The argy-bargy in the opposition FDC party, which has been going on for many years, escalated late September with the departure of Maj Gen (rtd) Gregory Mugisha Muntu, the immediate former party president.
It is rumoured that an unknowable number of FDC MPs were expected to join Gen Muntu had it not been for the fear of triggering party disciplinary proceedings and, subsequently, financially ruinous mid-term by-elections. People will always put their interests (and bank interest) ahead of their principles.
Predictably, Muntu’s departure has been met with a sense of good-riddance, rather than soul-searching. Party functionaries warned Gen Muntu to make sure the door did not hit him on the way out. FDC secretary general Nathan Nandala Mafabi, who wouldn’t pee on the retired general if he was on fire, then took the piss by asking for a lowly functionary believed to have left with Muntu, to return party property, including a dozen cups and assorted party paraphernalia. The party bean counters, presumably, were yet to audit the spoons collection.
From what is publicly said, the dispute between the two camps, which has been many years in the making, primarily revolves around which means to use to acquire state power. The pro-Muntu faction says FDC should build grassroots structures capable of winning elections.
The mainstream party under Patrick Oboi Amuriat says it was robbed of its win in the 2016 election and intends to force the issue through acts of defiance.
Although members of both sides erroneously describe this as a strategic disagreement, it is merely tactical, and perhaps even two sides of the same coin: Any party activity, whether contesting elections or defending their outcomes through widespread and sustained acts of defiance, require structures. The two are complementary, not mutually exclusive.
There are at least three problems in the party arising from too much internal democracy and not enough economic and intellectual resources.
First, holding credible and tightly contested internal elections within political parties is a morally good thing, but they are politically expensive distractions and many leadership contests leave a bitter taste in the mouth. The NRM experimented with this model and saw bitter contests for the secretary general position.
When senior party officials started getting grandiose ideas about the Big Chair, the electoral experiments were quickly shut down under the cover of enforcing party discipline. Now even the secretary general is appointed by the party chairman.
Secondly, power – especially the type that brings economic benefits to individuals and the interest groups they represent – is the lubricant that holds political parties together. In its early days, the FDC attracted senior citizens and eminent personalities, including many men of means. But 15 years is a long time to live off one’s savings and many younger recruits have considerably less financial space; the longer the party stays outside power, the harder it is to maintain discipline and loyalty and the more vulnerable it becomes to internal discord and external influences.
If in doubt ask UPC; Twice it ruled the roost then started selling off its family heirlooms when it fell out of power. The last time this column checked, the party leadership had been added to the car boot sale as makeweights. Even the last bastion of party stalwarts, who used to loiter around Uganda House with only their red shirts on their backs, have disappeared.
Without access to power, elective positions within parties – or ‘profitable’ slots, such as on key parliamentary committees – can become means to personal ends. This easily leads to inter-generational strife.
Older party members who had ambitions for top positions either return to the fold of the ruling party they once belonged to, or retire to their farms to listen to the melancholic mooing of their cows. Younger ones, seeing extended queues of long-suffering party members ahead of them, are more tempted to jump in with new groups.
Third, unless these tensions are managed properly and used to renew itself and its membership, the party begins to resemble the very thing it set out not to be – the opposition wing of the ruling party. A party that has never been in power soon begins to look like a party that will never be in power.
At the next election in 2021, the number of first-time voters and those who abstained in 2016, will outnumber the total number that voted for both President Museveni and Kizza Besigye in the last election.
The majority will be young people concerned about money, jobs, opportunity, healthcare, shelter and how to put food on the table. Any opposition political party that courts them must show that it is best placed to provide those basics, and then convince them to defy the status quo and vote or act for change.
Fighting over whether to have structures or to be defiant is like two bald men fighting for a comb; the prize is only useful if it leads you to power.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter. [email protected]