Thursday, June 4, 2015

2001 Presidential Elections - Nomination Day

January 8, 2001 - Nomination Day for presidential elections in Uganda was a day to remember.  I was at Crest House in the center of Kampala city, the designated headquarters of the Elect Kizza Besigye Task Force, and my role that day; (my role seemed to change each day,) was to count T-shirts and package them for different campaign events starting with that day of nomination.  Outside was a swarm of people waiting to get a hold of the candidate’s T-shirt.  By then we had learnt that not all crowds outside our office door were friendly.  The crowd was a blend of supporters, job seekers, loiterers and the more sinister 'mock supporters' who were really the ruling Movement’s spies looking for an opportunity to disorganize the campaign before it had even taken off.  I got first-hand experience of campaign crowds when we left the building to deliver publicity materials to the nomination venue.  We packed T-shirts in boxes and attempted to load them on a waiting vehicle on the street downstairs. I was quickly separated from Obote the security guy, as the mob descended on us and pulled T-shirts from the box in his strong arms until there was not a single one left.  They left him lying down on the street, his shirt torn and he was thoroughly knocked out for six!  We retreated back into the office locked the doors until the crowd dispersed.  There was less interest in the Candidate’s manifesto for which I was responsible and I later made it in one piece to the conference venue – the Kampala International Conference Center; now Serena Hotel Conference Center.

The candidate had struck a deal with Uganda’s oldest party, the Democratic Party, and they were due to appear at the International Conference Centre to launch the campaign manifesto: 'The Next Five Years,' after a successful nomination exercise at Kololo Independence Grounds.  Only five out of hundreds of Members of Parliament were at Kololo where the candidate was nominated by Bukoto East MP Vincent Kimera and seconded by former Kabale and Kasese Resident District Commissioner Lilian Okech Acan. The other MPs were Sam Njuba, who chaired Besigye's Buganda campaign and MP Kyadondo East, Alex Onzima (MP Maracha), Winnie Babihuga (MP woman Rukungiri) and Arthur Bagunywa (MP Mityana South).  

Hundreds of supporters walked in a triumphant mood from Kololo to the Conference Centre a distance of about 2 kilometers and the sense of elation in the crowded hallways made it feel like the election had been won already.  The facility had not expected such a large gathering and they were obviously flustered.  The unkempt Kampala and upcountry pedestrians had been allowed through the doors of this five-star hotel and employees turned their noses up in visible disgust.  There was no standing room left within minutes of the doors opening.  The heat and sweaty odor of people who had recently completed a two mile brisk walk was nearly suffocating but the sense of elation in the room made the smell tolerable.  The small balconies that were parched up above the auditorium on the upper level of the auditorium filled up too and looking from below, one feared the structures might collapse on the people sitting underneath.

There was a delay because the candidate’s wife was fashionably late.  Winnie Byanyima, a political icon in her own right was behaving like a bride on her wedding day.  We finally run out of patience and started the event without her.  When she arrived and found that the event had proceeded without her, she was furious and threatened to leave saying "He will not make me late."  Winnie Babihuga and I, practically dragged her through the corridors to the entrance of the auditorium, opened the door and shoved her in.  Then the euphoria touched her too and when she was thrust into the room she smiled, waved and the crowd broke into wild applause.  She recovered her poise quickly and remarkably and waved to the crowd as though she had not been physically manhandled to get her there.  On the podium Kizza Besigye speaking in his signature gruff voice, introduced his guests who included DP leader, Paul Kawanga Semogerere.  The crowds went wild.  Then he introduced his manifesto and that too was welcomed by thunderous applause.  This was my first experience of a campaign of this magnitude and I was both elated and frightened by the crowds.  They were adoring fans which was cause to celebrate but the sheer numbers and noise overwhelmed me.  Having seen what happened to Obote outside our offices, I feared that the cheering crowd might turn into an unruly mob and mince us for their dinner.  Outside the halls in the long corridors of the Conference Center where President Museveni and the First Lady had offices, the mood was not celebratory.  I overheard a security official speaking on his phone and he said ‘we are in trouble!’  The occasion passed without incident and we returned home happy and ready to work.  

I had boxes laden with thousands of campaign posters in my apartment at 22B Golf Course Road, in Kololo.  The apartment had become the unofficial headquarters of the campaign’s communication team.  We run away from the madness at Crest House to the seclusion of my apartment in Kololo to find space and quiet to strategize and create campaign messages.  On the night of nomination day a team of young men led by an energetic activist, Robert Ndyomugyenyi came to Kololo to pick up the first batch of posters that would be plastered around Kampala City.  It was about 8:00pm when they left excitedly, anxious to get the best spots for the posters before other candidates took the spaces.  They returned within two hours bleeding and badly bruised.  I stared at them in disbelief, half-knowing but refusing to believe what I was seeing before my eyes.  Before I could summon the wherewithal to ask any question, they answered my baffled gaze and un-uttered question with two words, the name that would become the most infamous legacy of this campaign:  Kakooza Mutale!

On that fateful night his team of goons had descended on anyone plastering posters of Dr. Kizza Besigye anywhere and beaten the daylight out of them.  Thus opened what would be recorded as Uganda’s most violent campaign – ever!  Something inside me broke that night.  Where were the reasonable men and women who had given this country the dignified image of an emerging democracy?  Surely someone would speak out and send the thugs off the street and straight to jail!  But nothing was done to curb the violent goons.  Another barrier had been broken; reason had taken a holiday and left the State in chaos.  A dirty campaign was underway – AIDS, mudslinging, violence, lies and deception, open hatred -  the realization that I had been asleep and was now waking up to a new reality! 

At 50 I know that the political theatrics that occur during an election can never define the country that I call home but it takes time, a lot of time, to put things in perspective and accept that no matter the event, no matter the people who control it; no one takes away the wonderful feeling we have of a place called home.

— feeling overwhelmed.

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