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Do we have a responsible opposition?

By Bob A. Kasango

Upon his return from Nairobi, Besigye made remarks that violated most if not all the standards for responsible opposition.

The call by Dr Kizza Besigye upon his return from Nairobi, for his supporters to continue with the “Walk to Work” protests gets one thinking about the challenge of being a responsible opposition. How can we hold the government accountable and fairly evaluate its policies yet do so in a way that does not worsen citizens’ prospects?

Debates about government policy will not and should not be suspended just because the country is in difficult economic times. Nor will the broader partisan political process go on hiatus. The question is whether or not the debates will be done responsibly.

There are a few easy-to-declare-but-hard-to-live-up-to standards for evaluating the responsibility of the opposition:

Is the opposition fact-based or is it myth-based?  This might seem obvious, but it is remarkable how many government policy critiques hinge on a crucial “fact” that turns out to be not so.

Is the opposition rigorous or is it caricatured? Does the opposition hinge on a claim that the government planning contains overly optimistic assumptions and does not adequately hedge against those assumptions proving false (a rigorous critique)? Or does the opposition hinge on the claim that the government’s economic strategy consists entirely of a vainglorious effort to destroy the country and put at bayonet point every citizen that annoys the president (a complete caricature that some well-paid, if not well-informed, critics have offered)?

Is it ad rem or ad hominem? (Latin and liberally translated:  to the matter at hand or against the man.) Does it deal with the substance of the policy or does it focus on emotional arguments aimed at questioning the patriotism or bravery or intentions of the policymakers? Worse, does it seek to criminalise government policy disputes? It is fine to point out the consequences of a bad policy, but it crosses the line to accuse backers of those policies of rooting for the enemy.

Does the critique include viable alternative courses of action or «just come riot and change government and our problems will be more manageable»?  Or worse, does the critique consist of a slash-and-burn denunciation of the existing policy followed by a series of policy proposals, if any, that are essentially the same existing policy?

Based on these standards, the last decade of opposition has amassed a pretty mixed record. Too much of the opposition critique of Museveni is based on myths, caricatures, and ad hominem attack that offer no serious constructive alternative. Too much of the opposition critique consists of questioning the patriotism of the President and then complaining, often without cause, that their own  patriotism has been questioned when their alternative policies are subjected to critical scrutiny.

For the past three weeks, the opposition has had a chance to rise above the standard set by themselves. Grading on this curve, they have done pretty badly so far.

Criticism is necessary and useful; it is often indispensable, but it can never take the place of action. The function of the mere critic is of very subordinate usefulness unless backed by positive and non-disruptive action and we must never suppress positive criticism. Our critics are often our best teachers but where such action hurts and harms the very people you stand up and speak up for, one must reconsider the efficacy of its continuation. The problem there is how difficult it is to sustain collective action rather than about the need to fight “evil” with non-violence. Non-violent protest sort of assumes that the entity you are protesting against is going to turn the guns away, not pull the trigger, and probably kill some citizens in the middle of your “non-violent” protest. Given incidents of the previous weeks and the fact that no positive action has been taken to ameliorate the situation (the fuel prices have even gone up), it’s fairly clear that there is very little that this protest will achieve.

Whatever the goal of a protest, it’s fairly clear that non-violence in the face of violent suppression is of, at best, only limited utility.

Non-violent protest is a good thing, and in a society based upon the Rule Of Law, I would argue that it is the only acceptable form of protest. Non-violence worked for Ghandi and Dr King precisely because they were working within a system that, at least at its core, respected the Rule of Law. In fragile non-functional democracies, however, both of them would have been dead before their movements ever got off the ground. In the face of actual brutal suppression non-violent resistance is little more than a suicide pact.

Many folks disagree with Besigye and his ilk, that any political action that takes the form of non-violent action is therefore justified especially when it is clear that you are caught up in a “no-win” situation.

Upon his return from Nairobi, Besigye made remarks that violated most if not all the standards for responsible opposition. He based his critique on some outright disruptive statements, urging Ugandans to “Walk and until they go”. It became clear that all this is about regime change and not political change. Regime change has one intended purpose and that purpose is to topple the existing government. Sometimes regime change is confused with political change.  Non-violent action can produce political change through conversion, accommodation, non-violent coercion, and disintegration.

Whenever a government views the situation and creates laws or changes policy then conversion occurs.  Often a government will capitulate when activists create too much havoc.  Though the government is not converted, they will accommodate activists to quell the insurrection.  Conversion occurs when the insurrection grows so powerful that the government can no longer control the population.  Coercion usually occurs just before the government disintegrates.  Non-violent civil disobedience seeks to accomplish as a strategy of exhaustion. It literally wears the government down. It targets the political infrastructure, economy and social structure rendering a government powerless and giving people little faith in the government’s ability to govern.  The will of the people outweighs the strength of the government.  When people realise their government is vulnerable, the popular opposition to the government then galvanizes, and facing wide spread opposition, the government may not have the capacity to stop the movement without making concessions.

President Museveni is a master of these games and has been at it for decades. As Minister of Defence in 1979, he quelled the Pro-Lule protests in Buganda and was not going to let the Walk-to-Work protest gain the momentum to make his government appear weak. He has unequivocally and rightly ruled out any power-sharing and it is not by default that his government has not heeded the demand for fuel subsidies. To do that would be concession and a victory for Dr Besigye. So what does and should a responsible opposition do in the face of such show of strength and unwillingness to relent?

It can question whether Museveni’s economic strategy is on a trajectory towards success or not. It can even argue that it is time to cut their pride and seek broad non-partisan consensus on the future of the country and right economic policies. A responsible opposition can even argue that the lion’s share of the fault for failure must rest with this government rather than with the inheritance of, for instance, external factors and nature.

But it is simply not responsible to claim that the entire economic woes, and thus all of the problems in Uganda, are Museveni’s fault and so removing him from power is the solution. That claim is so preposterous that making it wounds one’s own side far more than it wounds the target. The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to blame him when he does wrong and praise him when he does right. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable.

Which may be why opposition is getting little or no support from the moderates in their ranks. A lot many of the things they say about Museveni are either unbelievable, untrue or largely exaggerated. If this is a sign of things to come, then the opposition have failed the “responsible opposition” test. Hopefully in the days to come they will prove more responsible, and that those of us in the gallery will likewise hold ourselves to a higher standard.

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