Last week, an old friend and senior scholar at Makerere University emailed me about the ongoing national consultations by former Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) president, Mugisha Muntu.
He argued that Muntu’s search for a new course after losing the race for FDC president may well lead to nowhere and, in the end, only aid Mr Museveni and hurt the opposition. Possibly. It’s quite likely that Mr Museveni is a very pleased man!
But what exactly is Muntu up to and what does he hope to achieve by conducting nationwide consultations? What is the end-game? This is not clear at all or, at a minimum, there has been no clear articulation of the agenda at hand and its stated goals.
To my understanding, Muntu is staking his name in a way that may very well imperil his integrity and hurt his political career. The manner in which he lost the race for re-election as FDC president left him little ground for genuine grievance, at least from a strictly political standpoint.
There is a great deal of moral argument that one can make as to why Muntu must feel aggrieved. But the fact that he was the incumbent and he lost the race in a free and open contest makes it difficult to argue that he was unfairly treated during the five years when he was party president and in the course of campaigning for a second term.
There is no doubt as to the shabby and mean tactics deployed from sections of the party to fail his presidency. The cheap denigration, open hostility, and outright obstruction meted out to him were for years quite palpable.
But it is also true that Muntu did not do himself enough justice to succeed in whatever he set out to do. The goodwill of others is important to succeed. In politics though, there are situations when one has to ruggedly succeed in spite of bad will and unfavourable conditions.
The bottom line is that the same constituency and voting base of the party that put Muntu in office in 2012 put him out in 2017. The fact that after five years at the helm he wasn’t able to overcome his detractors and prevail at the polls is as much due to those who wanted him to fail as to his own failure to stamp his influence on the party’s grassroots and structures.
It is instructive that despite enjoying seemingly bigger support across the spectrum of the party’s leadership at the national level, including the leadership in parliament, Muntu was not able to command a decisive support base among the rank and file delegates.
Yes, his opponent had the tacit support of a towering and imposing former party president, but Muntu had incumbent advantages and the leverage to secure victory.
Attempting to depart FDC and work on a so-called third force alternative is likely to be counterproductive. First, for as long as Mr Museveni is in the picture, any political contest involving him, in the final analysis, is between him and the rest of the political class. It is a referendum. A third alternative is almost inconsequential.
Since 1996, there has been no room for a third candidate in presidential elections because the election involving the life-president-in-chief is a referendum against him. If there was ever any doubt, the 2016 elections settled this matter. So, if Muntu and co are serious about anything outside of FDC, it has to be to unseat FDC, and whoever is leading its front, and emerge as the main opposition against our creeping authoritarianism.
Equally important in the whole scheme of a third alternative project is Muntu’s own credibility. For as long as he went to the polls well aware of the odds stacked against him yet confident of victory, contested fairly and lost squarely, Muntu will not look any different from his opponent in 2012 who took leave of the party after losing the race and created a deleterious silent standoff.
The circumstances are different, but the principle is the same. Now, he can choose to take the risk and deal with the charge of failing to behave differently, which will cheap away at the chinks in his otherwise strong moral amour, but in the end there is unlikely to be the kind of payoff to justify the chosen course.
Reaching out is the only viable way out for the long term. And the bigger onus is on the FDC president. Campaign time comes with big sloganeering and heavy rhetoric that is often bereft of substance. But the time of leadership calls for sober introspection and measured strategy.
As matters stand now, FDC president Patrick Amuriat needs Muntu just as Muntu needed Nandala-Mafabi after 2012. Muntu didn’t get Mafabi in his corner, and it wasn’t for not trying. This time though, Amuriat can try and succeed. And both him and Muntu will be winners.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.