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

Monday, March 22, 2021

Learning from the past

Lessons for NUP from the failure and disintegration of FDC

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | With former presidential candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine opting out of court and going to the “court of public opinion” (i.e. street protest), the stage is now set for increasing repression. Every protest will be seen by the state as insurrection and therefore dealt with as treason. With security, not politics, running the show, the opposition will once again be vulnerable to infiltration and subterfuge. Under such circumstance, the opposition can only survive through ideological purity or the trust of identity.

Yet Uganda is a multi ideological, multi religious and multi ethnic polity. The country lacks a solid majority based on identity (the largest tribe, the Baganda, constitute only 16.2% of the population), while the largest religion, the Roman Catholic Church, constitute only 34% of our population. To make matters worse, it is not easy to leverage this religious identity because Roman Catholics in Uganda also have tribal loyalties that may sway them. And when it comes to ideology, our country is more diverse than it is ethnically.

Therefore to build an electoral, leave alone a governing, majority in Uganda, any leader or political party needs to build a coalition comprising of different ethnicities, religions and political beliefs. In other words, one has spread their net of appeal as widely as possible i.e. they would need a large umbrella. I had initially felt that this was the whole ideal behind the National Unity Platform (NUP) adopting it as a symbol of the party.

President Yoweri Museveni has ruled Uganda for very long because he understands this reality. In fact I think that Museveni learnt this lesson from Milton Obote and Uganda People’s Congress (UPC). They lost power twice, not because of failure in political calculations, but because of shortcomings in their management of the military. In the early 1960s, Obote built a coalition of protestants, Buganda, other large and small ethnic groups across the country and the different ideological strands to win elections.

When his alliance with Buganda fell, Obote adopted the “Zulu horn” strategy, exploiting the envy and hostility other tribes had against Mengo to encircle Buganda. Mengo was unable to mount any meaningful resistance to his rule. Obote fell not because Buganda opposed him but because he failed to manage the army and Idi Amin overthrew him. During the 1980 to 1985 elections, Obote again encircled Buganda and won. But this time, he faced his own student of politics. It is Museveni, not Mengo, who effectively exploited Buganda hostility to Obote to defeat him – not in elections but in a military campaign where the former president was weak.

But to understand why Museveni defeated Obote militarily, one has to study more his politics than his military strategy. Museveni understood that any protected military campaign, however well planned, could only be successful if it is backed by the right political strategy. In brief, Museveni needed to build a broad political coalition to act as the bedrock of his military strategy. In all his writings during the struggle, Museveni emphasised the fundamental role of broad political support to secure military victory.

In 1981, Museveni and the core of his fighters who went to Luwero were left wing Marxist ideologues. Yet to prosecute the war among Baganda peasants, he secured an alliance with former president Yusuf Lule, a conservative Muganda monarchist. Lule became the leader of the National Resistance Movement (NRM), Museveni his deputy. Museveni also allied with the royal families of Ankole, Toro and Buganda, all of whom were conservative traditional constituencies whose ideological beliefs and interests were at odds with NRA’s Marxist ideals.

Furthermore, Museveni established an alliance with Baganda business-interests who were largely Muslim. Here class interests were tied to a religious identity. To this cocktail of conflicting ideological allies, he built a strong alliance with Baganda and Banyankore peasants and Banyarwanda refugees. How he kept such a diverse coalition of conflicting identities, ideologies and interests together under waves of military assault and political infiltration is a story that is beyond the scope and space of this article. We shall deal with it another time.

What is important for now is that even in the face of military assault from and intelligence infiltration from the UNLA, Museveni did not lose sight of the necessity of a broad coalition. He recognised that only that could give him a chance to gain power. Even when he captured power, he got all the different political forces at play – political parties, ideological factions, ethnic and religious identities, business interests (both national and international) into what he called a “broad-based” government. It is this broad coalition that allowed him to consolidate power.

For Museveni to achieve this feat, he has had to make many compromises. Yet because many of his actions conflicted with the ideological ideals of his core-fighting group or with the identities of his allies, he had to gain control of his comrades and direct them to his overall goal. In other words, he did not allow his group to lead him. He led them. They had to accept his judgment, his compromises and his calculations. Yet he did not do this by diktat.

This brings us to the internal organisation of the NRA, which was really the main influence in the bush. The NRM was still nascent, with a shaky political base. Museveni established deliberative bodies like the army council, the high command, the National Resistance Council and the Resistance Councils at lower levels. These bodies were presented as institutions for consultations. Yet Museveni’s aim was to use them to rubber stamp his ideas and decisions and therefore present these as a result of wide consultation.

Thus even today, Museveni has CEC, NEC, parliament and other institutions through which he pushes his policies, ideas and interests. These institutions do not design or originate policies. Museveni does. Their aim is to legitimise his decisions by making them appear as results of deliberation, consultation and debate. In practice, they allow him to listen to the feelings of others, weigh the diversity of opinion, the hostility or consent of major groups to certain policies etc. It is on this basis that he makes the necessary compromises and gives concessions without losing his overall aim.

Yet these are the very things that opposition in Uganda hate. FDC under Kizza Besigye faced this challenge and insisted on a very narrow ideological position where supporters were required to conform. Any slight deviation from the script meant the holder of such a view was a mole, compromised by Museveni and therefore must be purged from the ranks. Under such strict rules, FDC disintegrated. NUP has been launched on this path of self-destruction.


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