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Political corruption haunts Ugandan election

A supporter of opposition candidate Kiiza Besigye in Sironko District Eqastern Uganda / Wambi Michaels - Panos London

As millions of Ugandans head to voting booths today, Friday February 18th, the country’s main opposition leader has warned there could be a mass uprising, similar to that in Egypt and across the Middle East, if the poll is rigged.

Kizza Besigye, head of the Inter-Party Coalition, a group of four opposition parties that have united to challenge President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement, said “conditions of oppression and despondency” created by the government could lead people to take to the streets.

Speaking to newswire AFP earlier this month, he said: “The government should understand that it is not the opposition that would provoke violence or protest. It is the government that created these conditions of oppression and despondency, conditions of frustration, unemployment, that can lead to violence,” he said.

However, Museveni, who is in his 25th year in power, and is expected to win a fourth term, warned anyone who protested would be locked up.

“There will be no Egyptian-like revolution here,” Museveni told a news conference. “There is nobody who can use extraconstitional means to take power here. That is out of the question.”

“We would just lock them up,” he continued. “In the most humane manner possible, bang them into jails and that would be the end of the story.”
Dr Kizza Besigye, a retired colonel in the Ugandan army, is considered Museveni’s most credible threat.

The three main opposition parties came together last week to publically accuse Museveni of manipulating the Electoral Commission to rig the votes.

Corruption at the polls would be nothing new. Uganda’s Supreme Court concluded that the country’s presidential elections in both 2001 and 2006 were marred by violence, rigging and intimidation. However, it upheld Museveni’s win, saying the irregularities had not affected the overall result.

Corruption and patronage – present in all levels of society – have become key campaigning messages of the opposition, and one of the main concerns of the population.

A 2005 World Bank report estimated that Uganda loses about USh510 billion (US$300m) per year through corruption and procurement malpractice.

Hassan Nsamba, 27, is a boda boda driver, transporting people on his motorbike along the dusty Ndeeba-Kabowa road. He earns around USh18,000 (US$9) a day but takes home only $2 dollars after he has paid for the rent of the motorbike and fuel.

Nsamba’s biggest frustration is the state of the roads in his area. “The road is dusty and full of potholes but it seems like those in government don’t care about us because they ride in big cars,” he says. Asked why the roads are in a poor state Nsamba said the government spends money on improving the roads but it is stolen by officials. He says the officials also demand bribes from the contractors before giving out the contracts. Then the contractors do a bad job because they can’t afford quality materials.

“You have a road made this month but barely a month goes by before you see it full of potholes again. There is no sanction on the road contractors because the officials in government strike deals over the contracts,” Nsamba explains.

Besigye has pledged to improve roads and fight corruption if he is elected.

In a visit to Isingiro district, in southern Uganda, last week he promised the people good roads and clean water, recalling a scandal in which money intended to provide water to the local town council had been stolen. “What is [Museveni’s] work as president if he cannot fight such corruption?” he asked.

Besigye added: “Everywhere I have passed, the roads are bad. People cannot access markets because the roads are terrible and the President knows his roads very well. That is why he uses a chopper when he is visiting this side. Next time when he comes here, ask him to use the roads.”

Last October, the Uganda Governance Monitoring Platform (UGMP), a grouping of 17 local NGOs , launched a Citizen’s Manifesto ahead of the election. Drawn from direct consultation with 83,000 Ugandans across the country, it lists the top ten concerns of ordinary citizens.

The first is corruption. People demand “strong and decisive action against corruption” and an “end to impunity by severely punishing those implicated in corruption.”

Charles Kiku, 35, is a farmer near Njeru, east of Kampala. He feels that Museveni has done well in establishing peace and keeping the country secure. However, he says senior officials who are guilty of corruption are rarely prosecuted, which allows corruption to spread from the top to lower levels of government.

“President Museveni should take decisive action on people who steal our money. Why is it that the good laws passed in parliament are not serving the intended purpose?”

He is not excited about the up-coming election. “I have been voting for the same [NRM] leaders but nothing has changed,” he explains, while throwing green leaves to his two pigs.

Another key concern in the Citizen’s Manifesto is the breakdown of health service delivery. Demands include “increased health sector financing” and “stern action against corruption in the health sector”.

Under-the-table user charges, sale of drugs that should be provided free of charge, chronic lateness and absenteeism by health personnel are all common complaints.

Last week patients at Mulago National Referral Hospital, in Kampala, Uganda’s biggest hospital, moved their beds onto the hospital’s verandah and blocked the entrance to wards in protest.

They were demonstrating at the poor service in the hospital. One patient said he had spent six months at the hospital waiting for an operation.
The hospital’s deputy director, Baterana Byarugaba, blamed the situation on a lack of anesthesiologists. He said the hospital has just five out of the 40 anesthesiologists they require.

Tony Mukasa, 40, works as a casual labourer at Katosi landing site on the shores of Lake Victoria, loading and offloading goods from boats. Speaking in his native Lugandan, Mukasa said: “The hospitals are no longer helping us. It would be better if the government closed all the health facilities because when you go to the hospital, you cannot get drugs. I have personally resorted to local herbs because the hospitals are no help.”
Gorreti Nambafu, 36, is a mother of four. She says she and her husband are often forced to go to private clinics if they or their children need treatment. “If you go to a state hospital, first you have to bear the long queue. Then the doctor prescribes medicine but all you will get is paracetamol,” she said.

Poor quality education also features in the Citizen’s Manifesto.

Introducing Universal Primary Education (UPE) in 1997 is something Museveni’s government considers one of its successes.

“We have over 1.2 million pupils enrolled for primary education, isn’t that an achievement?” said Mary Karoro Okurut, spokeswoman for the ruling National Resistance Movement.

But, as is often the case, there is another story behind the statistics. Much as the enrollment levels have increased, there is concern about the quality of education offered.

A report published last year by National NGO Forum in Uganda on Universal Primary Education said that it was producing illiterate pupils compared to those learning in private schools.

“Generally, children are not acquiring the necessary basic competencies at the appropriate level. There is a high inefficiency level and wastage throughout the primary school cycle,” the report states. A survey across 27 districts found that 19 per cent of the children sampled in Primary Three (P3), aged between eight and ten, could not read the alphabet and only 2 per cent could read and understand a story text of P2 level.

Ten ministers accused of abuse of office or improper conduct remain in President Museveni’s cabinet. Museveni’s decision to keep such officials in his cabinet, including protecting them from prosecution, has turned corruption into one of the opposition’s campaign issues.

More than ten donor countries that fund Uganda’s budget decided in August last year to cut their budget to the East African country citing failure by Museveni to address high-level corruption. They had originally planned to provide $360 (USh773.4b) in budget support for the 2010 to 2011 financial year but slashed it by 10 per cent.

Museveni and his ruling NRM in the re-election manifesto pledge to fight corruption.

But, John Sekate, 40, who is unemployed and lives on the streets of Kampala said he did not believe that Museveni would live up to his promise. “For over 20 years don’t you think President Museveni and his people have been told about corruption? Yet they have not done anything about it,” he said. “There is nothing other than the change of leadership that can solve this problem.”

Yet it is the corruption itself that critics say will keep Museveni in power.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, political scientists and senior research fellow at Makarere Insititute of Social Research in Kampala, said: “Every election President Museveni has won has been contested on the grounds that it has been marred by malpractice, that there has been significant rigging. I do not think that that is going to go away this time.”

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The opposition warns that Uganda could see mass uprisings if the elections are rigged.