When they use vi­o­lent tac­tics, op­po­si­tion MPS are play­ing right into Mu­sev­eni’s hands

The East African - - NEWS - AN­DREW M. MWENDA

Uganda has this past week wit­nessed the worst clashes ever on the floor of par­lia­ment. Leg­is­la­tors from the op­po­si­tion sought to use phys­i­cal vi­o­lence to stop the rul­ing Na­tional Re­sis­tance Move­ment (NRM) party of Pres­i­dent Yow­eri Mu­sev­eni from tabling a mo­tion that would amend the Con­sti­tu­tion and re­move the age limit on the pres­i­dency so that the pres­i­dent can run in 2021. Af­ter fist and stick fights in­side the cham­ber with plain-clothes se­cu­rity op­er­a­tives, 24 op­po­si­tion MPS were ejected from par­lia­ment and sent to jail.

The op­po­si­tion MPS were fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle, though. To amend the Con­sti­tu­tion needs two-thirds of mem­bers. Uganda’s par­lia­ment has 436 leg­is­la­tors. NRM needs 291 MPS to amend the Con­sti­tu­tion, and al­ready, 288 have signed to sup­port the amend­ment. Ten NRM MPS have re­fused while 58 in­de­pen­dents and five new NRM MPS sup­port the amend­ment. That brings the to­tal to 351. If one adds the 10 army MPS, NRM has 361 votes.

Yet, the op­po­si­tion MPS are play­ing right into Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni’s hands. He would like the process of amend­ment to be seen as demo­cratic — as long as any pos­tur­ing by op­po­si­tion MPS does not threaten his hold on power. Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni knows the op­po­si­tion are a tiny, though mi­nor­ity. In giv­ing them a chance to ex­press them­selves — even vi­o­lently on the floor of par­lia­ment — they le­git­imise the amend­ment. It shows the amend­ment went through a rig­or­ous demo­cratic process. The vi­o­lent op­po­si­tion are sub­jec­tively his strong­est crit­ics, but ob­jec­tively they are his strate­gic al­lies.

Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni has no scru­ples when his power is threat­ened. He can be bru­tal and ar­bi­trary. Tol­er­at­ing th­ese MPS is a cal­cu­lated act, not a sign of weak­ness or im­po­tence. In 2006, he sent hooded se­cu­rity men in black T-shirts, armed with au­to­matic weapons, to in­vade courts and vi­o­lently re-ar­rest sus­pects who had been granted bail. He also sent his party’s youth who in­vaded courts forc­ing judges to run for dear life. The judges com­plained, donors threat­ened, the me­dia scolded him, but Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni re­mained in of­fice.

The vi­o­lence in Uganda’s par­lia­ment has left a dent on Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni’s im­age. But he has suf­fered many of dents be­fore. Be­sides, the op­po­si­tion lacks the most im­por­tant thing they need in par­lia­ment — num­bers. They can ar­gue them­selves hoarse that they are the moral con­science of Uganda. But in a democ­racy it is the ma­jor­ity that rules, not the moral con­science. Many Amer­i­cans think Don­ald Trump is a thug, be­neath the dig­nity of the of­fice of pres­i­dent of the US. But he is the pres­i­dent be­cause he won the elec­tion un­der the rules of their con­sti­tu­tion and democ­racy. There is no way op­po­si­tion MPS can jus­tify that their mi­nor­ity of 75 votes against 361 should stop the busi­ness of par­lia­ment.

The op­po­si­tion knows the prob­lem, but has no so­lu­tion. The is­sue in this de­bate is not the age limit. It is Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni’s de­sire to rule for life. The op­po­si­tion are try­ing to use con­sti­tu­tional tech­ni­cal­i­ties to re­move the pres­i­dent from power. That is a fu­tile ex­er­cise. Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni can only be re­moved from power through po­lit­i­cal strug­gle. Such a strug­gle has to have ef­fec­tive or­gan­i­sa­tion that mo­bilises the masses be­hind the op­po­si­tion. Yet the op­po­si­tion has re­stricted their strug­gle to an­tics in par­lia­ment.

Over months of talk­ing to them, I be­lieve that over 90 per cent of NRM MPS do not sup­port Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni’s continued stay in power. Many gen­uinely love and re­spect him. But they also want him to re­tire. How­ever, the in­cen­tive struc­ture is such that they gain more — both po­lit­i­cally and fi­nan­cially — by sup­port­ing the amend­ment than by op­pos­ing it. This is the stuff of pol­i­tics and Ugan­dan politi­cians are no dif­fer­ent from politi­cians any­where else. But if it was clear that the public would turn against them if they sup­ported the amend­ment to re­move the age limit, NRM MPS would vote with their con­science rather than their cal­cu­lat­ing heads.

Sec­ond, a re­cent Afro­barom­e­ter opin­ion sur­vey showed that more than 70 per cent of the coun­try does not want the age limit amend­ment. The op­po­si­tion is de­fend­ing a pop­u­lar po­si­tion. But the masses are not or­gan­ised; and with­out or­gan­i­sa­tion, you can­not turn mass sup­port into pur­pose­ful ac­tion. That is why a well-or­gan­ised mi­nor­ity can eas­ily de­feat a dis­or­gan­ised ma­jor­ity.

It is true that Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni has put road­blocks in the path of any­one who seeks to or­gan­ise the peo­ple. You can ac­cuse him of be­ing un­fair. But it is not his job to give space to his op­po­nents. Such free­dom to or­gan­ise is won, not given. So what Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni is do­ing may be morally re­pug­nant, but it is po­lit­i­cally ex­pected. The op­po­si­tion claim to be fight­ing a dic­ta­tor­ship. So why would they ex­pect the dic­ta­tor­ship to give them free­dom to or­gan­ise against it?

