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Armed struggle: Mamdani tells politicians to learn from Luwero

By Andrew Mwenda and Mubatsi A. Habati

Leading political philosopher Mahmood Mamdani says the government’s ban on the political pressure group Activists for Change (A4C) is naïve and likely to drive opposition underground. He spoke to The Independent’s Andrew Mwenda and Mubatsi A. Habati.

The government has banned the civic pressure group known as Activists for Change. What do you think of this development?


Activists for Change (A4C) organised themselves in response to the events in the Middle East and the Arab spring. They hoped to be catalysts of change in Uganda. Walk-to-Work was brilliant in its simplicity. It was brilliant in that it showed that government was unwilling to tolerate the very idea of protest. Government responded to it as if it was a threat to the security of the state which it obviously wasn’t. That kind of response played straight into the strategy of A4C, for the public was outraged that even a simple idea of walking as a mode of protest could invoke such a response from the state.

I think A4C after that have been singularly unimaginative.  They have persisted with the one imaginative idea they had, even after it ran out of steam. Any protest movement cannot just be a result of an idea, no matter how brilliant, inserted from the outside. It has to connect organically with what is going on in society and what’s going on in society is the protest of primary school teachers, retail traders, nodding disease in northern Uganda; there are lots of issues. But the A4C have not even tried to address this. It has been a top-down effort which shows a lack of connection. It shows the absence of deep organisation and deep study.

But it makes no sense for the government to ban them. A more effective way to deal with them would have been a permissive response.  You only needed to let them continue and they would run out of steam. Instead, the government is falling back on a colonial law, showing that it too has run out of steam.

People in government think if A4C is in the streets, stirring up trouble, they may over time be joined by those who may give them organisation, strategy and a message that can connect them to these other social forces. Government may be thinking that it’s better to neutralise them early.

Let me suggest a different way of thinking about it: if you have an opposition which has a message, strategy and addresses real issues in society, that is the kind of challenge every government should wish for because it would steer you in the direction of reform that would strengthen you. The idea of a world without opposition is naive.

But that hypothesis seems to be too idealisitic and out of sync with human nature. No one wants to nourish opposition, however responsible.

When you are in power you should be open to new ideas, not be closed to it. By the choices you make, you can shape the kind of opposition you face: whether open or underground. You would rather have open opposition than an underground one. The era of single party states is past. The armed struggle in Luwero was too expensive in terms of human lives and time lost; we should have learnt lessons from it. You can’t have a society as big and complex as this driven by a single idea behind a single man. There are many ideas and there will be many contending on the basis of those ideas. The point is to define the parameters within which you can compete, not to do away with competition.

What do you think of a wider opposition in Uganda beyond A4C?

The opposition here has been narrowly confined to contending for positions and power. There is a failure to address broader social issues that concern people. You need to convince an ordinary person who doesn’t have political aspirations that politics is going to change his or her life. Otherwise why should they get involved?

How do you do this?

It requires people who have a finger on the pulse of society.  You need to understand not only how different sections of society define their needs but also which sectors of society are beginning to show some level of organisation in response to these issues. Ugandan society is not just inert, waiting for an external stimulus; there are demands, there is organisation at different levels.

Why do you think the opposition has not seen these challenges?

They are too narrowly focused on capturing power. It’s a highly corrupted society and the opposition has shown itself being unable to withstand the corruption of entering political offices. We have seen the opposition being corrupted in parliament. What will happen when they get to the presidency? If you can succumb to the prospect of, say Shs 20 million, in parliament and vote yes when asked to do so, what are going to do when the stakes are higher? To be sure, it is a mixed picture. The opposition as an opposition has not quite found its way. There are individuals who stand out against the culture of corruption individually. You find courageous people like Besigye (FDC president, Kizza) for example. This kind of courage and integrity wins support for some time. This has been enough to win him admiration and followers in wider circles. But leadership needs to go with organisation, without it integrity and courage will not have results.

The Afrobarometer survey shows that over the last one year people who say NRM is their party of choice have reduced from 62% to 47% (a 15% decrease). Yet those who now support FDC have increased from 13 to 15 %. UPC decreased from 3% to 2%. So you see a huge decline on the part of the NRM but it is not reflected in the numbers joining the opposition parties. What does it tell us?

