Kenya and Uganda elections: Similar and yet very different

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni is to face off with his main opposition challengers, Amama Mbabazi and Kizza Besigye, in presidential polls next year.
Uganda and Kenya have always eaten from each other’s hands and until last year, when it was overtaken by Tanzania, Uganda was Kenya’s biggest export market in East Africa.
And, well, Ugandans play in Gor Mahia (football club).
Just like people with the vaguest interest in the Ugandan economy keep an eye on developments in Kenya, so do Kenyans study the Ugandan tea leaves.
So what should Kenyans know about Uganda as its campaigns heat up?
First, it is amazing how similar, and in the same vein, so different these two countries are.
Just like Kenya, the two opposition candidates who are challenging Museveni are not opposition in the old-fashioned sense of the word.
Powerful workaholic
They ate together with Museveni and were once his confederates and confidantes.
Besigye was Museveni’s physician during the bush war and later became a remarkably clever and able ideologue after they took power in 1986.
Mbabazi was for long Museveni’s enforcer, a powerful workaholic who held several top security portfolios and was secretary-general of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM).
In 2011 he was appointed prime minister. A year ago he committed the ultimate sin, for Museveni detected the glint of presidential ambition in his eyes.
Mbabazi had reason to have the presidential itch. After all, Museveni is closing on 30 years in power and it would have been reasonable to expect that he would throw in the towel at the next election
When Museveni started running at rallies and doing press-ups, making the point, as he put it, that at 71 he felt like a 36-year-old, Mbabazi’s number was up. The Man kicked him out.
Still, both he and Besigye were either Museveni’s political children or were breastfed by the NRM.
Uncannily similar
In that sense, it is uncannily similar to Kenya.
All opposition luminaries of the past 25 years or so, and incumbents, all started life under the wings of former president Daniel arap Moi or walked the Kanu path at some point.
Whether it be former president Mwai Kibaki, former Prime Minister and now opposition Cord leader Raila Odinga, former VP Kalonzo Musyoka, and now President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, all have Kanu DNA running through their veins.
So in Uganda and Kenya, and it seems soon in Tanzania too, the ruling parties are also the main opposition parties.
But then you have a huge difference. Museveni, Mbabazi, and Besigye are all from the same corner of western Uganda, from communities that are related.
It is as if Kenya had gone to the 2013 election with Uhuru, Raila, and Musalia — the top three candidates in terms of votes — all being from central Kenya.
The big divide
And while, unlike Kenya, in Uganda religion is often the big divide, not ethnicity, all three are Protestants — in a country where the majority are Catholics.
Depending on how you count, Uganda had seven or nine presidents until Museveni and his rebels won a military victory in 1986.
He has now been in power more than all his nine predecessors combined. And if he keeps on going, and going, like that Duracell battery cartoon in the TV aert, if the gods give him a long life, he might well be president double their combined rule.
I want to see a Kenyan leader touch that.
The other difference between Kenyan and Ugandan politics is what happened in Besigye’s party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC).
After losing to Museveni for a third time in 2011, Besigye stepped down as FDC leader in 2012.
The military
The party elected the mild-mannered Muntu Mugisha to replace him.
Muntu was previously army commander and, therefore, Besigye’s boss when he was in the military.
A few weeks ago, Besigye had a change of heart and decided to return to politics.
He ran against Muntu to be the party’s flagbearer in the upcoming elections and defeated him.
It was really remarkable to see because Muntu did not sulk and has gone on, at least in public, to be one of the leading aocates for Besigye.
I am waiting to see a Kenyan, or indeed Tanzanian, Muntu.
After all, when the secretary-general of Tanzania’s main opposition party Chadema, Willibrod Slaa, opposed having outsider and former CCM man Edward Lowassa as its presidential candidate, they forced him to jump.
The author is editor of Mail Guardian Africa. Twitter@cobbo3