How do we define political transitions and what makes them relevant?

This is especially evident in Africa where the post-colonial state struggles for legitimacy all the while maintaining the structural tools of exploitation and oppression that previous undemocratic regimes relied on

 

BY Susan Mirembe Nalunkuma

IN SUMMARY

Transitions are somewhat a familiar concept to most human beings. We have all experienced - collectively and individually - some form of transition - a movement, passage or change from one position, state, stage to another.

They come to us through personal experiences like puberty, daily events like sunsets, and national events like elections although nature offers the most crucial lessons on transitions. They are bound to happen whether we have any influence over them or not.

Electoral periods are the most common transition within the political space; the couple of years that precede an election are eventful in many countries. This is especially evident in Africa where the post-colonial state struggles for legitimacy all the while maintaining the structural tools of exploitation and oppression that previous undemocratic regimes relied on.

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Under the relatively new and struggling democratic dispensation that is the African state, citizens’ ability to cast the ballot at regular intervals is still perceived, at least by international audiences, as an indication of a functioning state. Our experience, of course, has taught us otherwise.

In Uganda, for instance, we have held numerous elections under the NRM government - in 1996, 2001, 2006, 2011, and in 2016 and while many hoped they would bring about a change, this goal is yet to be accomplished.

The fact that elections do not always facilitate political transitions is well documented in other African countries such as Zimbabwe, DR Congo, and Burundi, among others.

In many instances, transitions from one government to another in post-colonial states happen through overt seizure of the State by the elite or the military. These transitions (also known as coup d’etats), are usually led by groups within the state apparatus.

Zimbabwe, with the resignation of the world’s oldest president after a relatively bloodless coup, is the most recent example of what is a commonplace undemocratic political transition.

A number of critics have already pointed out that while Robert Mugabe’s departure is applauded, real transition is yet to be seen as the new president is also a member of the state apparatus that supported and benefited from the old dictator’s regime. The transition- or more accurately, change- is yet to be seen.

Some of the important questions about political transitions remain unanswered and given the unique yet common experiences that the post-colonial African context offers, perhaps we need to redefine some of the questions and even propose new ones, for instance, how do we define political transitions and what makes them relevant in our democracies?

We are wary that elections will bring the change that we desire in our contexts, but political transitions have been running in many countries as we wait for our big change. The Ugandan political space is rife with examples of political transitions and yet unwillingness to recognise them as shifts, has left us unprepared for the broader change that we seek.

Within the electoral landscape, for instance, the increased number of ‘non-traditional’ individuals who are now seen as political figures, is a step towards expanding our understanding of political transitions.

Edutainment artiste Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine and his victory in Kyadondo East as MP, was a resounding wake-up call for anyone looking out for transitions in our political space. His victory was symbolic of change- evidence that a transition is happening and for anyone who has been watching, there have been signs of this over the years.

Aside from the changes in political representation within Parliament, there have also been changes in who organises within the political space and how they organise.

One of the recognisable shifts in the past two decades has been the role of women and youth engaging with the political status quo. The women’s movement, for instance, has shaped and birthed some of the most influential advocates for change in Uganda.

Organisations working on civil rights and economic rights are also key players when it comes to political transitions in Africa through their civic education work, accountability campaigns, and policy advocacy.

In both formal and informal areas of political organising, changes have happened over the years but like a sunset, it has travelled what seems like a slow revolution.

What they say that the revolution will not be televised and while we are waiting for elections to count another transition, change is happening all around us. The question is whether we proactively participate in making it happen so that when the change eventually comes, it can really matter to us.

Ms Nalunkuma is a feminist, lawyer and researcher

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