Why the opposition should adopt a new strategy if they are to remain relevant and build their credentials as a viable alternative
An opinion poll by Daily Monitor published on Jan.12 has given
President Yoweri Museveni a commanding lead of 57% against leading
opposition leader, Dr. Kizza Besigye’s 8%. Many in the opposition will
likely dismiss the results of the poll, allege that Museveni bribed
Daily Monitor or the polling firm; Ipsos, or allude to a mythical “fear
factor.” Hiding behind these excuses has in the past denied the
opposition an opportunity to critically assess the situation and conduct
There is a lot of evidence that Museveni has presided over a corrupt
and incompetent government. Many visitors to Uganda’s schools, hospitals
and other public services are appalled by the levels of indifference,
absenteeism, and apathy. The public sector no longer embodies a public
spirit. Instead it reinforces a pattern of private privilege that is
socially harmful. And the opposition has done an excellent job of
criticising government for this.
But the opposition has also mistakenly used this to conclude that,
therefore, the majority of Ugandans hate Museveni and his party, NRM.
This has led them to mistrust empirical research and reject analysis
that shows that in spite of these public sector dysfunctions (and
perhaps because of them) voters still prefer Museveni. Consequently, the
opposition has turned its back on science and retreated to believing
its own biases.
The opposition needs to see the other side to this story. There are
public institutions like National Water and Sewerage Corporation,
National Social Security Fund, the Uganda Revenue Authority, Bank of
Uganda and the Ministry of Finance that perform excellently. Services
like electricity distribution, banking, manufacturing and
telecommunications that were privatised are doing well. Even in public
health and education, opinion polls show that the majority of citizens
(65-75%) believe the services are good or improving.
Rather than understand and explain this incongruence to voters, the
opposition invents excuses to suit its lack of an explanation. They miss
the point that Museveni has built his support base in large part by
promoting the very public sector dysfunctions the opposition think makes
voters hate him. He has used the public sector not so much to deliver
public goods and services to citizens as to co-opt powerful elites into
his government. These elites are not punished when they steal or are
incompetent because their performance is assessed on how they are able
to deliver the votes of their constituents (be they co-ethnics or
religious followers) to the president and his party.
Furthermore, the many Museveni failures and mistakes have not been
fatal. There is no widespread anger against him to cause an insurrection
like happened in Burkina Faso last October. Museveni has also been
careful not to antagonise core constituencies that generate sentimental
support like our churches, mosques, or our tribes. He keeps our clerics
on his side with gifts of cars and cash. State House also pays for the
lifestyles our tribal kings and chiefs. Since the end of war in northern
Uganda, the opposition lost a core sentimental constituency based on an
This has increasingly meant that to challenge Museveni, the
opposition has to develop an alternative policy agenda. Yet doing this
is a daunting task especially in a poor country with a deeply entrenched
ruling party, which uses state structures to consolidate its position.
Worse still, most voters are poor and are, therefore, less driven by
ideology as by bread and butter issues. Sadly these are issues they can
get by collaborating with the state rather than opposing it.
Historically, strong political party organisation has been built by
revolution from below or by patronage from above. Without ability for
either, the opposition in Uganda needs to separate its ultimate aim
(removing Museveni from power) from its penultimate aims – electoral and
policy reform. For example, even without regime change, the opposition
can push for constitutional and/or legal reforms to advance the cause of
democracy and freedom. They can also seek a series of public policy
reforms to serve the interests of the key constituencies that the
opposition represents – small and medium scale businesses, cattle
farmers, unemployed youths, public (or private) sector workers, market
vendors, students, etc.
This would require the opposition to build credentials as the
champions of reforms that would benefit these social groups and the
country. Ironically, a lot of progress can be made even without regime
change. By engaging NRM in parliament, using courts, lobbying
bureaucracies, organising street protests, media campaigns, organising
policy workshops and engaging Museveni directly, the opposition can
realise many of these goals even when they have not secured their
ultimate objective of acquiring state power.
Many senior opposition politicians share this view. However, the most
passionate supporters of the opposition see any compromise with
Museveni as surrender or bribery. This has discouraged many thoughtful
opposition politicians from trying to engage the president and his
government. By focusing on fighting for nothing else except power, the
opposition has limited its influence over more democratic reform and
public policy. But it has equally exposed itself as seeking only power
for power’s sake.
The opposition can disagree with Museveni without being disagreeable;
it can work with him for the good of Uganda without working for him; it
can compromise with the President without being compromised by him and
it can engage with Museveni without endorsing him. There are genuine
fears among many opposition supporters when they see their leaders going
to meet the President because experience shows he could co-opt or buy
However, blackmailing everyone who tries to engage Museveni by
accusing them of selling out has not stopped the flood of those willing
to be bought. Instead it has made the well-meaning fear constructive
engagement. This has reduced the influence the opposition can exercise
over constitutional and policy reform. The choice is stark: the
opposition leaders can retain fanatical purity at the cost of meaningful
influence on government. Or they can transcend the demands of their
fanatics in favor of constructive engagement. Polls show that the
majority of Ugandans (70%) prefer the opposition to work with Museveni.
Opposition leaders should liberate themselves from being hostages of
their small, albeit vocal, hecklers and fanatics.