The TDA Imbroglio and the Smallness of Uganda’s Politics

Today we start in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Maithripala Sirisena was a long term member of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruling Freedom party. He had served in many government roles; as ruling party secretary general, Defense Minister, Health Minister, and many other portfolios. He was one of the most powerful men in the government and a close ally of the president. Overtime however, Sirisena later would reveal, he became disillusioned with what he thought were increasingly authoritarian tendencies of his boss, president Rajapaksa. He however kept his disillusionment to himself and continued serving. It appears though that most Sri Lankans shared his view. Many had come to view the president as becoming too corrupt, and his scotched earth policy against the Tamil Tiger rebels alienated most ethnic Tamils that supported that movement

At first, President Rajapaksa was admired by a vast majority of Sri Lankans. He had ended the 25 years of conflict between the country’s minority Hindu ethnic Tamils and the majority, largely Budhist Sinhalese. The civil war had claimed between 60,000-100,000 lives from 1983-2009. Later However, Rajapaksa became a ‘strongman’ and was increasingly becoming authoritarian and corrupt. He employed his relatives in powerful and sensitive positions, including his two brothers and son. This corruption and nepotism had made most Sri Lankans, including vast majorities of Sinhalese, Mr. Rajapaksa’s tribe, very bitter against his rule. Due to his grip on power however, his control and intimidation of the media, the people had no way of expressing their bitterness towards him.

In late 2014, Rajapksa was running for a third term and as usual, he was headed for victory in the January 2015 election because the country’s usual pitiful opposition appeared to be in an even more confused maze of disarray than before. He had jailed most of them and bought off others. That’s when the ruling party’s Secretary General and Health Minister, Sirisena made his move.

Unknown to the president and his hangers on, Sirisena had secretly been talking to the opposition and the coalition was lying in wait for him to take over their flag and challenge Rajapaksa as the joint opposition candidate. And so with only a month left to the election, Sirisena defected from the ruling party and announced his intention to contest against his boss. The news hit Rajapaksa and his hangers on like a tonne of bricks. There was confusion, panic and fury in the ruling party. “Traitor”, shouted the most royal of the president’s allies. Poor Rajapaksa resorted to cheap, ‘village-level’ insults against his former ally. He endlessly told a story of how, the day before Sirisena’s announcement had had shared with him a meal of popular Sri Lankan food called “hoppers” which is rice pancakes, and bitterly said Sirisena ha “eaten hoppers with me in the night and stabbed me in the back in the morning”. Many Rajapaksa Hangers-on were immediately aware of the danger posed by Sirisena, who had not defected alone but had taken along with him a large number of ruling party figures.

The long suffering opposition that had toiled and suffered for years under Rajapaksa’s regime proudly unveiled their man at a mammoth rally in the capital. Some of them had been tortured and harassed for years by the regime but sensing that the only chance they had lay with Sirisena, they easily coalesced around him without any hustle. The need to do away with the dictator trumped whatever personal ambitions they had. When the election was held in January, Sirisena won with 51.2% of the vote while the incumbent took 47.5% of the vote. Many ethnic Tamils, irrespective of the fact that their insurgency had been crushed when Sirisena was defense minister, voted for him overwhelmingly after he aggressively courted them and acknowledged their legitimate grievances as well as apologizing for some of the carnage the government’s tactics had caused to their communities. They were happy to get rid of Rajapaksa whose open nepotism and corruption meant that very few if any Tamils got a job in the government and had ignored their region for years. Similarly, a majority of Sinhalese  abandoned Rajapaksa and voted for Sirisena (who was also from that tribe)

Which now brings me to the fiasco that has been Uganda’s opposition The Democratic Alliance (TDA) process of choosing a joint presidential candidate to face NRM’s Yoweri Museveni in next year’s elections.

Three weeks ago I was in Tanzania for work when ChimpReports’ Giles Muhame asked me, for a story he was writing on TDA, my views on the coalition. “Why do you think Mbabazi has not signed the TDA protocol? What could he be up to?” the double barreled question went. He followed up with a series of other questions including;

What are your thoughts on Mbabazi joing the TDA anyway?

Does he stand a chance against Besigye?

Do you think he looks at TDA as a vehicle for change in the status quo?

I will simply reproduce here the answer I gave to Giles.

“Mbabazi could be trying to pull a Lowassa in Uganda but with the election of Kizza Besigye as the FDC flagbearer a few days ago, I don’t think that is Possible”. I went ahead to explain what “pulling a Lowassa” means, in case he wasn’t following Tanzania’s own Politics.

Edward Lowassa, former Prime Minister in the CCM government defected from the ruling party when the strange process that is the process of selecting Tanzania’s ruling party presidential candidate ensured he wasn’t even among the top tier candidates under consideration to the surprise of many who thought he was the ‘natural fit’ to succeed President Kikwete. CCM’s politburo instead choose Magufuli. Lowassa then ran to Chadema, the biggest opposition party in Tanzania which largely embraced him, and together with other parties fronted him as their joint candidate under their Ukawa coalition (their version of TDA). Even though there were a few dissenters like the long suffering Chadema Secretary General Dr. Edward Slaa who ‘rightly’ thought the opposition flag was owed to him after fighting CCM for years (like Besigye), the majority of Tanzania’s opposition has coalesced behind Lowassa, a filthy rich, charismatic figure who they think has the best shot at uprooting CCM. Even though I don’t believe CCM will be defeated due to its grip on power over the last 50 years and especially the party’s entrenchment in rural Tanzania, the party has been forced to promise to fix Tanzania’s problems of poverty, education, health, etc, with specifics never heard of before. Magufuli is working the campaign trail like his life depends on it, and many observers believe the result will be the closest the opposition ever came to beat CCM. The latest poll however gives Lowassa 25 percent to CCM’s 65-70 pc, so maybe Magufuli is saving CCM’s fortunes with his aggressive campaigning.

