You can’t ride a tiger forever. So why can’t the Big Man’s election campaign see that?

By Charles Onyango-Obbo
(Previously posted in The Daily Monitor)

I never expected we would see the level of violence and harassment against President Yoweri Museveni’s opponents that we are witnessing today again.

This is because, it is clear from past elections – and from the outcomes of the less violent 2011 poll – that brutality is a bad election cheating strategy.

There are a few other things that we know, of why historically violence had been seductive for the Museveni camp. As one observer said, in peasant societies, elections are viewed like a wrestling match in the village sand pit.

The one who floors his opponent is celebrated. The most violent campaign in Uganda, therefore, is likely to win by making rivals look weaker and, therefore, unworthy of being entrusted with national stewardship.

What is not clear is the Museveni camp’s end game. This will now be the fourth election in which violence is used to some degree or the other.

One thing is striking though. Every year, apart from FDC’s Kizza Besigye who has become the perennial target of the NRM political and security apparatus, the victims change.

With this election, the country is graduating its fourth class of victims of electoral violence beaten by people working in the president’s name. How does anyone expect that in five or 10 years, or even more, when NRM’s or Museveni’s rule must lose grip, that people who have endured violence for over 30 years will be part of anything but a violent regime change?

This should particularly be concerning, because just like the Walk-to-Work crackdown of 2011, and for this election season, the victims get younger and younger. Thus even if Museveni rules until he is 100 years old in 2044, some of these young people who are being beaten up by police for supporting Opposition politicians or attending their rallies, will only be 48, if they are 19 today.

Does anyone in the President’s palace think about these things? I believe they do. They are not fools. Question then is, why is this allowed to go on?

That is where it gets complicated. The President’s camp is obviously convinced that he would lose an election in which his opponents are able to run freely. We shall never know whether they are right, because that will probably never be tested under NRM rule.

But we know that buying votes, instead, creates less ill will than beating people into submission for it. That the incumbent and the partisan State doesn’t choose that option, isn’t because they don’t want or can’t afford to, but because they no longer have the structures to do it.

You see, if you shoot two Besigye or Amama supporters, you can intimidate a whole district and they will fear to vote against you. If you instead bribed the same two supporters with money, the district will not know.

In fact, if they are men, they will not even tell their wives.
So to buy votes, you need a sophisticated grassroots infrastructure that basically goes door to door. The decline of the Local Councils, and the failure to hold periodic elections, has undermined some of those grassroots things.

But State functionaries and the NRM are still able to put together a cash distribution network. However, vote buying runs into a second problem. Previous Museveni camps were plagued by his campaign team stealing the money.

There were jokes that to get work done, the President had to resort to keeping his campaign funds under the mattress in State House. In short, the old-fashioned vote buying option, even if it causes less enmity, is not available to Museveni because of corruption.

So corruption and creeping State failure, are undermining the patronage logic on which the current NRM rule is based, and making it difficult for it to buy votes.

Now, while you might need a network of 250,000 to distribute “logistics” nationally, if you can’t all you need is just 25 policemen. They can move those 25 men from town to town shooting opposition supporters, and strike enough fear in hearts to win elections.

In the process, Museveni is becoming the prisoner of the tiger. As the old story goes, once you ride it, for it not to bite you, you need to hold on and not fall off its back.
However, your success in holding on, doesn’t pay off in the long-term because the longer you hang on, the angrier the tiger becomes ensuring it will bite you more ferociously when you fall off.

I can’t comprehend that the Big Man’s camp doesn’t see that the current path is absolutely the worst possible way to secure one’s interest in the long-term. Actually, you don’t have to be smart to see that you can’t ride a tiger forever. You only need to be selfish enough.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian AFRICA ( 


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