‘It ain’t as bad as you think.’ This is the first of General Colin Powell’s famous Thirteen Rules of Leadership.
There is always the morning after when things will look better than they seemed the previous night. When facing a turbulent time in life, sometimes it helps to let the night pass.
Someone who just arrived here and listening in on matters Ugandan opposition will think the roof has collapsed on the main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC).
The party has fired a few blanks recently. In the recent by-elections across the country, FDC emerged quite beaten, the highlight being the race for Bugiri municipality MP. The needless war of words on social media ended with a heavy egg on the face of a coterie of FDC activists whose loquaciousness betrays a lack of foresight.
Then came the storm over a leadership reshuffle in parliament, contemporaneous with Kassiano Wadri, a founder-member, running as an independent against the party’s official candidate in the Arua municipality parliamentary by-election.
Whichever way one looks at it, whether as a case of imprudence in sacking Winnie Kiiza as leader of opposition or the reaction by her and others sacked, it looks very bad that a political party falls short on managing the little power that comes with being the majority opposition party in parliament.
But the behaviour and conduct of opposition parties cannot be divorced from the overall nature of the political system in place.
What we have in Uganda today is essentially an authoritarian regime that uses institutions of democratic government, like parliament, as instruments of rule. Parliament, the judiciary, political parties, elections, etc. provide the façade that masks a regime whose leading architects and beneficiaries are focussed on employing all manner of tactics to remain in power.
One such tactic is to sow discord among opposition parties, encourage and sponsor politics of blackmail that ultimately seeks to portray everyone as not credible, as materially compromised. As a senior NRM MP told me at parliament last month, Museveni’s most potent and highly dependable weapon today is not coercion and the military; it is money.
Because he is willing to throw money at individuals and groups that remotely threaten his increasingly tenuous hold on power, the impression created is that everyone has been financially compromised.
The upshot is to dampen any trust in alternative political leadership and to propagate the cynical view that all politicians are crooks out to pursue personal, selfish interests.
The ultimate beneficiary of this environment where broad strokes are used to paint a cynical image of all political actors is Mr Museveni, who then ironically stands on a higher political (not necessarily moral) pedestal because he is able to manipulate everyone around.
We have an environment polluted by salacious allegations about night deals and schemes involving opposition figures. True or false, it serves the overall strategy.
There is undoubtedly truth in the allegations of financial inducements thrown at opposition leaders for the simple reason that Mr Museveni is a very vulnerable ruler willing to pay his way to clinging to power.
But the mistake many are making including, unfortunately, respected and otherwise sober-minded people like former leader of opposition, Philip Wafula Oguttu, is to fall in the trap of singing along that everyone has been compromised except one individual – Kizza Besigye.
By embracing this narrative, people like Oguttu have inadvertently set up Besigye against a broad spectrum of other actors both in his party and in other opposition groups as well as sections of the ruling group that otherwise wish to see change.
Yet, as night follows day, there is no way one individual, however much popular support he commands, can defeat an entrenched military authoritarian and patronage-powered regime without the active role of not just other opposition groups but also progressive factions within the regime.
A critical part of the struggle has to include reaching out and winning over the goodwill of those inside the regime and drawing on the resources of all who are keen on change.
Propagating salacious stories of so and so went to State House for money falls perfectly in the grand scheme of the regime. Blackmailing and smearing whoever says anything remotely critical of FDC or Besigye is a very good way of serving Museveni’s mission of destroying any organised and credible opposition against his rule.
There is opposition disharmony today, but there is always the morning after. The economic squeeze that many Ugandans face even as the rulers loot state resources, the mass unemployment and youth hopelessness, the regime’s criminal conduct in dealing with intrepid and credible opponents, are all issues that will not go away overnight just because FDC is facing a seeming conflagration.
The struggle to free Uganda from Museveni’s misrule is not any one individual’s project, and nor is it the exclusive business of one party.
It is a shared agenda for which all concerned Ugandans have played varied roles in the past and will do so in the future. To press on with this agenda does not need forming a new political party; there are way too many today.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.