Two things that seemed almost impossible and improbable at the end of March this year are increasingly becoming possible and probable as the year closes. One was that Forum for Democratic Change boss Kizza Besigye would never be President of Uganda (which was my position); the other was that the NRM-dominated Parliament would never impeach President Yoweri Museveni (which was the position of my critics) because he had effective control over it. Today, both scenarios are possible and probable. Both these changes show how indeterminate the future is.At the end of March this year, Museveni was a very confident man. He had resoundingly defeated Besigye in what was perhaps the freest, fairest and least violence-ridden presidential election ever. Yes, he raided the Treasury and spent tonnes of public money on it. However, in the wider scheme of things, better a president who buys an election than one who kills for it. Wasn’t it King Philip 11 of Macedonia (father of Alexander the Great) who saw bribery and lies as humane substitutes to slaughter?
Similarly, at the end of March, Besigye looked like a spent force; his claims that he had been cheated of victory sounded like sour grapes. He had been beaten in his northern stronghold, failed to gain ground in Buganda, lost significant ground in Teso and the entire East and made no inroads in western Uganda. He had called upon his supporters to demonstrate against electoral fraud and no one turned up.
On the other hand, Museveni had not just won by 68% (up from 58% in 2006), his NRM party also swept the Parliamentary seats. Out of 375 elected seats, NRM had won 264. Of the 43 MPs elected as independents, 39 were allied to the party. If one added UPDF representatives to NRM, the ruling party’s parliamentary majority looked overwhelming and Museveni looked as secure as ever in his position. To many observers, this was going to be Museveni’s best five year term ever.
This was the context of Uganda at the beginning of April 2011 – a demoralised and apathetic opposition; a confident and seemingly impregnable Museveni and his party. But by the end of the month, the tables had turned. Demonstrations had rocked the entire country from Kampala to Mbale, Gulu, Masaka and the president’s home district of Mbarara. Besigye had re-emerged from virtual obscurity to become the main centre of attention leading the ‘Walk to Work’ campaign. What had happened in less than two months to change everything?
The genesis of Museveni’s dilemma was the way he approached the election campaign. Suspecting that Besigye had been given a lot of money by the late Libyan President Muammar Gadaffi, Museveni raided the national Treasury for Shs 600 billion and went on a spending spree. It was the most expensive election in Uganda’s history. After the election, I was the leading proponent of the view that the president had literary bought the election.
By December 2010, Afrobarometer polls were showing Museveni with a commanding lead of 67% and throughout the election campaign, all polls reflected this constant figure. On Election Day, he got 68% – meaning that Museveni’s money had little effect on his electoral arithmetic.
However, the spending spree had powerful implications on the economy whose long-term consequences he could have underestimated and some he could not have foreseen. For example, assuming that his strategic objective was to retain power, he may have realised that in the short term this required some fiscal irresponsibility i.e. excessive spending that could cause inflation. However, once he had achieved his strategic objective, he would re-establish prudent fiscal and monetary policy, bring inflation under control and have a comfortable five years.
However, the President seems to have been hit by what Nassim Nicolas Taleb calls a Black Swan – the impact of a large and unexpected event. Immediately after the election, Uganda suffered two major external shocks – the increasing price of crude oil in international markets and the appreciation of the dollar – both of which brought with them imported inflation. Then the effects of the drought that had started in December 2010 were beginning to bite in form of high food prices – the most critical driver of inflation.
Even before Museveni could re-establish control over the economy, these developments grievously hurt our already fragile fiscal and monetary positions. Indeed, they made it difficult for Museveni to regain control over inflation in the short term. To make matters worse (as if the gods were colluding to spoil the president’s renewed mandate), the effects of these shocks were most felt by urban consumers - the constituency that is most hostile to the government but equally the most strategically positioned to make demands on the State by organising civil disobedience.
It is in this context that ‘Walk to Work’ protests began – producing the law of unintended consequences. For example, the protests initially reduced the inflow of food into Kampala City, thus making inflation worse. As the protests spread from Kampala to other towns, they scared away investors and tourists, thereby reducing the inflows of foreign exchange and thereby worsening the position of the Shilling. This in turn forced portfolio investors to begin selling off their Ugandan treasury bills and bonds, further undermining the health of the local currency.
In the midst of all these developments – a seemingly failing economy and a political process out of touch with people’s concerns – the constituencies in favour of protests grew. The teachers went on strike over poor pay. The taxi drivers followed suit over fuel prices. Then traders closed their shops protesting the increasing price of the dollar. Lawyers downed their gowns in protest against government handling of the demonstrations. Beleaguered and disoriented, the government’s response to these challenges became shabbier. For example, it began charging protesters with treason, a very ridiculous thing at that.
It is in these circumstances that Besigye regained his political relevance. Sensing a weakness, Parliament also took advantage of the situation to openly challenge the Executive using alleged corruption in oil deals as an entry point. So, if Museveni does not re-assert his authority now, Parliament may run out of control. If this happens, it may even gain the confidence to try to impeach him. And if Besigye can rekindle the Walk to Work fire, it may give him a chance at the presidency.