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On Uganda’s political development

Aug 14, 2023Aug 14, 2023

ANDREW MWENDA August 5, 2023 Andrew Mwenda, BLOGS, Column, COLUMNISTS, In The Magazine, Opinion, THE LAST WORD Leave a comment

Why I believe that Museveni would make a strategic partner in negotiating political reform

THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | Last week, I argued that political development and democratic progress in Uganda have been held back by the attitude of the opposition towards President Yoweri Museveni. It is true Museveni has often employed brutal methods to retain his power by repressing opposition to his rule. But this has been a secondary strategy of last resort. For the most part, Museveni has used persuasion and cooptation (patronage/bribery) to consolidate his power. But as his popularity and therefore credibility and legitimacy have waned, his reliance on patronage has grown in tandem with a tendency to resort to repression to hold the smoldering edifice of his system together.

Although this points to a grim future for democracy in the country, it can also be an opportunity for political reform towards more open society. Museveni’s retreat to repression through abductions and torture of opposition activists is not a demonstration of strength but of vulnerability. This means that political repression can actually become a seedbed for democracy. Because he is more vulnerable, Museveni is much more willing to negotiate than when he was at the pinnacle of his popularity and legitimacy. For we must remember that throughout his political career, Museveni has always been open to negotiations with his opponents, including armed and violent ones, even though on his own terms.

Democracy cannot be birthed by the barrel of the gun. It can only grow through negotiations and compromise. Yet the opposition in Uganda is hostile to this very idea. The opposition in Uganda is not monolithic. However, the opposition I am talking about here are two radical groups – Defiance led by Dr. Kizza Besigye and NUP led by Bobi Wine. These are the powerful forces of the opposition with great passion and enthusiasm. They are equally the most intolerant. Because of their power, they have stifled the more liberal minded and tolerant factions of the opposition; especially those inclined to negotiations and compromise.

Within Defiance and NUP, negotiations are seen as a sign of weakness and evidence of bribery; compromise is capitulation. They also see Museveni as a devil, equal in evil to Adolf Hitler and therefore an enemy to destroy not an opponent to defeat. This attitude frees them from all moral restraint in terms of actions they can take to get rid of him. Of course, this compliment is returned by Museveni’s apparatchik, the more reason security services abduct and torture their activists. As I argued last week, the opposition have thus become strategic captives of their subjective feelings. This is a dangerous for our country, for it undermines reform.

We need to move from both extremes to the center. The possibilities are many even though their chances look bleak. The first step is to avoid introducing foreigners into our struggles the way Bobi Wine recently went to ICC. This is because foreign powers come with their own national interests. It is worse when they have no national interest at stake. For then they are self-righteous and self-righteousness is a much more stubborn trait to deal with than self-interest. Besides, even when they are well intentioned, outside powers come armed with ideological beliefs, prejudices, assumptions, etc. They therefore seek to promote solutions based on text book theories that may not fit our particular context.

The political development and democratisation of Uganda will depend more on us talking to each other than fighting each other. This does not mean that fighting is always bad. As long as the fights are civil and based on principle and seeking to achieve national objectives, they are okay. But every fight on the street must aim at forcing negotiations on a round table. A government born out of negotiation and compromise will be more inclined to govern by similar means. Equally, government born by obliterating its opponents will be more inclined to govern by similar means. The solution for Uganda is to reject those who seek total defeat of their opponents.

I believe that Museveni is a good candidate for political progress based on negotiations and compromise. Throughout his career, Museveni has fought many opponents, armed and civic, and in different parts of the country and at different times. In the case of armed/violent rebellion, he has sought to secure a military victory first. After defeating his opponents on the battlefield, he has offered them political negotiations. The outcome has always been to integrate their fighters into the NRA/UPDF and their political leaders into his cabinet and diplomatic service. He has won over or coopted many of his civic opponents by not keeping grudges.

Therefore, the potential for negotiations leading to a government of national unity exists with Museveni as president. The problem is that the most passionate opposition activists see this as surrender. They want to win everything they want and demand; so, they have made the perfect the enemy of the good. But this strategy is self-defeating. The opposition have been unable to dislodge Museveni militarily or through elections or civil disobedience. This has given the president time and space to employ his salami strategy – to keep slicing the opposition bit by bit. Every year, his credibility, popularity and legitimacy decline. And each year, he slices more layers upon layers of the opposition’s leadership.

The irony is that as Museveni has grown weaker and weaker, and those hostile to his rule have grown larger and larger, the president has gained greater control of the political machinery. He has skillfully exploited the radicalism of Defiance and NUP to win over moderate leaders of the opposition. In the process, he has cut the head (leadership) from the body (followership). The large mass of Ugandans who could rally against him do not find a sufficient number of leaders with experience, skills and political profile to convert their frustrations into an effective political force. This has left Museveni in an uneasy but still good position: he is presiding over the piling up of social dynamite but is also holding the buttons to the detonator.

It does not make strategic sense for the opposition to lock themselves out of a potential power-sharing arrangement. Over the years, I have grown wary of the politics of winner-take-all. We need a constitution where power is shared based on each political party’s performance in elections as Rwanda does. This would incentivise our politicians to moderate their language during campaigns knowing that your opponent in elections is likely to be your partner in government the better to be civil towards them.


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Why I believe that Museveni would make a strategic partner in negotiating political reformTHE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda| ANDREW MWENDA