In an interview with Aljazeera in April 2017, the Ugandan leader, Yoweri Museveni is asked about how his legacy will go down in the chronicles of history.
With over 30 years in office – the most part coming via general elections – Al jazeera’s Mohammed Vall asks against a context that the 72-year-old was considering changing - through parliament – the constitution to get around a clause which would bar him from contesting in the next presidential election: “How can you guarantee that you will not be remembered as a dictator instead of a democratic president?”
Upon hearing the question, Mr Museveni’s face lights up and grins. It is a political question, which could be easily shot down by a simple technical answer: “A dictator who is elected five times! That must be a wonderful dictator. That must be a special one. Elected five times with all this big majority. That must be a wonderful dictator!” he answered.
Museveni’s pithy response sent echoes across the democratic world. It contained a beautiful paradox: dictators are assumed not to be elected. They are assumed to govern outside the constitution and without the mandate of the people.
Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe or Rwanda’s Paul Kagame cannot be called dictators simply on the account of staying in power too long! Like Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, they were elected many times.
Advocates of democracy never anticipated a situation where universal adult suffrage would be conditioned to the whims of the incumbent.
Museveni’s response complicates conventional understanding of democracy in Africa where numbers are everything. In this response, Museveni offered us what would be called a technocratization of governance. That is, the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a regime is measured through technical variables.
These yardsticks are not interested in details, but rather the existence of the principle. Thus, regimes are democratic if they organize [and win] regular elections. The ways in which these elections are organised and won does not matter. What matters is that an election was held and a winner emerged.
The Parliament works. The ways in which parliament is often manipulated during several landmark legislations does not matter. What is of value is that legislators met and had a debate before a legislation was passed.
Courts function. The ways in which courts are manipulated from behind the curtains is irrelevant. What matters is that courts exist and often perform their independence for the cameras.
Behind this technocracy and expertise is the brute force of political interests. The autocrat actually influences decisions taken by the experts. It is some sort of a depoliticization of power. Governance becomes an item measured by experts following particular yardsticks.
Anything outside these yardsticks is discarded to the waste basket. The finer details and internal contradictions are for historians and anthropologists – but have no space in the ways in which governance is understood.
You cannot see the long arm of power. It is fetishized. Any claims of morality are discarded denigrated as unmeasurable ‘subjective’ consideration.
Thus, when challenged over incidences of misrule and human rights abuse, regime spokespersons and loquacious ministers such as Ofwono Opondo, Chris Baryomunsi, Frank Tumwebaze easily respond by challenging you to go to court.
The challenger is confident that in ‘their’ court, none wins against them. Challenged over undemocratic tendencies, the same persons respond by pointing to regular elections and the functionality of parliament.
If the finer details of unfairness are mentioned such as bribery, intimidation or violence upon dissenting legislators, they still challenge you to go to court.
Thus, regime opponents are subjected to long and arduous court processes, which actually have potential to end in tough [politically inspired] sentences. Even when the regime subjects itself to the law, the verdict is often predetermined.
Being in the opposition of such regimes requires an understanding of the dynamics of power hidden behind technocracy. Responding in the same language of technocracy becomes counterproductive. It thus requires stepping outside of the technocracy.
What brought down a constitutionally sanctioned apartheid regime was not within constitutionally sanctioned means.
The African National Congress (ANC) had to find other means. This involved, among other things, turning to violent rebellion, but also heightening civic activism. In the era where violence has lost its appeal, opposition movements are left with one option – steadier activism.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.