The future of opposition parties in East Africa looks bleak, with funding, governance challenges and harassment by ruling parties making it difficult for them to sell their agenda to the electorate.
In Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, the opposition is increasingly becoming insignificant as draconian rules leave them little room to manoeuvre. Even in Kenya, where the laws allow even contests, the main parties risk disintegrating should the strong personalities leading them exit the scene.
In Rwanda, analysts fear the country is sliding into a one-party state after the opposition led by Frank Habineza — the leader of the Democratic Green Party (DGP) — lost when 98 per cent of the voters approved a referendum to suspend presidential terms limits.
The opposition in Rwanda has been crippled by laws that international human rights groups say stifle political dissent.
The 2015 World Report on Rwanda by Human Rights Watch released in March said while achievement in economic and social development remain impressive, there are severe restrictions on freedom of expression and association.
Amnesty International had in its 2010 report said the laws were often employed to silence legitimate criticism and discredit opposition parties.
For instance, in 2012, Victoire Ingabire, president of the FDU-Inkingi, an opposition party, was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment on charges of conspiracy to undermine the government.
Although there are 10 existing political parties in Rwanda, those elected on their tickets, either silently or openly, side with the government as soon as they are sworn in as MPs.
In Burundi, the opposition parties are struggling because of lack of strategy and consistency. Before the controversial 2015 elections, Burundi had 45 registered parties but all of them boycotted the elections due to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term, leaving the ruling CNDD-FDD party to go the polls unopposed.
With the ongoing instability and the main opposition leader, Agathon Rwasa, having joined the government as the first deputy president of the National Assembly, the opposition’s only hope is a government of national unity from the ongoing intar-Burundi dialogue.
Mr Rwasa — who is now being termed a traitor by other opposition leaders — has seen his party, FNL, split into two, with the other faction led by govern-friendly, Jacques Bigirimana.
But in Tanzania, the opposition is showing some resurgence following a strong showing by the Ukawa coalition led by Edward Lowassa against the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi in the recent General Election.
According to Nicodemus Minde, a political consultant in Tanzania, the CCM win was another blow to the opposition but they can be proud of the political gains they have made under Mr Lowassa.
“The opposition will now face a different challenge with the presidency of John Magufuli who has so far shown grit in the fight against corruption, tax evasion, government spending and civil service management,” said Mr Minde.
For the first time since the introduction of multiparty democracy in 1992, the opposition gave CCM a run for its money, garnering over six million votes in the October elections. The alliance also brought in a combined total of 68 elected MPs.
Benson Bana, a political analyst says the performance of opposition parties is encouraging but the people want to see a united opposition so that they can trust them.
“People want change. If opposition wants to take power they should unite under one party and dissolve individual parties,” he said.
Tanzania’s Registrar of Political Parties Justice Francis Mutungi said in order for opposition parties to perform better against CCM next time, they should build strong internal party structures and shun a tendency of running them as family properties.
“We should see in them a commitment towards contributing to the country’s democratisation process rather than just trying to take power during elections,” he said.
Unlike in many African countries, in Tanzania, support for political parties transcends ethnicity, religion and geography. Tanzania has 22 registered parties but CCM still dominates the country’s politics, having ruled since 1977.
But the Civic United Front (CUF) remains strong in Zanzibar and Pemba. Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Chadema), founded by former central bank governor Edwin Mtei, dominates the northern parts of the country.
That unity has been elusive in Uganda, with The Democratic Alliance (TDA) that was to be the umbrella body for the opposition having failed to agree on a single candidate.
Most opposition supporters have become disillusioned, given that the opposition raised their hopes when they mooted a TDA coalition, only to dash them.
No level playing ground
In Uganda, as the country approaches the General Election in February, it is becoming clear that there will be no level playing ground for the parties and individuals competing against the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM).
Opposition leaders and their supporters have been harassed, teargased and arrested on flimsy grounds, with both opposition leaders Amama Mbabazi and Kizza Besigye having planned rallies cancelled or cordoned off by police.
By law, Section 14 (a) of the Political Parties and Organisations Act allows parties to be funded by the government according to their numerical strength in parliament, but this is still inadequate.
In Uganda, opposition support comes from among the elite and largely in urban areas. Dr Besigye rules the Kampala metropolitan area which includes the city, Entebbe, Wakiso and Mukono. He also commands a large following especially in the major towns of central and eastern Uganda.
In Kenya, the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) — which made a strong showing in the 2013 elections — is now facing a united Jubilee Party that is likely to force its affiliate parties to disband. Still, the opposition in Kenya is reeling from the shock of the 2013 defeat and has been trying to make amends by mobilising its strongholds to acquire identity cards and register in large numbers for the 2017 elections.
CORD, led by Raila Odinga is hoping to revive its fortunes through the referendum initiative to change sections of the Constitution. Besides the opposition mistrust of the electoral body, there is also the challenge of who will be the coalition’s flag bearer between Mr Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetangula. The duo have been pushing for Mr Odinga to support one of them in 2017.
A survey released by Ipsos Synovate in December revealed that the opposition still remains weak despite Mr Odinga leading an onslaught against the government over corruption and poor governance.
Additional reporting by Julius Barigaba and Christopher Kidanka