I also told Giles that I believed that most opposition supporters in Uganda consider Dr. Besigye the bonafide leader of the opposition in the country, who they think has paid his dues to deserve that honor, in terms of the persecution he has endured and so will not easily let Mbabazi be TDA flag bearer.

It turns out this is what exactly has happened. There is no clear indication, for now, to believe that had TDA coalesced around Mbabazi he would defeat Museveni next year. But the pettiness and selfishness shown by the different party leaders throughout the botched TDA process should worry those who think Uganda would change for the better if these guys took over. It looks to me that Besigye too can easily be corrupted by power were he to be entrusted with it. For the start, those who think the “FDC youth” storming those TDA meetings “to pull Besigye out” was just an act of those youth are stupid. Besigye himself engineered all those stunts so he could find an ‘honorable’ way of pulling out once he realized most TDA members were leaning on Mbabazi. He wanted to save face by saying it’s his party in general that is not in agreement with TDA actions and not him, which really is absurd. The truth is he wanted to eat his cake and have it and some of us on the outside saw through his shenanigans. As for Nobert Mao who, it appears, had appointed himself the spokesperson of TDA, his seemingly eloquent missives on the process also were totally selfish. Mao would have been the biggest beneficiary of a successful TDA flag bearer process. His DP is in disarray, he barely won 3% of the vote in 2011, and he knows that as his critics say, his DP is the Dead Party just like the UPC. Mao therefore, who I doubt even has the money to pay to be nominated, later alone vast resources to run a credible national race would have been rescued had he been counted in the coalition with one candidate. The success of such a candidate would also radiate on him and he would have a say in a possible government he knows he did nothing to bring to power, possibly even becoming a prime minister. All these guys are thinking about themselves, not Uganda’s future or its peoples’.

Having said that, I think the TDA process was botched from the start. It appears the architects were naïve amateurs who knew nothing about Uganda’s politics or have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing from just five years ago with what happened to the Inter-Party Coalition (IPC). Most Ugandan politicians including opposition ones practice what I call small politics. They see politics as careers and jobs to improve their personal lot and that of their relatives. It appears that Besigye, however unbelievable this may sound also thinks more of the glory that would come to him were he to win the presidency than national salvation. That’s could be why he is so die hard that he can’t compromise. Surely he should know that politics, successful politicking, is about compromises and being pragmatic.

It also appears foreign donors who were behind this whole thing and bankrolled it are even more naive. Donors are notorious at not understanding a country’s unique socioeconomic, cultural and political context. I would have expected them to at least learn from what has happened in this country since 1962. The public galore in which the TDA process played out was shameful. As you can see from the Sri Lanka case study I shared above, secrecy, especially when dealing with such a paranoid and sensitive man when it comes to loosing his power like Museveni is, was of paramount importance. Instead the Maos, desperate to ensure the process succeeds but not for nationalistic reasons as I explained above, were broadcasting to the public whatever was happening inside TDA deliberations.

My view all along in fact, has been that TDA was never a good idea in the first place. Mr. Mbabazi, his initial unbelievable dithering on whether to run at all aside, would have maintained his  “disgruntled-but-still-NRM-member” status,  who was rigged out of the presidential primary by the sole candidature melee. He would have had many sympathizers within the NRM, who, for obvious reasons would not openly route for him but would do so clandestinely and vote for him. A sure-to-be-botched NRM primary season that is just beginning will have many disgruntled losers who would naturally flock to his camp. Given the latest Research World International poll that puts Museveni at 55%, there was a real chance that the combined opposition vote total would at least deny Museveni a first round victory. A 3-horse race therefore would work for the opposition. It would actually still be a TDA without having to openly engineer it.  It appears it is still going to be a 3 horse race as both Mbabazi and Besigye are still going to run but now the results may be different as the TDA imbroglio has exposed the selfish interests of all the protagonists in this process. The opposition leaders especially in the FDC who are now claiming the running the two men was the result of the TDA negations are lying. The TDA process fell apart.

Mr. Museveni is now fully aware of what their plot is and come rain or high water will reach for the heavens to ensure that he wins in the first round. The first thing he will do is to tie Mbabazi to Besigye and call them one and the same. He might succeed convincing Mbabazi’s NRM sympathizers that he too is selfish and want to take over by any means necessary including aligning with Besigye. Surely after this Mbabazi cannot continue to credibly claim to still be NRM.

And so there you have it. An opposition that can’t elevate national interests above its personal, selfish ends, and a regime whose predatory hierarchy will gladly continue to milk to death its pitch-poor citizenry. What remains is a wretched country with no salvation in sight. The biggest looser becomes an ordinary Ugandan citizen, who, from the way the opposition is behaving, is right to be tired of the regime but also uncertain of whether or not the opposition, were it to take power would be worse. And so I understand if the citizen rather goes with the proverbial “devil you know…” resignation. As for yours truly, all is not lost. At least I can write about it.

Bernard Sabiti is a researcher and political analyst.

Contact bernardsabiti@gmail.com

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