Last week, the opposition was involved in skirmishes regarding the selection of a joint presidential candidate under The Democratic Alliance (TDA). The alliance seemed biased on selecting Amama Mbabazi to lead the fight against President Yoweri Museveni. But the most fanatical supporters of the opposition prefer Kizza Besigye. It will be extremely difficult for TDA to convince all sides to field one candidate. Here are the underlying factors.
There are four major political tendencies in Uganda today. The first are militants seeking revolutionary change of the status quo. They want government to commit to wide-ranging electoral reforms that create an even playing-field before any elections are held. However, they also believe the Museveni administration is not willing to accept any meaningful reform. Thus this group believes it should organise mass political action to force government to yield to their demands or even precipitate “regime collapse”. It is led by Besigye and is supported by such people as Nandala Mafabi, Erias Lukwago, David Tinyefuza, and Jack Sabiti.
The second group consists of opposition moderates seeking evolutionary change. They believe that despite the existing political restrictions and the intransigence of many in NRM, it is still possible to advance reform. This can be achieved by developing a long term vision. The opposition should build effective institutional infrastructure to match political demands with organisational capacity. Without this, political demands become empty rhetoric that NRM can ignore. This tendency is led by Uganda’s most noble politician, Mugisha Muntu, and includes such people as Ogenga Latigo, Abdul Katuntu, Amanya Mushega, Augustine Ruzindana and Norbert Mao.
The third group is the NRM reformists. This group believes the NRM has done a good job in rebuilding the state and economy and has advanced the democratic project. But in spite of this, it recognizes that there is a lot to be done most especially to organise a peaceful transition of power from Museveni. To progress, there is need for reform inside NRM. They recognise they cannot win the internal political contest inside the ruling party. But they can link up with groups One and Two under TDA to promote political reform and potential for a transition. This group is led by Mbabazi.
The fourth tendency is in NRM. It is composed of party diehards who want NRM to resist all reform. This group sees electoral and political reforms as a threat to its hold on power. It is willing to use the coercive instruments of the state to crash its opponents. It is aware that its biggest threat is groups Two and Three because they appeal to a large section of NRM supporters and independents. Ironically, although Groups One and Four are at the extreme end of the political spectrum(and therefore subjectively bitter enemies) they are objective allies – each one of them needs the other to thrive.
Indeed, opposition militants have been fighting rearguard action to isolate and destroy the moderate opposition. They see moderates as the biggest threat to their political objectives. Therefore, they accuse anyone who shows any moderation and understanding with Museveni as a sellout. For a while, this approach had been successful in weakening the moderates. However, Mbabazi’s entry into the race has realigned political forces and forced a reassessment of these accusations. The violence meted against him by the police, in spite of his very moderate views against NRM and Museveni, has cemented his reputation as a genuine agent of reform. It has also exposed NRM’s extremists. This has taken the militant opposition by surprise, forcing Besigye into positions and actions that will erode his star.
The strategy of TDA was to bring groups One and Two together by picking fights with group Three. They need to demonstrate to Ugandans that Group One is too extreme to be a vehicle for meaningful reform; and that group Four can be brought to the table if the threat posed by group One is eroded. TDA wants to build a new political center that could form a majority.This calculation seems to be working as last week’s events somehow exposed Besigye as another power hungry politician not very different from Museveni. The violence and intolerance of his group and their internal fist-fights and “kidnap” of Besigye last week further made the case against them.
Yet although undermining Besigye and his militants should be a strategic objective, it is not prudent tactically. A joint candidate is a good idea on paper. However, it is extremely difficult to execute because of the contradictory interests and egos of its different players. For TDA to work effectively, you need politicians of Muntu’s character and values. He is the only major politician in Uganda who will place the wider interests of the opposition above his personal ambition and ego. Neither Besigye nor Mbabazi can do this. If Mbabazi wins the TDA endorsement, Besigye will find reasons (many of them justified) to run on FDC ticket. The reverse is true if Besigye wins the TDA nomination. Mbabazi will run as an independent.
Secondly in seeking to field a joint presidential candidate TDA is exposing the internal contradictions of the opposition to the public and coming across as disorganized. This plays into Museveni’s hands, as his NRM ship looks more united and organised to lead. Yet opinion polls show that the best option for the opposition is to field both Besigye and Mbabazi. Why? When Besigye runs against Museveni in a two horse race, there is enthusiasm in opposition ranks leading to high turnout. But he also generates fear in Museveni supporters and NRM-leaning independents who turnout to vote against Besigye. When Mbabazi goes head to head against Museveni, he nibbles at the president’s vote. However, many fanatical opposition supporters stay home, and the opposition vote falls.
The best case scenario for the opposition is therefore a three horse race where Museveni runs against both Besigye and Mbabazi. Here, Besigye can hold the opposition base and Mbabazi can appeal to NRM moderates and independents. Only then can the two have a chance of forcing Museveni into a second round. Clearly, united the opposition falls; divided it stands. However, in a three-way race, Besigye is most likely to be the first runup, and therefore the candidate to face Museveni in a second round. This result would strengthen the extremists against the moderates. In this case TDA may need to focus on 2021 when Besigye is weakened than 2016.Museveni and his opponents are involved in a quarrel over our past. We need a debate about our future
It seems NRM has decided to use violence to win next year’s presidential election. Problem is President Yoweri Museveni has always been a net loser when he has used violence against his opponents.
