Tuesday March 25 2014

It’s time for the Opposition to think beyond rallies and demonstrations

By Nicholas Sengoba

High up on the agenda of Uganda’s opposition parties, is a commendable attempt at initiating electoral reforms well ahead of 2016. Many of the proposals make sense. For instance, changing the composition of the Electoral Commission (EC) and the way it is appointed, to supposedly make it more transparent and accountable to all interested parties. At the moment because it is appointed by President Museveni it is seemingly slanted towards the ruling NRM party.

But we must have some caution here. Uganda’s main problem at the moment is more of an economic problem that manifests itself as a political one. The last 28 years of NRM have created such a skewed economic structure. The social safety net has been destroyed and replaced by the magnanimity or meanness of individuals. It is in these people’s hands and at their mercy that the power and function of the State as a provider of social services has been placed.

Uganda’s youthful society with more than 60 per cent being between 18-25 years is grappling with record unemployment rates of about 80 per cent. There are legions of desperate people who are willing to do anything for money.
An individual cannot make genuinely informed and independent choices in these circumstances. Bread and butter become the overriding factor in decision making. In such circumstances, even if the EC is managed by the opposition, you stand very high chances of maintaining the status quo. This is because the millions of citizens who eat one meal a day and live on less than a dollar on that day can do anything including selling their vote for petty things like salt and soap.
The needy opposition agents are also susceptible to bribery which may not stop ballot box stuffing and falsification of results.

The work of the Opposition is clear cut. How do you practically provide for this class that has been economically disempowered by the economic policies of the NRM? What is the feasible strategy to provide economic refuge and relief to the citizens of this country? Museveni has the sacks of money to dish out and other groceries to buy patronage. These people will listen to the tale of democracy but will vote with their stomachs.
My thought is that the mode of mobilisation applied in Uganda is very outdated and ineffective. The Opposition thinks that getting to the people through rallies or demonstrations is the best way forward. This is because crowds are visibly exciting. It makes it greater when they boldly chant anti-government rhetoric and the stand-off with the police runs the adrenalin.

But this does not always turn into votes or if it does these people do not have the courage and conviction to vote and ensure that their vote is counted. Since politics is a numbers game, the opposition should think of strategies (outside preaching to the government what it should do) that will make people prosper economically and build a critical mass. For instance, can the opposition create revolving funds where they distribute seedlings to farmers then help purchase or market the produce inside and outside the country? Can they re-invest any profits accruing into model farms, schools or hospitals across the country? Can they think about a health insurance scheme and source for scholarships for bright needy students? Can they come up with legal aid schemes to help members who are intimidated or persecuted by the state? The philosophy is that if you want to achieve something you have never achieved before, you must do something you have never done before.

Trouble is that the State will do everything to subvert these processes which may take a long time to become feasible and yet opposition politicians want to be in government very urgently. But as Ewa Letwoska once said, democracy is not fancy shopping windows, it is back breaking work.
Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues. nicholassengoba@yahoo.com