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NRM Salections, not elections, and the arrogance of power

 First things first. Uganda’s National Resistance Movement has completed its decades-long metamorphosis into a National Resistance Market (NRM). The ruler’s subjects have votes for sale. Candidates present themselves for a pretend election. Loaded with plenty of cash, they purchase votes at very discounted prices. Those who get elected to parliament pay ground rent to the ruler, through passive attendance of parliament, rubber-stamping his bills, passing his supplementary budgets, amending annoying bits of the Constitution and representing his interests in their constituencies. 


This is not new, of course. However, two things have changed. First, the NRM is a more chaotic market than it was a decade ago. Its rules change at the pleasure of the organization’s owner, who is also the owner of the state. Example: last week, the ruler decreed the election registers redundant and allowed anyone with a pulse to show up and vote. He did this barely 24 hours before the voting was to begin.


This free-for-all market is alleged to have altered the retirement plans of many candidates, among them some of the most flamboyant players in the royal court. A few of them have openly expressed their displeasure with the ruler’s ambush.


To hear these champion practitioners of election rigging, now crying foul, is to endure a great trial of one’s capacity for tolerance. These enablers of presidential salections and voter intimidation now sound like injured kittens. They seem to have bought the lie that there was such a thing as democracy in a militarized political organization.  


That their ruler’s Pyrrhic “victories” since 2001 have been enabled by heavy intimidation, restricted political space, presidential “envelopes”, massive rigging, altered results and intimidated supreme court justices seems lost on them.


Second, there is now a boldness and an “I don’t care” attitude that the candidates and their agents have adopted in openly buying votes. After all everybody does it. From the country’s ruler to the lowliest parish chief, the hunt is on for votes for sale, legitimized by a pretend election. Henceforth, we should call these things “salections.”  


This charade played out in thousands of villages across the country last week. Video recordings of candidates’ agents distributing cash to excited men and women did the rounds on the social media. The pain of watching them paled on election day when fresh videos of violence over disputed results hit our inboxes. In one recording, a woman displayed outstanding skills in the martial arts as she joined in the fray. The country has entered a new phase madness. 


Then came the drama of losers declaring themselves winners, with a few legitimizing their “victories” with serious violence. People died. One’s memory raced back to 1980, the year that Uganda held its first general election after gaining independence from Britain 18 years earlier. Forty years ago, losers won and winners lost. That stolen election was part of the official reason why M7 went to Luwero, where rivers of blood flowed, all in the name of restoring democracy, along with nine other commitments that formed the NRM Ten Point Program.


Forty years later, we are back to square one. The wheels spin in place, with new players on the stage. They follow the very same script that would have been familiar to Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) strongmen like Paulo Muwanga, David Oyite Ojok, Apolo Milton Obote, Edward Rurangaranga, John Luwuliza Kirunda and Christopher Rwakasiisi. 


The 1980 election had hotspots where the intraparty and interparty temperatures were at boiling point. However, it was child’s play compared to modern “elections.” While the hotspots in this weekend’s NRM primaries were in all regions of the country, there are four that invite close attention. They all have one thing in common: the main players are very close members of Museveni’s family or are operating in an area that is personally important to Mr. and Mrs. Museveni. 


These hotspots are Mawogola County in Sembabule, Nyabushozi in Kiruhuura, Bukanga in Isingiro and Rushenyi in Ntungamo, Ankole.  Their campaigns and salections featured threats and use of violence. In one them, a serving minister who is a lawyer and former deputy attorney general, drew a gun at an opponent’s supporter. The minister is now in prison, awaiting a decision on his bail application. 


Which raises the question: Why are these people so desperate to join or stay in parliament that they do not hesitate to deploy lethal force against opponents? I do not know their personal reasons. However, there are possible explanations to consider.


First, they understand power and what difference it can make to one’s stomach and ego. Political power in their circumstance is the surest guarantor of immediate social and economic upward mobility. Of course, it also carries a high risk of undesirable mobility into exile when things fall apart.


Second, there is an arrogance that comes with access to the inner reaches of the ruler’s court. One feels invincible and develops a sense of false entitlement. Anybody in their way is deemed a Kipinga/adui (barrier/enemy)that must be eliminated. 


One understands where they are coming from. Worshipped by fellow mortals; begged by people with greater intellectual power than them; feared just because of their royal membership in Akaju (the ruling house); and never questioned by their courtiers, their egos are inflated beyond manageable levels. They are incapable of recognizing their own fallibility, their mortality and a sameness with the wretched of the Earth.


Third, guns are such key symbols of their identity and authority that they have no qualms about turning them on to fellow humans. The destructive power of the gun is just part of doing their daily business. They probably behave this way because they believe, even know, that the ruler has them covered. After all they do not operate by the laws that regulate normal people’s behaviour. 


Fourth, they have been witnesses to the ruler’s conduct of his own pretend-election rituals.  If these ruler’s enforcers can beat, teargas, terrorise, imprison and shoot his opponents, why can’t they do likewise for themselves? 


The violence and commercial transactions that occurred this past weekend should be viewed in the broader context of the political environment that the Ugandan ruler has created. The solution must start at the top. 


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