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10 failures of opposition

By Odoobo C. Bichachi

Why a limping Museveni remains solid against toothless opposition

According to the recently published findings of the Uganda Afrobarometer Survey conducted between July and September 2008, most Ugandans are dissatisfied with the way the country is being run not just on issues of bread and butter but on matters of democracy, governance and national institutions.

Ideally, this should be good news for the opposition. Yet going into the February/March 2011 elections barely 18 months away, there is a growing perception that the opposition is less prepared to take on the increasingly weakening behemoth: Museveni and his ruling NRM party.

This is well illustrated by the local council by-elections of May 24 in which NRM had 625 candidates unopposed out of the 1,400 positions contested ‘” that is a nearly 48% sweep of the by-elections before polling day! But worse, there were 257 electoral areas where neither the NRM nor the opposition fielded candidates. All of this demonstrates that the opposition is failing to reach a potential constituency.

The Afrobarometer survey had some very telling findings. The survey reveals that 14% (compared to only 5% in 2005) are not at all satisfied with the way democracy is working in country today, 31% (14% in 2005) are not very satisfied, 34% are fairly satisfied (same as in 2005) and only 13% (compared to 16% in 2005) are very satisfied.

Only 20% of respondents thought Uganda is a functioning democracy, 34% said it was a democracy with minor problems, 29% said it was a democracy with major problems, and 8% said it was not a democracy.

Contrasted with the 2005 survey which found that 21% thought it was a full democracy, 46% a democracy with minor problems, 24% a democracy with major problems, and only 7% thought it was not a democracy, it is apparent many think all is not well.

In terms of satisfaction with the working of elections, the indicators are even worse. Only 18% (down from 37% in 2005) believe that recent elections were completely free and fair, 45% compared to 56% in 2005 believe elections reflect the views of voters, and 47% (down from 49%) think elections enable voters to remove leaders.

But perhaps the most telling findings were with regard to trust in the president and national institutions central to democracy and the rule of law. According to the findings, only 56% of Ugandans trust President Yoweri Museveni. This is down from a 2005 trust-rating of 78%!

Only 51% trust Parliament, down from 70%; only 40% trust the Electoral Commission, down from 65%; a paltry 38% trust the police, down from 63%; only 51% trust courts of law, down from 72%; and very poignantly, 45% trust the ruling NRM party, down from 72%, while 39% trust opposition parties, up from 34% in 2005.

While trust in opposition parties has slightly increased, it is clear that given the level of dissatisfaction across the board, this miniscule increase and demonstrates the opposition’s failure to turn discontent into a powerful tool for political change.

10 opposition failures

A small (unscientific) survey by the author a few weeks ago among a section of political analysts highlighted at least ten areas of perceived failure by the opposition, namely: 1) failure to set the agenda on issues like the economy and electoral reforms; 2) failure to mobilise supporters countrywide in order to build a critical mass around issues; 3) failure to develop its message beyond just the need to remove Museveni from power; 4) lack of concrete alternative policy proposals on the economy, public service, security, communications/roads, etc; 5) failure to change its leadership and thus appearing to mirror NRM; 6) failure to push an alternative vehi cle for change outside Parliament to achieve minimum constitutional changes such as return of presidential term limits; 7) disunity, failed alliances, inter-party and intra-party fighting; 8) opportunism and outright sell-out of key members like DP’s Nasser Sebaggala, FDC’s Beti Kamya and Alex Onzima, UPC’s Jacob Oulanyah, Aggrey Awori ; 9) failure to mobilise funds from supporters to finance opposition activities, and, 10) failure to shed urban/elitist image to embrace the rural population that constitutes more than 80% of voters.

The question for many Ugandans is what explains these perceived failures? How fatal are they to the opposition’s 2011 bid? What is Museveni’s tactical contribution to these failures? How have these failures helped Museveni and his NRM consolidate their hold on power? Can the opposition overcome these going into 2011?

Mirror image of Museveni

According to analysts, one of the greatest failures of the opposition is that it has been much clearer on what it does not want on what it stands for or will do when it gets to power. As a consequence, opposition parties have not sufficiently demonstrated how different they are from Museveni in terms of policy and strategy, in the end coming off as his mirror image.

