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Uganda’s political dilemma

By Andrew M. Mwenda

How the degeneration of NRM has infected the opposition thus undermining potential for real change

The on-going battle inside the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) between President Yoweri Museveni and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi has reopened the debate on succession. What chances actually exist for a peaceful transition from Museveni? What do those interested in a peaceful change of power and, equally, in a qualitative change in governance need to think about?

There is a widespread perception among elite Ugandans that our country has suffered a decline in the quality of governance. Many enlightened Ugandans are apprehensive at the failure of the state to deliver basic public goods and services. The public sector no longer embodies the public spirit; instead it reinforces a pattern of politics where the benefits of public policy enrich a few well-connected individuals at the expense of the many.


Thus, many routine public services like crime prevention, healthcare, and education are characterised by incompetence, corruption, apathy and indifference. The state in Uganda is most active and effective when it is protecting Museveni’s power. This has led to a widespread belief that power is not organised to serve a broader public good but rather a narrow interest.

I specifically refer to elite Ugandans because opinion polls, especially those by Afrobaromter in December 2010, showed that the majority of Ugandans believe public services are good/improving: 57/68% for health and 68/79% for education. May be ordinary people are ignorant, and therefore making uninformed judgement. Or may be elite Ugandans have been exposed to better services elsewhere and are too aspirational to see improvements in public sector performance.

How did we come to this? Over the last 28 years, Museveni has been pursuing a national development agenda. He may have calculated that he cannot achieve this goal if he has been overthrown and thus in jail or exile. He needs to hold power first. Yet the pursuit of power, and its accompanying concessions and compromises, has greatly undermined his ability to deliver on the national development project. This has led many to suspect he is pursuing power for its own sake hence claims of family succession.

This suspicion has led many NRM leaders to become opportunistic; they have also decided to pursue personal goals by lining their own pockets; hence rampant graft. And because theft is widespread and rampant, the probability that anyone will be picked upon for prosecution is low. This encourages more theft. Equally dangerous, the desire to retain the support of powerful elites in his governing coalition has led Museveni to turn a blind eye to their corruption, incompetence, and indifference to the public good.

This crisis inside the NRM has infected the opposition. The opposition is angry because it sees those in government as looters, a factor that has led to its radicalisation. Yet this perception could mean that the opposition is projecting its own view of power on public officials i.e. it sees public office as an opportunity to loot. Hence opposition anger may be a disguised form of jealous and equally an expression of its own aspirations to become looters if they capture power.

There is a big political dividend for being radical especially in areas that are hostile to Museveni. By taking an uncompromising stance against the President and the government, opposition politicians rally the base. Sounding belligerent helps build the credentials that such a politician is courageous and has not been or cannot be, compromised. Thus, in constituencies hostile to NRM, the extremists win. This has weakened moderate politicians in the opposition.

This dynamic is laden with risks. It means that if Museveni were defeated, those best positioned to succeed him are the radicalised sections of the opposition. Yet these will most likely reproduce NRM’s politics of confrontation, intolerance, lies, manipulations, subterfuge and corruption – most likely without Museveni’s finesse; thus ensuring that Uganda jumps from the frying pan into the fire.

So far, the success of extremists in the opposition has worked in Museveni’s favour. Although extremists can rally the base, they cannot grow their numbers. That is why although support for NRM has been declining, that of the opposition has not been growing either – according to opinion polls. But the radicals are functional for Museveni in another way: their extremism threatens many potential allies inside government and the most successful sections of the private sector (the moneyed class) who fear that change will come with retribution. So these cling to Museveni.

Museveni also knows he has effective and personal control over the core elements of the state – the military, police and security services – that make the exercise of power possible. Therefore, even if he were to lose control of the political machinery through an election, the victorious opposition or even NRM insiders like Mbabazi who are challenging him, would have won politically but would most likely fail to dislodge him from power. This is because Museveni would have retained control of the strategic elements of the state.

This is exactly what happened in Uganda in February 1966. The Secretary General of the ruling Uganda Peoples Congress, Grace Ibingira, in alliance with the Kabaka of Buganda, Frederick Muteesa, supported by the Army Commander, Brig. Shaban Opolot, successfully defeated Prime Minister Milton Obote politically through a parliamentary resolution that amounted to a vote of no confidence. They were unable to remove Obote from power because he had effective control over the core elements of the state – the army (through the Deputy Army Commander, Col. Idi Amin) and the police (through its Inspector General, Erinayo Oryema).

Therefore, Museveni can only surrender power voluntarily, so the better for his opponents to offer him a soft landing. This means that there is an urgent need to bolster the fortunes of the moderate opposition. This is the best way to attract the majority of Ugandans back into the political process. During the 2011 presidential elections, 42% of registered voters, more than the total votes Museveni got, did not vote. There is also need to have an opposition that will reassure Museveni and his people of change without retribution.

The battle between moderation and radicalism has been fought inside FDC between the supporters of Mugisha Muntu (moderates) and Nandala Mafabi (extremists). Although in the short term Muntu seems to have won, his victory is precarious. Bolstering Muntu’s position should be the most important objective for those who want a qualitative change in the politics of Uganda.

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