National dialogue: Lessons Uganda can draw from Benin, DR Congo

Sunday May 12 2019

Some analysts are worried government is us

Some analysts are worried government is using the dialogue to ease pressure from the People Power movement. 

By Paul Murungi

The debate on political transition has been a central factor in most national dialogues across Africa in the past years.
As Uganda gears up for the forthcoming national dialogue, the issue remains top on agenda. But the experience of dialogues across Africa indicates that incumbent governments manipulate them in their favour.

This is creating concerns among academicians, politicians and the civil society for the forthcoming dialogue. Most fear the dialogue may not work in favour of Ugandans.

On Wednesday, politicians, religious leaders, members of the civil society and academicians gathered at Makerere University School of Law for a symposium themed “The Proposed National Dialogue for Uganda”.

The symposium was organised by The Society for Justice and National Unity in conjunction with the Human Rights and Peace Centre.
Mr Godber Tumushabe, one of the technical persons at the National Dialogue Secretariat, started off by saying the dialogue’s main aim was to build a national consensus on values, diversity, land, justice and access to natural resources as well as minimum standards of public service delivery.

“The national dialogue is not a one day event,” he said, “but a process to bring all Ugandans together and talk to each other.”
“Currently, there are two competing narratives about the change of our country. There are those who think everything is moving on smoothly and the economy is doing well. Then, another group says everything is bad and life is hard. This happens because there’s no shared vision of the future. Half a century has been about fighting. More than three decades of contested elections, why should we have an election that looks like a civil war? We also need a complete democratic and political transition,” he said.

Government has committed Shs11 billion towards the national dialogue, but Mr Tumushabe says Ugandan citizens and businesses should make financial contributions since any funding from donors will not come without preconditions.

Benin: A successful experience
Makerere University law don, Prof John Jean Barya, while quoting a paper on national dialogues phenomenon in Africa delved into the experiences of different countries. He cited Benin where it succeeded and the Democratic Republic of Congo where it failed.

Benin is credited to have held the first successful national conference which became a model for peaceful change of government for other countries in the region. By 1989, the country was in a state of crisis and a social unrest broke out which became a mass movement for democratic renewal.

When the militarily-installed president Mathieu Kerekou failed to succeed in government repression, he began making political concessions. Kerekou announced in December 1989 that the People’s Revolutionary Party of Benin had abandoned its monopoly of power by permitting the formation of political parties.

He was also forced to convene a national dialogue to discuss the problems that were affecting the country at that time. Most opposition politicians feared that this was a diversionary tactic.

Though the military president had expected the national conference to give him an opportunity to retain and enlarge his power base by making a few concessions, the delegates declared themselves sovereign and suspended the constitution and dissolved the national assembly.
Kerekou described the decision as a ‘civilian coup d’état’, but in the end he accepted the decision, paving way for presidential and parliamentary elections where he lost to the opposition.

He later asked for forgiveness for abuse of power after 20 years.

Congo: A failed experience
Prof Barya also said former president of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Mobutu Sese Seko manipulated the national dialogue in 1990 and went on to retain the national presidency until he was ousted, something he says is likely to happen in Uganda. Mobutu had spent more than three decades in power.

Prof Barya says whereas DR Congo had a national conference, Mobutu managed to control and neutralise the process, thereby frustrating all attempts by the national conference to accomplish any genuine and substantial regime change through multiparty politics.

It was not until 1990, following mass demonstrations and external pressure, that Mobutu convened two conferences: The Zairian National Conference and the Zaire National Sovereign Conference and agreed to a multiparty dispensation.

But in theory, his Popular Movement of the Revolution remained the only legal party to which everyone belonged. It remained a one-man rule with Mobutu’s heavy control of the army, especially the Presidential Guard.
About 130 political parties were formed after the conference, but many were pro-Mobutu. DRC remained in chaos until 1997 when a civil war broke out and Mobutu was sent packing by the barrel of the gun.

Mobutu’s Zaire illustrates a case of a neutralised and manipulated national conference used more as a tactical tool than a genuine forum for negotiated political reform.

It won’t work
Many political pundits’ view is that a Mobutu-styled national dialogue is likely to occur in Uganda. Mr Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, the Opposition FDC party spokesperson, says the dialogue may not work because Mr Museveni has already been endorsed as a sole candidate after scrapping the presidential age limit.

“This dialogue will not work because Mr Museveni wants the dialogue to discuss land, fees structure of Makerere [University] but not a political dialogue. However, the elders, religious leaders and civil society have not played the part that their counterparts in other countries played. For example, in Malawi the elders stopped Bakili Muluzi from implementing a life presidency,” he says.

“But religious leaders and elders in Uganda meet Mr Museveni to deal with their personal needs. They have not used their platform and I see them committing the same mistake because Mr Museveni wants to commit Shs11b to finance the dialogue, he doesn’t want foreign funded dialogue. So it appears he has already put conditions,” Mr Ssemujju says.

Prof Jean Barya also says government is likely to use the dialogue as an excuse. If the dialogue is genuine and important national issues are to be resolved, he adds, then the 2021 elections have to be postponed and the Constitution amended.

“But the government is under pressure because they have not carried out the reforms as directed by the Supreme Court. And there’s also pressure from People Power. The government is using this dialogue to ease the pressure. The dialogue is likely to remain an academic paper because there’s no sufficient pressure from the people.”

Makerere University historian, Prof Mwambutsya Ndebesa, says Uganda has had many political conferences such as the Lancaster Conference, the Moshi Conference, the Nairobi Peace Talks and the Constituent Assembly talks, but they have not resolved many questions.
The conveners of these dialogues, he says, have not looked at future generations, but the next election, yet statesmen look at the next generation.

“Most dialogues have been towards elections, so we may not go very far. There must be a rule that any person participating in the dialogue must not stand in an election for the next 10 years. The dialogue is now being used as an instrument to postpone electoral reforms because initially they were against it. They will fund it and dictate; it is now State-based,” Prof Mwambutsya Ndebesa says.

What people want
“What we need to discuss is transition of power in the dialogue, but the conveners have the fear because they have been meeting the President. As we head into the dialogue, first of all, we must agree on who is going to chair; the agenda; and on how the outcome will be implemented,” Ssemujju says.

Prof Yash Tandon, a former minister in the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) regime of Prof Yusuf Lule and a lecturer at Oxford University, says the national dialogue should be anchored towards Mr Museveni handing over power to the young generation.

The dialogue, Prof Barya adds, needs to galvanise support from all members in society if it is to achieve its objectives. “If we want to change government, we need pressure from the people not only political party unions. We should also delink the dialogue from elections as long we get good results from it,” he says.

Whereas government had an objection to the national dialogue at first, it later agreed that the engagement should continue “so as not be used as an excuse by some elements” according to government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo.
“After several engagements, the government did not want to appear as a scapegoat and we embraced the dialogue. We don’t want to be used as an excuse. In 2003, there was heated debate on multi-party dispensation. NRM allowed it because we did not want excuses.”
Opondo also throws a jibe at Prof Tandon, saying: “We don’t need Prof Tandon to tell us that Museveni is old. That is a fact, he’s old. Does he know anything about practical politics or affairs of this country?”