By Andrew Mwenda
The fallout between FDC leader, Kizza Besigye, and UPC leader Olara Otunnu, has been as dramatic as it was expected. The major sticking point in the breakup was whether to participate in the forthcoming elections. Otunnu says the opposition should insist on a free and fair election short of which it would not participate in a fraudulent one. Besigye shares a similar sentiment but believes that the demand for electoral reform should be concurrent with building capacity to participate in the process regardless of the flaws.
I agree with Otunnu in principle but side with Besigye on the matter of practical politics. Otunnu does not seem to appreciate the hard choices the opposition is faced with. The opposition can decide to participate in an election that is neither free nor fair where defeat is almost a foregone conclusion. If they accept the terms of the race and participate in the elections, they will legitimise a fraudulent process. If they lose and refuse to concede defeat, they will look to the public as unprincipled and opportunistic.
The upside of participating in the electoral process, however fraudulent, is that the opposition will now have a platform to register its grievances and demands before the wider Ugandan public. This will give them skills and experience of running a national election and furnish them an opportunity to build necessary organisational infrastructure for the next election. Not participating will stifle the voice of dissent in the electoral process and thus give President Museveni opportunity to run a one-man show.
Choices in many situations can be difficult. Taking a position in complicated cases like ours demands making hard-nosed tradeoffs. I often find most ‘democracy’ and ‘accountability’ activists in Uganda often lacking in this vital insight ‘ the ability to balance conflicting interests and find a creative solution that, while not perfect, is certainly the only optimal way to get results. This requires that we take care of the complexity of a situation clearly recognising that perfect solutions are only found in heaven.
I made this point during the Temangalo debate. We had a procurement process in NSSF that was fraught with procedural irregularities. However, for the benefit of subscribers to the fund, and knowing the levels of entrenched corruption in our system and the many NSSF projects that had died before, it was better to hold the fund to account on delivering 5,000 low cost houses in Temangalo and hang Amama Mbabazi later.
The often naÃ¯ve and emotional chattering classes of Kampala were swayed by their personal desire to see a big NRM fish fall even at the price of killing a project that would have benefited thousands of NSSF subscribers. In the end, the project died and Mbabazi was not punished i.e. we lost both ways. The lesson from this simplistic ethical debate is contained in a Chinese saying that ‘a stupid man looks for a problem in every opportunity while a wise man looks for an opportunity in every problem.’
Uganda’s opposition has immense technological and economic opportunities it can build on to defeat Museveni. In spite of an uneven ground yet over the years, the opposition has grown its base from 24 percent of the vote in 1996 to 41 percent in the last election. Yet it had little money, poor organisation and harassment. Therefore, to insist that Uganda should have a perfect electoral process before the opposition can participate is to ignore the reality of the progress made and at the same time to kiss death.
Karl Popper in his book, Conjectures and Refutations, offered the best insight. He said that human society is inherently imperfect and a perfect society is impossible to attain. We must therefore content ourselves to an imperfect society but which is capable of infinite improvement. It is unlikely that Uganda can get a free and fair election today. However, by continuous participation in the electoral process and by continually pointing out the major flaws and building capacity to contain vote rigging, the opposition can overcome many of its current limitations. Holding to a principle of a free and fair election with dogmatic zeal without compromises to the reality is not a formula for success.
My second point of departure with Otunnu is his passionate preoccupation with digging out the past of Luwero and even the Northern War instead of addressing the concerns of today and the promise of the future. I do not share the view that a nation or people that does not dig out the last skeleton of its political history cannot reconcile and move on. If this were true, America would be mired in an endless debate on slavery and Jim Crow; Britain over the brutality of 19th century labour conditions etc.
The vast majority of Ugandan voters (70 percent) are between the ages of 18 and 30. They were too young to care about what happened in Luwero. Besides, they have many pressing concerns today regarding jobs, food, education, health and access to land to care about a long forgotten war. Making Luwero an electoral issue in 2010 is debating issues which are of interest to less than one percent of the electorate. Even for people in northern Uganda who have suffered a million and one injustices under Museveni’s rule, Otunnu needs to show them a future, not to hanker over their past.
In spite of the many obstacles in the path to organisation and mobilisation, there are many opportunities in this country for the opposition to grow. Our country has grown a large private sector, a vibrant associational life, an activist media and expanding educated middleclass; all in a diversity society with deeply entrenched traditions of free-wheeling debate.
Added to this soup, Universal Primary and Secondary Education are churning out hundreds of thousands of unemployed youth who can be militants for change. Ordinary people are dying of simple diseases for lack of basic medical care, our roads are filled with potholes, as our schools and hospitals are collapsing under the weight of disrepair. These failures offer the opposition a powerful platform to rally the nation for change. The main challenge for the opposition is to convert the resultant public discontent into an effective political platform.