Since the introduction of multiparty politics in Africa in the 1990’s, the opposition parties in most elections have failed to wrestle power from the incumbents, despite the incumbents’ unpopularity. At the heart of the opposition’s dismal performance is their lack of unity heading into the polls. While theoretically they garner more votes during the elections, their votes are divided resulting in the incumbents’ victory, by a slim majority. One way in which the opposition can beat the incumbents is by forming a coalition uniting, at least, the major parties such that their votes are aggregated. The Kenyan case is illustrative.
Before Article 2A of the Kenyan constitution was repelled in 1991, Kenya was a de jure single party state. The repeal opened a flood gate of opposition parties. Several of them were formed with no serious programs, agenda, or ideological orientation. They were nonetheless a welcomed relief in a country that had only known one party since independence.
With the elections scheduled to take place at the end of 1992 these newly formed parties had to contend with numerous challenges. Principally, they had limited time to mobilize voters as compared to the ruling party which had entrenched grass-root machinery in place. Compounding their situation further, the opposition parties splintered. This limited the number of votes they could garner – as they were all fighting for the same voters.
For instance, the foremost opposition party in Kenya, the Forum for Restoration of Democracy, FORD, was a juggernaut that had all the pieces in place to dislodge the incumbent President Daniel Moi and his party the Kenya African National Unity, KANU, from power. It had the heavy weight old money millionaires like Kenneth Matiba, and veteran politicians like Oginga Odinga, the father of the current Prime Minister. It also had fire-breathing young Turks like Paul Muite and James Orengo. The intellectual wing was occupied by people like Anyang’ Nyongo and Pheroze Nowrejee. Further they enjoyed tremendous support from civil society organizations headed by people like Dr. Willy Mutunga.
However, shortly after it was launched, FORD was consumed by internal rivalry, and split into two; one wing led by Oginga, and the other led by Matiba. Oginga formed FORD Kenya, while Matiba formed FORD Asili. It was a testament to the potency of FORD that both of the parties were keen to retain the FORD name. This, however, was not the end of FORD’s split, it splintered further, into unrecognizable parties. The final blow that derailed the opposition’s hope of winning the election arrived when Mwai Kibaki defected from KANU, and instead of joining the nascent opposition formed a new party the Democratic Party, DP. This particularly hurt the opposition cause because it further divided the solid Kikuyu block which was overwhelmingly in support of the opposition.
Predictably the opposition lost the 1992 election as well as the 1997 election, mainly because of their disunity. In 2002 however, the opposition realized the futility of their division, and formed a coalition to face KANU in the polls. After months of behind-the-scenes negotiations the parties agreed that while in the parliamentary election they would each field their respective candidates, in the presidential race, they would all rally behind one candidate. In the presidential race, DP, FORD Kenya and the Social Democratic Party, SDP, all nominated Mwai Kibaki as their principle, while the Liberal Democratic Party, LDP and the National Development Party, NDP nominated Raila Odinga, Oginga’s son, as their principle. But, Raila agreed to support Kibaki. Thus, all parties maintained their identity, while coming together behind Kibaki under the umbrella of the Rainbow Coalition, to face off against KANU’s presidential candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta.
This unity delivered the opposition’s first victory. KANU’s action of putting Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, who was a political novice on the ticket, and bypassing the party’s old guard did not help KANU’s course. It infuriated most of the party stalwarts leading to massive defection from KANU to the opposition. In the election, KANU, not only lost the presidency, but also its majority in the parliament, for the first time since independence.
One of the stumbling blocks to the opposition’s unity was mutual distrust. To overcome this, the opposition parties drafted a Memorandum of Understanding, before the election, on how to share ministerial, diplomatic and other state postings. This allowed the parties to maintain their separate identities while working together. This, however, didn’t prevent acrimony within the coalition. Shortly after their win, the coalition wing, led by Raila Odinga, felt that they were shortchanged in the distribution of political posts. The agreement had been that postings would be distributed according to each party’s strength within the parliament. While Raila’s wing had a majority of Parliamentarians, Kibaki’s wing took the majority of posts. They demanded more posts. President Kibaki’s wing considered this unrealistic, because they had won the Presidency. As per the constitution, appointment to any post was the prerogative of the President. While gridlock became the unintended consequence of their unity, the unity, nonetheless, succeeded in removing the incumbent, the well-entrenched Moi from power, after 24 years.
Looking at Uganda’s political parties one cannot but draw a cruel parallel with Kenya’s opposition in the 1990’s. Unfortunately, Uganda’s opposition parties did not consider Kenyan history when battling the incumbent party. Uganda’s opposition’s presidential candidates included Abed Bwanika, Betty Kamaya, Norbert Mao, Olara Otunnu, Walter Lubega, Kizza Besigy, all formidable candidates in their own right. But they were all running against the 25-year- incumbent, Yoweri Museveni. A cursory glance at the list reveals most of the opposition leaders hail from strong opposition zones. Practically, the opposition ended up fighting for votes amongst themselves, making Museveni’s job a lot easier.
Opposition unity, which has proven elusive, is not the only way to capture power. However, it is the most pragmatic way. Unlike election rolls, constituency boundary changes, and “independent” electoral commission reform, which are all within the control of the incumbent, merely because he is in power, opposition unity is not something the incumbent can manipulate. It places the opposition’s destiny in their own hands. And, as illustrated in the case of Kenya in 2002, it can deliver victory. However, poor negotiations can lead to a poison chalice. This is a mistake, countries like Uganda will do well to avoid in the future.