WHAT POLITICAL PARTY?
They are conspicuously quiet in national debates.
The 21st century found Ugandans engrossed in a debate about the system of government that would best suit the country. Underlying the question was the issue of how to ensure political stability, unity, security and prosperity for the long term. Would it be the “movement” type of government that President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement had introduced almost a decade and a half earlier that brought potential political adversaries together to pursue collectively agreed goals? Would it be multi-party competition that would allow different groups with different aspirations to “fight” for power in order to put their own ideas into practice? And would that be under a unitary, or federal arrangement?
Thanks partly to external support for the partists and pressure on the government to “open up,” the acrimonious debate and related processes ended in victory for the former. Unitarism also came out on top thanks to simple prejudice against federalism, ignorance about what it was, and a reluctance to even think of it as a viable option. Museveni, opposed to party politics for intellectual and ideological reasons, was not happy. Indeed, he made no secret of having given up the fight for “movement politics” because of “intolerable pressure” from donors. For these reasons, the partists would soon find out that theirs was a victory only in a very limited sense.
A decade and half down the road, it is now clear that the arguments deployed in favour of multi-party competition were merely theoretical. Hardly anyone paid attention to the kind of context political parties would need to thrive, and how it would be created, and by whom. And therein lay the opportunity for Museveni. In the end he created a context in which parties would remain stunted and struggle to compete with his own outfit, which he would not allow to grow into a full-fledged political party either. For all intents and purposes, although it was registered as a party, the NRM simply became a special purpose vehicle through which Museveni pursues his ambitions and objectives as and when necessary, and then puts on sedatives when not needed. It comes in handy when he must be nominated as a presidential candidate, when votes must be mobilised, and when parliament must be filled up with his supporters. That’s pretty much it. The rest of the time NRM even struggles to pay rent and the salaries of its employees.
That political parties play limited roles in determining what direction Uganda takes at any one moment can be seen right now as two key debates rage on about very important matters, both of which will culminate in the country’s constitution being amended — objectives he sees as important for the country. One matter concerns how ostensibly the government can ensure that whenever it has important projects to implement, whose implementation requires acquisition of land, it should not be held up by “unreasonable” landowners demanding to be paid amounts of money that are way beyond its actual value. He wants the government to be able to take over the said land and for it to pay prices determined by its own valuers, even if the owners disagree, in which case they can go to court. Meanwhile the government can go ahead and implement its projects with speed, a claim some are laughing at, given even where there are no complications with landowners, some projects have been known to move at the speed of a tortoise. There is little appetite for these proposals across the country, and the government and Museveni himself have aroused much suspicion as to their real motives, with some claiming they are meant to facilitate land grabbing whose real motive could be to enrich some people at the expense of others.
Museveni’s response to criticism and attacks, some orchestrated by opposition politicians, has been not to involve the NRM and its activists in countering them, but to go on the offensive himself. At the time of writing, he was out in the countryside, fielding questions on radio talk shows, talking to groups and individuals directly, and in at least one instance, handing out free land titles to formerly landless people. In all this, the party is conspicuous by the obvious absence of its officials and leaders. Save for isolated appearances by their MPS, organised action by political parties is nowhere to be seen.
Organised action by political parties is nowhere to be seen.” Although it was registered as a party, the NRM became a special purpose vehicle through which Museveni pursues his ambitions and objectives as and when necessary
The other matter concerns whether the constitution should be amended yet again, this time to remove the age limit to make it possible for Museveni to run for president and likely stay on after his current term expires in 2021, by which time he would otherwise be ineligible in the absence of a constitutional amendment. Frederick Golooba-mutebi is a Kampalaand Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org