On September 5, 2023, President Yoweri Museveni addressed the National Resistance Movement (NRM) party flag bearers and chairpersons from the five divisions of Kampala, urging them to abandon the use of money in politics.
Speaking at the Kololo ceremonial grounds, Museveni labeled the practice as a “colossal mistake,” counterproductive and unnecessary. He went further to advise that, “It will be good if the people listen to what these leaders are proposing and elect them. If they are not elected, they should move on, do other activities, and remain financially stable.”
Museveni is no newcomer to Ugandan politics. Having been involved for over six decades, he stated that he has never resorted to selling his cows to fund elections. Museveni argues that politics should be about “diagnosis and prescription,” emphasizing the importance of understanding societal problems and proposing effective solutions.
This perspective seems rooted in the belief that the crux of politics lies in the value of ideas, not the depth of one’s pockets.
The president’s comments signify a profound shift away from transactional politics towards a more policy-driven approach. Museveni’s call comes at a crucial time when Uganda faces complex challenges such as economic inequality, corruption and sectarianism.
By asking leaders to “promote government programs and politics of unity among Ugandans,” he underlines the importance of developing a common market for goods, thereby creating economic opportunities for all.
It’s essential to unpack the implications of Museveni’s assertions regarding the role of money in Ugandan politics. The use of money—often deployed to buy votes, influence or intimidate—has long been a contentious issue, undermining democratic processes and rendering elections more of a market transaction than an exercise in civic duty.
This creates a vicious cycle where politicians who spend heavily to win elections may seek to recoup their investments through corrupt means once in office, thereby perpetuating a system that favors the wealthy and perpetuates inequality.
According to a report by the Alliance for Finance Monitoring (ACFIM), an astronomical amount of Shs 2.4 trillion was spent during Uganda’s 2016 elections. The spending didn’t stop there; it reportedly increased in the 2021 elections, raising concerns about the influence of money on democratic processes.
President Yoweri Museveni reportedly spent Shs 773 billion to secure his fifth term in office. In the same race, Amama Mbabazi, the former prime minister, expended Shs 66 billion, and Dr Kizza Besigye is estimated to have used Shs 15 billion. Prof Venansious Baryamureeba reportedly spent Shs 1.5 billion, among other expenditures. The numbers provide a revealing look at the cost of seeking political power in Uganda, making it a high-stakes game limited to those with substantial financial resources.
THE 2021 ESCALATION
Termed as ‘The Banknote-Controlled Voter Consent,’ the 2021 ACFIM report highlighted an increase in overall campaign spending compared to previous elections. The estimated expenditure ranged from Shs 70 million ($19,440) for the lowest-spending presidential candidate to over Shs 900 billion ($250 million) for the highest spender.
At the parliamentary level, spending ranged from Shs 50 million ($13,889) for the lowest spender to over Shs 3.5 billion ($0.97 million) for the highest spender.
Most of the funds were reportedly directed towards cash donations and inducing voters to reciprocate on election day. The report estimates that a total of Shs 3.9 trillion (approximately US$ 1.08 billion) was invested in electioneering activities for the 2021 general elections. This funding covered presidential, parliamentary, and local government elections across Uganda’s 146 districts over a 15-month period, making the 2021 general elections the most expensive in the country’s history.
The funds were not merely for campaign logistics but extended to voter inducement through cash donations, basic necessities like soap, and credit facilities to women and youth groups. The report disturbingly suggests that acceptance of vote-buying has become a normalized practice in Ugandan elections.
Consequently, money is thwarting the core objectives of democratic elections and is increasingly controlling voter consent. The increasing financial outlay in Ugandan elections poses significant questions about the sustainability and integrity of the democratic process. With money exerting such overwhelming influence, the focus shifts from the merit of a candidate’s policy proposals to the depth of their pockets, thereby undermining the principle of democratic representation.
Interviewed for this story, Buzaaya MP Martin Kasule argued that the culture of using money in politics could change only if the regime itself changes.
“The president should lead by example. He is the fountain of honor in this country. If he chooses to fight corruption, he can spearhead the battle against the monetization of politics,” Kasule said.
Budaka MP Arthur Wako Mboizi emphasized that this practice has become habitual. “You can’t just wake up one day and say no more money in politics. For us to stop it, we need at least 15 years to change people’s mindsets,” he explained.
Medard Sseggona, Busiro East MP, accused President Museveni of hypocrisy. “Museveni is already spending money for the 2026 elections through his son, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba. He says one thing and does the opposite,” he stated.
Sseggona went on to say that such politicians recover their election spending through bribery and striking deals. Mityana South MP Richard Lumu criticized the president for his role in monetizing politics.
“In 2005, he summoned MPs and gave them Shs 5 million each to remove term limits. As the chairman of the NRM, they give between Shs 30 million and Shs 50 million to each candidate for campaigns,” he said. “It’s painful that we spend our personal money on campaigns and sometimes lose.”
Bbaale MP Charles Tebandeke asserted that Museveni is the chief proponent of money in politics.
“From when he started losing support in 2005, Museveni has been following people to rallies, giving out money, T-shirts, soap, bread, and other items,” he stated.
Tebandeke also mentioned that during the Kayunga LCV by-election, Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja was handing out money to voters, reinforcing the idea that the ruling party benefits the most from this practice. All the MPs interviewed for this story appeared to share the consensus that the current state of politics is unlikely to change under the existing regime.
The monetization of politics has become deeply entrenched, making it a difficult habit to break. As long as the current system remains in place, money will continue to play a significant role in Ugandan politics, they argued.
While the notion of abandoning money in politics may be noble, it’s important to consider the practicalities and risks involved. Not all politicians have the luxury of financial stability without campaign funds. Moreover, in a society where political loyalty often hinges on material benefits, shifting toward a policy-driven approach could be met with skepticism from voters accustomed to the status quo.
THE WAY FORWARD
Museveni’s call for a change in political culture is a stepping stone towards a more equitable society, but its success depends on widespread adoption and systemic changes that support transparency and accountability. Therefore, while the leader’s admonitions may not immediately translate to a transformed political landscape, they do open up a discussion that is crucial for the future of Uganda’s democracy.
President Museveni’s recent remarks add a critical dimension to the ongoing discourse on political reform in Uganda. It remains to be seen whether his call for the cessation of money in politics will have a lasting impact, but the dialogue has been irrevocably altered. It raises fundamental questions about the nature of politics in Uganda and sets the stage for what could be a transformative period in the nation’s history.