The Bugiri Municipality by-election, which lawyer Asuman Basalirwa won decisively, showed us, among other things, that political parties actually stifle political engagement in Uganda.
It is a problem of cut-and-paste: with an agrarian-rural ethic and worldview, we have focused all our energies on an imaginary Disney world of multiparty political dynamism. Debating politics in Kampala – with figures and stats, written law, etcetera – gives a delusional impression of Labour vs Conservatives or Democrats vs Republicans.
We have been wrong and, sadly, this craziness continues. [Have we ever wondered how we ended up with empty party nomenclature such as “the movement” like political office were a journey to some dreamland, and once there, you cross-leg and enjoy the breeze?].
The context and ethic in Kampala – and most of sub-Saharan Africa – is not necessarily unsuitable, but still young for multiparty political engagement, as political office is not simply an aspiration for development, but a mode of seeing and organising the world.
Let me use the Bugiri case to demonstrate how political parties in Uganda are the price of political engagement. For long, as an active political player in the country, Basalirwa was by far the most renowned actor without an official position in the hierarchies of power – just like Col Kizza Besigye.
An eloquent debater and theoretician, an indefatigable human rights lawyer and activist, whose clients included most major opposition politicians in the country, Basalirwa had tried joining parliament on two previous occasions.
Despite these failed bids, his star continued to grow by leaps and bounds. He represented the oppressed, the same way he debated Museveni’s dullards with wit and humour. Eking out an existence as a lawyer with renowned opposition sentiments is a difficult feat in Kampala. You are blacklisted. Not once, not twice, the NRM presented Basalirwa with lucrative offers of enrichment if he joined them. The man stood his ground.
When the by-election opened, Basalirwa, whose JEEMA party comparatively does not command a wide following, had to find support from the other major ones. The country recalls how FDC and DP leaderships laboured to explain their refusal to support the most suited and nationally recognisable candidate.
Citing some hackneyed party rules, Besigye and Mao opted for some obscure candidates of their own competing against a comrade in the struggle. The entire country – especially fans of the opposition – looked on in absolute bewilderment.
That these parties headed by eloquent and highly educated professionals would settle for party loyalty against proven competence bothered many. Party loyalty to what end? As careers or with the intent of transforming the country? The conclusion that we copied a form of politics that is inconsistent with the realities on the ground could not be more manifest.
This explains why most African countries spend extended hours shovelling and bargaining for political office like they were sharing ground nuts in a communal garden. Ever wondered why political office is shamelessly called “sharing the national cake”?
Yes, because of immaturity and stupid wannabe-ism. If we had appreciated our level of political sophistication, sub-Saharan African countries would be better off harnessing all the human resources in the country and build together.
Have we ever considered how many smart Ugandans, far smarter than the innumerable empty tins around us pontificating for the status quo, have been suffocated by the NRM because speaking their otherwise cleverer minds would be breaking party rules and thus being branded rebels and embarrassed with dismissal or something worse?
Their silence is not cowardice, but ‘strategic silence’ – and laughing at their silence is proof of a general immaturity and preference for a jungle-ethic. Perhaps I digress.
As our party handicapped politicians fooled around, came Bobi Wine. Then a rising political player, the rebel entertainer announced himself as a supporter of competence. It is possible to argue that Basalirwa’s victory actually significantly tilted tables in favour of Bobi Wine as the new kingmaker in town.
But this should not be seen as an effort to discredit Dr Besigye. My sense is that Besigye – as a victim of this party nonsense himself – was at pains siding with the FDC against a man as credentialed as Basalirwa.
We need to pick lessons here: It is curious how only individuals working outside parties have delivered landmark strides to Uganda: Idi Amin, Yoweri Museveni (1980-96) and Kizza Besigye.
It might take another non-party inclined movement/individual – not necessarily People Power – to deliver the next landmark.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.