The train wreck we saw last week between FDC secretary general Nathan Nandala Mafabi and Kampala Woman MP Nabilah Naggayi Sempala was distasteful and a new low for the country’s biggest Opposition political party. It was also unsurprising.
A lasting memory is of an unarmed Mr Mafabi going head-to-toe with gun-totting Military Police men at a polling station in his constituency and forcing them into a hasty retreat. Even in an Italian suit, he cuts the image of a bloke you’d like on your side in a pub fight.
Ms Sempala, on the other hand, has the kind of street smarts one finds amongst arcade merchants, say purveyors of imported fabric. Before nominations for the last election, she was down for the count; unpopular within the party and facing the political fight of her life to retain her city.
Then she materialised out of the blue, appeared beside Kizza Besigye during a confrontation with the police, inhaled a bit of teargas, and promptly came back into play. But this isn’t about Naughty Nathan or Slippery Sempala. It is about the state of our fledgling democracy and the institutions upon which it depends.
When, during his swearing-in speech in 2016, President Museveni vowed to “wipe out the Opposition in the next five years” few people took him seriously; even fewer seriously considered the gravity of this remark and its impact on the country.
It was no idle threat. Smaller parties like Uganda Peoples Congress and Uganda Federal Alliance were ‘bought’ into coalition with the ruling NRM through ministerial appointments, while DP has been kept busy fighting an internecine war.
The war against FDC has been one of attrition: Picking off and rewarding leading lights with ministerial appointments, or keeping other converts covertly in the party to generate whiffs of suspicion and mistrust. The FDC walked into the trap and has imploded into an extreme faction of die-hard loyalists, and others seen as too soft and, therefore, sell-outs.
This has already led to the departure of former party leader Gregory Mugisha Muntu and his disciples into the new ANT party, and distracted the party so much that it arrives within six months of a general election without a clear candidate or plan, and with the early-morning coherence of a village drunk.
This has all been made possible by the privatisation of the State, including its politics. On the one hand we have State capture by the NRM and its cadres, including the appropriation of the national Budget to reward the political elite through tenders, and the masses through patronage systems like Operation Wealth Creation. On the other hand, funding to the Opposition has been stymied and a premium risk put on anyone who openly associates with them.
Bereft of resources, the Opposition has struggled to invest in original thinking, articulate alternative policies, and develop new leaders. Opposition has, for many, thus become an end in itself; perks of office for those who get into Parliament, or an avenue for shakedown settlements for those loud enough to catch the eye of the Treasurer-in-Chief.
Other centres of power such as the Judiciary and the civil service have been sedated by a large intravenous infusion of cadres while Parliament has been expanded to the point of incongruence and, on many occasions, transformed into a perfunctory theatre of the absurd.
Outside these normative political formations, other power centres such as traditional kingdoms have been beaten into line (Rwenzururu Kingdom), kept busy with non-threatening ‘development’ agendas (Buganda, Karamoja), sharply divided (religion, the arts,) or wooed with charm offensives (Acholi and Lango).
Far from merely rule, the incumbent has thus rebuilt the structures of society in his own image, without the strictures of traditional values or established principles of democratic practice, such as the separation of power, a free and independent media, a robust civil society, or a healthy Opposition that provides an alternative set of policies.
The implosion of FDC, and the destruction of Opposition generally, is a necessary, if not inevitable, result of this reconstruction of society.
At best it leads to the emergence of unstructured forms of political opposition coalesced around extremist positions as a last line of defence. At worst it is a slippery slope into the quicksand of autocracy and the quagmire of fascism.
Ordinary citizens must find new ways of reclaiming, reframing, and funding the politics they want and the societies they need. Politics is too important to be left to politicians, whether those in power or those seeking it.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.