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Give ordinary peasants a voice

By Andrew M. Mwenda 

Politics everywhere tends to be rigged in favour of the powerful. But in Uganda it has been made worse.

Last week, the mass media reported that the vast majority of rural Ugandans are at risk of malnutrition, especially in the northern region.


It was a simple footnote of a story in New Vision and did not generate much public debate. It “died” immediately after it was published. Yet a story about a verbal duel between the coordinator of intelligence services, Gen. David Tinyefuza and the executive director of Kampala City Council Authority Jennifer Musisi or one between Kampala Mayor Erias Lukwago and Musisi tends to dominate public debate in Uganda, especially in Kampala, all out of proportion to its significance in the lives of most Ugandans.

Politics and news everywhere tends to be rigged in favour of the powerful. But the democratic process in Uganda has been much more distorted in an urban-centric fashion to such a degree that rural interests do not find space in the platforms for democratic expression. Thus, the system in Uganda sustains a myth that the mass media, political parties and civil society organisations represent the interests of ordinary people when in fact they are merely forums through which elites leverage the support of the masses to acquire power, privilege and status.

One need only open a newspaper, switch on the television, or tune into a radio station to see how the news on which the Ugandan media focus and the opinions they publish are largely delinked from the interests of most Ugandans. The news and debate in the media tend to pander to the interests of a narrow elite class to the exclusion of the interests of the vast majority. Any criticism of the obsessions of this narrow elite class is attacked with venom. The democratic debate is hijacked by a small class of elites.

This is one area where the NRM has betrayed the masses. In its early days, the NRM was rooted in rural Uganda; it was a social movement seeking to represent peasant interests. Indeed, the creation of the local Resistance Councils even during the bush war was the first attempt to create an institutional mechanism through which peasants could aggregate their interests and place them on the national political agenda.

However, even before the bush war ended, NRM had begun shifting gears, making deals with elites that ultimately undermined the real interests of the peasants. For example, its early association with the Buganda kingdom administration at Mengo was an attempt to rely on identity to win over Baganda. One would have predicted that NRM wanted to be representative of both elite and monarchical interests on the one hand and peasants’ interests on the other.

However, as it won the war of liberation and consolidated itself in power, NRM decided to shift its base from rural to urban; from peasants to elites, from class to identity, from residence to ethnicity. It also tended to shift its core interest from promoting the interests of Ugandans to promoting the interests of multinational capital. The cause of the departure from the NRM’s initial revolutionary values and ideology will be discussed another day.

Rather than organise the landless in Buganda, the NRM has been involved in a series of endless discussions with absentee landlords at Mengo. Rather than the promotion of citizen ownership of the economy through the state or indigenous entrepreneurial interests, or a combination of both, the NRM has been promoting control of the economy by multinational capital allied to a small coterie of politically well-connected local elites.

President Yoweri Museveni’s critics have consistently failed to distinguish the gains of this strategy from its failures, and in the process cannot develop a coherent response to the tangled mess into which he has boxed them. The process of privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation has sustained rapid economic growth for over two decades, and in the process generated social forces with the potential to offer leadership to a movement seeking a more nationalistic – rather than ethnic or elite-driven – politics.

The opposition in Uganda has inspired the urban poor, but is delinked from the rural masses. Their failure to connect with the masses is somewhat understandable. It is extremely difficult for an opposition party to build an effective organisational infrastructure. Besides, compared to the urban dwellers, rural folks can easily be bribed and or intimidated to support the ruling party. Equally, rural folks tend to be more apathetic, more pro- government, conservative and resistant to change compared to the urbanites.

Here lies the contradiction for opposition parties in most of Africa: the most dispossessed people – the rural masses – are also equally the ones most likely to vote the government. Those who have benefited most from economic growth, education and the spread of mass media – urban elites – are the ones who are most informed, exposed and therefore most inclined to support the opposition. Therefore, the future of opposition politics lies in increasing urbanisation that can tilt the demographic balance in favour of urban areas. Until that time, the existing democratic infrastructure is built to address urban demands to the exclusion of rural masses.

If the opposition are to work with current demographics, they will need to root themselves in rural demands. In doing so, they will have to transcend their current urban base. For instance, during the last presidential campaigns, Dr Kizza Besigye made a case for low farm-gate prices of food crops which did not attract much public interest. A few months later, when food prices increased (which is certainly good for farmers but hurts urban consumers), Besigye was able to rally urban interests in nationwide protests.

To be an effective reflection of the democratic aspirations of most Ugandans, the opposition has to build a rural base, difficult though it is. Equally, for Uganda’s media and civil society to be effective platforms for democratic politics, they need to transcend their urban bias. Their current obsession with narrow and sometimes frivolous urban issues is injurious to the democratic process.

Without some degree of rural anchorage, it will be extremely difficult for the opposition to rely entirely on urban support to win elections. This is most especially because the rural areas continue to enjoy the highest concentration of population. Electoral competition is a game of numbers. But as urbanisation accelerates, the opposition can strengthen its base. Inadvertently therefore, in sustaining growth, NRM is nourishing its own enemy.

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