The recent political shifts against the National Resistance Movement (NRM) and President Yoweri Museveni particularly in Buganda and Busoga, hitherto known strongholds, are grim pointers to what the future portends. The loss came against the backdrop when NRM first lost Kampala in 2001, and later Jinja, Masaka, Mbale, Wakiso, Kabale, and Tororo, and the conventional wisdom then was to dismiss it as an urban phenomenon mostly driven by the ungrateful elites. NRM leaders and mobilisers retreated to false self-assuring boast that their solid support was still in rural areas which dominate Uganda’s socio-economic terrain.
It was an absurd argument propagated by rationalists who had failed at their work and were simply massaging their false political egos. They feared or didn’t want to concede the defeat and growing dissent among the population with the way NRM leaders were handling critical national issues. Within a short span of time (2001-2006), Kasese, Rukungiri, Mukono, Nebbi, and Pakwach had been swallowed by the opposition which hadn’t done anything miraculous, except empty propaganda, religious and ethnic sectarianism. These towns were joining the traditional hostile territories of Gulu, Kitgum, Lira, Apac and Arua whose previous leaders, NRM had deposed in 1986, when it took the crown.
To the casual observer, this change has happened overnight yet the change is less like the flip of a switch. The political rumbling has been heating up for a while, and the pot is now boiling. Between 1996 and 2001, the margin of victory countrywide for NRM and President Museveni has narrowed from 76% to 58.06%now. In Major towns and all districts in Buganda and Busoga, the decline has been disastrous. In 2021, Museveni didn’t win any district in Buganda, and marginally carried Namayingo, Namutumba and Kaliro in Busoga. Many analysts believe that NRM and Museveni lost these areas not because the opposition had credible alternatives but rather the growing disaffection on multiple fronts.
The fact that Robert Kyagulanyi could get votes in back of beyond villages where he never reached to campaign and didn’t even have polling agents is testimony to the ominous perception with which many people view the NRM. In Kampala and Wakiso alone, the two largest voting blocs, the opposition has gained and outstripped NRM massively, and it will almost be miraculous for the NRM to recover anytime soon.
And while NRM may be proud that it captured Lango and Acholi for the first time since elections began in 1987, the loss of Buganda, Busoga, and the continued jitters in Kasese should be grave warning signs that all is not well. This is because to keep Lango, Acholi, Teso and West Nile firmly into the foreseeable future requires more than one term to delivering solidly on the fundamental pledges.
Buganda region represents the dominant trend because it combines the most affluent, elite, media and increasing diversity that shapes the forefronts of Uganda’s politics. The era of defining rural as NRM strongholds is fast receding because NRM’s own successes in socio-economic transformation has engendered new public expectations the failures of which means voters must have a second look, if indeed, NRM can deliver quality works within the time frame. And the rural-urban strata no longer really describe the central battlefield in Uganda’s politics as media penetration driving national discourse has bridged the gap and the new opposition phenomenon attests to this.
The recent efforts by NRM to co-opt opposition elements in Buganda who have fallen out of favour with their parties hoping they can attract voters appears to be faltering as none so far has been able to deliver. To the contrary they have been uprooted from their own enclaves. In fact, it appears that the NRM loyalists get angry and stay away from campaigns perhaps because of the open arrogance of some of the new converts. The population is increasingly diverse, educated, relatively affluent, and are repelled by violent behaviour associated with state agents as shown during the last campaign. Even when they may be NRM, many people stayed away on polling day and voter turn up figures even in towns where NRM is dominant seem to confirm this fact.
They used to think of themselves as NRM, but nowadays NRM seems disconnected from the things they care about. It talks less about corruption, efficiency, fairness, equity, frugality, and quality service delivery thereby making it harder for them to vote. It’s the inverse of what NRM said all those years ago. They haven’t left the NRM. The NRM left them.
Many will try to push back and point at the gains made in northern Uganda and the numbers in parliament as NRM strength, but this trend if not halted could become the interlocking story that destroys the NRM. It’s the story of how demographic trends are changing Uganda, not simply in making it more diverse, but exposed and defining how Ugandans will vote in the future. It’s the story of how the NRM playbook which often defaults to dismissing towns as bastions of out-of-touch elites may miss the shift that’s underway.
The writer, is Government Spokesperson and head of Uganda Media Centre