The past week I have been swamped with propaganda lessons (or tactics) from those who mastered persuasion and used it for better or worse causes. Propaganda is commonly looked at in a negative way and it is only mentioned when referring to an enemy or rival when actually it can and does have positive values. Nowhere is propaganda, whether it’s positive or negative, best demonstrated than during elections.
As Uganda heads into general elections early next year, what can especially the opposition learn from one of the greatest propagandist, USSR’s Vladimir Lenin? At the beginning of the 20th century, Lenin, while organising in the Soviet Union on his way to power, argued that agitation and propaganda were a great weapon to attain power. He said that the task of the person seeking to lead, “must be to utilize every manifestation of discontent and to make the most backward worker understand or feel that the student, the sectarian, the peasant, and the writer are exposed to harms…which oppresses and weighs on him at each step of his whole life.” Lenin argued that the backward farmer having felt that will irresistibly react on his own initiative to demand for changes.
How does this apply to Uganda? Let’s begin with Yoweri Museveni, the incumbent president, who is set to be his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party’s flag bearer after an inner plot amongst his party’s inner circle and diehard loyalists declared that position was not up for contest when the party holds its primaries later in the year. Firstly, he is clearly no longer the darling of the masses he was in his first years as president 15 or 20 years ago. Since the 1996 presidential elections, his support (as gauged from election results, two of which in 2001 and 2006 even the Supreme Court unanimously agreed were not free and fair) has been falling by 10 percentage points. Statistically, this would mean Museveni will likely get around 49 percent of the total ballots cast in the 2011 election, that after all the cheating and rigging has been factored in. This is below the constitutionally required 50 plus one percent to be declared a winner. Assuming that the constitution is not changed in the next eight months to scrap off this condition (we had to amend the constitution to deal away with presidential term limits in 2005), this would lead into a re-run.
Last week one of NRM die-hards Mary Karoro Okurut, who ‘represents’ us Bushenyi women in the parliament, wrote an opinion saying that this time the president will get more than 59 percent. Her weak arguments being that in the last five years the lives of Ugandans have changed to the right direction pointing to among others the end of Joseph Kony’s rebellion that the opposition cannot break the NRM strongholds in western Uganda without stating why they can’t.
A more recent Afrobarometer survey in May, 2009, which lends credence to this statistical analysis, showed that President Museveni would not win a clear majority if elections had been held at the time of the survey. 41 per cent of the polled respondents thought they would vote for an NRM candidate if a general election were held the next day. Put slightly differently, they would vote for Museveni since the NRM has not known any other candidate but him.
Museveni clearly knows what is at stake: He must convince voters that he is still relevant after 24 years in power. So, he is already traversing the country trying to do exactly that. Yet it is a line that will be hard to push successfully when over the period he has been president, training institutions, for instance, have put out more qualified people than have been workplaces to absorb them so much so that getting a job is no longer primarily about what you know than who you know. Most of these qualified but unemployed people are youths who now languish in Kampala’s slummy suburbs depending on their parents who often have to send them some food to survive on as they hit what we call “streetology” (that is, endless walking the streets and knocking on doors looking for employment). In areas like northern Uganda especially the Acholi sub-region, general unemployment is at about 70 percent. For parents who have given everything within and beyond their means to send their kids to school on a promise of a better future not only for the kids but also for themselves, there cannot be a more saddening situation than having to go on tilling land to sell their little produce to look after 20-something-old educated but jobless men and women. And unemployment is only but one of the sore issues that plague Museveni’s presidency. There is stinking corruption, the breakdown of all types of services embodied by lake-size potholes in the middle of the capital city, sectarianism in access and distribution of resources (for a man who once abhorred even the sound of the word) et al.
The question then becomes: can the opposition link such widespread discontent to Museveni and his NRM to such a magnitude and rate that they can get massive support from such groups? After all, the biggest percentage of the voters in 2011 will be youths because 70 percent of all Ugandan citizens have been born under Museveni’s leadership. The battle for hearts and votes for 2011 should take place among Uganda’s most voting population. Only time will tell whether the opposition can take the battle to this key demographic. In the past I haven’t seen any sort of mobilization or trying to put a clear message and linking problems that everyday Ugandans face to the ineffective leadership of Museveni. That remains the challenge for anybody who wants to lead Uganda.
All the major political parties have completed their primaries and two of them – Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) and the Democratic Party (DP) – even got new leaders: Olara Otunnu, the former UN Under-Secretary General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, and Nobert Mao, former MUK Guild President, Parliamentarian and now Gulu District Chairman, respectively. The other, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), returned Dr. Kizza Besigye who has challenged Museveni twice so far. These and a few other not-so-major parties have formed an interparty cooperation. They intend to field one candidate, which is their key strategy to ousting Museveni out of power he has held for 24 years now. If Besigye is chosen as the coalition’s candidate, he will take on Museveni for the third time running. The former military colonel can be single-handedly credited for proving that Museveni was challengeable and some people think he still stands a better chance against Museveni. Yet it does not really matter who leads the coalition – Otunnu and Mao have equally sufficient resumes, political and organisational skills to match any standard – if nobody puts to action that lesson from Lenin.
One more lesson from Lenin: once he captured power he had to ensure that people don’t turn their backs on him. The closest comparison between Leninism and Musevenism, if I can call it that, once Lenin captured power he sustained support by blaming all the shortages and injustices on the past regime(s), going as far as using films (he controlled the film industry) to remind people how terrible things were under the Czarist Russia to deflect attention from shortcomings under his rule.
And this art of reminding the population of the horrific past that some of us never even saw especially in regard to our security, is what Museveni has ridden on to keep his support, at least for those living outside northern and eastern Uganda for the last 24 years. In every speech, whether it is at the opening of a new school, a factory or just a road that usually will have taken forever to be completed, we have to be reminded of the past so that we look at the present in the prism of our past. The use of the past to control what we agitate for today and in future is what we need to deal with. Museveni has already mastered that and the opposition are yet to enrol in the school of Leninism propaganda.