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, November 22, 2015

The politics of campaign promises

Why Besigye’s promise to cut down the number of political appointments in government is a pipedream

Opposition presidential candidate, Kizza Besigye has promised a 50% increase in public sector wages. According to his handlers, he will save money by cutting wasteful spending on political appointments like RDCs, on the second largest cabinet in the world, and on the 114 presidential advisors and assistants President Yoweri Museveni has. He also plans to reduce the number of districts and the size of parliament.

Besigye’s heart is clearly in the right direction but I am inclined to believe that he will not do any of that.

In fact he is deluded if he thinks he will save money this way and use it to pay for his oversized promises. I will do the math of how ridiculous his expectations are in another article.

For now I will explain why Besigye will not cut the budget allocated to political patronage if he were to win next year’s elections.

Mainly, this will be because Besigye will be under pressure to appoint many people to cabinet to build a governing coalition.

He will also need to reward his many political hangers-on for their support. If he cuts these political jobs, he will find that he has tied his hands and will be forced to recreate them under new guises. To appreciate this, we must leave dreamland and delve into Uganda’s actual politics.

It is very unlikely that Besigye can win next year’s election in the first round – if he has any chance of victory at all. However, defeating Museveni in a second round will require him to build a broad coalition with all other opposition political forces. And some powerful personages from NRM may cross to his side. The most appealing offer he can give them is opportunities to sit in cabinet. Add that to pressure for posts from his FDC and a host of other opposition politicians who supported him.

If Besigye is president, he will need a vice president from the East, a speaker from Central and a deputy speaker from the North. But then what will he give Amama Mbabazi and other powerful allies like Ssemogerere Mulwanyamuli, Norbert Mao, Olara Otunnu, Beti Kamya or Cecilia Ogwal? And this is before we talk of his powerful FDC colleagues like Amanya Mushega, Wafula Oguttu, Ogenga Latigo and Mugisha Muntu. These challenges will force Besigye to keep the slot of prime minister and three deputies.

With cabinet, I do not see how Besigye will ignore Nandala Mafabi, Abdu Katuntu, Augustine Ruzindana, Ingrid Turinawe, Jack Sabiiti, Waswa Birigwa, Geoffrey Ekanya, Salaam Musumba, Ibrahim Ssemujju, Joyce Sebugwawo, Miria Matembe, John Kazoora and Kasiano Wadri. And if Besigye has a cabinet of only 20 ministers, where will he put all the other powerful personages in FDC and other political parties? I have a list of 60 opposition politicians whom Besigye will find it difficult to keep out of his cabinet.

Thus Besigye will find himself under pressure to have a large cabinet or leave behind many bruised egos, grumbling, and recriminations. This is not a way to build a winning coalition for a second term.
Besigye could be willing to lose a second term in defense of the principle of lean government. But if maintaining such a principle causes him to lose a second term, the lesson to his successor will be clear: have a large cabinet. It makes no sense for Besigye to implement a reform that will not survive him.

But it gets worse. During the last 15 years of his struggle, Besigye has relied on the support of hordes of school dropouts without any formal qualifications and graduates who have not been employed for many years. These men and women have braved police brutality, been beaten and teargased. But they have remained loyal and determined. They have walked for miles without food or water to support him at rallies, endured intimidation and harassment to guard his vote at poling stations etc. And they number in tens of thousands. What will President Besigye tell them after he is sworn-in?

Let us also remember that these Besigye supporters have witnessed their colleagues who have served Museveni buy fancy cars, build nice homes, send their children to good private schools and turn out on weekends with finely tuned families. They look at these NRM luminaries with anger but also with envy. Once Besigye comes to power, many of his supporters will also want to live similar lifestyles. They did not sacrifice for Besigye so that once he gains power they go home and remain in their poverty. They will want jobs, good jobs. But who will hire them? The private sector is expanding but it has no jobs for hangers-on. And it takes time to attract private investments that can create tens of thousands of jobs.

The only way Besigye can address the legitimate and genuine aspirations of his team across the different districts of Uganda is through public sector jobs. But his supporters, campaign managers, polling agents etc. lack qualifications or experience. If he creates a meritocracy, his supporters may be defeated by the more experienced and qualified NRM cadres in competitive interviews. Will Besigye accept to create a system that rewards his rivals?

Therefore, in promising to abolish jobs that are at the discretion of the president like RDCs, presidential advisors and assistants, security operatives etc., Besigye is cutting the hand supposed to feed his political machine. I do not think the tens of thousands of FDC and other opposition supporters who will have helped President Besigye come to power will accept such a sacrifice. Besides, President Besigye will be asking them to sacrifice as they see him fly the presidential jet, live in State House and drive in a convoy.

The point I am making is that political reality is very different from campaign idealism. When I was young and passionate, I thought political decisions were made on moral grounds for the good of everyone. But I have grown older and reflective. A lot of the “mistakes” we see made by our political leaders are rarely stupid. Often times they are forced on them by circumstances. Even with the best intentions, Besigye, like Museveni, will find himself compromised by reality. Yet his supporters, like Museveni’s supporters in 1986, think Besigye will effect a “fundamental change” in the politics of Uganda. They must be told that Besigye’s hand will be tied by political reality, his decisions influenced by political calculations, and his campaign promises not kept.

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