People enjoying Malwa (Internet Photo)
Incumbent presidential candidate Yoweri Museveni’s campaign promises of late have rattled and confounded Uganda’s small but vocal elite. The promises are ridiculous beyond belief, most of them say. How can he be talking about hoes in 2015? How does giving money to Malwa (local brew) drinking groups help anyone? Can’t everyone see how absurd all this is? I initially wanted to mock these things too but upon reflection, I held back.
Like him or not, Mr. Museveni is a master politician who understands both the sociology and psychology of the Ugandan voter than anyone. Having lived in rural areas for most of his journey to power, (the 1981-’86 guerrilla warfare that brought him to power was waged in the ‘Luwero Triangle’. Can you imagine a place more rural?), he has an understanding of rural dwellers only a few other politicians can match. Many people mock him for “acting like a villager” whether from the way he distributes the patronage that keeps him in power, the way he dresses or in the most official of circumstances. (Mr. Museveni, even when he is in Europe or addressing the UN general assembly peppers his speeches with village or traditional imagery especially his beloved cows). This doesn’t make him a buffoon at all. His oldschool, traditional and hermitic nature has served him well with ordinary, uneducated and poor villagers who consider him a good, humble man, almost their equal (as ridiculous as that may sound to the uninitiated).
Mr M7s attention to ‘villagers’ concerns not only demonstrate his political astuteness but also, to these folks, his ‘genuine’ concern and empathy for them and other people of limited means, because his poor country is full of them and he knows it. The data shows it too: Apart from a tiny political and business elite at the very top, most Ugandans fall in a similar income bracket. How anyone could mock this constituency is beyond my understanding. Mr Museveni’s most important aim from his guerrilla days, was not just to capture power but to keep it as well, as long as he could. And after 30 years nobody can say he hasn’t succeeded on his double edged ambition. Mr Museveni will do anything, including kowtowing to villagers if he thinks that will help him keep power. This is what distinguishes him from his 8 predecessaors since independence in 1962, some of whom didnt even last a couple of months in office. His 30 years in power is more than a combined length of time his 8 predecessors spent in office, including Idi Amin and Milton Obote who ruled for 7 and 13 years respectively. Being a master of rural dynamics is one of the reasons Mr M7 has stuck around this wrong. He started this long before he captured power. His ‘Resistence Councils’, in the Bush, which birthed current village Local Councils (LCs) were his way of ingratiating his rebel movement within the populace, giving them the allure of being part of the movement (which, as they would later know after the war, many of them weren’t).
Our small educated elite on the other hand has no conception at all of rural life. Most of those vocal on social media sites mocking Mr. Museveni’s promises of hoes and malware support only “go to the village” during the Christmas season and barely interact with ordinary people. They have no understanding of the social dynamics of life in the countryside. That’s why they can’t believe that a “21st century politician” can promise such “ridiculous things”.
This is also why the opposition, which is largely elite, is always confounded when election results do not go their way.
Most media, social media in particular, for example, is currently convinced that this is a tight election and it might as well be, I do not know for now. But I personally would not be surprised if it ends up into another lopsided Museveni victory. Of course there are going to be issues of rigging, bribery and all the sort, but do not kid yourselves; Mr. Museveni still has support especially in the countryside. He doesn’t steal all the votes he gets!
Anyway, Let’s look at his ‘ridiculous’ promises upclose and see how ‘ludicrous’ they really are.
1. The Hoes
Mr. Museveni recently wrote to Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda directing that money be allocated in the next financial year bugdet to buy hoes for every household.
This idea, contrary to what most of the elite think is neither stupid no ludicrous to village dwellers but even in a general sense. 80 percent of Ugandans still rely on Agriculture as their source of livelihood. 95 percent of them do it on a small, subsistence scale. Due to averpopulation and land fragmentation as a natural consequence, The hand-held hoe is still the most used farm implement in 90 percent of the farming. Hoes therefore are an important ‘asset’ in a typical Ugandan household.
When a rural voter receives a hoe therefore, he or she will be grateful and that can be a vote swinger! It costs only 10,000 shillings but to people who live in a moneyless economy, that’s a big deal (Believe me, there are people in the village who have the misfortune of never handling any money at all. They are that poor!).
You can blame the government for this misfortune but dont blame Museveni the politician for reading the situation right. We are in a political contest where the candidate with the best calculated strategy will stand better odds of winning. Rightnow, the one that understands the immediate concerns of the average voter seems to be Museveni.
2. Giving sh.2milion to every village Malwa group.
Alcohol has always been such a strong social uniter in Traditional African Society and it still is. In most of the countryside, people drink to celebrate, to mourn and to socialize. Some, frankly, drink because they have nothing else to do. But alcohol has always been in the mix of most community collectivist actions, whether for good or for bad.
Malwa groups are mostly prevalent in Northern and Eastern Uganda but even in the West, South, Central and other parts f the country, the sense of community and togetherness that social drinking brings should not be underestimated. By promising these groups money, Mr. Museveni, (who, by the way, doesn’t drink alcohol) identifies with these people. To them he is not judging or patronizing them like other elites would do. He is acknowledging their existence, and, by suggesting to them that their drinking group can be an avenue for economic enterprise in the mould of other social-based rural micro finance initiatives (however dishonest his intentions might be), they see him as a guy altruistically trying to help them.
We can debate the governance ethics of this for sure. E.g. Isn’t it sad that after 30 years in power the NRM regime has failed to transform Agriculture from merely being for subsistent survival to commercial income generation? Of course that’s a valid point. Why does Museveni personalize development? Why can’t he have an institutional response to these problems instead of a personalized one? That’s also a valid point.
But that’s another matter altogether. What we are talking about today is political strategy. And his promise of hoes and money for Malwa drinking Groups is not a ridiculous issue to the people who still form part of his critical mass of support; the rural voters. It is smart politics!
President Museveni hands a sack full of sh250m notes ($100,000) to a leader of a youth group in Eastern Uganda in 2013
Mr. Museveni doesn’t care what the largely urban based, educated elite think of him. He knows they never vote for him anyway ((if they vote at all!). Since 2001, the opposition has always beaten him in most urban areas. “His people” are people like my grandfather who resides in rural Kisoro. For these, a hoe, (and a mug of Malwa to carry along when going to till the fields in the morning) is anything but a ridiculous gesture.
As for the elite, my advice would be that it should have perspective when analyzing politics of a hybrid regime like ours.