Balance of power. The NRM regime-State, in power since 1986, enjoys the benefits of incumbency, which incumbency is now being extended to the children of the 1986 NRM leaders. In a sense, it is now a political monarchy, not just with the First Family but the many families of NRA/NRM leaders, whose children are starting to take on important jobs, Timothy Kalyegira writes.
With just under two years away from the next general election, this is a status report examining the political mood, trends and balance of power and interests in the country.
The situation in Uganda can accurately be described as one of a balance of reality and of interests.
Let’s begin with the most important player in Uganda: The West.
The Western donors
Although the act of giving Uganda and other African countries aid is couched in the politically-correct term “development partners”, the plain fact is that we are not development partners.
Uganda does not contribute to the economic development of the United Kingdom, Denmark or United States.
It is an asymmetrical relationship in which the former is heavily dependent on the latter group of countries for its very existence.
The West since the early 1990s faces an internal moral and philosophical crisis which plays out in its foreign policy and relations with sub-Saharan Africa.
Uganda is of interest to the West. Not as crucial as Egypt, Kenya and South Africa, but in order of hierarchy, Uganda is in the second tier of importance in Africa.
Uganda’s interest to the Scandinavian West (Norway, Sweden, Denmark) is mainly the social democracy kind – governance, human rights, minority rights, support for the most vulnerable and other “soft” concerns.
Uganda’s interest to the Anglo-Saxon West (Britain, Canada, United States) is social democracy but also geopolitical.
The country sits in or near a central African region that has been unstable since the early 1990s, is host to thousands of refugees from this region and after 1998 and 2001, became a monitoring post in the Western counterterrorism effort.
Uganda is a key sub-contractor in the West’s security interests in the Horn of Africa, too.
And so, while there is growing concern about the state of democracy and governance in the country, the West is also mindful about its need for Uganda in matters of regional security.
Thus we see a contradiction: The West partly funds Ugandan peacekeeping deployment and government social programmes, as well as mostly funding Ugandan NGOs, human rights activist groups and to a degree supports Ugandan journalism with generous training programmes and scholarships in Western universities.
Western aid programmes, occasional admonishments of the government over its excesses, the scholarships to the Ugandan professional middle-class and other patronage helps keep Uganda relatively stable.
The NRM State
In reality, when we talk of the Ugandan State we are really referring to the sitting government since governments here tend to become indistinguishable from the State.
The NRM regime-State, in power since 1986, enjoys the benefits of incumbency, which incumbency is now being extended to the children of the 1986 NRM leaders.
In a sense, it is now a political monarchy, not just with the First Family but the many families of NRA/NRM leaders whose children are starting to take on important jobs and roles in business, the military, the civil service and the NRM party.
The NRM State, therefore, now has every incentive to maintain the status quo since it has become too embedded in the public sector to let go of these advantages.
That is why it is unthinkable, regardless of the presidential election outcome, for the NRM State to have anyone other than Museveni declared the winner.
The ramifications would be grave and the existential crisis facing the NRM is to even think of a post-Museveni future.
Since the most important player in Uganda, the West, needs the geopolitical hand of the NRM State, it must of necessity turn a blind eye to certain messy aspects of internal politics like election rigging.
However, in this social media era of 24-hour news and outrage, the West can’t morally remain totally silent, and so will come from time to time statements expressing concern at the gagging of the media and the denial of campaigning space and media exposure to Opposition leaders.
As a trade-off, the government, therefore, briefly jails key Opposition figures (Kizza Besigye, Bobi Wine, etc) and releases them; blocks their visits to radio stations in the upcountry towns but allows them to appear on Kampala radio and TV stations and to attend human rights conferences.
Since the core power in the NRM State is in military-intelligence and the head of State, when the Opposition wins parliamentary elections and by-elections, the State permits that to be.
A Parliament made up of 60 Opposition MPs is hardly a political threat to the NRM State and, in fact, is even an advantage since it helps maintain a veneer of democracy in the country.
The Opposition parties
The Opposition publicly denounces the crisis of governance in the country, declares Uganda under Museveni as a dictatorship and says it is organising to wrest state power from the NRM.
Opposition parties and pressure groups meet often, discussing the formation of alliances and fielding a joint presidential candidate.
That they go through the complicated negotiations of forming coalitions is an implicit acknowledgment that there is a legitimate political culture and process in the country, otherwise why would they bother?
Like the Western donors and the NRM State, the Opposition is caught up in a contradiction shaped by reality and necessity.
The West funds a lot of the Opposition’s budgets and activities, just as it funds government programmes.
Party member subscriptions are far from sufficient to run parties.
This funding by the West of Uganda’s Opposition parties essentially creates good day jobs for many Opposition leaders and activists and, therefore, they are forced into their own status quo.
Many of the fights within the Opposition parties are more over money and positions that come with money than over ideas or strategy.
This is why despite the coercion meted out to key Opposition leaders by the NRM State and the clear fact that the political playing field is not level, the Opposition continues participating in a process they know to be unfair.
If anything, newspaper and television images of Opposition leaders being harassed by the police and army help establish the bona fides of the Opposition and in turn that opens up further financing from the West.
Human rights NGOs
As it is with the Western donors, the NRM government and the Opposition, governance advocacy, human rights defence and research itself is part of the balance of power and interests in Uganda.
Ugandan citizens are not engaged enough or don’t have the disposable income enough to finance or contribute to research and advocacy, so the bills are picked up by the same West that funds the police and the government.
So the supreme irony in Uganda today is that the West funds the police and State, which police and State unleash violence on Opposition politicians and human rights activists.
Then the West funds Ugandan human rights groups and activists in their campaigns to expose and hold to account the very police and army funded by the West.
In effect, the West funds both the arsonist and the firefighter.
This somewhat ridiculous balance of power is what has held Uganda together in a state of relative stability since at least 1995.
The puppet master in this game is, of course, the West.
It pulls all the strings of competing and contradictory interests, chooses when to apply pressure on the State to stop harassing the Opposition, chooses when to relax this pressure on the State when regional issues arise and the State’s input is required, and on and on it goes.
This is the only way to understand why the Opposition continues to take part in a political process that is so clearly unfair to Opposition parties.
Why do Opposition candidates and parties continue to participate in an electoral process that is so obviously stacked against them?
The fundamental question has not been fully addressed since 1986: Is Uganda a democracy or a dictatorship, or a hybrid of the two?
The balance of power and interests described in this article makes it clear that it is a hybrid.
There is enough State coercion and State capture by the NRM to feel like Uganda is a dictatorship.
But the umpire role played by the West keeps a check on the extreme extent of this State capture enough to moderate it and leave some space for the Opposition, human rights activists and the media to exist and breathe.
The Opposition has adapted to this reality and balance of interests and for all their public professions, they must maintain and work within this status quo.
Otherwise, if the Opposition truly believed the political process is rigged in favour of the NRM, the country is in a serious political and economic crisis, and Uganda is approaching State collapse, then the solution should be different.
Rather than constantly mobilise and plan for the next general election cycle, the Opposition should, logically, be working toward a true people power uprising such as we have recently seen in Algeria and Sudan.
But that’s not how political system is structured in Uganda.
The West funds Ugandan human rights groups and activists in their campaigns to expose and hold to account the very police and army funded by the West.
In effect, the West funds both the arsonist and the firefighter.