see many of them disappear after he was overthrown; moreover, inasmuch as donors such as “USAID”:http://www.usaid.gov/our_work/cross-cutting_programs/transition_initiatives/country/uganda/annrpt0910.html and the “World Bank”:http://siteresources.worldbank.org/UGANDAEXTN/Resources/Uganda_CAS.pdf?resourceurlname=Uganda_CAS.pdf have long criticized the creation of new districts (and patronage and corruption more generally) it is an open question what would happen to the new districts if Museveni were to lose.

Secondly and finally, the government’s rationale behind district creation has in part been tied to Uganda’s incredibly high population growth, which means that there are the same number of citizens per district today as in 1974. But population growth has had profound consequences in other areas as well, most importantly in terms of spurring internal migration from higher-density areas towards lower-density areas and thereby provoking numerous local conflicts over land ownership. Far from attempting to encourage lower population growth, Museveni has in fact done the opposite, going so far as to praise the fact that Uganda’s population doubled during his first 19 years in office. Thus far population growth and local land conflicts have remained largely absent from national politics but they were a key focus for the US administration in one “wikileaks cable”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/230231 and, if “Kenya’s political history”:http://newsecuritybeat.blogspot.com/2008/01/guest-contributor-colin-kahl-on-kenyas.html has any lessons for Uganda, then perhaps it is merely a matter of time before the link between local land conflicts and national politics establishes itself in Uganda as well.