The opposition in Uganda believes that power is everything. They believe one does not need better policies backed by the appropriate social forces – only a good heart.
That once in power the rest will work out with “iron necessity” to a desirable end. Yet it is difficult to rally people whose actual interests you do not understand. For then, you cannot organise them around what they want (bottom-up). Instead you promise what you think they want (top-down welfare/charity) This is the reason the opposition has no plan to address the real challenges of Uganda’s economy: to create better jobs and opportunities for trade etc.
Consequently, the opposition has pitched its message on dolling out more welfare. Where Museveni has offered free education and free health, the opposition promises to make it better i.e. “we want to be a better version of Museveni”. Bobi Wine went even further when asked about his policy proposals. He said he intends to implement NRM’s Ten Point Program because Museveni has been poor at doing exactly that. This hogwash can win over the angriest sections of the population and nothing more.
For the NRM, its electoral performance is a tragedy not of poor performance but of contradiction. Museveni has actually been a very successful president by both historical and contemporary records. He has stabilised the political dispensation in a country that had once been plagued by military coups and civil wars, thereby giving Uganda a prolonged period of stability. He has buttressed this by putting the economy on a long-term growth trajectory thereby guaranteeing economic prosperity for a sizeable section of the population. He has tolerated a decent level of freedom and individual liberty, both political but most especially economic.
Yet in spite of this, and also largely because of it, middleclass Ugandans are angry and frustrated. This is even the more ironic because Museveni is in the most developmental phase of his presidency – witness the investments in infrastructure for roads, electricity, water, air transport, hospitals, schools etc. Any government would be reaping windfalls of political support from such massive investments. Yet the Museveni government seems to be reaping the opposite – increasing popular anger and frustration. Why?
NRM abandoned siasa (strategic communication and political mobilisation) long ago. Today it believes in crass bribery, dolling out envelopes of cash to supporters and critics alike backed by a sizeable doze of repression. The contradiction is that the NRM were most effective at communicating when they were doing very little and abandoned it when they are doing so much. Perhaps they have also deluded themselves into the belief that the investments they are making are self-evident. Yet making such investments without communication is like winking at someone in the dark: you know what you are doing, they don’t.
More critically, economic transformation has greater potential to generate mass discontent than economic stagnation. This is because as people are more educated, come to urban areas and are exposed to the world, they become more aspirational. The rate of growth in expectations outstrips the rate of growth in opportunities. The mismatch between expectations and available opportunities lead to social frustrations. This is why strategic communication and political mobilisation are absolutely vital for a rapidly transforming society. This is the logic Museveni and NRM have failed to register.