What is eating the opposition?

Sunday November 4 2012

Members of the opposition during a House debate.

Members of the opposition during a House debate. PHOTO BY GEOFFREY SSERUYANGE 

By Yasiin Mugerwa

Where I come from, it’s only when it rains that you can identify a leaking hut. But in the dry season, you would think that all huts are well thatched. This is the story of Uganda’s floundering opposition in a multi-party democracy where political parties compete for power, separately or in coalition.

Under this arrangement, democracy operates on the basis that there is room for choice. This probably explains why the opposition’s main role in a democracy is to question the government of the day and hold them accountable to the public. In other democracies, opposition represents an alternative government, and is responsible for challenging the policies of the government and offering alternatives.

Far from disloyalty, Ugandans expect that their representatives will play an active role in Parliament whether in government or opposition. The acceptance by society of a valid role for the opposition is in itself an important underpinning for the work of the legislature. Regrettably, the people claiming to be in opposition have denigrated themselves to the extent that they are now “eating themselves” like grasshoppers in a bottle.

Any government has to remain answerable to the public at all times, and a good opposition can put the spotlight on serious issues and have them resolved quickly. The official opposition maintains a shadow cabinet, with the Leader of the Opposition at its head with shadow ministers who often have the same portfolios as actual ministers. But the moment you see a shadow cabinet, which is supposed to be a training ground for future ministers, turned into a backstabbing arena, full of intrigue and nasty schemes, then you know that there is a problem.

The squabbles in the opposition are not new; they just keep recurring, depending on the circumstance. As Leader of the Opposition in the 8th Parliament, Prof. Ogenga Latigo, faced many challenges but the one that possibly marked his leadership as disingenuous was to take or not to take the Shs20 million “bribe” shared by MPs, including those in opposition. In the end of this epic tale, with exception of a handful of members, most of the opposition MPs, including Prof. Latigo did not return this money.

Perhaps, the growing naughtiness among the opposition Members of Parliament failed Prof. Latigo. In his farewell press briefing, he blamed the intrigue and asked those who survived the voter’s wrath to do something about it. The people in opposition today, appear to have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. This is why his successor, Mr Nandala Mafabi, the former Public Accounts Committee Chairman, today finds himself in the same predicament. By asking opposition MPs to lead by example, Mr Mafabi stepped on a political land-mine.

In reference to a “leaking hut”, the race to replace Dr Kizza Besigye - FDC presidential candidates include Mr Mafabi, Gen Mugisha Muntu, the FDC’s secretary for mobilisation and shadow finance minister Geoffrey Ekanya - appears to have uncovered the intrigue Prof. Latigo talked about. Even before this contest, the relationship between Mr Mafabi and some FDC members had certainly gone from bad to worse. Those who know the hustle and bustle in opposition will tell you that Mr Mafabi’s decision to oblige this so-called government in waiting to follow procedures for travel abroad, stop dodging plenary, producing reports, asking members to contribute some money to their party and upholding the philosophy of accountability became a problem for many. This is why some members have decided to throw rotten eggs at Mr Mafabi’s presidential bid.

Some opposition MPs, especially from FDC, accuse Mr Mafabi of being impetuous and non-compromising yet, some shadow ministers have labelled him a “bad guy”. They vilify their leader without any sense of ignominy and many of them, particularly those who lost in their bid to replace Prof. Latigo, for one reason or the other, have cut for themselves a menacing image of a people endlessly plotting the downfall of their leader, using underhand methods. For others in a heavy-eyed shadow cabinet, they consistently threaten to resign even without justification because they want to portray Mr Mafabi as incompetent. This is not right.

The heavy-handedness of Meles Zenawi (RIP) notwithstanding, the pranks in parliament today, successfully contributed to the teething troubles the opposition faced in Ethiopia. In his speeches and public comments, Zenawi used to show nothing but contempt and hatred for the opposition. At best, he saw them as naughty children who needed constant supervision, discipline and punishment to keep them in line. Like children, he would sometimes offer some of them candy — jobs, cars, houses and whatever else it takes to buy their silence. I don’t have proof that our opposition leaders take “candy” from the ruling party to blot the ideals that brought them in opposition, but even so, the most important thing is to bury the hatchet and behave like a government in waiting.
Though it is their democratic right to support a candidate of their choice, it’s dangerous for members to hide behind FDC campaigns to vilify their leader. This kind of behaviour is self-defeating. If indeed members have problems with Mr Mafabi, the best way forward is dialogue.

Crucial role
The main role of the opposition is to offer alternatives to what the government is not doing right so that the public gets the benefit of political debate between different directions. But this cannot be done in confused situations where people unnecessarily fight their leaders.

The position of opposition parties in parliament is critical to the democratisation process. As Lise Rakner and Nicolas van de Walle argue (see Journal of Democracy, Volume 20, Number 3, July 2009, pp. 108-121), the opposition parties have remained numerically weak and fragmented, and unable to carry out their role as a political counterweight to the victorious party and president. But in some ways, the absurdity of our opposition leaders has been the architect of their anguish. The performance of opposition parties indicates that we should question whether our multiparty system really is progressing. At the very least, the pace of democratic progress has been exceedingly slow. This is the problem.


John Muwanga
This week we give flowers to Auditor General John Muwanga who has unearthed the corruption at the Office of the Prime Minister. The theft of billions of shillings meant for the post-war recovery efforts in northern Uganda and Karamoja sub-region was discovered by Mr Muwanga’s office, among other scandals, including the ghost pensioners. Parliament should expeditiously handle these reports in order to recover the money. Ugandans want to see those who stole the donor funds in prison. Flowers for you Bwana Muwanga and your team. Keep up the hard work.

FrownsChristine Ondoa
On Wednesday, Daily Monitor reported that at least two people had died on Monday after the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Uganda’s largest referral hospital was closed because of an equipment breakdown. By Thursday the death toll had increased to five, yet these people could have been saved. For closing eyes to this critical matter, we give frowns to the Minister of Health, Dr Christine Ondoa and Dr Byarugaba Baterana, the Executive Director Mulago Hospital. We cannot allow our people to die, the required Shs3 billion for new equipment must be found as soon as possible.