The the “roadblocks” to Democratic Transition
that Uganda must overcome
By Norbert Mao
If we want to see democracy take root in Africa and particularly Uganda, and thus end the cycle of bloodletting that has characterized the continent, we should look at some of the obstacles that are undermining democratic transition in. One of Africa’s leading political scientists, Nzongolo-Ntalaja, has outlined four main impediments to democracy.
First is what he calls the ‘political immaturity of the democratic forces’. Most of the so-called democratic opposition are former Sauls who have become Pauls. They are deserters from the constellation of the authoritarian regimes they seek to depose. They are consequently primarily office seekers for political and material gain. They are opportunistic to the core. They have a ‘pronounced tendency towards political vagrancy’. They have no respect for rules and agreements based on democratically agreed positions as long as it doesn’t meet their selfish and narrow personal expectations and interests. In the long run such leaders end up undermining and betraying the hopes and aspirations of the ordinary people. Take the case of Edward Lowassa, a former Prime Minister, who in 2015 quit the Chama Cha Mapinduzi(CCM) after failing to secure the party nomination to run for president. He was embraced by the opposition coalition known as UKAWA and ran as a joint candidate nominated by the CHADEMA party. Four years later, he quit CHADEMA and rejoined CCM!
Second is ‘weakness of the means of subsistence of the middle class and its exploitation by the ruling groups in order to paralyze the democratic forces’. This can also be further defined as the prostitution and bastardization of the middle class. Most of the opposition leaders are middle class or petty bourgeoisie. Over the years their means of economic sustenance has declined. The toll of economic hardship has forced these elites including those least inclined to active politics to bite the bait cast by the authoritarian regimes seeking to reinvent themselves as reformers. Externally these elites are pressured to ‘play ball’ and form a ‘government of national unity’ that the global players can ‘do business with’.
Third is the monopolization of the public media by the regime in power. The opposition is thus faced with an uphill task to pass its message to the masses. Sometimes opposition parties have newspapers but these do not suffice as most of the masses don’t read newspapers. These may only reach the urban informal business operators and young school leavers. The authoritarian regimes also use their monopoly of the public media to confuse, misinform and derail the opposition. Under the shadow of COVID-19, this monopoly is an existential threat to the opposition.
Fourth is ‘violence against democracy’. Authoritarian regimes arm-twist, cajole and intimidate civil servants in order to dissuade and pressure them to shun the democratic struggle. The other side of this same coin is police repression and brutality that is systematically unleashed against democratic activists and human rights campaigners. Violence against democracy includes divide and rule, stigmatization of opposition figures as subversives or terrorists, incitement of ethnic hatred, which can culminate into ethnic cleansing, large scale massacres and even genocide. Violence against democracy does not simply reduce the speed of democratization. It can derail it and bring it to a stand still.
To these we need to add unbridled globalization. The forces of globalization do not favour democratization. The main face of globalization is economic domination. In its effort to achieve economic dominance and uniformity, globalization undermines the key institutions that make democracy work. Markets are liberalized while politics remain largely authoritarian. Any country that conforms to the economic interest of global capital is praised to the skies. Those who resist are denounced and overthrown unless they are strong enough to triangulate the forces of unbridled international capital.
Finally, Democracy demands certain institutions that meet people’s highest and most deeply felt aspirations and also ensure that they occupy the maximum space in the political arena. However, what we have in most of Africa is democratic formalism. We have elections minus democracy. There is form but no content. Therefore we need to question the obsession with elections at the expense of other substantive elements of a democratic society. Nzongola-Ntalaja writes that, ‘in themselves, elections do not ensure democracy. They can be manipulated through rules of the game that reduce the chances for fairness and by electoral fraud.
The voters are caught up in a meaningless ping pong. On one side you have regimes that have mastered the rhetoric and rituals that seem to impress the West. And on the other side you have the West, which favors a technocratic state run by complicit elites with no broad political base. Leaders with a nationalist constituency are seen as a threat by these puppets.
*This article was first published in the Monitor Newspaper