The roadblocks to transition that Uganda must overcome

Sunday June 28 2020


By Norbert Mao

If we want to see democracy take root in Africa, and particularly Uganda, and thus end the cycle of bloodletting that has characterised the continent, we should look at some of the obstacles that are undermining democratic transition.

One of Africa’s leading political scientists, Nzongolo-Ntalaja, has outlined four main impediments to democracy.

First is what he calls the ‘political immaturity of the democratic forces’. Most of the so-called democratic opposition are former Sauls who have become Pauls. They are deserters from the constellation of the authoritarian regimes they seek to depose. They are consequently primarily office seekers for political and material gain.

They have no respect for rules and agreements based on democratically agreed positions as long as it doesn’t meet their selfish and narrow personal expectations and interests.

In the long run such leaders end up undermining and betraying the hopes and aspirations of the ordinary people.

Take the case of Edward Lowassa, a former prime minister in Tanzania, who in 2015 quit the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) after failing to secure the party nomination to run for president.


He was embraced by the opposition coalition known as UKAWA and ran as a joint candidate nominated by the CHADEMA party. Four years later, he quit CHADEMA and rejoined CCM!

Second is ‘weakness of the means of subsistence of the middle class and its exploitation by the ruling groups in order to paralyse the democratic forces’. This can also be further defined as the prostitution and bastardisation of the middle class.

Most of the Opposition leaders are middle class or petty bourgeoisie. Over the years, their means of economic sustenance has declined.

The toll of economic hardship has forced these elites, including those least inclined to active politics, to bite the bait cast by the authoritarian regimes seeking to reinvent themselves as reformers. Externally, these elites are pressured to ‘play ball’ and form a ‘government of national unity’ that the global players can ‘do business with’.

Third is the monopolisation of the public media by the regime in power. The Opposition is thus faced with an uphill task to pass its message to the masses. Sometimes Opposition parties have newspapers, but these do not suffice as most of the masses don’t read newspapers.

These may only reach the urban informal business operators and young school leavers. The regimes also use their monopoly of the public media to confuse, misinform and derail the Opposition.

Fourth is ‘violence against democracy’. Authoritarian regimes arm-twist, cajole and intimidate civil servants in order to dissuade and pressure them to shun the democratic struggle. The other side of this same coin is police repression and brutality that is systematically unleashed against democratic activists and human rights campaigners.

Violence against democracy includes divide and rule, stigmatisation of Opposition figures as subversives or terrorists, incitement of ethnic hatred, which can culminate in ethnic cleansing, large scale massacres and even genocide.

To these we need to add unbridled globalisation. The forces of globalisation do not favour democratisation. The main face of globalisation is economic domination. In its effort to achieve economic dominance and uniformity, globalisation undermines the key institutions that make democracy work. Markets are liberalised while politics remain largely authoritarian.

Finally, democracy demands certain institutions that meet people’s highest and most deeply felt aspirations and also ensure that they occupy the maximum space in the political arena.
However, what we have in most of Africa is democratic formalism. We have elections minus democracy. Therefore, we need to question the obsession with elections at the expense of other substantive elements of a democratic society.

Nzongola-Ntalaja writes that, ‘in themselves, elections do not ensure democracy. They can be manipulated through rules of the game that reduce the chances for fairness and by electoral fraud.”