As NRM climbs down from idealism to reality, the FDC may need to learn something about its own utopias
On Dec. 15, a special National Resistance Movement (NRM) Delegates
Conference called by President Yoweri Museveni will be held at Namboole
National Stadium. The main purpose is to amend the party constitution to
ensure that the Secretary General is not elected by party members but
appointed by Museveni; the chairman. It is a sad but illuminating
reversal of a canonical principle of the founding philosophy of the NRM
i.e. that a political party should be built on democratic principles and
its leaders elected.
For President Yoweri Museveni, this must be a painful step down from
the pedestal of utopia to the solid ground of hard reality. For many
years, he criticised former President Milton Obote for undermining this
principle in the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC). Obote had clashed with
two of his previous elected secretaries general – John Kakonge and later
Grace Ibingira – over control of the party. To avoid such problems, UPC
decided that this position become appointive. Experience had taught
them that in the specific circumstances of Uganda, having two powerful
elected leaders in the party was a recipe for ruinous power struggles.
Like his critics today, Museveni did not pay attention to the
objective political conditions in UPC that shaped this dynamic. Instead,
he blamed it on Obote’s personal greed for power. NRM became officially
a political party in late 2005. In December of that year, it held a
delegates conference in Namboole. Three of its top politicians sought
the position of Secretary General – Cryspus Kiyonga, Kahinda Otafiire
and Amama Mbabazi. Museveni wanted to avoid this clash of party titans.
To calm down the party he called a breakfast meeting with the trio at
State House Nakasero during the Delegates Conference.
Museveni explained that historically, especially in the East and
Central African region, the job of an elected Secretary General tended
to generate a clash with the party leader. It was the case between
Obote, Kakonge and Ibingira in Uganda, Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya in
Kenya, Julius Nyerere and Oscar Kambona in Tanzania, Kamuzu Banda and
Kanyama Chiume in Malawi, and Kenneth Kaunda and Simon Kapwepwe in
Zambia. In all these cases, this simmering tension was resolved by
amending the constitution to ensure that the Secretary General is not
elected by party members but appointed by the party chairman – clearly
an undemocratic decision.
Museveni reasoned that to sustain democratic practice while avoiding a
clash resulting from having two elected bulls in one kraal, the party
needs to elect a Secretary General who is very loyal to the party
chairman and, therefore, with whom they can work smoothly. He said he
preferred Mbabazi for this reason and asked Kiyonga and Otafiire to pull
out of the race. They refused upon which Museveni joined forces with
Mbabazi to defeat them. Now we know that even this solution could not
and has not worked for Museveni or the NRM.
In many ways therefore, Museveni’s almost three decades in power have
allowed him time to unlearn many of his utopias on which he criticised
Obote. He has had to live in the reality of practical politics as Obote
had and has been humbled by experience. Today Museveni is older and
wiser and therefore more realistic. I am not sure whether he realises
that on nearly every single issue that he criticised Obote – tribalism,
corruption, “desire” to stay in power etc – he has over time tended to
gravitate to the same position and worse. And this has little reflection
on Museveni’s personal character. I think it has a lot to do with the
circumstances he confronts.
There are many political problems in our country. In Uganda (and
elsewhere in the world) our natural instinct is to always look for a
villain, some human agent to blame for all the social failures around us
– a president of a country, a chief executive of a company, or a mayor
of a city. This is not an entirely incorrect position to take, but it is
nonetheless an overly simplistic one. Thus Museveni saw in Obote the
villain who made everything fail in Uganda. Today, Museveni’s critics
see him as the source of all our problems.
However many public policy decisions often fail to meet our ideal
expectations because reality is much more complex. Ideals have to be
tempered with sweet reasonable-ness in the interests of reality. For
example, many Ugandans do not recognise that corruption in our country
has grown hand-in-hand with democratisation – not just as a negative
side of this process – but actually the fundamental and inevitable
driving force behind it. In Museveni’s case, he has learnt that a purely
democratic process stripped of context can produce the breakup of a
political party – and worse.
This experience of NRM can also be seen in what is happening to the
Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Seeking to distance itself from the
seeming authoritarianism of the NRM, FDC deliberately wrote a highly
democratic constitution. It limited the terms its president can serve to
only two. Kizza Besigye, the founding president of FDC, is without
doubt one of the most democratically-minded Ugandans. His struggle and
sacrifice for freedom and democracy in Uganda is undoubtedly one of the
most inspiring acts of leadership.
He served two terms as party president during which he came close to
winning one election (2006) and lost the next one (2011) badly. After
that, Besigye did the “right” thing a leader in Britain, Belgium, or
Norway would have done – he resigned leadership of the party. Mugisha
Muntu, one of the finest human beings our country has produced, won the
election to succeed Besigye. I am a supporter of Muntu. But I know that
immediately after his election, he took FDC to bed, covered it in a
blanket and sent it to sleep.
May be the best thing for FDC may not have been to have term limits
on the president of the party. May be young parties like that formed
around a strong and charismatic leader need that leader to hang around
for long to allow them to grow and consolidate. It is possible that if
Besigye had stayed at the helm of FDC, there would be greater energy in
the party for 2016. I am very critical of Besigye’s style and approach
to opposition politics. However, I now do recognise that for FDC, it is
better to help him adjust his style than remove him. NRM’s about face
therefore is a lesson FDC may need to consider.