By Andrew M. Mwenda
Why the opposition should adopt a new strategy if they are to remain relevant and build their credentials as a viable alternative
An opinion poll by Daily Monitor published on Jan.12 has given President Yoweri Museveni a commanding lead of 57% against leading opposition leader, Dr. Kizza Besigye’s 8%. Many in the opposition will likely dismiss the results of the poll, allege that Museveni bribed Daily Monitor or the polling firm; Ipsos, or allude to a mythical “fear factor.” Hiding behind these excuses has in the past denied the opposition an opportunity to critically assess the situation and conduct painful self-examination.
There is a lot of evidence that Museveni has presided over a corrupt and incompetent government. Many visitors to Uganda’s schools, hospitals and other public services are appalled by the levels of indifference, absenteeism, and apathy. The public sector no longer embodies a public spirit. Instead it reinforces a pattern of private privilege that is socially harmful. And the opposition has done an excellent job of criticising government for this.
But the opposition has also mistakenly used this to conclude that, therefore, the majority of Ugandans hate Museveni and his party, NRM. This has led them to mistrust empirical research and reject analysis that shows that in spite of these public sector dysfunctions (and perhaps because of them) voters still prefer Museveni. Consequently, the opposition has turned its back on science and retreated to believing its own biases.
The opposition needs to see the other side to this story. There are public institutions like National Water and Sewerage Corporation, National Social Security Fund, the Uganda Revenue Authority, Bank of Uganda and the Ministry of Finance that perform excellently. Services like electricity distribution, banking, manufacturing and telecommunications that were privatised are doing well. Even in public health and education, opinion polls show that the majority of citizens (65-75%) believe the services are good or improving.
Rather than understand and explain this incongruence to voters, the opposition invents excuses to suit its lack of an explanation. They miss the point that Museveni has built his support base in large part by promoting the very public sector dysfunctions the opposition think makes voters hate him. He has used the public sector not so much to deliver public goods and services to citizens as to co-opt powerful elites into his government. These elites are not punished when they steal or are incompetent because their performance is assessed on how they are able to deliver the votes of their constituents (be they co-ethnics or religious followers) to the president and his party.
Furthermore, the many Museveni failures and mistakes have not been fatal. There is no widespread anger against him to cause an insurrection like happened in Burkina Faso last October. Museveni has also been careful not to antagonise core constituencies that generate sentimental support like our churches, mosques, or our tribes. He keeps our clerics on his side with gifts of cars and cash. State House also pays for the lifestyles our tribal kings and chiefs. Since the end of war in northern Uganda, the opposition lost a core sentimental constituency based on an ethnic-based grievance.
This has increasingly meant that to challenge Museveni, the opposition has to develop an alternative policy agenda. Yet doing this is a daunting task especially in a poor country with a deeply entrenched ruling party, which uses state structures to consolidate its position. Worse still, most voters are poor and are, therefore, less driven by ideology as by bread and butter issues. Sadly these are issues they can get by collaborating with the state rather than opposing it.
Historically, strong political party organisation has been built by revolution from below or by patronage from above. Without ability for either, the opposition in Uganda needs to separate its ultimate aim (removing Museveni from power) from its penultimate aims – electoral and policy reform. For example, even without regime change, the opposition can push for constitutional and/or legal reforms to advance the cause of democracy and freedom. They can also seek a series of public policy reforms to serve the interests of the key constituencies that the opposition represents – small and medium scale businesses, cattle farmers, unemployed youths, public (or private) sector workers, market vendors, students, etc.
This would require the opposition to build credentials as the champions of reforms that would benefit these social groups and the country. Ironically, a lot of progress can be made even without regime change. By engaging NRM in parliament, using courts, lobbying bureaucracies, organising street protests, media campaigns, organising policy workshops and engaging Museveni directly, the opposition can realise many of these goals even when they have not secured their ultimate objective of acquiring state power.
Many senior opposition politicians share this view. However, the most passionate supporters of the opposition see any compromise with Museveni as surrender or bribery. This has discouraged many thoughtful opposition politicians from trying to engage the president and his government. By focusing on fighting for nothing else except power, the opposition has limited its influence over more democratic reform and public policy. But it has equally exposed itself as seeking only power for power’s sake.
The opposition can disagree with Museveni without being disagreeable; it can work with him for the good of Uganda without working for him; it can compromise with the President without being compromised by him and it can engage with Museveni without endorsing him. There are genuine fears among many opposition supporters when they see their leaders going to meet the President because experience shows he could co-opt or buy them off.
However, blackmailing everyone who tries to engage Museveni by accusing them of selling out has not stopped the flood of those willing to be bought. Instead it has made the well-meaning fear constructive engagement. This has reduced the influence the opposition can exercise over constitutional and policy reform. The choice is stark: the opposition leaders can retain fanatical purity at the cost of meaningful influence on government. Or they can transcend the demands of their fanatics in favor of constructive engagement. Polls show that the majority of Ugandans (70%) prefer the opposition to work with Museveni. Opposition leaders should liberate themselves from being hostages of their small, albeit vocal, hecklers and fanatics.