WHAT PO­LIT­I­CAL PARTY?

FRED­ER­ICK GOLOOBAMUTEBI

The East African - - OPINION -

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: fg­mutebi@ya­hoo.com

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