Is the opposition in peril across East Africa?

Saturday October 6 2018

Mugisha Muntu

Mugisha Muntu arrives for the 2017 FDC National Delegates Conference. He has since quit to form a new political party. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI | NMG 

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A split in Uganda’s main opposition party; a release from prison with a stern warning of Rwanda’s main opposition figure; a handshake that has rattled the wider opposition in Kenya; President John Magufuli’s deployment of the hardest tactics against opponents.

These sum up the state of the political opposition in East Africa: The space for opposition is shrinking as entrenched incumbents tightening their grip.

Over the last two weeks, Maj General Mugisha Muntu, who reigned supreme at the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) for five years, quit to start a new outfit named New Formation, to galvanise the masses that have been at best despondent with regard to politics.

The question is: Does creation of a new political vehicle expand or shrink the chances of mounting a meaningful challenge against President Yoweri Museveni who will have been in power for 33 years come January next year at the next election?

Immediate comments from the FDC betrayed panic as the party proclaimed a “plan to fight Muntu.”

Meanwhile, Gen Muntu’s efforts to leave bridges to his old party intact have been seen as too little too late at best and naive at worst given the animosity he endured as the party’s President, when he was accused of being a mole, which finally drove him to quit.


So far, both Gen Muntu and Dr Kizza Besigye, the man he replaced at the helm of FDC in 2012 have been careful in their comments, with the latter making every effort to avoid the subject altogether.

Dr Besigye has been accused of failing Gen Muntu after he exited the party leadership in 2012.

Ugandan political watchers have long hoped to copy Kenya’s agility in crafting alliances that help wrest power from strong incumbents as seen in the change of leadership from President Daniel arap Moi to Mwai Kibaki and the rise of President Uhuru Kenyatta.

However, the dynamics are fundamentally different as Kenyan politicians pursue short-term objectives. This may not work when facing an entrenched leader like President Museveni.

But Kenya’s deal making especially among opposition ranks is facing its biggest test since the surprise March handshake between arch-rivals President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga.

The deal has paralysed the opposition and left the ruling Jubilee Alliance in turmoil.

The handshake has thrown up more questions than answers on the political playing field during the next elections as it seems to upset an earlier succession plan between President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto.

Accusations of betrayal have since rung out from both Jubilee and the opposition coalition, the National Super Alliance.

Academicians have largely sighed with relief, expressing optimism that the handshake may have helped avert a return to 2007-style post-election violence.

‘Politics unusual’

Writing in the Daily Nation in May, Peter Ndege, a professor of history at Moi University noted: “In the context of Kenya’s neo-liberal ethos and practice, politicians struggle for power through unfair and predetermined electoral processes which invariably threaten to tear the fragile country apart.”

Mr Ndege, however, welcomed the thawing of relations, arguing that it could be explained as politics of nation building. Like many other observers, he argues that the mere fact of the two titans of Kenyan politics shaking of hands was critical in ensuring stability.

What Mr Ndege did not say outright, however, is the handshake left the opposition in a state of confusion.

Meanwhile, it is in Tanzania, hailed as a beacon of stability in the region, that ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi continues to entrench itself, especially with the ascent to the presidency of John Pombe Magufuli in November 2015.

Under his leadership, the elbow room for the opposition, civil society and the media has continued to shrink.

A wave of optimism about “politics unusual” has quickly ebbed into persistent harassment of the opposition and media.

But President Magufuli attracts masses of followers who are bowled over by his tough stance against corruption and wasteful spending. Such zeal has assured him of widespread support for his hard tackling against political opponents.

In Rwanda, elections were held in August to elect a new parliament but while that shows a healthy sharing between the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front and friendly parties, other elements of the opposition who have opposed President Paul Kagame, who has been in power since 2000, fare a different reality.

Two women stand out: Victoire Ingabire and Diane Rwigara.

Ms Ingabire of the United Democratic Forces Party was freed on a presidential pardon recently after serving six years of a 15-year jail sentence.

She has been warned to steer clear of politics in order to guarantee her freedom although she had threatened to continue from where she had left off before her incarceration.

Ms Rwigara, who tried unsuccessfully to contest against President Kagame in the last elections, was released on bail alongside her mother from prison on Friday.

Elsewhere, the newest members of the EAC, Burundi and South Sudan present what observers see as the most worrying situations for political opposition.

Burundi has been locked in a civil conflict since President Pierre Nkurunziza laid claim to an extra term which critics say violated the provisions of the Arusha Accord that ended that country’s protracted civil conflict signed in 2000.

President Nkurunziza has been president since 2005.

South Sudan has also just signed a series of peace accords mainly aimed at bringing harmony between arch rivals President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar.

Dr Machar has been living in exile in South Africa after fleeing the country in 2015, he has since relocated to Sudan.