By Andrew M. Mwenda
With the nominations for LC5 candidates done, Sunday Vision reported that the ruling NRM has candidates in all the 112 districts; FDC has candidates in only 40 districts, UPC 27 and DP 13. The combined opposition has candidates in only 80 districts. Meanwhile, there are 118 independents (largely NRM) running in 112 districts. NRM’s independents constitute the largest opposition party in our country.
This is a big vote of no confidence in the opposition and renders their hope of defeating President Yoweri Museveni remote. Without as many candidates for parliament, LC5 and other local councils as the NRM’s, the opposition’s presence at polling stations will be thin. This will give NRM unlimited rigging ability in presidential elections even in those areas where the opposition has a chance to get as high as 40 percent.
The myth of NRM’s invincibility makes many potential opposition candidates turn to the ruling party if they are to have any chance of winning. People know that the political and economic costs of opposing the NRM are high and immediate; you can be jailed; tax auditors may show up at your business and you may not win any more government contracts. Yet the rewards of opposition can only be realised at a future date; so they are uncertain. Most people therefore refrain from the opposition due to uncertainty.
This commentary may generate apathy even among many people who genuinely believe that our country needs a change from NRM’s politics of institutionalised corruption, incompetence and nepotism. However, I would be lying if I created a rosy picture of the opposition. Democracy activists need to take hard lessons from this; the opposition needs to be brutal in its self criticism if it is to build better capacity tomorrow.
There is a gross misconception in literature on democracy in Africa; a tendency to think, imagine and believe that political parties are not created but are freed. Thus, there was an expectation that if our country legalised multi-party politics, the NRM would face a stiff challenge. I used to naively think so; and it is possible that in the long term, this could happen. However, for now we have to adjust our perceptions to the reality.
The biggest challenge facing the opposition in Uganda is not NRM’s repression and restriction on party activity; it is NRM’s patronage. Repression alone cannot suppress democratic demands when their time has come. The NRM does not match the technological, intellectual, financial and institutional resources of apartheid South Africa. Yet it was unable to cripple the ANC in spite of burning it, jailing its leaders and killing its supporters. The same is the case with Burmese pro-democracy leader, Aung Sun Suuki, today.
Here has been NRM’s strategy of political consolidation: the reforms of the early 1990s sought to roll back state patronage through privatisation, deregulation, retrenchment, decentralisation and liberalisation. Yet, these reforms led to the growth of the state as public enterprises were replaced by regulatory agencies. Today, the state remains the largest consumer and formal sector employer thus making the public sector the largest source of economic opportunity even for the private sector.
Museveni has created the largest neo-patrimonial state structure in Africa. With 71 cabinet ministers (the second largest cabinet in the world after North Korea), 114 presidential advisors, 320,000 civil servants, 250,000 teachers, 56,000 strong army, 153 commissions and semi-autonomous government bodies staffed with the president’s appointees, 36 security agencies, 112 districts and counting, and a limitless “State House Welfare Fund,” the president’s hand stretches from State House to the last village distributing pork. You can see Museveni happily handing out envelops stuffed with cash to wananchi.
Most elites are integrated in this vast neo-patrimonial structure“ as security officials, RDCs, ministers, presidential advisors, employees of regulatory agencies etc. The private sector makes money supplying goods and services to this state. Outside the state and the market, there are few elites with experience and skills to offer leadership and organisation to the infrastructure of opposition politics “ hence failure of opposition parties to find candidates for constituencies and local council seats.
This state of affairs presents us a dilemma. Although Museveni has presided over sustained economic growth and a relative level of economic transformation, he has also overseen the utter collapse of the public spirit. Public institutions no longer embody a collective vision. Instead they reinforce a pattern of private privileges for a few at the expense of the many. With corruption the basis of governance and incompetence standard operating procedure, public goods and services have taken a beating.
Over the last decade, government has increased by 400 percent the budgets for infrastructure, education and health. Yet our roads are filled with potholes; and although our hospitals are teaming with hoards of diseased citizens, they are short of medical staff, basic drugs, equipment and the structures are rotting; and while our public schools are congested with students, they are collapsing under the weight of disrepair, teachers do not show up for most of the time and pupils can neither read nor write.
Ugandans are not blind to these failures especially because they affect the most ordinary citizens who are the majority. Besides, liberal economic reforms and official corruption have produced a class of the new rich who flout their wealth in magnificent houses and expensive cars; they eat in posh restaurants and send their kids to private schools and wives to private hospitals abroad. When people compare their own circumstances (which have actually improved) with the wealth of the new rich, they grow despondent.
Yet widespread discontent below does not finding organized political expression above. Most elites have been co-opted into this government by theft; they have the “liberty” to make a living out of this corruption and chaos. Elites in Uganda seem satisfied with this state of affairs and call it ‘freedom’; freedom to pillage the state. A seemingly democratic process has led our country to an undemocratic outcome.
Museveni’s greatest triumph has thus been to separate the aspirations of the masses from the people likely to lead them ; the elite: He has cut the head (leadership) from the body (followership). Demand for resistance finds limited supply of leadership.