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Somehow, the opposition is maturing

By Andrew M. Mwenda

The obstacles to building an effective opposition and advancing democracy without “regime change”

Last week, the NRM and opposition leaders agreed on 43, out of 48 proposed electoral reforms. This is contrary to the doomsday scenarios its hecklers have been presenting that there is no chance in hell for NRM to accept reform. To deepen democracy, the opposition should talk to NRM. Negotiations would be one of its many instruments – others being using the mass media, organising rallies, street protests, using courts and lobbying powerful players inside NRM, donors and President Yoweri Museveni personally.

Such a multifaceted approach requires that the opposition adopt a less confrontational tone in its dealings with NRM. They need to behave like FDC Vice Chairperson, the indefatigable Salaam Musumba, who is emerging as one of the shinning pillars of mature politics. Many leaders of the opposition agree with this. However, they fear that being moderate towards Museveni will lead their extremist supporters to accuse them of selling out. Fear, not principle, is what has stifled the evolution of mature opposition politics.

The opposition can come to power by defeating Museveni thoroughly at the polls and inducing him to accept the people’s verdict. The other avenue could be a popular uprising, which forces Museveni to resign or flee the country. The first option is only possible if there is exceptionally superior political organisation; the second if there is a serious economic crisis that galvanizes vast numbers of people to take to the streets inducing the military and security forces into breaking ranks with Museveni. Both have not worked.


Let us face it. Voters may desire a democratic and accountable government that respects human rights and upholds the rule of law. But very few will take to the streets and spend days protesting purely for these ideals, even when they value them. One reason is such an undertaking is risky and costly. People can be shot dead or lose their limps, jobs, and businesses. The promised reward for protesting must therefore exceed the expected risks and costs for people to choose it as a strategy for regime change.

Look at the structure of incentives. The costs of street protests are incurred immediately. So they are certain. The rewards of democracy come at a later date. So they are uncertain. Many people would tend to fear paying a high price for an uncertain end. Worse still, while the risks and costs are incurred by the few who participate, those who stayed home or even opposed the struggle cannot be excluded from enjoying its benefits.

Thus, if Mukasa sacrifices his leg, Odongo his business and Wakabi his job in the struggle for democracy, they cannot stop Mugisha, Pulkol and Dramadri who did nothing from benefiting. When democracy is established, even the tyrant who opposed it will enjoy a free and fair election, freedom of speech, and independent courts. Because the benefits of democracy cannot be monopolised, organising citizens to surmount a tyrant’s threats is a daunting task.

This creates collective action problems. Many choose what economists call “free riding” i.e. they stay at home, let a few risk being killed on the streets and wait to harvest the democracy bounty. At best, only unemployed youths with nothing to lose may join street protests – not enough to bring down a government. This has been the group that Kizza Besigye has relied on to precipitate government collapse without realising his goal.

For now, there doesn’t seem to be a large segment of our population that is economically destitute and feels excluded from the political process that their alternative is to take on the government or die. Museveni is adept at reaching out to every disgruntled group and have their needs addressed (at least partially) or their leaders coopted. Indeed this is one reason the State House budget has ballooned from under Shs20 billion in 2004 to over Shs200 billion in 2014.

Over the years, the President has organised almost every occupational group in Uganda – barber shops and salon owners, street vendors and hawkers, boda boda riders and taxi drivers, small restaurant and kiosk owners, musicians and dancers, students and unemployed youths, peasants and squatters, etc. He has helped them form associations, created bank accounts for them and deposited money there. They (or their leaders) meet him at state house, eat and drink to their fill, they speak their mind as he listens (making them feel treasured and important), make demands and he accepts.

One can legitimately argue that hosting the leaders of these social groups at State House and co-opting them is not a sustainable solution since it does not address (comprehensively) the demands of their constituents. New leaders may emerge in place of the co-opted. However, Museveni can (and does) keep coopting new leaders as they emerge. This strategy weakens the emergence of strong and organised resistance to his rule. It allows him to separate the head (leadership) from the body (the social group) thus making it difficult for group grievances to find effectively organised political expression.

The remaining source of vulnerability therefore is an economic crisis like the one of April to June 2011 that culminated into walk2work. Yet, even for such a crisis to stimulate mass action that can precipitate government collapse, it must cause fractures in the military and security services so that they refuse to defend the president. Museveni is not Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso or Ben Ali of Tunisia. He is much more politically skilled for such a situatioto develop and overwhelm him.

Therefore, the best strategy for the opposition is to develop a long term view of their struggle. They can achieve many of their goals through negotiation with Museveni and the NRM as the talks last week have shown. This does not mean the opposition should abandon other options – protests, courts, mass media, rallies, etc. Rather they need a wide array of instruments at their disposal.

A lot of reforms can be secured through negotiations even when the ultimate goal of gaining political power remains elusive. More reforms increase the possibility of opposition success. Most Ugandans want to see the opposition meeting and talking to NRM generally and Museveni specifically. This serves the opposition more than Museveni because they look mature and accommodating, thereby allying fears in the public that regime change means chaos. To repeat myself: opposition leaders need to be liberated from blackmail by their fanatics and hecklers if they are to become a powerful force.

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