Pressure builds for change

Benon Herbert Oluka

In the face of mounting demands for change, President Yoweri Museveni and his supporters have opted for continuity of leadership and point to a process of renewal taking place within Uganda’s democratic institutions – but the opposition says that change is not happening fast enough.

During a retreat organised by Uganda’s rul­ing National Resistance Movement (NRM) party in late January, to discuss possible solutions to the country’s economic prob­lems, two MPs brought up an issue that is hitherto seldom discussed publicly within their ranks. They asked President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986, “to shed light” on plans for the future of the NRM after he retires.

Shortly after the matter was placed on the table, Museveni excused himself from the meeting, saying he needed to go to the washroom. But before stepping out, he in­structed his secretary for political affairs, David Mafabi, to respond on his behalf. Cornered into answering questions that even his boss was unwilling to discuss, Mafabi gave the MPs a quick lecture that ended with the pointed question: “Where do you want him to go?”

Museveni himself has been insisting, since legislators changed Uganda’s consti­tution in 2005 to help the now 67-year-old leader circumvent a clause that would have required him to step down after two elec­toral terms in office, that he is not going anywhere just yet. During a February visit to Kisumu in western Kenya, the president instead defended his long stay in power, saying: “Some people think that being in government for a long time is a bad thing. But the more you stay, the more you learn. I am now an expert in governance.”

To many political activists and analysts, that Kisumu statement – which was in sharp contradiction to Museveni’s January 1986 inauguration speech when he said that “the problem of Africa in general, and Uganda in particular, is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power” – is the clearest sign yet of the complete politi­cal metamorphosis that the former guerrilla leader has undergone during his nearly three-decade tenure as president. The op­position leader in parliament, Nathan Nan­dala Mafabi of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), described the latest remarks as characteristic of a leader “who is now greedy for power and becoming a dictator”. While the leader of the People’s Progres­sive Party, Jaberi Bidandi Ssali, said that Museveni’s latest words and actions show “a loss of conscience”.

NRM spokesperson Ofwono Opondo downplayed the contradiction of Muse-veni’s two statements, arguing that in 1986 the president was castigating leaders “who don’t want to leave power peacefully and democratically”. He added that, since then, the president “has overseen the inaugura­tion of a new constitution; we have held four general elections through the popular vote; we have also held two national refer­enda to decide the political system. And the president has won overwhelmingly in these elections. So that statement must be looked at in that context.”

President Museveni began his rule by re­storing the security of people and property after years of war, transforming and formal­ising the economy, providing greater access to health care and education, overseeing the promulgation of a new constitution in 1995 and returning to a multi-party democracy ten years later. Roads, telecommunications and water services have improved, exports have diversified and GDP has expanded sevenfold. These achievements helped Museveni win local and international ac­claim, especially in the 1990s.

To his critics, however, even as Muse-veni made these contributions, he was systematically crippling state institutions until all power was held by him and a few of his trusted allies. The result, according to Nicholas Sengoba, a commentator on political and social issues, is a government brimming with nepotism, cronyism and impunity in the management of state affairs. “Power and real money are now concen­trated in the hands of a few cronies who are well connected politically,” Sengoba said. “Those who aspire to have a share of these related commodities – power and money – must submit themselves to these cronies and do their bidding so as to partake in the grabbing at the high table.”

This is the structure that Uganda’s oppo­sition parties seek to replace, saying that it has led to poor delivery of social services, the growth of corruption to unprecedented levels and an increase of dictatorial tenden­cies. Dr Kizza Besigye, who currently leads the FDC, Uganda’s main opposition party, said the mismanagement of the country’s affairs has now led to “popular discontent” amongst ordinary Ugandans. He said the political leaders were now only offering guidance to a people-led quest for change “so that it does not degenerate into an anar­chic kind of situation”.

Opondo agrees there were signs of pub­lic discontent, which he said Ugandan vot­ers expressed in the 2011 general election, when no less than 26 ministers lost their seats in parliament. He acknow-ledges too that this discontent has continued to play out in parliament, where legislators blocked four presidential nominees for cabinet, pressured six to resign over alleged corrup­tion, have been investigating another five, and are questioning several decisions made by the executive.

Despite the evident public dissatisfac­tion with the government, Opondo says the NRM could reinvent itself and usher in new leadership from within the party rather than relinquish power to the opposition. “There is nothing you can do these days without consultation,” he said. “The president and NRM and the whole country must adjust. Even Besigye must adjust and say, ‘I lost the election, let me wait for [the next elec­tion in] 2016’.”

But the opposition are in no waiting mood, especially because – as the leader of the FDC puts it – “we don’t believe in the [electoral] process anymore”. Dr Besigye, a former Bush War ally and personal doctor of President Museveni who has contested the last three presidential elections, is under no illusion about the difficulties that the op­position faces in its quest to wrest leader­ship from Museveni and the NRM by elec­toral or other means.

The 56-year-old FDC leader – who has announced his intention to retire from the party’s top slot but is still eligible to stand in the 2016 presidential elections if he chooses to offer his candidature – said that “the people’s demand for change” was gaining momentum. His words followed the recent spate of demonstrations carried out separately by different groups – from teachers and members of the business com­munity to taxi drivers.

However, so far, the demonstrations have been limited to urban areas, and ac­cording to Makerere University lecturer Mwambutsya Ndebesa, this indicates the inability of the opposition to reach out to the entire country: “The opposition has political factors on their side but the organisational factors are not in their fa­vour.” The rural population would contin­ue to support the government as long as it distributed resources.

In the view of another Makerere aca­demic, Busingye Kabumba, even if the opposition took over leadership, the cur­rent system is likely to keep them from breaking the vicious cycle of leaders who eventually become self-seeking rather than serve the people. “The problem is structural and our leaders are just symp­toms,” he argued. “We have a largely illiterate and poor electorate and this is the same pool from which our leaders emerge.” Without a focused leadership that can offer viable policy options and an enlightened population to make informed choices, according to Kabumba, Ugan­dans will continue to be manipulated by whoever is in power.

“As it is,” he said, “in the absence of clear ideological differences and an alter­native vision articulated by the opposition, what may result is a situation where we go through the ritual of change without actu­ally effecting it. We play a political game of musical chairs where one set of actors is replaced by another but the ‘music’ of corruption and maladministration keeps playing.”

About the author:

Benon Herbert Oluka is a correspondent for Uganda's Daily Monitor


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