In my many un­happy en­coun­ters with Ugan­dans on so­cial me­dia, I meet large num­bers of pas­sion­ate anti-mu­sev­eni ac­tivists. When­ever I post some­thing on Face­book, I get any­where be­loud,

No sac­ri­fice

tween 50,000 and 200,000 peo­ple read­ing it. Of­ten, hun­dreds, some­times thou­sands, com­ment on the post. Th­ese are huge num­bers. The com­men­ta­tors drum up their frus­tra­tion with the Mu­sev­eni gov­ern­ment, ac­cus­ing it of cor­rup­tion, in­com­pe­tence, de­stroy­ing Uganda and op­press­ing them. If Uganda has such a large number of pas­sion­ate cit­i­zens, why is it not re­flected in ef­fec­tive ac­tion on the streets?

I would imag­ine all th­ese pas­sion­ate Ugan­dans on Face­book would each mo­bilise col­leagues at their work­place, at their univer­sity or neigh­bour­hood, in the mar­ket or shop or of­fice to come out and demon­strate for their be­liefs. Why don’t they do it? To claim that it is be­cause the po­lice will beat them (or kill them) shows that they are not will­ing to sac­ri­fice any­thing for their be­liefs. But this also sug­gests that they ac­tu­ally don’t value the cause for which they claim to stand. Or it shows that Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni’s gov­ern­ment has not made them des­per­ate enough to stake ev­ery­thing for change.

Look, the par­lia­men­tary de-

I be­lieve that over 90 per cent of NRM MPS do not sup­port Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni’s continued stay in power.”

bate to “rape the Con­sti­tu­tion” is tak­ing place in Kam­pala and its sur­round­ing Wak­iso dis­trict. This re­gion has over two mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers. It is also a highly ur­banised area — the pop­u­la­tion con­cen­tra­tion is high mak­ing mass mo­bil­i­sa­tion easy and quick. Kam­pala and Wak­iso have the most youth­ful, ed­u­cated, ex­posed and pas­sion­ate cit­i­zens. This is the most pow­er­ful so­cial in­fra­struc­ture for civil dis­obe­di­ence. Yet in spite of the drama in par­lia­ment that is be­ing tele­vised and streamed live on so­cial me­dia, and in spite of al­most uni­ver­sal ac­cess to tele­vi­sion and so­cial me­dia in this re­gion, there is very lit­tle ac­tion on the streets to in­flu­ence the de­bate in par­lia­ment.

When­ever peo­ple try to demon­strate around Kam­pala, Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni sends in a few po­lice­men and the demon­stra­tion is over. There is hardly any pro­longed, tough re­sis­tance. This means that the Ugan­dans com­plain­ing on so­cial me­dia are ei­ther cow­ards or they are over­stat­ing their com­mit­ment to the po­lit­i­cal ideals they claim to be so pas­sion­ate about. Or maybe th­ese Ugan­dans — deep down — do not ac­tu­ally be­lieve that Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni is as bad as they claim.

Ugan­dans are not cow­ards. In 1981, Mu­sev­eni or­gan­ised Ugan­dans to fight for free­dom. Peo­ple quit their jobs, oth­ers de­serted their ed­u­ca­tion, many aban­doned their fam­i­lies, thou­sands sac­ri­ficed their prop­erty and many left their busi­nesses to join the strug­gle for free­dom. Those Ugan­dans, like cur­rent op­po­si­tion leader Kizza Be­si­gye, who made th­ese sac­ri­fices, had lit­tle hope of an easy or quick vic­tory. Mu­sev­eni was not pay­ing salaries. They had lim­ited ac­cess to food, shel­ter and cloth­ing. There was no med­i­cal care. Yet peo­ple were will­ing to shed their blood and lose their lives for the cause.

From the ex­pe­ri­ence of Mu­sev­eni’s strug­gle, three lessons emerge. One is that the sit­u­a­tion un­der Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni may not be good for many Ugan­dans, but it is tol­er­a­ble for most peo­ple. It is not bad enough to cause them to risk ev­ery­thing for change.

Sec­ond, con­trary to their claims, many Ugan­dan elites on so­cial me­dia en­joy a high de­gree of free­dom un­der Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni. So their claims of tyranny are hy­per­bole.

Three, Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni is an ex­cep­tion­ally bril­liant or­gan­iser and in­spi­ra­tional leader. He can get peo­ple to make huge sac­ri­fices for a cause.

If my claims above are wrong, then the con­clu­sion from my ev­i­dence above is that Mr Be­si­gye is a very poor or­gan­iser. And I think this also is the case. The anger we see on so­cial me­dia is what I would call “so­cial dy­na­mite” wait­ing for a “det­o­na­tor”, that is in­spi­ra­tional lead­er­ship that of­fers ef­fec­tive or­gan­i­sa­tion con­vert­ing po­ten­tial po­lit­i­cal en­ergy into ef­fec­tive po­lit­i­cal ac­tion.

It is clear that Mr Be­si­gye’s sac­ri­fices and suf­fer­ance have en­deared him to the hearts of many Ugan­dans tired of Pres­i­dent Mu­sev­eni’s rule. How­ever, this sym­pa­thy has also blinded his sup­port­ers from see­ing the strate­gic deficit in Mr Be­si­gye’s lead­er­ship. His continued lead­er­ship of the op­po­si­tion has sti­fled the de­vel­op­ment of al­ter­na­tive lead­ers who may have bet­ter or­gan­i­sa­tional and in­spi­ra­tional skills than him. There­fore it is pos­si­ble that Mr Be­si­gye is the big­gest prob­lem the op­po­si­tion is fac­ing to­day.


Uganda’s op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers fought with plain-clothes se­cu­rity per­son­nel in par­lia­ment on Septem­ber 27.

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