President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has finally held direct discussions with the leaders of the country’s other significant parties.
I use the word significant advisedly. They are significant only as far as they each have representation in parliament, not because they are all necessarily capable of doing those things that serious political parties should do.
Representation in parliament is the key requirement for a party to become a member of the Inter-Party Organisation for Dialogue (IPOD), a donor-funded entity that is managed by the Netherlands Institute for Multi-Party Democracy, a democracy-promoting outfit working in several countries experiencing “democracy deficits.”
Representation in parliament is a crude criterion designed to limit IPOD’s membership to a manageable number of political organisations. Otherwise, given that there are over three dozen registered political parties in Uganda, getting all of them around a table to discuss anything conclusively, agree a course of action and actually follow through, would have been impossible.
By the same token, this excludes parties and party leaders without Members of Parliament who may have great ideas to resolve some key political issues.
It was heart-warming to learn from media reports that at the end of the dialogue, opposition leaders and President Museveni who until now have specialised in trading accusations and, from time to time, insults, were said to have spoken frankly and got to understand each other during the two hours they barricaded themselves in a closed session.
Elsewhere, it sounded as though Museveni was the greatest beneficiary of the gathering. He used it to assure everybody that the one thing that does not feature on his agenda for the foreseeable future is retirement. So now that is sorted. If anyone hoped to pick a fight with him over it at some point, the opportunity has been lost.
There were some surprises too. Arguably the most remarkable was the agreement among party secretaries-general to put the need to strengthen political parties on the list of subjects to discuss. There is no doubt that political parties in Uganda are extremely weak. The question is whose job this is and how they ought to go about doing it.
Before we go into who should do it and how, we need to examine the specific points of weakness and how they came about. At this point it is also well worth remembering that as soon as it captured power, the then “Movement,” which later became a political party like any other, suspended multiparty politics and with it, political party activities.
Existing parties were confined to their headquarters in Kampala. They could not hold meetings outside their offices. They could not recruit new members. They could not sponsor candidates for elective offices, as anyone seeking election had to do so on the basis of “individual merit.” They could not conduct fundraising activities. Being dormant, they could not justify asking existing members and supporters for financial support.
When the restrictions were lifted 20 years later, it became clear that they had acted as slow poison. During this period, party leaders had aged considerably, and were no longer energetic. Many had retired from active politics. The young people who aspired to leadership had not gone through the usual induction and mentoring that young politicians rising through party ranks go through in normal multiparty dispensations.
As a result, they had neither experience nor clear sense of direction. Members who in the past had supported parties, including financially by buying party cards and other paraphernalia and making donations, had moved on and either joined the Movement or decided that giving money to parties was no longer worth it.
Meanwhile, courtesy of its incumbency, the Movement and its successor, the NRM Party, enjoyed unfettered access to the resources it needed to keep its opponents disorganised and unable to threaten its hold on power.
What all this has produced is an environment that on the surface is ripe for multiparty politics, but underneath is hardly conducive to the kind of competition envisaged by enthusiasts of conventional democracy.
Political parties in Uganda may claim to have supporters and members. Few, however, want to contribute the financial resources they need to function as political parties.
Many Ugandans expect to be given party cards and other paraphernalia free of charge. They attend party meetings only if the parties pays their costs.
If someone chooses to contest for an elective position under the banner of the party they purport to be part of, they do not expect the party to question their decision. Otherwise they run as independents – after all candidates use their own money to campaign.
This lack of influence or control over members has undermined party discipline. Today, not a single political party can make decisions and compel its members to respect them.
Clearly, efforts to strengthen political parties are long overdue. It is good that parties are keen to discuss the matter. The question is how to move beyond merely talking about it. It is possible that some in the opposition believe the NRM or the government should take the lead on this. Such expectations are unrealistic. It is inconceivable that the NRM will want to help opposition parties acquire the capacity to defeat it.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]