How government politically miscalculated the threat in spite of activists having lost strategic positioning in their struggle for change
As fate would have it, last week the Uganda government banned the civil society advocacy group, Activists for Change (or A4C as it is popularly known). Ironically, rather than demonstrate strength, this action reflected a fundamental weakness in the government i.e. that it feels under siege from the activities of A4C. For the activists, it was a major victory against an all powerful opponent – a case of David against Goliath. I had thought (quite wrongly I now realise) that the government had neutralised A4C, rendered it a minor public inconvenience albeit an irritating one. So when cabinet passed a resolution to shut it down, I went around scavenging for answers. Why this sudden action?
Of course the idea that government runs the risk of going broke via expenditure on the police is a gross exaggeration typical of the way Ugandans speak. However, such exaggeration is never meant to give an accurate picture but an idea about the trends. Therefore even if the trend towards bankruptcy is overstated, the government has exposed its major vulnerability by banning A4C. Since it came to power, the NRM has restrained itself from banning mass media and civil associations. In its 26 long years of rule, the NRM has banned only one newspaper, the National Digest in 1988. The banning of KFM, CBS radio and NTV was only a bargaining chip and it reopened them later.
More critically, to ban A4C, the NRM retreated to a colonial law. This law, dealing with “illegal societies” was introduced by the colonial state in 1959 to stifle the growth of civil society organisations agitating for reforms to increase democratic space as a roadmap to independence. Unable to stem the tide of growing militancy among urban Ugandans, the colonial state retreated to repressive laws. The irony is that NRM, whose major objective was to decolonise the state and repeal most of the repressive colonial laws, has not only retained them on statute books but is retreating to them to suppress popular demands.
This shows that whoever holds power would behave in similar fashion despite their promises. That is why democratic reform needs to be separated from the struggle for power precisely because power cannot democratise itself. Here also lies the fundamental weakness of the democratic impulse in Uganda. Currently, there is one group in power and holding unto it at any cost. Another group is out of power and trying to acquire it at any price. Journalists, academics and “civil society” actors in Uganda have been captured by this partisan warfare and are rooting for either side. What is missing in Uganda’s politics today is a neutral party, a third force that can stand above and between these two partisan groups and act in defense of national values to restrain those struggling for power from tearing the country apart.
This is where A4C would have been an innovative idea if it was called Activists for Reform and broadened its ambitions from the narrow pursuit of regime change i.e. political power. It would have seen itself as a movement for social, economic and political reform. In pursuit of the narrow objective of regime change, A4C was even pleased to rent the services of opposition leader Kizza Besigye as the face of their campaign and volunteer in chief of their demonstrations. This made it difficult to establish a functional relationship with many other social forces in the Ugandan polity who want their interests placed on the national political agenda without seeking regime change.
Secondly, by accepting Besigye to be the face of their campaign, A4C lost the necessary neutrality in Uganda’s political process upon which it could build the necessary confidence with other actors in the government to promote social and political reform.
Of course, in a democratic system, A4C has every right to ally with whomever it desires. But it was tactical and strategic blunder. There are many people in NRM, the professions, churches and business who want to see social and political reform. However, they are less interested in regime change or just do not want to be seen in the opposition to government. And you don’t need to be in the opposition to cause reform.
In allowing Besigye to hijack the organisation and its agenda, the brains behind A4C alienated many potential allies and turned a promising social movement into a partisan organisation. This made A4C a target of violent crackdown by the state. Of course the crackdown marketed A4C to the country and the world. However, Besigye got ten times more mileage from its activities than the organisation itself. Consequently, the demonstrations were only able to mobilise the most virulent opponents of President Yoweri Museveni but did not attract many new followers. Keeping the enthusiasm of his base without growing it has been Besigye’s biggest asset but equally, his greatest liability.
This fact is clearly demonstrated in the recent Afrobaromenter survey. Although it shows widespread public discontent with the way government is managing affairs of state and economy, and although it shows NRM’s support declining from 62% to 47%, the surveys also show that FDC’s support increased marginally from 13% to 15% only. This shows that Ugandans disappointed by NRM do not see FDC as an alternative. It also means that NRM should have been be more permissive of A4C instead of banning it. The fiscal costs of A4C could not have exceeded the political benefits of leaving it free. What this shows is that government is its own biggest enemy.