President Yoweri Museveni has been re-elected. The lead-up to the election was characterised by extreme state violence against the opposition, including the murder of 40 people in a single day. The main challenger, Bobi Wine, was constantly harassed by the police. And, finally, the Internet was switched off by the government to prevent Internet-savvy opposition members from campaigning through social media platforms.
Was the election free and fair? The mechanics of voting might have been largely free and fair. The counting of the votes might also have been largely free and fair. But there is no question that the opposition’s ability to campaign and assemble had been seriously curtailed. Had all things been equal, the race would have been very close.
The bewildering question, though, is why millions vote for Museveni in election after election. Museveni has presided over a government that is yet to lift people from poverty.
Despite a promising start, he has written the usual African narrative of poverty, corruption and strife. Do those who vote for him see a link between elections and their welfare? Or is development an abstract notion that has nothing to do with the type of leadership they vote for? This phenomenon is not unique to Uganda. It characterises elections in Africa. Elections in Africa have been alienated from their function in the development matrix and have become events on the social calendar.
In the 1945 election in the United Kingdom, the electorate handed Winston Churchill a resounding defeat. Now, Churchill was a larger-than-life figure. He had led British resistance to Adolf Hitler’s military juggernaut. When the situation looked hopeless, he rallied the British to “fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields, in the streets, and in the hills… ” He lifted the morale of a nation by invoking history and tradition, and appealing to the idea of a final fight between good and evil. Churchill, together with Stalin and Roosevelt, then went on to craft the post-war geopolitical world order. It was unthinkable that such a great historical figure could ever lose an election.
The Labour Party positioned itself as the party with the policies and ideological temperament to rebuild the country. It was not that the people stopped being in awe of the towering Churchill. But in their assessment, Labour had the better policies to lift their country from the devastation of the Second World War. They put their sentimental inclination aside and considered competing visions and policies. For them, voting had a direct bearing on their welfare.
In Africa, there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between voting and our welfare. So we go through motions that are, in the words of William Shakespeare, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
Until we begin to see a link between voting and our welfare, we will continue this farce of holding elections which, in the context of political economy, are meaningless.
The author is a Nairobi-based political commentator.