ANDREW MWENDA: The tragedy of Uganda’s opposition

Former FDC President Dr Kizza Besigye (L) and NUP President Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine (R)

The opposition in Uganda claim to have a broad strategic objective: to end dictatorship, incompetence, corruption, human rights abuses and build political institutions and implement public policies that can create a politically democratic and economically prosperous country. They have set the removal of President Yoweri Museveni from power as the first step to achieving that goal.

Over the years, however, this first step of their struggle has become so consuming that they have lost sight of their main aim. Today, the removal of Museveni has become an end in itself.

If one’s strategic aim is to democratise Uganda and promote economic prosperity, there are different ways to realise some/part of these goals. Here, the removal of Museveni from office would be important since it would give one full power to implement their preferred political and economic reforms.

But what if this objective is not (and cannot be) achieved in the short, medium or even long term? Are there things that can be done in the interim to advance the cause of reform even when the ultimate objective removing Museveni from power has not yet been achieved?

One can use street protests where the aim is clearly articulated and targeted at eliciting a specific government reaction. They can identify a popular grievance and rally the public around it  like Raila Odinga is doing with the cost of living in Kenya now. Here, protest is the strategy while a specific government response is the aim. This means you use protest to force negotiations exactly what Raila is trying to do in Kenya.

On June 24, President William Ruto tweeted he is ready for talks with him. Although Raila set terms for the talks, anyone with basic knowledge of Kenyan politics knows he is posturing as a bargaining chip to bolster his negotiating power. Soon Raila and Ruto will meet.

Compare this with Uganda. In 2011, Kizza Besigye led Walk to Work protests against rising inflation. He was on the streets daily, protesting. However, he never demanded any specific action from government. His protests came across as an end in themselves rather than a means to an end. They paralysed Kampala City, making it hard to bring food in. This led to increased prices, especially of food, in Kampala and therefore accentuated the very problem Besigye claimed he wanted to be solved.

Unfortunately, his protests coincided with the Arab Spring. Without any specific demand for action from government, the state saw his protests as copycats to precipitate an unconstitutional change of government. This changed its calculus: it brought out its big guns to crush his “rebellion.”

Yet, if he genuinely saw protest as a means to advance the cause of controlling inflation, he would have used them as a bargaining chip for negotiations. Even if he did not want to meet Museveni personally, he could have asked for talks with the Bank of Uganda and the Ministry of Finance. After negotiations, they would have produced a statement on the solution.

Whatever the symbolic value of such a gesture, it would have shown the world, but most especially his supporters, that Besigye achieved something. Yet this basic part of his struggle was totally absent from his calculations. His inability to see value in negotiations exposes Besigye as inherently antidemocratic and only interested in power for its own sake. Since then, he has remained on the streets protesting for the right to protest. Sadly, Bobi Wine is walking this path.

Another way to advance the cause of political reform is through the courts; especially using constitutional petitions. As a journalist and activist, I have been to the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court to advance the cause of freedom and liberty with great success. We have caused the annulment of the laws of false news and sedition and the first anti-homosexuality act. We got a judgement that if anyone is challenging the constitutionality of any law, then all prosecution under such law has to be stayed until the disposal of the constitutional petition. This has made it impossible for the state to prosecute opposition politicians since many of these laws are being challenged in the Constitutional Court.

The third strategy is fighting to increase the share of opposition MPs in parliament which has been shrinking since 2006 giving Museveni more say and sway over the political and economic direction of the country. Parliament in Uganda has enormous power over the making of laws, the writing of the budget not to mention fighting corruption. If the opposition had a 40% share of parliament, they could have blocked the amendment of the constitution to remove term and age limits. Instead, Besigye, and now Bobi Wine, have focused most of their resources on capturing the presidency.

It does not make strategic sense for a weak party in any struggle military, political or economic to throw most of their resources at the enemy’s most heavily fortified position. That is suicidal. You attack the enemy at his weakest point where he pays the least attention. In our case, it is local councils and parliament not the presidency. Hence, by increasing your share of seats in parliament and local councils, you can create capacity, in the long term, to assault the presidency with a good chance of success.

Finally, the opposition in Uganda should be open about negotiating with government for political and economic reforms that they consider dear. These negotiations can be specific to a particular reform or broader, seeking a government of national unity where they can participate as junior partners. Half a loaf, or even 20%, is better than nothing. In my many unhappy encounters with opposition activists, I get the impression that their principle is “all or none”  either they get all that they want or stay away. This is silly. They claim that working with Museveni only helps the president consolidate his power. But even without them, he continues to hold power.

Sadly, in their obsessive desire to remove Museveni from power, they have become blind to the chance to participate in government and influence some decisions in their favor. Negotiations demand that all parties give up something dear in order to gain something important. Therefore, the outcome cannot be absolute satisfaction for anyone but a balance of dissatisfaction. The real problem is that the opposition see Museveni as a devil to destroy not as a partner to negotiate with.

So, they see negotiations as selling out; compromise as capitulation. Consequently, they have become strategic captives of their subjective feelings.

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