Violence in Uganda, peace in Rwanda: A tale of two elections in many parts

Sunday August 26 2018


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The biggest story from Uganda for more than a week now has revolved around the beating up and detention of Member of Parliament Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine and Francis Zaake following electoral fracas in the northwestern town.

To be sure, caning and incarcerating opposition MPs or politicians by the security forces isn’t uncommon in Uganda and some African countries.

What was new this time was the appearance of shockingly bruised images of Zaake lying in hospital motionless alongside the news that Bobi Wine, who had also been picked up by President Yoweri Museveni’s Special Forces was in an even terrible incommunicado condition.

Remember Bobi Wine, a popular-musician-turned-politician is reported to have rattled the political establishment with his growing influence since his election last year.

Bobi Wine and other opposition politicians had gone to Arua to campaign for Kassiano Wadri, an opposition politician who eventually won despite being in prison and not voting himself!

A pattern

This violent incident isn’t isolated but part of a pattern in almost every election in Uganda.
As Uganda mourned the death of Bobi Wine’s driver Yassin Kawuma who was killed in Arua, Christine Mukabunane, the chairperson of PS-Imberakuri opposition party was hailing “peaceful campaigns in Rwanda.”

So, why do elections generate violence in Uganda but not in Rwanda?

Those who study electoral violence use factors like political culture, the nature of the state, institutional and structural conditions to explain it. Both Rwanda and Uganda have a history of electoral violence; in the former starting even before independence and laying the ground for the Tutsi genocide in 1994.

Looking at the nature of the state and the role of security forces would also help as much as institutional and structural factors.

What problem do elections seek to solve and what problem do they actually solve?

At the core of elections is the assumption that citizens need representation since they all can’t appear in spaces of decision-making due to their sheer numbers.

The accompanying assumption is that the primary problem society faces is: “How to determine who should represent the people”.

The presupposition here is that once “the people” have elected their representatives, they will actually represent them with the outcome being democracy and pro-citizen policies.

Material wealth

But empirical evidence shows that perhaps the primary problem poor societies, including Uganda and Rwanda face isn’t “lack of representation” per se, but how to distribute wealth among troublesome elites and help citizens meet basic needs.

How else can we explain the fact that while many leaders in Africa come to power without any material wealth but talking about the importance of democracy, by the time they leave power, the country is not only less democratic in cases, but individual leaders, their relatives and supporters are materially wealthy?

Which brings us to Rwanda and how its electoral system undermines violence while catering to the material needs of politicians — at least those that agree with RPF’s gospel of “power-sharing.”

As I have argued before, the electoral system in Rwanda carves the whole country as a single electoral district in which many MPs can win.

And since it also gives powers to political parties to decide who can or can’t be an MP by drawing up the list of candidates that the electorate cast their ballot for, violence is curbed.

On the other hand, Uganda has many constituencies in which only a single candidate can win! This winner-take-all system isn’t ideal where rule of law isn’t a culture and poverty widespread.

This is true everywhere holding political power remains the main source of wealth and its distribution as is the case in both polities.

Thus, despite our noble aspirations, the uncomfortable truth is that most seek elected office more as a way of upward mobility and accessing wealth and power than “represent the people”.

That’s why seeking such offices remains a “do or die” affair in Uganda and circumscribed by a few elite in Rwanda!

That also tell us that unless we embrace honesty and put in place political systems that address both the problem of wealth distribution and representation, we can’t sustainably end electoral violence.

Christopher Kayumba, PhD. Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR; Lead consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd. E-mail:; twitter account: @Ckayumba