The obstacles to building an effective opposition and advancing democracy without “regime change”
Last week, the NRM and opposition leaders agreed on 43, out of 48
proposed electoral reforms. This is contrary to the doomsday scenarios
its hecklers have been presenting that there is no chance in hell for
NRM to accept reform. To deepen democracy, the opposition should talk to
NRM. Negotiations would be one of its many instruments – others being
using the mass media, organising rallies, street protests, using courts
and lobbying powerful players inside NRM, donors and President Yoweri
Such a multifaceted approach requires that the opposition adopt a
less confrontational tone in its dealings with NRM. They need to behave
like FDC Vice Chairperson, the indefatigable Salaam Musumba, who is
emerging as one of the shinning pillars of mature politics. Many leaders
of the opposition agree with this. However, they fear that being
moderate towards Museveni will lead their extremist supporters to accuse
them of selling out. Fear, not principle, is what has stifled the
evolution of mature opposition politics.
The opposition can come to power by defeating Museveni thoroughly at
the polls and inducing him to accept the people’s verdict. The other
avenue could be a popular uprising, which forces Museveni to resign or
flee the country. The first option is only possible if there is
exceptionally superior political organisation; the second if there is a
serious economic crisis that galvanizes vast numbers of people to take
to the streets inducing the military and security forces into breaking
ranks with Museveni. Both have not worked.
Let us face it. Voters may desire a democratic and accountable
government that respects human rights and upholds the rule of law. But
very few will take to the streets and spend days protesting purely for
these ideals, even when they value them. One reason is such an
undertaking is risky and costly. People can be shot dead or lose their
limps, jobs, and businesses. The promised reward for protesting must
therefore exceed the expected risks and costs for people to choose it as
a strategy for regime change.
Look at the structure of incentives. The costs of street protests are
incurred immediately. So they are certain. The rewards of democracy
come at a later date. So they are uncertain. Many people would tend to
fear paying a high price for an uncertain end. Worse still, while the
risks and costs are incurred by the few who participate, those who
stayed home or even opposed the struggle cannot be excluded from
enjoying its benefits.
Thus, if Mukasa sacrifices his leg, Odongo his business and Wakabi
his job in the struggle for democracy, they cannot stop Mugisha, Pulkol
and Dramadri who did nothing from benefiting. When democracy is
established, even the tyrant who opposed it will enjoy a free and fair
election, freedom of speech, and independent courts. Because the
benefits of democracy cannot be monopolised, organising citizens to
surmount a tyrant’s threats is a daunting task.
This creates collective action problems. Many choose what economists
call “free riding” i.e. they stay at home, let a few risk being killed
on the streets and wait to harvest the democracy bounty. At best, only
unemployed youths with nothing to lose may join street protests – not
enough to bring down a government. This has been the group that Kizza
Besigye has relied on to precipitate government collapse without
realising his goal.
For now, there doesn’t seem to be a large segment of our population
that is economically destitute and feels excluded from the political
process that their alternative is to take on the government or die.
Museveni is adept at reaching out to every disgruntled group and have
their needs addressed (at least partially) or their leaders coopted.
Indeed this is one reason the State House budget has ballooned from
under Shs20 billion in 2004 to over Shs200 billion in 2014.
Over the years, the President has organised almost every occupational
group in Uganda – barber shops and salon owners, street vendors and
hawkers, boda boda riders and taxi drivers, small restaurant and kiosk
owners, musicians and dancers, students and unemployed youths, peasants
and squatters, etc. He has helped them form associations, created bank
accounts for them and deposited money there. They (or their leaders)
meet him at state house, eat and drink to their fill, they speak their
mind as he listens (making them feel treasured and important), make
demands and he accepts.
One can legitimately argue that hosting the leaders of these social
groups at State House and co-opting them is not a sustainable solution
since it does not address (comprehensively) the demands of their
constituents. New leaders may emerge in place of the co-opted. However,
Museveni can (and does) keep coopting new leaders as they emerge. This
strategy weakens the emergence of strong and organised resistance to his
rule. It allows him to separate the head (leadership) from the body
(the social group) thus making it difficult for group grievances to find
effectively organised political expression.
The remaining source of vulnerability therefore is an economic crisis
like the one of April to June 2011 that culminated into walk2work. Yet,
even for such a crisis to stimulate mass action that can precipitate
government collapse, it must cause fractures in the military and
security services so that they refuse to defend the president. Museveni
is not Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso or Ben Ali of Tunisia. He is much
more politically skilled for such a situatioto develop and overwhelm
Therefore, the best strategy for the opposition is to develop a long
term view of their struggle. They can achieve many of their goals
through negotiation with Museveni and the NRM as the talks last week
have shown. This does not mean the opposition should abandon other
options – protests, courts, mass media, rallies, etc. Rather they need a
wide array of instruments at their disposal.
A lot of reforms can be secured through negotiations even when the
ultimate goal of gaining political power remains elusive. More reforms
increase the possibility of opposition success. Most Ugandans want to
see the opposition meeting and talking to NRM generally and Museveni
specifically. This serves the opposition more than Museveni because they
look mature and accommodating, thereby allying fears in the public that
regime change means chaos. To repeat myself: opposition leaders need to
be liberated from blackmail by their fanatics and hecklers if they are
to become a powerful force.