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The Opposition in Uganda is not weak

By SWAIB K. NSEREKO

ARTICLE SUMMARY: The persistent state of fear, anxiety and restlessness in the ruling party reflects the strength of opposition parties.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY: Swaib K. Nsereko is the Spokesman, Justice Forum (JEEMA) Party.

This is in response to Information and National Guidance Minister Ms. Rose Nsereko’s Arab Spring: Lessons for Uganda published in New Vision of 9, July 2013. In the article the Minister claims that “the opposition in Uganda are so few and so weak to have any significant impact on the functioning of government.”

First off, the government has tasked Justice James Ogola to initiate dialogue between it and the opposition parties in parliament—FDC, UPC, DP, JEEMA and CP. Ogola has subsequently had meetings with these parties.

In JEEMA we unreservedly believe in dialogue as a viable conflict resolution mechanism, but we cautiously received Justice Ogola, considering that previous efforts of this nature were futile. Asked how serious he was this time, he said to the extent that the very ruling party which undermined the process last time is now in lead, it will work out. Justice Ogola is the chairperson of the Ugandan Elders Forum—a voluntary group of eminent citizens formed to cool off the storm in the aftermath of the 2011 elections.

Minister Nsereko’s article was definitely inspired by the same spirit that caused her party to send over Justice Ogola to the opposition parties. It is also possibly part of the media strategy the NRM government has made to prevent effects of the Arab Spring from spreading over to Uganda.  The Ugandan population that is now gradually becoming information-driven, thanks to millions of mobile phones, social internet networks and radio station in every district, is keenly following global events and picking some lessons. There is thus an understandable sense of panic within the NRM, more so that many governance questions today hover in space.

Nsereko’s article to a large extent had merit, as she effectively conducted her role as a government official for ‘National Guidance.’ A veteran of Luwero Triangle, she correctly lamented violent-driven change of governments. Nearly thirty years after the ‘liberation process’ that started in Luwero, it takes physical presidential cash hand-outs to cause fleeting smiles on faces of men and women that participated in that struggle!

Her analysis of the Arab conflict vis-à-vis the situation in Uganda had flowed well until she veered off course to write off the opposition in Uganda as inconsequential.

She described the opposition as ‘so few and weak to have any significant impact on government.’ This portended arrogance and prompts a caution for her to respect Ugandans. If the opposition are insignificant, why is their panic in the NRM?  Would then one err by not taking Justice Ogola serious?

But the Ugandan opposition is a force to reckon with. Statistically, the loose Interparty Cooperation (IPC) – comprising FDC, JEEMA and CP – that fronted then FDC president as presidential flag bearer in the 2011 elections, posted 2.06 million votes. Adding the votes for other opposition candidates, including Olara Ottunu (125,000), Norbert Mao (147,000), Beti Kamya (52,000), Abed Bwanika (52,000), Bidandi Ssali (34,000) and Samuel Lubega (32,000) gives an approximate total national endorsement of 2.5 million votes for the opposition. This is without any single infringement on public resources. But by any imagination, it can’t be underrated by a genuine political analyst.

More about election results, unlike in Kenya where only about 50,000 of the registered 11.5 million voters didn’t turn up in this year’s presidential election, in Uganda, of the 11 million registered voters, three million didn’t!  What can explain this discrepancy? Approached casually, one can simply say they abstained. In that sense they could have been for opposition, hence a total of 5.5 million votes, which should have meant a rerun—and indeed a situation that neutral pundits had predicted. They could also have been for the NRM. But the choice of this huge number of voters to stay away basically typifies lost faith in our electoral system. 

Thus none of these scenarios can inspire celebration by any soul in today’s Uganda.  It’s in fact a dangerous trend to pretend comfort simply because of majority support. Yesteryear’s minority is today’s majority. In the United Kingdom, the Labour Party formed in the late 19th century was until 1909 a minority. It only surpassed the Liberal Party as official opposition in 1910 elections and had its first ever minister in 1915.

Since 1924 with Ramsey McDonald as its first Prime Minister, the Liberals have not looked back. But today Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, with just 57 MPs in the House of Commons against 208 and 307 for Labour and Conservatives, respectively, is the Deputy Prime Minister, whose minority MPs are ministers in a coalition government. Thus the lesson for Minister Nsereko should be that huge numbers per se are not an end in themselves.

Learning from the North African events, there was a time late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi considered his popularity to transcend boundaries of territorial Libya. He took this support for his own security—prompting him to dismantle the new military defense arsenal for his country.   Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak too consolidated his relations with America and Israeli courtesy of the Camp David Agreement to be a source of personal security. But the first foreign call to advise him let go came from Washington.

In Tunisia it was one opposition guy, a boy for that matter, who sparked off change.

What, therefore, is happening in North Africa and the Middle East today are effects of decades-long arrogant leadership that never bothered to adequately read and respond to the day’s realities. In Uganda, the opposition and its supporters have a statement to make. They better are listened to in a properly constituted forum than arrogantly write them off.   

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