18 March 2008

Uganda: Are Women Now a Dying Breed of National Politics?


I was reading Minister of State for Defence Ruth Nankabirwa's comments about the elusive LRA leader Joseph Kony's ways in the Sunday Monitor when it occurred to me that she represents an endangered species in our country - the powerful female voice in Ugandan politics.

Ms Nankabirwa is only Minister of State for Defence. In matters of the military and national security, her statements are not decisive. It is what Defence Minister Dr Crispus Kiyonga, and most definitely President Yoweri Museveni that is a reliable indicator of security policy.

This is not a Nankabirwa problem. It is the result of two movements in Uganda's political space that began in 2001. One was what we might call the "re-masculanisation" of Ugandan politics, and the second, was a "feminist counter-revolution".

Because the ruling NRM made the elevation of women in politics its main plank, and it indeed set aside special seats for them in Parliament and in Local Councils, we did not notice that women's role was changing.

Go back to the early years of NRM, with feisty women like Victoria Sekitoleko, who was Minister of Agriculture, and Betty Bigombe, who was Minister for Northern Pacification at the toughest period of the rebellion in the region.

Then there was the irrepressible and combative Miria Matembe, who was Minister for Ethics and Integrity, and the controversial Dr Specioza Kazibwe, who was Vice President. They were backed in Parliament by the then relentless Mbarara Municipality MP Winnie Byanyima, Salaamu Musumba, Bernadette Bigirwa (now deceased), Beatrice Kiraso, and even Cecila Ogwal who fell silent in latter years, to mention a few.

Today, the only woman MP we have in the old fighter mould is Rubaga North's Beti Kamya. How did we arrive at this point? Ironically, the return to multiparty politics had something to do with it, but like we said at the outset, the process has its roots in 2001.

In 2001 Dr Kizza Besigye jumped into the race for president, and gave Museveni his toughest challenge ever. The Museveni camp could only assure their man of victory by stealing the vote. The Museveni campaign tormented Besigye mercilessly, and was so nasty. Besigye had to muster an extraordinary capacity suffering and bravery to survive that election. In other words, he had to be a "tough guy".

The 2001 election therefore made old fashioned toughness, the qualities that were necessary to run against the Museveni machine. Not surprisingly, the popular symbol for the Besigye campaign became the hammer. The re-masculinisation of our politics had begun, and it has never looked back.

The increase of testosterone levels in Ugandan politics, put feminist politicians like Winnie Byanyima in a quandary. When she remained her usual outspoken self, the NRM claimed that she was the "real" presidential candidate, not her husband Besigye. Inside the Reform Agenda and the Besigye campaign, there was pressure for Winnie to be the "supportive" wife to her political husband, like First Lady Janet Museveni was.

Winnie partly resolved this dilemma by quitting elective politics, but in 2001 what you would strictly call "women's issues" (like the allocation of a greater share of the budget to deal with problems that specifically affected women like health, access to credit) ended. Instead there emerged pro-Besigye, and pro-Museveni women.

The language of many of the women who were active in politics, and were writing in newspapers, for example changed. They began to call Museveni "Mzee" and speaking of him like he was their elderly magnanimous husband. The pro-Besigye women praised his courage. They abandoned women's rights issues, and became more like loyal wives. The "feminist counter-revolution" had taken root.

All of a sudden fiery women leaders like Matembe discovered that their brand of politics just couldn't get them anywhere, and many of them fell by the wayside. Another body blow to women was dealt in 2005 with the end of one-party/Movement rule, and the introduction of multiparty politics.

It would seem that for as long as there was one-party rule, there was a greater awareness of other injustices, including those against women. More importantly, part of the women's rights campaign, was essentially agitation against NRM's one-party despotism.

Multiparty politics made competition for the Presidency and Parliament sharper, and even deadly in several parts of the country. Evidence in many parts of the world shows that women are put off by do-or-die politics. The entrance of First Lady Janet into elective politics was expected to be a boost for women. Indeed Janet tried to carve out her own independent niche last year.

But Museveni is a man who is aware that if you allow a camel to stick its head in the tent so it can get some warmth, it won't be long because it kicks you out. He moved firmly and scattered the "Janet camp", making the point that either she was in politics as his obedient wife, or she wouldn't be in at all.

And that in Uganda, the tough men call the shots. Today, almost only Ms Kamya stands out for her fighting spirit. But even she has had to play her politics "like a man".

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