For instance, if the opposition parties are against the way Universal Primary Education (UPE) is being implemented by NRM, they are not explaining what they have as an alternative. For instance, Museveni’s UPE is anchored on numbers of pupils and classrooms and this has been embraced by poor parents across the country. To counter this, the opposition could make the teacher their centre of focus in achieving UPE, i.e. promising to improve their quality of life and working environment by giving concrete suggestions like wages, teacher-pupil ratio, recruitment, libraries and classrooms. This would enable the opposition to capture the teacher who is a local opinion leader and keep him away from NRM, which has condemned her to being an object of pity in the community.

A similar approach could be taken on Museveni’s health policy which seems to be based on building small health centres without medicine leaving everybody at the mercy of the private sector through small clinics. As they criticise Museveni’s approach, the opposition could, for instance, focus on the idea of free health kits for common diseases that affect much of the population ‘” i.e. malaria, diarrhea, worms, wounds and scabies. They need to demonstrate what the unit cost is and how they will deliver on the promise, showing that Museveni’s government can afford it but it’s simply not their priority.

On security, Museveni’s focus has been on PGB and intelligence, leaving the rest of the army and police in a pathetic situation. The opposition could focus its proposed security policy on the police, coming out with clear outlines of number of personnel, command and control structure, equipment, housing etc. They could do the same with the army, especially on the issue of career growth and housing. The opposition could even go graphic, creating colourful artistic impressions of barracks they intend to build, where and how much it will cost, source of funding, e.t.c. and use the media to propagate it. This would put Museveni on the spot considering the dog life policemen and ordinary soldiers live, and who knows, this could win over the hearts of the security forces that are crucial in Museveni’s rigging machinery.

In short, the opposition must demonstrate how different they will be and should not be shy to paint the future, rather than merely painting the past and present. Museveni demonstrated this in the last election when he capitalized on the grinding poverty and promised hungry peasants Bonna Bagagawale in which every household would earn at least Shs 20 million a year. The opposition laughed it off but in the end, Museveni had the last laugh because people respond better to hope than despair.

Double-faced opponent

One of the other shortcomings of the opposition is its failure to understand the dual personality of their opponent [Museveni], said a former minister who has worked very closely with the president but fell out over the third (fifth) term.

‘They have concentrated on Museveni but he is a man of dual personality. His sins are always away from him; he is not usually at the scene of crime. When he goes to the citizens, he pretends to love them; that he is their champion. He blames his bureaucrats; he deflects his failures on them ‘” e.g. NAADS, CAOs, etc. His mode in 2011 will be to put the bureaucrats in the dock. For instance, he complains about bad roads but puts a trillion shillings there and keeps the minister, PS and others.’

It is this dual personality that explains Museveni’s relative popularity in the village even as he is vilified in urban areas. The challenge for the opposition therefore is to expose him.

Electoral reforms

To its credit, the opposition last week unveiled a set of 15 proposed electoral reforms to Parliament, setting the stage for the 2011 contest. The Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC), in proposals presented by FDC president Kizza Besigye at Parliament Gardens on May 14, wants the army, police and intelligence organisations out of elections and instead the Electoral Commission (EC) should appoint Election Protection Officers to provide security at polling stations with the approval of political parties in the area.

The parties also propose, among other things, that army representation in Parliament be abolished to make the army non-partisan and subordinate to civilian authority. Parties also want reform of the EC whereby political parties represented in Parliament would each submit a list of nominees to the Judicial Commission which would in turn nominate nine names to be sent to Parliament for approval. The chairperson of the EC would have to be a person of high moral character and qualified to be a judge of the High Court. The commissioners would serve a seven-year non-renewable term.

But perhaps the most revolutionary of the proposals is the return of presidential term limits, making the parliamentary constituency the basic electoral/administrative unit of the EC, and voting by finger-print, not simply ticking a box.

Finger-print voting does not only have the potential to eliminate multiple voting since no two fingerprints are the same, it also makes it easy to quantify the extent of multiple voting when it occurs, and to identify the culprits for prosecution.

Making the parliamentary constituency the local tallying centre will also deal a blow to the ‘result-switching’ at district headquarters usually overseen by RDCs, ISO etc, in addition to making it easier for voters and parties to monitor.

