Opposition politics in Uganda: what can others learn?

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Our Co-editor Nic Cheeseman penned his regular column for the Daily Nation from Uganda this week, where he was watching the general election. In this piece, Nic reflects on the progress made by Museveni’s opponent, Besigye, and asks what other opposition candidates in Africa can learn from his example. 

The Ugandan General Election has been hotly contested. In some ways the campaign has been fairly predictable. The main two candidates were President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for thirty years, and Kizza Besigye, his former doctor, who has lost the last three elections.But in other ways it has offered something different. On the one hand, there was a new opposition leader, Amama Mbabazi, a former Museveni ally that split from the National Resistance Movement (NRM) last year to great fanfare.

On the other, public support for Besigye seems to have deepened in some areas, justifying his decision to contest for a fourth time. Opposition leaders in other African countries have much to learn from the way in which this was achieved.

Most commentators predicted that Besigye, the charismatic leader of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) would lose the 2016 poll.

This was not because Ugandan’s don’t have sympathy with his call for change, but because he faces almost insurmountable odds. In Uganda, Museveni holds all the cards.

The president enjoys the control of the military and security forces, as well as informal volunteer groups such as the “Crime Preventers”. He can also afford to outspend his rivals ten to one, while deploying state resources and officials, and the plethora of NRM MPs, to campaign on his behalf.

Significantly, the disadvantages faced by the opposition do not stop once the campaign ends. I am writing from Fort Portal, western Uganda, on election day and a number of developments demonstrate that the elections were not free and fair.

A number of polling stations in pro-Besigye areas have not received their ballot papers yet and it is already 3:30. The polls are supposed to begin closing at 4 p.m. Worse still, a colleague near Kampala has confirmed reports that the police abducted and beat a number of FDC agents (who monitor polling stations for the party), and subsequently arrested them on trumped up charges.

Remarkable Bravery

Clearly, Uganda is a tough place in which to lead the opposition. Despite this, Besigye has shown remarkable bravery and resolve. He is regularly arrested by the government, but does not let this deter him.

Instead, he wears it like a badge of honour, and his commitment to resisting NRM control is not lost on Ugandan voters. Even some of the NRM supporters that I have spoken to have spoken of having a deep respect for his tenacity. It is also clear that he is the leader that Ugandans prefer to listen to.

While Museveni may be a great strategist and have an incredible capacity to remember the names of people that attend his events, it is Besigye’s populist energy and firebrand speeches that pack in the crowds — so much so that he was arrested not once but twice as he attempted to hold what would no doubt have been a vast rally at Makarere University earlier in the week.

The difficulties facing Besigye are also felt by FDC leaders and activists operating at the local level across Uganda. Yet despite this, and the entrance of Mbabazi into the race, the FDC has sustained its position and strengthened its organisation. How was this possible?

The situation facing opposition parties in Fort Portal is extremely difficult, but it has actually improved over the years. An experienced local party leader tells me that back in 2001, when Besigye led the Reform Agenda movement, they could not hold rallies for fear of being attacked by thugs wielding sticks.

In 2006, some rallies were possible in municipal Fort Portal, but there was widespread intimidation of FDC supporters, especially in rural areas. By 2011, the NRM had decided to change direction, in part because of criticism from international donors, and in part because of the diminishing returns of the previous strategy — many Ugandan’s believe that the FDC actually won the 2006 polls.

The new tactics employed by the ruling party were far more subtle. Out went explicit everyday violence and public aggression. In its place, the NRM introduced the threat of greater violence “in the background”.

In other words, whereas in 2006 large numbers of FDC activists were beaten before the polls, in 2011 the NRM relied more heavily on threatening that an even greater wave of violence would be unleashed should Besigye win. At the same time, FDC supporters remember that the government flooded the area with “money, vast amounts of money. Money, money, money”.

Vast Election Funds

The combination of vast election funds and the threat of violence proved to be very effective. Whereas in 2006 the attacks on FDC supporters were so widespread that they were easily detected by civil society groups and international election monitors, leading to international condemnation, in 2011 the latent nature of the threat meant that there was less for election monitors to see, and hence report.

In Fort Portal, the 2016 election has largely followed the pattern of the 2011 polls. FDC supporters are aware that there seem to be more security forces on the ground than ever before, including the controversial Crime Preventers, but these forces have yet to be deployed against them in a systematic way. As a result, it is unlikely that these issues will receive any great attention in the evaluations of election monitors.

For FDC leaders, the lack of physical violence is both a relief and an opportunity. At the FDC office, a consistent string of supporters file in to pay 1,000 shillings and receive their membership cards, unconcerned about being associated with the party.

However, in other ways the hidden nature of the NRM threat makes the challenges facing the FDC even more difficult, because government repression is harder to expose. A significant proportion of voters are still too scared to declare their support for the opposition, but it is nigh on impossible for the FDC to demonstrate this through photographs or written documents.

The trends seen in Fort Portal reflect wider developments, but it is important to note that in some respects Fort Portal is an outlier. In the town centre, FDC supporters wearing their trade mark blue t-shirts are able to mingle with NRM supporters wearing their yellow uniform, and to attend the rallies of parties of various stripes, with no fear of reprisals.

Indeed, the local FDC councillor even appeared on a platform with the NRM’s parliamentary flag bearer and Mayoral candidate, who himself was an FDC leader back in the day. When I stop at a barber shop to talk to a group of young men — a key constituency for Besigye, because of their desire for rapid change — they proudly display their FDC posters and t-shirts for their neighbours to see.

In other parts of Uganda where the relationship between the two parties is more conflictual, and in which the vote is expected to be closer, blue t-shirts are worn under yellow jumpers, and Besigye posters are hidden away from public view. Especially in rural areas, where unelected local NRM leaders hold sway and the FDC enjoys weaker party structures, speaking out against the president can be a dangerous game.

Human rights organisations have documented a number of abuses during the campaign, including beatings and the destruction of property. Although these attacks are not on the scale of 2006, they remain a potent deterrent.

Despite this, public sympathy for Besigye remains considerable, especially in areas that feel that they have not benefitted from NRM rule. One of the most striking features of this election has been the sight of ordinary Ugandans travelling to his rallies in order to make a personal contribution to his campaign — a development that turns the typical pattern of political leaders buying the votes of their supporters on its head.

At one rally I attended, a poor village that lacked access to even the most basic services such as running water gave the local FDC leaders a massive haul of bananas. It was a heart-warming moment, and one that confirmed that Ugandans are a long way from giving up on the FDC. So what lessons can other opposition leaders in Africa learn from Besigye?

The FDC leader has often been criticised for not making more of some of his opportunities. In the past, the FDC has suffered from a weak party structure, and a recent piece by Nicole Beardsworth argued that opposition parties have wasted an opportunity to secure more parliamentary seats by running candidates against each other, thus dividing the “anti-NRM” vote. At the same time, NRM supporters point out that Besigye tends to make a large number of promises around election time, and that it is not clear that the country can afford them.

But there are also reasons to praise Besigye, and not just for his courage. After the 2011 elections, he admitted to being unsure as to what direction to go in and stood down as party leader. Although he later returned as the party’s flagbearer for the 2016 polls, by allowing control of the party to shift to another leader he demonstrated his own commitment to the democratic principles that no one has the right to rule for life.

He also created the opportunity for others within the party to try a new approach, and many FDC activists say this facilitated a steady process of institution building that has left the party organisationally stronger than it was in the past.

The implications for the leaders of opposition parties elsewhere in Africa are clear. Submit to democratic processes and do not expect to get better results with the same old tactics. Sometimes, to show your strength you have to admit your weaknesses.

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