It’s a dangerous signal for Uganda. It means most people are becoming disillusioned with politics.  It means there is no organised and credible alternative. This is a recipe for unpredictable events that can be triggered by large scale frustration.

Do you see a section of Ugandans outside of partisan politics that stands in defence of particular values and principles and can therefore act as a restraint on the behaviour of partisan warriors on either side?

It’d be very interesting to see if there is a movement whose objective is not political power but social change. If there was a movement here that would act as a constraint by demanding those in power to prioritise particular social needs.  It would act as a restraint on those contending for political power. It’d be a movement that would renounce political power in the interest of social change. It would be a Gandhi or Martin Luther-like movement. It would be the direct opposite of going to the bush. It would bring Ugandan society a long way away from the politics of destruction. But we don’t have such a movement. The kind of social movements that existed in the period of nationalism; membership based movements like the Cooperative movement, trade union movements, drivers association, traders association, women’s associations, youth associations, religious associations, etc. even if leaders rigged elections, there were members to respond.

But we have civil society now, don’t we?

We have a civil society that is mainly defined by NGOs. The NGOs are not member-based movements; they are organised like so many philanthropic bodies. They have no members, only beneficiaries. They do charity work and respond to those who pay them. They are antidemocratic in their structure. Their financial accountability is upwards to those who fund them not downwards to those who benefit from their work. So we have turned things upside down, there is no democratic civil society here. Just look around at who is involved in the movement for social change: it is membership-based organizations like primary school teachers, KACITA, even UTODA, whatever you may think of it. Where are the NGOs?

Is a Martin Luther King, Mahtma Gandhi-like movement possible in Uganda and why?

One cannot say it is not possible. There appears to be a consensus in Ugandan society that armed struggle is not permissible. But even if armed struggle was successful it would not solve the problem. Because we have seen that armed struggle delivers monopoly of power in the hands of those who fought and there is agreement that monopoly of power is part of the problem, not the solution. Any solution requires that there should be room for opposition within the political system. But beyond that, the political should be constrained by the social within society; the large masses of people should have a say in defining the priorities of a government in power.

Why are there few, if any, membership organisations in this country? What happened to them?

One thing that happened to them is liberalisation. These market based reforms were so extreme they dissolved the cooperatives. The largest unions were done away with. Where is the union of Railway workers, textile workers, etc? The de-industrialisation of Uganda was the result of the period of liberalisation.

Turning to economic issues now, how have you personally felt the impact of inflation in this country for the last one year and what do you think are its implications on the economy?

The crisis has eroded the purchasing power of fixed income earners. It has pushed people to look for incomes outside their stable jobs. It will push those who don’t feel morally constrained into corruption. As you read newspapers everyday you begin to realise that there seems to be a widespread consensus that only a fool in government will not be corrupt. It has reached such a level that it is eroding all institutions step by step.

Why does the Uganda political class seem far removed from the concerns of the majority who are fixed income earners?

When the NRM came into power it had the ambition of changing the nature of the state and governance. It wanted to dismantle this unaccountable government of chiefs and it replaced them with resistance committees. In short, it championed a participatory notion as opposed to representative notion of government. The challenge was to combine the two, not to see them as alternatives, even opposites. NRM has had a problem doing so. Multiparty democracy and vibrant media are mainly an urban affair. In rural Uganda it is one party that functions; it is hard to speak on radio, let along organise a rally, outside election time in rural Uganda when you are from the opposition. The NRM which began wanting to bring the gap between the urban and the rural has cut off the rural from urban; we are back to the colonial model.

But what stops the opposition from establishing themselves in rural areas?

Once the elections are over, no opposition party has managed a sustained presence in rural areas. Even if it tries to do so, the state structure is determined to keep the opposition out of the rural areas. But the opposition has not tried. The dilemma of the opposition is not simply in Uganda; it is also the dilemma of the opposition in other African countries. They seem to have reached a conclusion that instead of the hard work of organising the rural communities, they can go for a soft alternative. Today, the opposition in Uganda calls on donors to support the removal of Museveni. The problem is that Museveni has also understood this.  His response has been to make himself indispensable to the American War on Terror in the region. So the State department can say everything it wants to about the democratic deficit of the Uganda government but the CIA and the Department of Defence and the White House will not go along with the State department.

(continues next week)

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