Given President Museveni’s morbid attachment to power and his latest statement in the NRM caucus that he does not see anybody fit to replace him in the party, it is unlikely he will brook any attempts to legally obstruct him from being life President of Uganda. Indeed, the government’s constitutional amendment proposal to scrap the 50+1 majority for one to be president should be seen in this light.

Leading opposition activist Maj. John Kazoora insists that the opposition has put out its message very clearly in the last few years and it certainly goes beyond just opposing Museveni.

‘The message is there, maybe how it is delivered. But the President’s falling popularity is because of the opposition that has consistently exposed him,’ says Kazoora.

He also said the opposition has thought deeply about engaging Museveni on the streets, but knowing his instinct to shoot, they do not think there is value in losing so many lives. ‘We will achieve reforms and power through other ways,’ he says.

Beating Museveni’s money

Be that as it may, as the jostling for 2011 sets in, the main opposition party FDC, which went into the last elections with a clean slate, now has some baggage ‘” even though lighter than DP and UPC which have been around much longer.

This means the parties might want to be careful not to simply dwell on the weaknesses of NRM as several skeletons can be pointed out too in their closet. For Museveni, though, his job in 2011 will be to show that this is the same opposition that is ‘not serious’ so people are safer with him. Given the current posturing by opposition, many Ugandans may be inclined to believe him.

It is therefore prudent for opposition parties to get out of their cocoons and jointly advocate for reforms and mobilise supporters and those opposed to the status quo, says Kazoora.

But that still leaves the question of money, which has become central to winning or losing elections in Uganda. During the 2006 polls, President Museveni spent close to Shs 50 billion and won 59% of the vote meaning a billion shillings brought in 1% of voters. The opposition FDC candidate Kizza Besigye meanwhile spent Shs 1.7 billion; winning 37% meaning he had higher returns.

It is therefore clear money is important not only to buy support (for the case of NRM) but to manage logistics and administration of the whole process. Because of lack of money to facilitate its officials and members, the opposition was unable to monitor many polling stations giving NRM a chance to rig.

Unfortunately, parties (especially FDC) have still failed to set up a mechanism of getting its supporters to fund the party, which could easily raise Shs 2 billion a year, assuming only 200,000 of the 3 million voters Besigye got each contributes only Shs 10,000! With Shs 10 billion in FDC pockets going into elections, Museveni might need Shs 500 billion to even manage 30% of the votes!

Many opposition politicians agree that this is an area where they could have done better. For instance FDC women organized a fundraising dinner on March 7 dubbed ‘Women to Win,’ and they raised a lot of money, a big chunk of it given quietly by known NRM supporters. An idea taken from the Conservative Party of the UK. If it were replicated every quarter not just for women but across different social strata, an incredible amount of money could be raised to fund parties. A sizeable war-chest would definitely give Museveni a run for his [tax payer’s?] money. But the opposition does not seem to be thinking outside the box, including seizing on the opportunity presented by the MTN Mobile-Money to have supporters send just Shs 1,000 every month to the party. If 500,000 did, that could be Shs 500 million and in 12 months, Shs 6 billion!


For many Ugandans looking at the remaining two years before general elections, the nagging question is whether the opposition can this time round organize itself and gain enough ground to defeat Museveni in 2011. Yet from the way things look, the opposition could actually lose ground. Why?

By focusing on defeating Museveni, opposition parties have neglected the need to win a majority in Parliament and as a consequence, there seems to be no strategy to achieve this, by say tight-marking certain constituencies especially in the east, north and central that they could easily win if they identified candidates early and worked on mobilizing support. Such a strategy would not only put incumbent NRM MPs on the defensive but would also limit their role as Museveni’s foot-soldiers.

The 2006 election, perhaps, provides the best lesson. Apparently, the opposition failed to defend its 100 or so seats of PAFO members who opposed third term ending up with only 64 seats in Parliament. This was because by concentrating on Museveni, the opposition left its members exposed and on their own, giving NRM’s money, state machinery and outright rigging a chance to finish them off.

If opposition parties have not picked any lessons, and knowing that the 2011 election is likely to be even more rigged, chances are that we could see opposition numbers dwindling as the opposition fails to rise beyond party colours and symbols to rout a government many people are terribly tired of even as more Ugandans get disillusioned with Museveni andhis NRM.

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