Since April, Ugandans have sustained protests over many issues including wages, commodity prices and foreign exchange ratesHere is widespread discontent in most of Uganda against President Yoweri Museveni and the NRM. The mainstream opposition should, however, not think that this automatically means there is widespread support for their cause.
The Ugandan opposition has been behaving like a man who has been admiring and trying to woe a beautiful girl who is dating another man. When she dumps her boyfriend, he thinks that now she has fallen for him. The fact that many Ugandans are turning against Museveni and the NRM does not automatically mean they support the opposition. On the contrary, it seems most people who are discontented with NRM are equally either frustrated with the opposition or are not inspired by it.
During the general elections early this year, many Ugandans were apathetic, a factor that led voter turnout to drop to 58 percent. In fact, many Museveni haters actually voted for the president out of despair, fear or apathy. However, since April, Ugandans seem to have found a new sense of purpose. Those who have little faith in the opposition have decided to struggle on their own within their areas of occupation – as teachers, lecturers, students, traders, lawyers, medical workers, vendors, environmentalists, journalists, etc. So we are seeing a broad-based growth of militancy among different occupational groups now sustaining pressure on the government.
Since April, Ugandans have sustained protests over many issues including wages, commodity prices, foreign exchange rates and environment. On the face of it and except for the Walk to Work campaign, each one of these subsequent protests looks small, isolated and decentralised. They are not coordinated, lack a unifying ideology or organisation and appear as blips on the national political agenda. Many observers have said these factors are evidence of the structural weakness of these protests.
However, lacking a central command and control centre makes it difficult for the government to effectively decapitate these protests. Second, they are rooted in people’s existential realities, a factor that gives them deeper meaning and solid support than if they were ideological movements. Third, and perhaps most important, they do not seek to wrestle power from Museveni and the NRM but simply to force them to be responsive to their needs. Indeed this is what confirms their democratic character; for democratic movements do not seek power but to create a power they can control.
There is a convergence of opinion among Museveni lovers and haters (who are extremists on either side) that these protests as too small and isolated to bring him down. It seems Museveni shares this view. Yet there is ample evidence to suggest that these protests, if not properly handled, may lead to Museveni’s downfall in the same style as for presidents Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
Of course there are some structural differences between Egypt and Tunisia on one hand and Uganda on the other. The level of urbanisation in Egypt and Tunisia was above 70 percent compared to Uganda’s below 40 percent. Indeed, many Tunisians and Egyptians in cities were second and third generation urbanites while in Uganda they are recent immigrants into cities. The militancy of second generation urbanites has historically been more pronounced than that of recent arrivals. The level of education among the youths and the diffusion of modern communication technology among the population are more developed in Arab countries than in Uganda.
Added to this is that the per capita income of Egypt (at $7,000) and that of Tunisia (at $10,000) is far above the threshold (US$ 2,800) that Prof. Paul Collier suggests is necessary for a democratic transition lest the country becomes unstable. More still, the regimes in those two countries were traditional military governments presiding over leftovers of the colonial army. Both Ben Ali and Mubarak were not “revolutionaries” who had created their own armies like Museveni. They were insiders who took power through a palace coup (Ben Ali) or inherited it after the death of the incumbent (Mubarak). And their imperial masters still have strong ties to these armies.
It would be dangerous for Museveni to infer from these structural differences that the risk for a Tunisia-like civil insurrection is impossible in Uganda. If it will not happen in the next year or two; it is possible in the next four or five years. So the structural and political conditions that make such revolutions possible, although not yet properly developed in Uganda, are growing rapidly. They are aided by the demonstration effect of the Arab spring.
Besides, such mass insurrections do not erupt and suddenly bring entrenched regimes down. Often they begin, as they are doing in Uganda today, as small, almost insignificant and isolated cases – a protest by teachers, then another by vendors etc. But they have the effect of wearing down governments, forcing them into many mistakes that cause the public to lose confidence in them. Besides, the major actors in such civil insurrections are always new social forces seeking space in national politics. However, entrenched regimes tend to always be out of date with the new reality.
Any government that has been in power for long means it has perfected its skills at manipulating traditional forces. Confronted with new social forces, it becomes paralysed. The incumbent regime suffers from the complacency that “we have seen it all before and overcome.” Yet every new protest is a new protest; how to put it down effectively may not always be derivable from previous experience. Persistent protests in Tunisia and Egypt began almost five years ago – and see where they ended.
The evidence today shows that Uganda’s economic fundamentals are better than its neighbours – Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Burundi and nations like Ghana, Zambia, Malawi and Senegal which are democracies. Only Rwanda and Botswana have better fundamentals than Uganda. Why are Uganda and Malawi the most hit by protests? The point is that the regimes in these two countries are suffering from political illegitimacy; economic grievances are being used to press forth a political objective.
To stem the current crisis, Museveni needs to engineer a bold move at political reform. What the contents of this reform should be is a subject I will reserve for another time.