About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Sunday, July 4, 2010


When I was growing up, my dad always told me that if I have a dream, I should believe that I will realise it. He believed that success comes from optimism and self-confidence. “Believe in yourself and those around you,” he would say, “and always look at why you should succeed rather than why you may fail and you will realise your dreams.”

On many (but certainly not all) occasions this advice has helped me to overcome adversity. Each time I have fallen, I have rallied in the belief of my abilities and the support of friends and family to rise again. I have equally found this attitude in the achievements of nearly all successful people and organisations I have read about; they believed in themselves, had faith in their followers/customers and were optimistic about the future.

Just imagine the odds of a Kwame Nkrumah challenging the colonial state and its racial ideology; a Nelson Mandela challenging the oppressive and discriminatory policies of Apartheid South Africa; a state commanding enormous financial, intellectual, institutional, and technological resources. Imagine a Martin Luther King Jr. and his campaign for civil rights in the southern states of the USA – having to fight the terror of the KKK, the machinations of Edgar Hoover at the FBI and the ideology of white supremacy.

The lesson from such experiences is that with confidence and optimism, human beings can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. But this optimism and self-confidence is poorly developed in the opposition in Uganda. In every meeting or conference we have had locally or with international guests, Uganda’s opposition leaders and civil society activists paint a picture of doom and gloom.

They mourn their lack of financial resources, they complain about President Yoweri Museveni’s machinations to steal votes, they agonise about bribery and intimidation, they wail at violence meted out against their supporters by state security agents etc. Although I share these concerns, I disagree with their defeatist attitude.

First, we should take it as a given that the state in Uganda will try every rule in the book of illegality and illegitimacy to cling to power – it is the rational thing to do because rulers do not surrender power easily. The challenge for the opposition is to craft a message that can inspire hope in people so that together they can build the organisational capacity to contain violence, intimidation and vote rigging most especially in those areas where it has great potential to challenge state-sponsored terror and theft.

Indeed, the opposition needs to strike an optimistic tone precisely because Museveni and the NRM have put many obstacles in its way that. By sounding negative, they demoralize their supporters. For example, by complaining about violence, election rigging, bribery and intimidation all the time, they have created a perception that there is no hope in the electoral process. This generates apathy in the population, a factor that partly explains low voter turnout in recent by elections.

The opposition needs to mobilize and motivate people to register in large numbers and later to vote. This demands that it articulates a message that promises success – even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. People need to be told that change is possible; that they have the power to influence their destiny – regardless of state violence. They need to tell voters that success will come from hard work, self-confidence, optimism and sheer tenacity and patriotic zeal. You cannot demoralize people and expect to rally their enthusiasm to seek change.

Secondly, Museveni and the NRM have a string of achievements in the economic realm that the opposition can leverage for win elections. For example, economic growth has produced a sizeable private sector and a professional middleclass that can be mobilized to support further democratic reform. Reducing infant mortality rates have created a demographic map where the vast majority of voters are youths who can give the opposition a chance. The spread of telecommunications and internet gives the opposition mobilizational tools that the state has little control over.

Yet the opposition has remained trapped in complaints about newspapers not giving them voice and radio stations denying them airtime. Instead of articulating a vision of how to overcome the obstacles imposed on their campaigns by the state, they keep agonizing about them. If Museveni blocks them from FM radio stations, let them stream a radio of line in urban areas and record cassettes and distribute them to people in villages. There is SMS, MMS, word of mouth rumors – the list is endless.

The opposition in Uganda cannot even see the immense opportunities in front of them. Museveni’s hold on power has been eroding. From a high of 75 percent in of the total vote in 1996, he fell to 59 percent in 2006; and from five million votes in 2001, he fell to four million in 2006 – in a space of only five years and this in spite of violence, intimidation and vote rigging. Clearly therefore, the potential for change is great.

But listen to the opposition speak – it is all doom and gloom. Yet with so many unemployed youth, underpaid medical workers and teachers, disenfranchised hawkers and vendors, landless peasants and squatters, disgruntled middleclass professionals, hundreds of thousands of angry students, the room for opposition politics is enormous.

A recent Daily Monitor opinion poll showed that only 44 percent of voters support Museveni. However, it also showed that he main opponent, Kizza Besigye, is standing almost 10 percent below him at 35 percent. Given that Besigye got 38 percent during the last election, this decline of three percent shows that those who are disenchanted with Museveni are not actually joining the opposition.

The opposition should speak about our abilities, not inabilities; about what we are capable of, not what Museveni will do to stop us from our goals. Let them tell us what makes us great, not how we are helpless victims of the machinations of one man. I want to hear the opposition tell us how we can succeed, not how we will be frustrated in our pursuits; they should stop being negative all the time and be positive for once.


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