How Museveni and his opponents need each other – Andrew M. Mwenda

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In their misguided (even though, perhaps, well-intentioned) war against President Yoweri Museveni, many pro-democracy (but mostly pseudo-democracy) “activists” bring three fundamentally erroneous assumptions.

First, that Museveni’s government has mismanaged Uganda by relying on brute force and corruption to rule and that this is therefore unsustainable. Second, that there actually exists in Uganda’s opposition a democratic alternative to Museveni. Third, that any change from Museveni is good and will therefore bring better government.

These assumptions are not unique to Uganda. Indeed, they have been the curse of postcolonial Africa. Across our vast continent, these assumptions have been the foundation of elite politics and Western policy. Yet nearly every change of government in most of Africa has been welcomed with mass celebrations as a symbol of a new dawn only to lead to even bigger frustrations. Except for very few exceptions, successive governments in Africa have repeated the mistakes and follies of their predecessors almost to the dot – corruption, tribalism, nepotism, violence and fraud.

This article is a conversation with my friends in the liberal democracy circles in Africa and their cheerleaders in Western diplomacy, academia and journalism. Many of these friends see democracy as an event, not a process; achieved at a gallop not a creep i.e. by revolution not evolution. According to this view, it is possible to democratize governments anywhere, anytime and under any circumstances. The greatest exponent of this view that I have met and interacted with is Prof. Larry Diamond at Stanford University, but he is not the only one. Many African and Western academics, journalists and diplomats think the same way.

Yet this conviction stands in contradiction with mountains of historic evidence that show that the establishment of democracy is actually a very slow process. Indeed, all historic evidence (save for rare exceptions) shows that democratic progression does not follow a continuous rising curve. Instead it is characterized by feats and starts: three steps forward, two steps backward. So recent studies of democratic retrogression are not showing anything unique but rather the natural features of democratic development.

The establishment and maintenance of a liberal democratic system is extremely difficult to achieve. This is because it makes huge demands on a population and requires a certain level of economic development, education attainment and political culture cultivated over many years, usually generations. The most successful and stable democracies are largely (not entirely) economically prosperous with high levels of education. Even a casual study of these societies shows that democracy was a consequence of prosperity not a cause of it.

Coming back to Ugandan politics and contrary to the belief among many of our intellectuals and “intellectuals”, the Museveni administration has been one of the most successful historically, not just in Africa but the world at large. This is not to discount is gross corruption and incompetence, its own violence and autocratic tendencies. But it has successfully stabilized a country that had almost become a failed state. It has reconstructed the economy and sustained one of the best rates of growth of GDP even by contemporary and historic standards. Finally it has presided over expanding frontiers of freedom and liberty even when it occasionally (or even regularly) employs violence against opponents.

Anyone looking at opposition politics in Uganda would easily see why they do not represent a democratic alternative to the current government. Their ranks are filled with extremely angry and intolerant activists who, if they could command the power of the state, can only establish a totalitarian dictatorship albeit an incompetent one. Consequently, while Museveni’s NRM accommodates in its ranks many individuals critical of it, the opposition purges from its ranks anyone who holds even the most mild disagreement with their [always] radical extremist views.

Thus, the mainstream opposition of Defiance led by Dr. Kizza Besigye and its bastard child, People Power, led by Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi (aka Bobi Wine) demand from their supporters absolute loyalty to the cause and ideological purity. This heavy demand for conformity among followers has led to mass desertions as people find life inside these cults suffocating. There is no evidence in history of such radical extremist cults promoting democracy once they capture power. Instead, all historic evidence shows that given time and certain economic, social, cultural and intellectual circumstances, hybrid systems of the Museveni/NRM type do sometimes (and often) slowly evolve into democracies.

This is not to stay there is no democratic alternative in Uganda’s opposition groups to Museveni and his NRM. Rather, the democratic impulse and social and economic infrastructure for it in the country is very weak, and needs to be cultivated. Hence democratic minded individuals and organizations such as the Alliance for National Transformation led by the noble Mugisha Muntu, the Democratic Party led by Nobert Mao and I think the Uganda People’s Congress led by Jimmy Akena have little political traction.

These men and the organizations they lead preach compromise, accommodation and moderation, the qualities that sustain a stable liberal democracy. They seek to defeat but not to destroy opponents. They believe power must be pursued through legal means, and they abhor lies, fraud, violence and blackmail. On the other hand, radical cults (Defiance and People Power) see compromise as “selling out”, moderation as a weakness and accommodation as dilution.

The fact that the moderate groups attract little enthusiasm from the masses of opposition supporters and activists and their intellectual justifiers only shows how weak the democratic impulse in our country is. And the fact that radical extremist cults attract mass support from the opponents of Museveni only demonstrates how strong the forces of intolerance, violence and fraud dominate our politics. Thus many Ugandans tired of Museveni’s long rule cannot find a home in the mainstream opposition and find it futile to join the moderate parties because they have little support.

This is the dilemma of democratic progress in Uganda. The inability of moderate parties and politics to attract mass support and enthusiasm has led many liberal minded Ugandans to stay away from politics. This has left the political space to a tussle between Museveni and these radical extremist cults. This state of affairs is advantageous to Museveni: keeps many Ugandans away from the ballot box, therefore ensuring low voter turnout; which works in the president’s favor. And when he violently cracks down on these radical extremist cults, many people see it as justified.

Thus although subjectively they are his staunchest critics, these radical extremists are objectively Museveni’s greatest allies. Both feed on each other: they are strong because of him and he wins because of them.