By Andrew M. Mwenda
As NRM climbs down from idealism to reality, the FDC may need to learn something about its own utopias
On Dec. 15, a special National Resistance Movement (NRM) Delegates Conference called by President Yoweri Museveni will be held at Namboole National Stadium. The main purpose is to amend the party constitution to ensure that the Secretary General is not elected by party members but appointed by Museveni; the chairman. It is a sad but illuminating reversal of a canonical principle of the founding philosophy of the NRM i.e. that a political party should be built on democratic principles and its leaders elected.
For President Yoweri Museveni, this must be a painful step down from the pedestal of utopia to the solid ground of hard reality. For many years, he criticised former President Milton Obote for undermining this principle in the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC). Obote had clashed with two of his previous elected secretaries general – John Kakonge and later Grace Ibingira – over control of the party. To avoid such problems, UPC decided that this position become appointive. Experience had taught them that in the specific circumstances of Uganda, having two powerful elected leaders in the party was a recipe for ruinous power struggles.
Like his critics today, Museveni did not pay attention to the objective political conditions in UPC that shaped this dynamic. Instead, he blamed it on Obote’s personal greed for power. NRM became officially a political party in late 2005. In December of that year, it held a delegates conference in Namboole. Three of its top politicians sought the position of Secretary General – Cryspus Kiyonga, Kahinda Otafiire and Amama Mbabazi. Museveni wanted to avoid this clash of party titans. To calm down the party he called a breakfast meeting with the trio at State House Nakasero during the Delegates Conference.
Museveni explained that historically, especially in the East and Central African region, the job of an elected Secretary General tended to generate a clash with the party leader. It was the case between Obote, Kakonge and Ibingira in Uganda, Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya in Kenya, Julius Nyerere and Oscar Kambona in Tanzania, Kamuzu Banda and Kanyama Chiume in Malawi, and Kenneth Kaunda and Simon Kapwepwe in Zambia. In all these cases, this simmering tension was resolved by amending the constitution to ensure that the Secretary General is not elected by party members but appointed by the party chairman – clearly an undemocratic decision.
Museveni reasoned that to sustain democratic practice while avoiding a clash resulting from having two elected bulls in one kraal, the party needs to elect a Secretary General who is very loyal to the party chairman and, therefore, with whom they can work smoothly. He said he preferred Mbabazi for this reason and asked Kiyonga and Otafiire to pull out of the race. They refused upon which Museveni joined forces with Mbabazi to defeat them. Now we know that even this solution could not and has not worked for Museveni or the NRM.
In many ways therefore, Museveni’s almost three decades in power have allowed him time to unlearn many of his utopias on which he criticised Obote. He has had to live in the reality of practical politics as Obote had and has been humbled by experience. Today Museveni is older and wiser and therefore more realistic. I am not sure whether he realises that on nearly every single issue that he criticised Obote – tribalism, corruption, “desire” to stay in power etc – he has over time tended to gravitate to the same position and worse. And this has little reflection on Museveni’s personal character. I think it has a lot to do with the circumstances he confronts.
There are many political problems in our country. In Uganda (and elsewhere in the world) our natural instinct is to always look for a villain, some human agent to blame for all the social failures around us – a president of a country, a chief executive of a company, or a mayor of a city. This is not an entirely incorrect position to take, but it is nonetheless an overly simplistic one. Thus Museveni saw in Obote the villain who made everything fail in Uganda. Today, Museveni’s critics see him as the source of all our problems.
However many public policy decisions often fail to meet our ideal expectations because reality is much more complex. Ideals have to be tempered with sweet reasonable-ness in the interests of reality. For example, many Ugandans do not recognise that corruption in our country has grown hand-in-hand with democratisation – not just as a negative side of this process – but actually the fundamental and inevitable driving force behind it. In Museveni’s case, he has learnt that a purely democratic process stripped of context can produce the breakup of a political party – and worse.
This experience of NRM can also be seen in what is happening to the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Seeking to distance itself from the seeming authoritarianism of the NRM, FDC deliberately wrote a highly democratic constitution. It limited the terms its president can serve to only two. Kizza Besigye, the founding president of FDC, is without doubt one of the most democratically-minded Ugandans. His struggle and sacrifice for freedom and democracy in Uganda is undoubtedly one of the most inspiring acts of leadership.
He served two terms as party president during which he came close to winning one election (2006) and lost the next one (2011) badly. After that, Besigye did the “right” thing a leader in Britain, Belgium, or Norway would have done – he resigned leadership of the party. Mugisha Muntu, one of the finest human beings our country has produced, won the election to succeed Besigye. I am a supporter of Muntu. But I know that immediately after his election, he took FDC to bed, covered it in a blanket and sent it to sleep.
May be the best thing for FDC may not have been to have term limits on the president of the party. May be young parties like that formed around a strong and charismatic leader need that leader to hang around for long to allow them to grow and consolidate. It is possible that if Besigye had stayed at the helm of FDC, there would be greater energy in the party for 2016. I am very critical of Besigye’s style and approach to opposition politics. However, I now do recognise that for FDC, it is better to help him adjust his style than remove him. NRM’s about face therefore is a lesson FDC may need to consider.