By Andrew M.Mwenda
With next year’s presidential election looming, President Yoweri Museveni continues to hold the strategic initiative in spite of his diminished credibility. While most of the country is silently hostile to his continued stay in power, there is little enthusiasm for the opposition. Save for a blunder by Museveni, like arresting the Kabaka or the Cardinal, something that would whip up strong identity sentiments, there seems little else to motivate potential opposition voters.
Why is this so? One reason is that the opposition up to now lacks organic linkages with vital societal groups like the youths, medical workers, teachers, landless peasants, vendors, students and boda boda riders. Consequently, it has no message that can resonate with the constituencies whose support it desires.
The irony of our politics is that Museveni still comes across as the spokesman of the disenfranchised. For instance, when KCC sought to evict vendors from markets in Nakasero and Kiseka, it is Museveni who defended them. When it tried to impose a tax on boda bodas, Museveni protected them. Where land lords have evicted squatters, Museveni has spearheaded the struggle to give them security of tenure.
Even though his positions on these issues have been consistently retrogressive, they are positions nonetheless. The opposition seems to have no position. It becomes extremely difficult therefore for those concerned to look towards it for inspiration.
Even in public education, healthcare and infrastructure that are riddled with absenteeism, apathy, corruption, institutionalised incompetence and ghosts (ghost health centres/schools/teachers/pupils/medical workers), potholes and inflated construction bills, Museveni expresses concern and promises a clean-up. Yet we should expect the opposition to exploit these popular grievances to build a political following. We know that Museveni is the grandmaster of all this corruption and incompetence. His hypocrisy and lies notwithstanding, at least he pretends.
Even we in the ‘independent’ media have failed to perform our role of holding public officials and institutions to account. For example, the government-run New Vision has been reporting the existence of ghost health centres ‘ more than 100 across the country. Yet the independent press, the opposition (and parliament which pretends to investigate such matters) have all not done any follow-up.
It is only when there is a big intra-NRM power struggle that these other bodies get mobilised ‘ largely as instruments of the different factions competing for power within the ruling party. Take Temangalo for example; for four months, it dominated parliamentary work and media coverage. Why? Powerful forces inside NRM wanted to wrestle power from Amama Mbabazi. They had a good chance because NSSF had purchased his land through a process that violated procurement rules.
Yet there was little of national significance at stake. NSSF had secured a handsome investment opportunity with a good rate of return. While the power-struggle against Mbabazi inside NRM was legitimate, the media’s role was misguided. Instead of providing context and promoting the interests of NSSF subscribers which were being ignored in order to fight Mbabazi, the ‘independent’ media acted like a public relations machinery for one faction of the NRM.
My attempts to bring context to this debate were attacked with intrigue and political deceit. I was told Mbabazi gave me a bribe of $300,000 to ‘defend’ him, a clever way to fight a powerful argument by diverting attention from the issue to the person making it. Two years later, I have not yet received the cash. So whoever Mbabazi released it to must have cheated me. (Mbabazi, I am still waiting for my bribe!).
Most journalists actually took the anti-Temangalo position out of ignorance. However, it does not take long for people to notice who stands in a principled promotion (or defence) of their interests. For instance, even if we admitted ‘ just for arguments’ sake ‘ that Mbabazi and Amos Nzei’s land was overpriced by Shs 8m per acre, the total loss NSSF suffered would be Shs 4 billion. That is peanuts!
Yet since November 2008, NSSF has lost over Shs 150 billion as a result of the suspension of its trading and investment plans for seven months by the ministry of finance. Today, its subscribers are being paid negative real interest rates ‘ down from 14%. Not surprisingly, there is not even a whisper in the press, at parliament or among the opposition against this blatant abuse of the public trust. What should NSSF subscribers think of those who faked concern for them only two years ago?
It is the government newspaper, New Vision, always highlighting the presence of ghost hospitals in our country. This is one area of our national political life that affects the vast majority of our citizens. Even if the claim that Temangalo land was overpriced was true, at least NSSF bought land with titles. But when the government spends billions of shillings on non-existence hospitals and the national parliament, mass media and opposition treat it as insignificant, there is a problem.
The opposition cannot hope to ride purely on shouting wolf at the scarecrow of the NRM. It is our duty in the media to hold them to account, to challenge them about their agenda for the country: What is their policy on education and health? What is their policy on inflation and interest rates, on housing, power and infrastructure? How do they plan to combat corruption, incompetence and apathy in the public sector?
While everyone, including myself, is tired of the corruption, incompetence and nepotism of the Museveni administration, it seems obvious that the opposition are ill-equipped to address the vital challenges facing our nation. Indeed, if they won an election, the best they can do is reproduce Museveni’s system but without his authority and finesse. Most likely, the opposition can produce a worse outcome.
As media and as voters, we need to question how the opposition presents itself as a true champion of the interests of key groups within our political life. For instance, even Adolf Hitler and Idi Amin would find the proposed media bill autocratic. As journalists, we have failed to rally and defend our own interest. Secondly, what does the opposition think of it? Thus far, I have only scratched the surface. Let me hope it gets us thinking more seriously.