Kampala, Uganda – Uganda’s Parliament wasn’t in session today, but that didn’t stop political theater from being staged at the country’s state house.
On Friday, the governing body decided it would suspend work for a couple of weeks because too many Parliamentary leaders were traveling to conferences. So my chance to see them in action was missed. But as I was interviewing a public affairs officer – off the record, oddly, because few public affairs officers around here like to go on the record – I was alerted to a hastily scheduled press conference by former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya. Bukeynya was “fired” in 2011 by President Yoweri Museveni, in an act of defiance that caused yet another uproar in this country constantly beset by fighting. After that, he was elected to Parliament, in which he currently serves.
In May, Bukenya formally announced candidacy for president in the 2016 election – one that Ugandans are looking forward to because they are beginning to tire of Museveni. Since then, he has occasionally called press conferences to sort of pull out the bellow and fan the fire. He did that today in his office in Parliament where about 18 local media outlets packed into the small space and listened to him forcefully declare that he was going to start a “nationwide campaign” to educate people about government corruption.
“There are now already signs that Uganda can’t have fair and free elections in 2016,” Bukenya said.
More than once in the last few months the former VP has claimed the election is already rigged in favor of Museveni and his party, the National Resistance Movement. He has been in office since 1986, and there has not been any challenger powerful enough to beat him. There has been a longstanding cry not just from political leaders but from Ugandan voters that the elections are rigged in Museveni’s favor every year.
Bukenya, with all the diplomacy in the world, went on in his press conference about the need for what he called “an interim system outside the government to run elections” and for “constitutional review.” He went on to say that the NRM has wrangled headmasters of secondary schools in Buganda and sent them to a university to teach them “patriotism” lessons. Essentially, he said the lessons are a government mandates that the teachers pledge their loyalties to NRM.
“They are telling them, ‘either you are the movement or you or not,’” he said. “I support patriotism but what worries teachers are these words.” They say it in an intimidating way, he claimed.
These claims of corruption were coming from charged by the Anti-Corruption Court in 2011 for abuse of office for his role in a deal worth 9.4 billion shillings to supply 204 executive vehicles in 2007 during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. He was accused of brokering the deal to favor Motorcare. The charges were later dropped.
After much boasting about fairness and ridding the election process, Bukenya took a dig at the government because it is not paying him his entitlements for being vice president. He said despite writing letters to the correct minister, he has not received answers about why. The Minister of the Presidency presented evidence that Bukenya is receiving his entitlements – just maybe not the car.
After the press conference, Bukenya told me how much he loves Colorado and how often he visits. He said all the right things for a politician to say.
The Parliamentary reporter for the Daily Monitor, where I am working during my time in Uganda, and I rushed to the press room to write the story. In the few short minutes it took us to go two floors down in the building, current government ministers were text-messaging and calling members of the press to vociferously oppose everything Bukenya said. I was surprised at the length of some of the text messages these government leaders sent. Once they obtained my number for my Ugandan cellphone, they began furiously texting me also. For some, it was their preferred means of communication. That’s odd, given that technology in this country is a contradiction.
Nearly everyone here has multiple cellphones – even the poorest in rural villages – but the speed of the Internet is akin to dial-up connections in 1995. In fact, as we interviewed leaders on any number of cellphones, the Internet was not working so we couldn’t do background research or fact-check the government’s website.
To boot, I was surprised at how easy it is to reach the ministers of various government agencies. In the U.S., you almost always go through the drill of convincing a spokesperson or public affairs officer that time is of the essence in filing a story on deadline. Depending on your working relationship, return calls aren’t so timely. But here in Uganda, ministers are angling to talk to the press. And today, they were yelling loudly that “Bukenya’s said this before and he will say it again.”
During my interviews for co-writing the story from Bukenya’s press conference some of it didn’t ring true. But Bukenya’s presence in his office today was dramatic enough that he seems like he’s a man for the people, and that he’s the man to rid the Uganda government of corruption.
“It can be corrected,” he vowed.
I’ll be anxiously awaiting Uganda’s 2016 elections.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this blog post erroneously stated Prof. Gilbert Bukenya was convicted of fraud. The charged were dropped when the court deemed he “had not case to answer.”