The power of language: discourses and efficacious fussiness in the Ugandan elections, by Anna Baral

On February 15, 2016, three days before Ugandan general elections, the four-times presidential candidate (and never a winner) Kizza Besigye was stopped by anti-riot and military police with his convoy in Jinja Road, central Kampala. Following a script reenacted at each election, scuffles between the opposition candidate and police started, with heavy use of tear gas, stones thrown and bullets shot. Besigye was detained for few hours by police (that denied rumours of arrest, claiming that the candidate was instead just “being advised” on which route he should take for his campaign through the city). Escorted back to his home in Kasangati, a suburb on the city’s outskirts, Besigye came quickly back to town and was stopped again at the big crossroad that separates Makerere University from Wandegeya Police station, famously active in countering students’ strikes. A young man seeking refuge in a building near the crossroad lost his life, shot by police.

When interviewed on the reasons of this violent confrontation, police spokesperson Fred Enanga accused Besigye of taking unauthorized routes with his convoy, thus defying directives on electoral campaign. Besigye has indeed built his campaign on “defiance” and his supporters have adamantly approved his insistence to cross the busiest parts of town with the campaign convoy, which they have seen as a bold claim of political freedom. For police, such defiant act was instead illegal, made worse by Besigye’s intended destination – Kisekka Market, a downtown marketplace with a history of recurrent riots and often backing opposition.

Watching the evening news in Luganda, vernacular language, I noticed how the police spokesperson centered his argument on the accusation that Besigye had not “shared information” about the direction he wanted to pursue with the convoy; he precisely used the English expression – with a slight twist in pronunciation that made it sound closer to Luganda language – in an interview otherwise completely carried out in Luganda. Appearing again in the English news, Enanga added that “by the way” the candidates had been asked by the president of Electoral Commission, Badru Kiggundu, not to bring their convoys to town in order to avoid riots.

The way the English expression was dropped in a Luganda interview reminded me of an article by David Graber on structural violence. Graeber recounts an episode occurred in Madagascar, where an officer accustomed to converse with him in Malagasy suddenly switches to French to reinstate his power (Graeber 2012: 114). French in that context is the language of power, an institutional and bureaucratic power ultimately “premised on the threat of violence”, and which, for this very reason, does not need to achieve communicative clarity (ibid.:115).

It is hard to know if Fred Enanga consciously thought of English as a language of power when he pronounced “sharinga informationi”, but if we follow Graeber, the kind of omission condemned by Enanga is paradoxically a function to the maintenance of power much more than to its subversion. The powerful, and not the oppressed, is in a position to withhold information; the oppressed is instead forced to strive for information, in order to anticipate the dangerous consequences of ignorance.

Checking the guidelines that the Uganda Electoral Commission published to assist candidates in the organization of the campaign, no mention to places or streets could be found. Other norms were clear – for example, one stating that candidates were not supposed to rally beyond 6 pm, a rule that even the incumbent President Museveni has repeatedly broken by talking “in the capacity of President” from 6 pm onwards (as a news presenter noticed on live TV). I therefore wrote to a number of friends in Kampala to ask where I could find the rules Enanga was referring to. “There are no rules. Only dictatorship”, was the lapidary comment of a trade union activist. More nuanced comments from other friends admitted that the police spokesperson was not really referring to a law, more to “an indication”. Others denied adamantly than anything like that had ever been mentioned; after all, I was told, in the same moments in which Besigye was battling with Police, Museveni was easily crossing equally sensitive parts of town.

I finally found an article online reporting how the president of the Electoral Commission had “slapped a ban on presidential candidates’ visits to hospitals, places of worship, schools and markets” and instructed the police to “enforce the new guidelines”. Thus the information was partially there, somewhere, but hard to access if one had missed the press conference by the EC president; life of candidates’ supporters must not be easy when pending orders are issued in press conferences that many have no chance to follow.

The confusion and lack of information is not a momentary condition in Kampala. Whoever has carried out research or even just engaged in conversations with capital citizens knows that beyond the uneven distribution of resources and chaotic infrastructures, lack of straightforward information represents a real burden. Hawkers, unemployed and informal workers, increasingly criminalized as sources of chaos and backwardness in the city, are the most affected (something which should make their frequent mobilization less surprising). While the municipality embraces neoliberal planning in an effort to redesign and beautify Kampala, lives in the “informal city” are interrupted by the hiccupping implementation of policies that few can understand or even predict. An example comes from the development plan for Kisekka market, a site, as I mentioned, stigmatized for recurrent political disorder and violence within and around its premises. Few months before the market was demolished to be replaced by a fancy mall, many workers could barely articulate the details of the project and were completely disoriented. Few dared visiting the market chairman’s office where “the documents” of the project were supposedly accessible; few mastered the bureaucratic vocabulary necessary to understand the intricacies of a bidding process lasted more than 2 years. When the municipality finally accepted to meet a group of vendors protesting against the destructive consequences of the plan, two officers from the institution silenced protests raising in the meeting room by pushing in front of the vendors a folder of documents. Thick, big, intimidating, there lied the collection of paperwork that could hardly translate the vicissitudes 10thousand workers had gone through in recent years. “Everything is in the documents, and it has been regularly done”, the officers said, but nobody dared going through that folder; once more, the workers’ frustration was channeled into a riot, duly recorded by the media who had however ignored the mainly courteous meeting in the municipality’s office. Paperwork is “socially efficacious”, Graber admits (ibid: 108).

Police’s spokesperson might have shot himself in the foot when he admonished Besigye for not “sharing information” with security forces: lack of information really seems a “weapon of the powerful” regulating Kampala life, rather than the opposite. Information is omitted, manipulated or confused, something extremely sensitive under election time. On the night of 17th February, few hours before elections start, the same Fred Enanga has informed the public that a bomb has blasted on Mengo hill, but the information has quickly been denied by the army spokesperson, adding confusion to these tense hours. While an academic researcher found out that the polling station to which she was assigned has actually disappeared long ago, rumors that polling boxes arriving from South Africa have been dispersed before their arrival in Uganda have required a rectification by the Electoral Commission, after generating panic.

In spite of statements in the media calling for better civic education ahead of the elections, lack of a clear communication between institutions and city dwellers still represents an important part of the feeling of dispossession and marginalization and represents a burden to the development of a transparent electoral process.

Besigye on Monday 15th might have just capitalized on the general sloppiness of information prevailing in Kampala, in order to obtain, as other times in the past, a surprise effect. By admitting that violence has erupted from a lack of information, Police’s spokesperson might just have unveiled the double edged quality of structural violence. We wait now for electoral results hoping that communication will be based more on factual data than on threats.

Anna Baral is a PhD candidate in cultural Anthropology at Uppsala University. She has conducted fieldwork in Uganda with a focus on identities, moralities and informal market workers in Kampala

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this blog post regarding the power of language in the Ugandan elections; I really enjoyed it and am definitely recommending this blog to my friends and family. I’m a 15 year old with a blog on finance and economics at, and would really appreciate it if you could read and comment on some of my articles, and perhaps follow, reblog and share some of my posts on social media. Thanks again for this fantastic post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© 2024 Mats Utas

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