9 October 2017

Uganda: Are Ugandans Docile?

Photo: The Observer
President Yoweri Museveni shakes hands with Bobi Wine.
opinion

Why last month's scuffles in parliament excited the public but did not lead to popular protests

Last week, poorly trained security operatives entered the parliament's main chamber and removed opposition members who were protesting plans by the ruling party to amend the constitution to allow President Yoweri Museveni run in 2021. The issue in this debate is not really about allowing 75 year-olds to run for president. Rather people are concerned that this amendment will give Museveni a chance to extend his rule from 35 to 40 years. For many Ugandans this is a path to a life presidency.

The debate on the floor of parliament degenerated into fist and stick fights between security operatives and opposition MPs. Many MPs were bundled out of the House like chicken thieves, dumped into motor vehicles and taken to prison. All this drama was broadcast live on national television and streamlined live on social media. Yet there were no protests on the streets to support the position of MPs in parliament.

Meanwhile, on social media; especially Facebook, passions are running high. Ugandans are angry that Museveni wants to turn our republic into a monarchy. They call the amendment "rape of the constitution." But if Ugandans are so passionate about this issue, why were they docile when MPs seeking to protect the constitution were assaulted and bundled out of parliament?

The behaviour of Ugandans is even more intriguing given that this debate was taking place in Kampala City which is surrounded by Wakiso District. This is the most urbanised area of Uganda with over two million registered voters. Its residents are the most educated, youthful, exposed and articulate sections of our society. And they have universal access to newspapers, radio and television and near-universal access to social media.

If this amendment spells doom for our country, how could the struggle of MPs in parliament not precipitate reaction from the public? It is not convincing to say the opposition could not mobilise because of the police. The residents of Kampala and Wakiso have access to Facebook, Twitter, Whats App and SMS, the best platforms for mass mobilisation. The government did not shut down social media. And no one censored newspapers or television and radio debate on this issue.

Let us accept, just for arguments sake, that the opposition actually tried to mobilize the masses to protest but people were afraid of being beaten by the police. Yet Uganda has had large protests before that lasted days in spite (and also because) of police brutality - the arrest of Kizza Besigye in November 2005, Kayunga riots in 2009 and Walk to Work in 2011.

The argument that Ugandans fear to protest because of police brutality does not hold. I agree that it is still early in this debate; so it is possible that as the debate progresses we may see larger protests. Yet I am inclined to believe this will need another issue (other than Museveni's desire to rule for life) to galvanise many people to take to the streets. Hence, holding other factors constant, there is likely going to be no protests.

There are two types of protests - spontaneous and organised. Spontaneous protests have two types: those that are precipitated by an issue that has high emotional value to a particular constituency.

They require little or no organisation. For example, when in 2009 government blocked the Kabaka of Buganda, Ronald Muwenda-Mutebi, from visiting Kayunga District. To many Baganda, this was an insult to their dignity as a people. Therefore, without anyone organising them, many were willing to express their displeasure with the government through protest. The spread of news that the Kabaka had been blocked was sufficient to make many people feel the sting and go onto the streets.

Another form of spontaneous protest is existential i.e. when people's livelihoods are threatened. The best example is Walk to Work which began in April 2011. In that year, prices of food increased rapidly making the lives of many city dwellers precarious. This existential dilemma needs some minimum leadership to inspire people to erupt into protest. Thus when some activists formed a pressure group and announced they were beginning a protest called Walk to Work, and opposition leader Kizza Besigye offered to lead it, there were tens of thousands of people feeling the pinch and willing to join the cause of protesting.

The third form of protest is the ideological one. Here a particular issue is of concern to an organisation or a constituency. It may be a matter of public policy or a constitutional amendment. It has little emotive value and poses no existential threat. Its consequences are difficult to predict or are subject to different interpretations. However, if there is a well organised constituency that treasures the issue and is backed by good leadership and sound structures, it can mobilise people to come out and protest.

This is the category in which the age limit amendment falls. The failure of effective protests to support the actions of MPs on the floor of parliament is evidence of its ideological nature and the uncertainty over its consequences. It is also be evidence of the lack of organisation among the opposition. Many Ugandans may be passionately against Museveni's life presidency as they sound on social media. But it is not a life and death matter. It is something they dislike but one that they can tolerate. In fact, save for a black swan, as time passes, most people are likely going to resign themselves to the inevitability of Museveni ruling for life.

While Museveni has the numbers in parliament, opinion polls show that 80% of Ugandans do not support this amendment. Therefore, his problem is not amending the constitution but winning in 2021. Knowing Museveni's skill at political mobilisation, he is going to grow his support. And he doesn't need a majority. Even with 40%, Museveni will bank on low voter turnout to win in 2021. As long as many Ugandans who are tired of him do not show up to vote, that will be okay for him.

Yet voter turnout is a subject the opposition in Uganda are not concerned about. And it actually explains Museveni's victories; especially in 2011 and 2016. Because he is not well organised, Besigye always get the votes of his most passionate supporters, those willing to go to the polls on their own initiative. He misses the votes of the less passionate that need to be mobilised to go to the polling booth. Thus, poor organisation by the opposition explains why Museveni wins and why there are no protests against his desire to rule for life.

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