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Between violence and money (Part II)

By Andrew M. Mwenda

How NRM’s level of organization has made it impossible for the Opposition to mobilize the masses against Museveni

Sections of the opposition in Uganda have been arguing that it is through violence that President Yoweri Museveni has been able to sustain his political power. While this may have been the case for the first decade, it has become increasingly counterproductive for the President to use violence as an instrument of rule.

Uganda has undergone both a structural and a political transformation. The claim that violence works for Museveni allows the opposition to find an excuse for their failure to organize effectively to reach the masses.


It seems to me that the combatants in the political debates in Uganda, especially those from the opposition, are not particularly interested in an analysis of the facts. They believe that Museveni has been an unmitigated failure in the management of the economy and the delivery of public goods and services.

From this bias, they seek to forge swords for their political armory. Their hope is that the wider Ugandan public shares their doomsday view of the Museveni regime. So they assume that most Ugandans share their ambition for regime change. When election results turn out different from such assumptions, they begin looking for reasons to explain the mismatch.

It is this context that drives most (certainly not all) political analysis about Uganda today. Claims of violence are easy to sell. They also allow the opposition to avoid the hard task of internal self criticism that is vital to help them identify their core weaknesses and Museveni’s core strength.

This lazy attitude on the part of the opposition and its intellectual defenders has been the biggest threat to their chances of ever capturing power. By hiding behind such convincing excuses, the opposition has been unable to master an effective response to Museveni’s myriad strategies.

To capture power in a society like Uganda, a political party would need to first win over the social institutions through which Ugandans organize and express themselves. These include the established churches, traditional collectivities, labour unions, farmers’ cooperatives, traders and professional associations, youth organizations and the business community. UPC was rooted in the Protestant Church, the Mosque, trade unions and the youths and cooperative movements.

To defeat UPC politically, Museveni used DP to ally with the Catholic Church, Mengo, Toro royalists and sections of the Muslim community. This alliance was vital for him to secure a military victory against the Obote11 government. That FDC and Dr. Kizza Besigye have failed to win over any of these social institutions has been a major weakness in their bid for power.

Today, Museveni has used bribery, persuasion and maybe overt and covert intimidation to keep the Catholic and Protestant churches firmly in his corner. He has courted and won over the Born-Again churches and large sections of the Muslim community.

He has ingratiated himself with traditional collectivities through restoration of monarchs and traditional leaders on whom he bestows state patronage. He has the business community firmly by his side. He has absolute loyalty of the labour unions and has organized cooperatives around NRM. This has effectively denied the opposition channels through which it can mobilize the masses.

African leaders who have lost power or come close to doing so suffered such fate after loss of such constituencies. Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia lost the trade unions, which were powerful in that country as did Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. The churches and middle class professionals led resistance to Daniel Arap Moi in Kenya. Both Abdu Diof and Abdullai Wade in Senegal lost the support of the Marabouts (Islamic leaders) in that country.

The only group that captured power without the support of (and with active opposition from) such traditional centers of power in Africa was the RPF in Rwanda and the consequence was slaughter on a genocidal scale.

Museveni’s strength outside of incumbency (although it is reinforced by it) is the level of organization of the NRM. Ideally, NRM is a weak, incoherent, corrupt and disorganized political party. But such ideal is only meaningful if NRM’s strength is juxtaposed against that of its competitors.

Compared to FDC, UPC and DP, NRM is a formidable organizational behemoth. Right now, NRM has a committee of 30 individuals in each of Uganda’s 25,000 villages. If we assumed that each member of this committee comes from a family of five voters of whom three are willing to vote for NRM with him; that gives Museveni 2.3m votes even before he begins campaigning.

Through control of the State, the NRM has also taken control of many cooperatives in the country. Uganda has over 7,000 registered cooperatives of which about 5,000 are active. Many of these have been sponsored by Museveni personally with State funds; so he is the person with direct loyalty from them and equally contact with their members.

With Church and traditional leaders receiving money and cars from him, the middle classes of Uganda can laugh at his open corruption and abuse of State power, but the ordinary masses whose vote carries the day, see him as doing the right thing.

Museveni has a highly cultivated intuition for the Ugandan psych. He understands popular expectations of him as a leader in rural areas. He scorns elite concerns (many of them pretentious) about him using public funds by personalistically handing over money to priests and prelates, chiefs and kings, queens and princes etc.

It seems he feels that anyone of those who criticize him would act exactly like him if given his position. So he has become honest. He has since abandoned his idealism of building a State with institutions that are separate from how he personally exercises power.

But most critically, is extensive State patronage of 71 ministers, 120 presidential advisors and assistants, 850 State House staff, 7,000 President’s Office staff, 50 ambassadors, 177 commissions and semi autonomous government bodies with directorships, 200 RDCs and deputies etc. This way, Museveni has crowded the opposition out of the market for politicians with social capital (reputation) and political skills (for organization and mobilization).

Consequently, in every election the opposition can hardly find candidates for parliamentary and local government positions, thus making it almost impossible to mobilize the masses against Museveni. These factors, not violence, are the real basis of Museveni’s power, and the earlier the opposition appreciates them, the better.

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