The smouldering fire from the fallout in the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) may not burn out anytime soon. But it’s unlikely the party will catch fire.
FDC is Uganda’s main opposition party even though it has been around for just over a decade. It had elections for its president recently. Open competition and contestation for FDC leadership has become routine, in stark contrast to the ruling NRM where the chairman has a huge phobia for being challenged.
There was competition in choosing the party’s secretary general and treasurer. This ended. To bring all authority under his full control, two years ago, the chairman secured the power to appoint those officials to serve at his pleasure.
In effect then, one can conclude that the NRM chairman effectively abolished democratic procedure in choosing party leaders to run the secretariat.
This was done with a convenient excuse – the need to maintain cohesion and unity in the party. The resolve to continue suspending competition is inexorably strengthened when Museveni and those around him observe the turbulence that rocks FDC after interparty elections.
In all fairness, though, the NRM is hardly a political party. It’s an entity that feeds off the state, parasitically, and lacks independent existence. And the reason is simple. The one-man life-presidency that defines the current rule in Uganda is inherently at odds with an independent and functional political party.
As the main opposition party, the FDC had to demonstrate that it can depart from the anti-democratic tendencies of the ruling party. Credit goes to the two protagonists who have been the leading players in the FDC, Mugisha Muntu and Kizza Besigye, the former for the willingness to challenge for leadership and the latter for the openness to being challenged.
Competition can be decidedly destabilizing. It can create rifts and wrangles, animosity and antagonism. But a serious nascent political party must subject itself to these uncomfortable pangs of institution-building. If FDC can survive through its cycles of instability, it may well have a very long lifespan.
Patrick Oboi Amuriat, the new FDC president, deserves to be saluted. When he first expressed interest in competing for the party’s topmost job, not many thought of him as a serious contender, let alone a possible eventual winner.
Amuriat’s victory surprised many. For one, on the balance of things, Muntu has a bigger and better CV than Amuriat. Second, the power of incumbency would ordinarily advantage Muntu.
Amuriat takes credit for positioning himself as totally different from Muntu in approach and orientation, giving delegates clear-cut choices. As to whether he will come through with the grand promises and effect a radically different and consequential leadership remains to be seen.
A lot has been said and much speculation has gone around about Muntu’s next move and future political fate. Perhaps the most palpable suggestion is a possible departure from the FDC and the formation of a ‘third force’.
I will be happy to eat humble pie, but let me stake out this. I can claim to know Muntu a little bit having interacted with him, closely, countless times over the last few years. It’s unlikely that he will walk out of FDC despite the pressures and demands of his supporters and sympathisers.
At any rate, if he and others go on to form the so-called ‘third force’, it will be a most unwise move, one that Mr Museveni and his handlers will be very pleased with. They will, in fact, encourage it because it serves them perfectly in the desperation to maintain a grip on power.
There might be some good reasons to think of an alternative political vehicle in the quest to free Uganda of the Museveni misrule. Unfortunately, in the current political terrain, there is little room for a third vehicle and path.
There is no genuine multiparty politics where ideas can contend and different programs can be showcased. Instead, we have a sharp divide between those struggling to end the current system of rule and those fighting to keep it in place.
Every election is a referendum on change or no change. Amuriat deserves the chance to lead FDC. To lead effectively, he needs the goodwill of all FDC leaders and supporters.
Muntu and those close to him may feel he was denied precisely that goodwill and support by sections of the party that rallied behind Amuriat.
But Muntu has always underlined his firm belief in democratic values and principles, among which is his consistent stance that after losing an election, you fall behind whoever has carried the day.
Notwithstanding the gratuitous ridicule and denigration thrown at him over the years, Muntu would best serve his name and track-record by sticking to his values, and not giving in to those urging him to hang his FDC boots.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.