By Andrew Mwenda
Yesterday the opposition put up an entertaining show of hooliganism in parliament to disrupt plans by the NRM to amend the constitution and remove age limit so that President Yoweri Museveni can run again in 2021. This forced the speaker of parliament to postpone debate on this issue for the second time. To many pundits on Uganda’s social and traditional media, the opposition scored a second and big victory and proved their ability to exploit their nuisance value to block this move that would make Museveni rule for life.
I would love to celebrate with those who saw yesterday’s antics by the opposition in parliament as a big achievement. This is because I also think Museveni needs to retire. I will explain towards the end of this article why I think so. However, an analyst should always avoid the temptation to let his/her hopes guide their analysis. Rather they should use facts on the ground to analyze a situation. Sadly, the facts show that the opposition antics are not a result of confidence in their ability to stop Museveni’s life presidency project. Rather they are acts of desperation to show that they tried.
To amend the constitution needs two thirds of the whole parliament. Right now our parliament has 436 legislators. NRM needs 291 MPs to amend the constitution. As I write this article 288 NRM MPs have signed to support the amendment. Ten NRM MPs have refused to sign on. Then 58 independents and five new NRM MPs (to be sworn in this week) support the amendment. That brings the total to 351. If one adds the 10 army MPs, Museveni is in a smiling position right now with 361 votes.
Of the remaining 75 MPs, only about 27 are passionate about using violence in parliament to express their dissent. The rest think it is a futile gesture. Yet these violent opposition MPs are playing right into Museveni’s hands. Anyone who knows him well will tell you that Museveni cares deeply about how he should be seen especially by the western powers whose acquiescence to his rule he desires. He wants the process of amendment to be seen as democratic as long as any posturing does not threaten his hold on power. It is in his interest that opposition MPs express themselves passionately, even violently, on the floor of parliament. That shows that he is democratic and tolerant.
Museveni knows the opposition are a tiny, even though loud, minority. They don’t have the numbers or the physical capacity to stop the amendment. Ironically in giving them a chance to express themselves – even violently on the floor of parliament – they legitimize the amendment. It shows the amendment went through a rigorous democratic process – again especially to western powers. The violent opposition are subjectively Museveni’s strongest critics. But objectively they are his strategic allies.
This is the factor that is driving Museveni to tolerate their violent antics in parliament – because it serves his interest. Otherwise if they really threatened his power and the amendment he would easily send police into the chamber and pick them up like chicken thieves, throw them in jail and the skies would not come down. At best he would use parliamentary rules to suspend violent MPs during the debate – which would be justifiable.
Museveni has no scruples when his power is threatened. He can be brutal and arbitrary. Tolerating these MPa is a calculated act, not a sign of weakness or impotence. In 2006 he sent goons in black T-shirts armed with automatic weapons (remember the Black Mambas?) to invade courts and violently re-arrest suspects who had been granted bail. He also sent hooligans (NRM youths) who invaded courts forcing judges to run for dear life. The judges complained, donors threatened, the media scolded him but Museveni remained in office. Why? Because none of these reactions actually threatened his power.
Let us look at the belief among many pundits that those opposition antics in parliament mean anything. If you issue a threat, you must have the capacity to carry it through successfully. What can opposition MPs do to stop the vote? Riot in the chamber? But for how long will they keep disrupting parliamentary sessions before they justify sending in police to apprehend them? If Museveni does that, it will be one more rotten egg on his image. But he has had so many rotten eggs so much so that this an extra rotten egg subtracts little or nothing from his profile.
Besides, the opposition lack the most important thing they need in parliament – numbers. They can argue themselves hoarse that they are the moral conscience of Uganda. But in a democracy it is the majority that rules, not the moral conscience. Many Americans think Donald Trump is a thug beneath the dignity of the office of president of the USA. But he is the president because he won the election under the rules of their constitution and democracy. There is no way opposition MPs can justify that their minority of 75 votes against 361 should stop the business of parliament.
As I have said time and again, the only thing that can stop this amendment is the people of Uganda. If Ugandans in large numbers took to the streets across all the major towns and stayed there for months, they would outstretch the police, the army and even the reserve and paralyze government. Under such widespread popular opposition, Museveni would be trapped. Indeed he would have to retreat, which would show weakness and embolden his opponents to now seek to drive him out of office the way Egyptians did to Hosin Mubarak. Any attempt to conduct a violent crackdown would fail in the face of the people. The opposition say this path is impossible. In doing so they admit that Museveni is going to rule for life.
But NRM is a highly skilled party whose effectiveness in holding and retaining power is unmatched. Accusations of it being disorganized and incompetent are uninformed. So it will require superior organizational capabilities for the opposition to rally the masses nationwide to effectively halt Museveni in his tracks. Stopping this amendment requires a degree of widespread popular protest backed by organization to overwhelm the state’s repressive capacity.
So instead of pretending in parliament, the opposition need to organize in all cities and towns. There is widespread Museveni fatigue in the Uganda, even in the rural areas. Of course Museveni will put myriad obstacles in the path of whoever tries to rally the masses. The challenge is how to overcome them and wear him down. Can the opposition do it? They seem too concerned fighting a lost cause in parliament than trying a strategy of nationwide protest that has a chance.
Finally let me come to why I think Museveni should retire. First, the length of his rule or his age is not my reason. Leaders like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore ruled for long and grew old in office but this did not take away their energy and dynamism. My issue with Museveni is that while he has a lot of power, more than anyone after him will ever command, Museveni lacks new creative policy ideas and management ability to take this country to the next level. In short, he has too much power but little leadership left in him.
However, when I listen to many of his critics and opponents, I am saddened by how shallow they are on policy and strategy. They have no clue about what Uganda needs to sustained the current growth momentum and convert it into transformation. In fact they are many more times worse than Museveni. This is the tragedy of Uganda; our country’s politics attracts the worst characters with the least competences to manage it. There is a huge gulf between the magnitude of our challenges and the pettiness of our politics.