Uganda’s political opposition is, undeniably, under tremendous pressure from a state keen to employ overwhelming power to suppress any alternative voices. In a rationale realm, sometimes engaging a state with such disproportionate amount of power imbalance looks like a fools errand.
Remarkably, there is a collective desensitization regarding the state’s gratuitous brutality towards the opposition leader Kizza Bessigye, who has been under indefinite house arrest. In fact, the constant abuse he has experienced in his attempts to defy the arrest has ceased to make news at all.
Amidst this depressing state of affairs, Ugandans broadly, and the opposition in particular can take heart from the opposition parties and their experience in Kenya.
During the Cold War Kenya was the anchor state, a region where Ethiopia and Tanzania were in the Eastern camp; Kenya was firmly in the Western block. For its role the country had a blank cheque, the west ignored “pesky” issues like human rights and good governance at the expense of geopolitical interests.
But in the Post-Cold War period the Western strategic calculus shifted. And with it the fortunes of Africa’s big men- former President Daniel Arap Moi included, whose tenure in power was underwritten by western largesse keen to prevent Kenya falling into the Communist wing.
Post- 1989, Moi faced stiff pressure domestically and from his western backers. Domestically, the country was facing severe economic pressure following the collapse of global commodity markets and the oil crash. The nascent reform movement spotlighted Moi’s horrible human rights records, which human rights organizations like Amnesty International picked on placing pressure on their governments to call for reforms.
Moi’s first reaction to the call for reform was massive crackdown on activists and academics, many fled into exile.
But the World Bank mandated Structural Adjustment Program left Moi with limited wiggle room, and he begrudgingly gave in to the political reforms. As a result, in 1991 he accepted the repeal of Section 2(A) of the constitution paving the way for a multiparty system.
Nevertheless, even after the introduction of a multiparty system, in subsequent elections, the opposition’s failure to unite allowed Moi to win. But in 2002, the opposition united and defeated Moi’s preferred candidate Uhuru Kenyatta.
If Moi manipulated the Cold War by branding any opposition as communists, Museveni has similarly branded any opposition as terrorists. This is unsurprising, however his over-militarization of the political spaces is nothing but a function of paranoia, because his standing domestically and abroad is slowly getting eroded. His overreliance on the ghost of Idi Amin is turning into a self-parody. His posture as the guarantor of peace in the Great Lakes is at best looking tenuous. Consequently he is looking eastward which is customarily the last refuge of African leaders pushed into a corner.
The key lesson for the Ugandan opposition is unity at all cost if they want to capture the state through a democratic process.
The foundation of that unity should be based on mutual trust. As the Kenyan case demonstrates, upon assumption of power all the divisions that were subsumed for the sole purpose of removing a regime from power will emerge and wreck even the best of rainbow movements and coalitions.
In 2002 the Kenyan opposition united, but internal schism tore them apart; the initial unity whose lowest common denominator was the hatred for Moi’s state evaporated under the weight of their ethnic suspicion.
It is clear, though, that the path to unity is littered with multiple challenges, and therefore it shouldn’t be reduced into an end in itself, but rather a process that should be approached with a post-victory governance road map in mind. The state, just like Moi will employ all methods foul and fair to subvert their unity since it is an existential threat, but no efforts should be spared in bringing on board all the stakeholders to counter the state’s maneuvers.