How false accusations have undermined the opposition and why Muntu is the best leader to resolve this dilemma
As the opposition Forum for Democratic Change searches for a successor to Dr. Kizza Besigye, its biggest challenge might be how to overcome a couple of myths about the man its choice has to beat; President Yoweri Museveni.
Although myths about him have sometimes undermined Museveni, on balance he has profited more than he has lost.
Two self-reinforcing myths have fortified Museveni in office and contributed significantly to the opposition failure to dislodge him – the myth of his absolute control over security and the myth of his ability to buy off anyone and everyone. These two have created a mega myth: the myth of Museveni’s invincibility. It is this myth that has undermined most efforts to remove him.
Myths are statements that can reasonably be believed as true largely because they have a factual or historical basis. Even I believe Museveni has significant control over the security agenda. This has made him coup-proof. However, although this control is significant, it is not absolute.
For example, if one placed 10,000 demonstrators on the streets of Kampala, the army and police would easily disperse them – as they did with Walk to Work (W2W). If another mobilised about 70,000 demonstrators in Kampala, the security forces can contain them – but with an added “may be”. Small and sporadic demonstrations cannot bring down a deeply entrenched regime like that of Museveni. But if one put 300,000 demonstrators on Kampala streets and sustained them for a month, the army and police would join them.
The myth of absolute control over the security agenda can, therefore, be exposed by mass mobilisation of large scale protracted political protests. However, this requires effective organisation, which requires high levels of trust.
The myth of Museveni’s unlimited ability to buy-off anyone and everyone has undermined trust inside the NRM and outside among the opposition.
Museveni has been very successful at buying off many of his former opponents. So the myth has a historical and factual basis. But this myth has grown far beyond its factual validity and made it difficult for the NRM to reform internally and for the opposition to unite.
Instead, the myth has become a tool for fighting personal differences through making false accusations.
Attempts to organise get crippled by mistrust. Almost everyone believes his/her colleague is on Museveni’s payroll. This is the lesson in John Kazoora’s book, Betrayed by my Leader.
Such mistrust is an important organisational sentiment since it provides impetus for improving one’s internal defenses. But it can also become self-destructive in the hands of people with petty ambitions, limited cognitive ability and foresight, and an inclination to value sentiment over substance.
Some people are also rumour-prone, others tell lies, many are envious of successful people and others are suspicious and malicious. So a lot of talk about the president buying off this or that politician is not always about the reality. Most of the time, it is an attempt to influence how others see the reality.
Our understanding of our politics today is heavily tinted with these forms of deliberately orchestrated political gossip.
Thus, if a Ugandan disagrees with another on a particular point where their opponent thinks Museveni has done well, they will not respond by showing how wrong his/her argument or fact is, but rather by accusing them of having been bribed.
When Beti Kamya disagreed with the leadership of FDC, she was accused of having been bought by Museveni. The issues causing the disagreement were suppressed. Previously, when Muntu ran against Besigye for the job of FDC president, he was accused of being a Museveni agent in the party. When Norbert Mao refused to join the Inter-party cooperation, he was also accused of being bought by Museveni.
The consequence of this trend has been to undermine the evolution of a more rigorous internal self-evaluation by the opposition leadership. It has also been to cripple internal efforts within NRM to promote debate. Many opposition leaders I talk to tell me the different positions they would have taken on critical national issues or analyses they wanted to suggest within their ranks. In almost all cases, they feared to be “misunderstood” and, therefore, remained silent. This has actually forced many within the ranks of the opposition to take positions that are not only undemocratic but also anti-democratic.
However, the fear of being accused of having been bought by Museveni has forced many in the opposition to increasingly take extreme and often unrealistic anti-regime positions. While these positions appeal to the base, they have alienated the opposition from many independent-minded people who prefer a moderate posture. It has also worked the same way inside NRM: many NRM leaders tend to espouse extreme anti-opposition views lest they are accused of disloyalty. The radicalisation of opposition politics has thus gone hand in hand with the radicalisation of the regime hence our current polarisation.
At the heart of a democratic system must be a belief in the diversity of views and opinions. By claiming that every credit to Museveni is paid for, many in the opposition have unwittingly exposed themselves as being similar to the president. Museveni does not see merit in those who disagree with him. So he accuses all his critics of being subversive and relies on the state’s repressive instruments to crack down violently on them. This is because he controls the government. His opponents rely on blackmail and false accusations to discredit rivals. It is, therefore, highly likely that if they also controlled the state’s repressive tools, they would employ it against opponents like he does.
To overcome this impasse and false dichotomy, Uganda needs politicians of exemplary personal character – people of integrity who hold particular principles so dearly that they are willing to risk false accusations in the promotion of the ideas of liberty, freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Muntu is one person who represents this calibre of politician and I hope FDC elects him its president. He has the potential to move that party from the extremist fringe it has boxed itself into, to the mainstream. That could win the hearts and minds of millions.