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