Saturday, 12 September 2015

Why the Mbabazi versus Museveni contest matters in Ugandan politics

While uncertainty remains over the outcome of Uganda’s next presidential election in February 2016, this much is clear: The winner will be male, from the west of the country, and with a history of serving in the National Resistance Movement that has ruled the country since January 1986.Each of those attributes is a story in itself, but some more significant than others.In each of the past two elections, in 2006 and 2011, a female candidate appeared on the ballot but it was a symbolic tap on the glass ceiling.
Similarly, there have been candidates from other parts of the country in every election since 1996 but, as Kalundi Serumaga, a journalist and political commentator, argues, the preponderance of people from western Uganda in the top echelons of the NRA rebel army and its political wing, NRM, was always going to tilt representation in favour of that part of the country.Perhaps most notable is the chain of legacy that ties four men to NRM, what it says about the nature of the political contest, and the peculiar motivations of the latest entrant to the race.
The four men are: President Yoweri Museveni; Dr Kizza Besigye; Maj-Gen (rtd) Mugisha Muntu who was once army commander; and former premier Amama Mbabazi.That all four leading candidates come from within the NRM was, in many ways, always going to be inevitable. When the NRA took power in 1986, it had expansive military might sitting atop a narrow political base.It thus set up a “broad-based” government in which political actors and constituencies that hadn’t taken part in the war, in particular the Democratic Party (DP), were included in what was meant to be a transitional government.
The handshake soon extended beyond the elbow and, in the absence of a formal power-sharing plan, DP and other “outside forces” brought into the government were soon swallowed into an umbrella no-party (in reality single-party) political arrangement.In this arrangement, everyone belonged to the “Movement” as the NRM was interchangeably known, but power was tightly held by a small section of “historicals,” in particular those who had contributed to the war effort.Politically dissuaded (from 1986) and then legally banned (from 1992) from organising any activities necessary to recruit members and support, the old political parties atrophied and slowly sank into oblivion.
For instance, while DP’s Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere won 22.3 per cent of the vote in 1996 soon after he resigned from the “broad-based” government, under Norbert Mao DP only got 1.86 per cent in 2011.
In addition to gobbling up opposition parties and banning their activities, the NRM had, over time, successfully undermined the growth of political institutions by, on the one hand, advocating selection of electoral candidates on the basis of “individual merit”, while, on the other hand, fusing itself with the organs of the state and making it difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to challenge its grip on the state, or within it, its leader on the party.
Uganda has become more peaceful, stable and prosperous over the past 30 years and although the political space has been expanded over the past decade, the NRM retains its symbiotic grip on the state, and President Museveni on the party.
This has led many to describe Uganda as a “hybrid” regime that is neither fully despotic nor fully democratic. This, according to the book, Elections in a Hybrid Regime: Revisiting the 2011 Uganda Polls, “is made up of paradoxes and tensions between adopting democratic reforms to legitimise its rule both internally and externally while restricting them to ‘manageable’ ones, thus opening the political scene and allowing competition, while ensuring, through more subtle forms of political control, the survival of the regime”.
ike Besigye before him
Mbabazi’s challenge against Museveni is, therefore, not dissimilar to that of Besigye a decade and a half ago, or that of Ssemogerere and others 20 years earlier.To see this, it is necessary to look back at the way the NRM responded to Ssemogerere and Besigye’s political challenges, and how it is responding to the latest challenge by Mbabazi.In a paper, “Understanding the Paradoxes of Opening Political Space in Uganda” in 2005, as the country prepared to return to multiparty politics (in exchange, as it turned out, for scrapping presidential term limits), Prof Joe Oloka-Onyango noted that attempts to challenge the single-party “conscription” of Ugandans into the Movement had “been met with legal chicanery, criminal sanction, and sometimes, brute force.”
The NRM, he added, “while initially fostering considerable grassroots political participation and expression, has grown increasingly more intolerant even to its own adherents”, describing its transformation as “liberalisation without liberation”.
Mbabazi has sought to clarify some of his views: He says he still doesn’t believe in term limits but acknowledges they are a useful limit on the power of incumbency and would support their reinstatement; the POMA, which the police used to block his rallies earlier this month, is a good law being misapplied by a partisan police force, he says.The verdict of believability will lie in the hands of voters, depending on if and how Mbabazi gets to face them. For now, Mbabazi faces three challenges.
The first is to convince apathetic and older elites that he would be significantly different from and better than his erstwhile ally, Museveni, for them to come out and rally around a change agenda.

The second is to convince the younger and majority demographic, most of whom have known only Museveni all their lives, that there is a need for a peaceful transition and that he is, at 66, the man for the job.
“Mbabazi is being honest when he says he is a transitional leader,” says Serumaga, “only that he isn’t saying what he is trying to save, and for whom.”
He is no transitional leader, counters the pro-NRM lawyer. “He is in the same generation, physically and intellectually, as the Museveni he is trying to replace.”
In fact, pro-Museveni officials in NRM say the president is already preparing the country for a political transition. They point to the appointment of younger Cabinet ministers and officials in government agencies as evidence.

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