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What the opposition should read

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Last week, a friend brought me a pirated copy of the recently released Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon movie, Invictus. It is a gripping story of how Nelson Mandela used rugby to assuage the fears of white South Africans regarding the dawn of majority rule. As I watched the movie tears kept rolling down my eyes ‘ inspired and impressed by the iconic character of a man who has become a living political saint.

Immediately after the movie, I jumped to my study and picked a copy of Long Walk to Freedom. I had read the book in 1998. Re-reading it after a decade, I could not sleep or go to the gym and I went to office late. Within three days, I had devoured its 750 pages. It is a great work of intellect written with humility; a story of oppression and injustice, of struggle and sacrifice and of triumph against heavy odds.

The book offers lessons for the opposition in Uganda. Our government is corrupt and incompetent; with a ruling elite that is greedy and selfish. Hence, the structures of our public schools and hospitals are crumbling, teachers and medical workers are underpaid; patients and students’ rights are abused with impunity. There are ghost teachers, ghost medical workers, ghost hospitals and ghost schools. And of course, there are our potholes.

Although many Ugandans think these dysfunctions are by products of a deficit in democracy, I think they are actually a result of the specific way in which our democracy has evolved. The NRM has to go through competitive elections to win and retain power. Its strategy of doing this involves buying off key elite constituencies using public sector jobs. Through elaborate state patronage; a 350 member parliament, 71 person cabinet, 104 districts and 139 autonomous government agencies, it has integrated large sections of the elite into power. This has had a devastating effect on the opposition and on the delivery of public goods and services.

Huge chunks of money go to pay public sector salaries instead of delivering services. Hence, public sector wages constituted over 65% of the government’s recurrent expenditures. Secondly, because public sector salaries are officially low, the system relies on abating corruption in order to sustain the loyalty of those it has co-opted. But corruption eats away the ability of the public sector to build or maintain roads, schools and hospitals and to deliver good healthcare and education.

The NRM took an early decision to liberalise the economy and in doing this opened many alternatives to public sector services especially in health and education. Over the last 15 years, Uganda has witnessed phenomenal growth of private schools and hospitals which today outshine and outnumber public ones. Those most directly affected by a bad public education and healthcare system are the ordinary people; most elites seek private sector alternatives. This way, the reform process separated the interests of ordinary people from those of their potential leaders ‘ the elite.

History teaches us that successful revolutions are never orchestrated from below by the masses but by elites from above. Mass discontent becomes effective politically when organised, led and articulated by intellectuals. By integrating most elites into government at central and local levels, the NRM has diminished the number of people with experience and skills to provide effective leadership and organisation to the opposition. Therefore, at the level of shared interests and at the level of numbers, the NRM has cut the head (leadership) from the body (followership). Mass discontent is thus unable to find leadership and organised political expression.

It is in recognising this fundamental paradox that the opposition can craft an agenda to overcome it. However, the opposition seems largely, if not entirely, concerned with gaining political power than redressing the challenges that ordinary people face. Instead, it uses these dysfunctions instrumentally to score political points. It is therefore possible that if given power, the opposition in Uganda would behave like the one in Zambia (under Frederick Chiluba) or Kenya (under Mwai Kibaki) and become just as corrupt and as incompetent as the system they fought.

In reading Mandela’s book, I found the major difference between democratic struggles in post independent Africa and the struggle against apartheid. I also noticed the difference between the ANC and most post independence African opposition movements often mischaracterised as democratic movements. First, by discriminating against people on the basis of their race, apartheid created a unity of interest between elite blacks (leaders) and the masses. A black attorney like Mandela faced similar or even worse injustice at the hands of the apartheid state as did a black mine worker.

However, the ANC did not see itself merely as an instrument of grabbing power from the apartheid state. It was involved in the mundane day-today struggles of black South Africans. For example, when in 1954 the apartheid state threatened to raze down Sophiatown, ANC organised protests against the move and later a mass evacuation of its residents and placed them in the homes of its members. When the state passed the Bantu Education Act, ANC organised a boycott ‘ in some places even creating alternative schools for children who had boycotted the official schools. The party was involved in the existential needs of its members.

In spite of their extremist positions, Hamas and Hezbollah have followed a similar pattern; they run orphanages and charities that provide clean water, healthcare, affordable education and low-cost housing to the community. In Uganda, Mengo has been forced to retreat behind the appeal of ethnicity because of its failure to set up organisations that can serve the population of Buganda in spite of but also because of the absence of the Ugandan state in people’s lives.

Opposition parties in Africa tend to reproduce the form of rule they have fought to overthrow precisely because they are often more concerned with grabbing power rather offering an alternative vision. From the NRM to Zambia, Ghana, Malawi and Kenya, it has always been a change of guard. Only in post genocide Rwanda and Ethiopia has sub-Sahara Africa seen the emergence of governments committed to serving the public good. The opposition should read Long Walk to Freedom.

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