The schism this past week in the Forum for Democratic Change, the biggest opposition party in Uganda, is a reflection of the existential crisis that democracy faces in East Africa.
Across the region, opposition parties struggle for relevance with their roles perceived as adversarial and therefore needing to be contained; or as mere window dressing to create the impression of a functional democracy.
This has been the situation for so long that, sometimes, even those who aspire to the opposition mantle don’t fully appreciate the roles and responsibilities they are assuming. And so you find the fluid and sometimes inspiring alliances of Kenya, the mute opposition parties of Rwanda, the tense standoff in a once-promising Tanzania, and the almost chaotic and survivalist politics of Uganda.
In South Sudan, the failure of competitive politics snowballed into an armed conflict that is still running and taking a shockingly heavy human toll.
After more than a decade-and-a-half of uncomfortable accommodation within the party he helped found, but where he was never completely trusted, Major General Gregory Mugisha Muntu finally called it quits this week.
He then proceeded to launch a new platform called the New Formation, blaming his move on the lack of tolerance of alternative views within the FDC, which polarised the party so much that he was routinely accused of being a “mole” for presumably the ruling party.
The split in the FDC – a number of the party’s representatives have signalled support for General Muntu – comes months after the historic handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and undisputed opposition leader Raila Odinga sucked the wind out of the sails of Kenya’s opposition coalition… and put his own reputation on the line.
Unsurprisingly, the reactions to Muntu and Raila’s moves have not been dissimilar and reflect the limited understanding of representational politics across the board. Both have been vilified as traitors or self-seekers by their former constituents while the ruling parties have gloated over their compromises as evidence of their own superior strategies.
Whatever their evolutionary merits, these are depressing developments, especially since they appear to help entrench a totalitarian culture where incumbents use public resources to coerce or bribe into submission those opposed to them.
With perhaps a single exception, this has turned East African elective politics into a do-or-die affair that invariably leaves communities polarised. At the core is a limited understanding of elective politics and legal regimes that manipulated to guarantee incumbency.
Ideally, the ultimate purpose of exercising power should be to bring to life a vision for the collective good. Failing that, participation in opposition should seek to influence those exercising power to accommodate alternative views. The opposition can therefore, be a useful partner in development.
So who or what can save opposition politics in the East Africa? Making standards for democratic governance the core of the regional integration project may be the answer.