Using violence against his opponents gives free publicity to their often poorly resourced campaigns and makes them more militant. It also upsets vast numbers of educated, urbanised undecided voters who turn out to vote against Museveni even as it demoralises Museveni’s supporters in this social stratum forcing many to stay home on polling day. I have provided statistical evidence to prove this point in another article.
Why then does NRM choose violence? One reason is that the president’s main base is the poor uneducated peasants. This social stratum does not see elections as an opportunity to make a choice of who should become president. Most of them go to the polls to affirm whom they think has power. In bundling Kizza Besigye or Amama Mbabazi on a police pickup and beating up their supporters, Museveni is demonstrating to them that these candidates are weak and therefore cannot wrestle power from him.
If this is his calculation, then it is sad because it means the president is trying to win peasants at the price of alienating the educated middleclass. He doesn’t have to make such a choice because he can win both groups.
Even without violence against his opponents, opinion polls show that Museveni has a commanding lead among poor rural voters. Therefore, his main campaign strategy should be how to hold his peasant base while making inroads into the urbanised and educated social classes. He doesn’t even need to win a majority in this group to hold a comfortable lead.
The other reason for violence could be that Museveni has a profound mistrust of voters, a factor perhaps rooted in his guerrilla background which stresses constant mistrust. When he feels psychologically insecure during an election, Museveni retreats to military tactics because it is something he is a specialist in. The president’s handlers have learnt how to exploit his electoral insecurity to unleash violence in order to win his favour – for then they appear to be the most loyal and faithful. But in many ways they may undermine his legacy and tarnish his record. Why?
As I argued in this column last week, Uganda has sustained a high rate of economic growth over a generation. This has led to the expansion of education opportunities. Over 400,000 youths graduate from tertiary institutions every year. They now have access to mass media (radio, television and internet). This exposure has made them aspirational. Yet they cannot find jobs. Using violence against NRM opponents is not a strategy to win their support. The president can endear himself to them with the promise of opportunities in the growing economy.
Economic growth has also produced a large middleclass. When I was a student at Makerere in 1994, Museveni said his objective was to grow Uganda’s middleclass to 50,000 households. Stanbic Group has just produced a study estimating Uganda has 500,000 households in the middleclass. They defined such a household as one living in a house that has running water, electricity, owns a refrigerator, television, cooker, microwave, etc. With an average of seven people per household, these are 3.5 million Ugandans (10% of total population) in middleclass status. The World Bank using a more conservative baseline estimates Uganda to have about 12 million people (one third) in the middleclass. This is the class Museveni has successfully created and which gets revolted by police violence against his opponents.
Of course many of our people are still mired in poverty. This is because, in developing countries, rapid economic growth initially tends to increase income inequalities, thus creating an impression of mass poverty growing alongside new wealth. This is because people who earn less feel left out of the growing prosperity not because their absolute income or standard of living has not improved but because they see themselves as being worse-off relative to their comparison group.
Although Museveni espouses a modernising ideology, police violence shows that he can retreat to primordial political instincts. For a president of Museveni’s popularity, superior organisational infrastructure backed by the state and a solid record of achievement, there should be no reason to resort to violence to win an election. It is possible that after 30 years, sections of the electorate may be feeling a Museveni fatigue. But the president can still win over these new social groups with a smart campaign. Instead he is surrendering it to Mbabazi – on a silver platter.
It is may be one of the ironies of our history that Museveni has been successful at modernising Uganda, but proven unable to modernise his politics. Even in selecting his cabinet, he has remained stuck in the old practice of appointing people based on their command of geographically based ethnic or religious bases. Yet today’s Uganda has developed new bases of social engagement like entertainment, social media, sports, professions, etc. I am not saying religious and ethnic identities are no longer important. They are still influential. Rather Museveni seems to have remained largely oblivious of the growth of the very social forces he has always argued are fundamental in promoting his project of transforming Uganda.
Museveni has a solid record of achievement he can leverage to offer aspirational Ugandans hope in new opportunities if re-elected. Many of his supporters are even ignorant of this record, so they cannot articulate it. That is why they think what they have to do is bribe or terrorise people. This is understandable – when you have money and power, they appear a cheap alternative to persuasion. Although they can win tactical victories, bribery and violence are strategically costly. The president’s handlers have even no clue of what he can offer the country, because he has not articulated it.
Ironically, Museveni’s opponents are not offering much either. Besigye promises change but has vague ideas of the Uganda he wants. Mbabazi promises change from Museveni but maintenance of the status quo. If you want change, the choice is between Mbabazi’s calmness and Besigye’s belligerence. A Ugandan looking for a serious proposition about our future is lost. All the candidates seem to represent a quarrel over our past. But none is articulating the future we need.