ANDREW MWENDA: Thumbs up for Nobert Mao

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OP-ED– I am very happy with Norbert Mao. He has proved, yet again, that he is a serious politician able to blend principle with pragmatism and do it very well. He has also confirmed my long-held conviction that he is a liberal democrat at heart. 

I have voted only once in my entire life. It was in the 2011 presidential elections. Mine was not a secret-ballot. I went to the polling booth at Coral Crescent in lower Kololo with my friend Melina Platas Izama and ticked the ballot paper in the open. My choice was televised on NTV. I voted Mao for president and Peter Sematimba for mayor of Kampala. Now Mao has confirmed that I made the right choice.

The cooperation agreement between NRM and DP is an important political innovation and landmark in our country’s politics. Uganda needs this kind of politics. Indeed, it should be a yardstick for political cooperation among the contending political forces in the country. Other political parties like NUP, FDC and JEMA should seek the same. 

Uganda does not need the politics of winner-take-all. We have had enough of it and seen that it takes us nowhere. In fact, I have come to believe that it subverts democratic development in our specific circumstances. We need to construct a government that governs through a broad consensus of the different political forces that make our polity.

This brings me to opposition icon, Dr. Kizza Besigye. Immediately the cooperation agreement between NRM and DP was publicized, Besigye tweeted sarcastically “congratulating” Mao for “arriving after a long journey.” Then he added, with characteristic defiance: “The struggle to end the junta (gun) rule continues and will intensify as the arena becomes clearer.”  

I used to consider Besigye a moderate politician – and he was. Then in 2011/2012, Conrad Nkutu and I tried to promote dialogue between NRM and FDC and even more specifically between Besigye and President Yoweri Museveni. During the behind-the-scenes negotiations, I was impressed by Museveni’s willingness to compromise and  was equally frustrated by Besigye’s intransigence. 

Besigye sent Museveni seven conditions some of which were ridiculous and all of which I delivered and the Museveni accepted – in the interests of dialogue. Museveni gave me only five conditions all of which Besigye rejected and Museveni graciously withdraw – except one which we also watered down. Museveni told me he did this in order to deny Besigye an excuse to reject dialogue. But even the watered down condition, which Museveni withdrew but which I defiantly insisted on, Besigye rejected. It was either his way or no way.

From that experience I came to the conclusion that Besigye is an obstacle to democratic development in Uganda. It is hard for me to really know his subjective motivations. But the objective outcome of his actions impede democratization. This is because he sees all forms of political compromise as capitulation, negotiations with government as selling out. He has adopted an extreme position that there is only way forward for Uganda and that is the fall of Museveni and his (Besigye’s) usurpation of power – and through ultra-constitutional means. 

Besigye’s approach to Uganda’s politics seeks total annihilation of the opponent. This is antithetical to democracy. I am aware that this view enjoys mass support and admiration among a significant section of opposition supporters. In fact, I am torn between believing that his radical extremism is only strategic to keep this base or it a core conviction in his political thinking. The Besigye I dealt with in the early to late 2000s was a moderate open to negotiation and compromise. But the Besigye I witness today leads me to believe his previous self is dead. 

Over the last 22 years, Besigye has become more radicalized, which is understandable. He has been beaten, tear-gassed, jailed tens of times and then tried for rape, treason and terrorism. His brother was killed in a CMI jail, his wife jailed, his sisters and some in laws chased to exile. Yet I have also always felt that this suffering has given him the needed political credibility, just like Nelson Mandela did in South Africa, to negotiate political reform in Uganda. 

Yet Besigye has ignored the path taken by Mandela and instead embraced the one pursued by Yasser Arafat in Palestine. He has helped nourish a large constituency who reject politics as an activity that might – and should – involve compromise. The battle cry is never to seek any common ground. He and his radical extremist supporters despise any such, seeing it as selling out. Their motto is that we either win or they lose. This zero-sum approach to politics is very dangerous and can only lead to a autocratic government. This is because any government that comes to power without any negotiation or compromise will most likely to rule without any negotiation and compromise. And the reverse is true.

Besigye has been joined in this radical extremist position by Bobi Wine. In fact, Bobi Wine inherited Besigye’s base of radical extremists, moving them from Defiance to People Power and finally to NUP. I am inclined to believe that Bobi Wine is naturally a moderate politician. But I also think he is incapable of great courage to seek compromise. He is so beholden to the radical extremists in his inner circle supported by a large coterie of international advisors from Western countries seeking to impose their racial prejudices based on abstract theory on a complex political reality to see the necessity of compromise and cooperation. 

Mao needs to be applauded for his courage, for leading the way, for breaking this fear that to work with Museveni is detrimental to the interests of Uganda. Museveni and his NRM are a deeply entrenched reality in Uganda’s body politic. They are unlikely to be removed from power any time soon. But Museveni is also a practical and pragmatic politician who is always looking out for opportunities to win over his opponents – or even to compromise them. That should not stop politicians of principle from being pragmatic, recognizing that building Uganda requires some cooperation with him.

Mao has done this well by signing an agreement that states the parameters of cooperation and also restating the democratic principles that should guide Uganda. It would be foolish to expect that all of a sudden Uganda will now become the leading liberal democracy in the world. In fact so many obstacles will remain including Museveni’s penchant for beating up and jailing his opponents. But democratization is never an event but a process and it’s progress is slow and never linear. There has to be a beginning. The problem is that Besigye makes the perfect the enemy of the good.

Thus Besigye has built this cult that someone cannot compromise with Museveni without being compromised by the president. Yet one can work with Museveni without working for him and recognize the president’s accomplishments without endorsing his failures. This inability to see nuance and complexity leads me to believe that Besigye has despotic inclinations. His belief in the total annihilation of Museveni as the one and only path to Uganda’s democratization and development is dangerous.

Indeed, his own wife, Winnie Byanyima, a leading critic of Museveni often deals with the president whenever need arises on matters both personal and/or official. I have my own disagreements with Winnie, but she has the pragmatism to recognize reality and the right intuition, the necessary courage (and even values) to see that the only way to struggle and make Uganda better cannot be an all-out war to defeat and destroy Museveni.

Most democracies I know in the world work through coalitions. This means they have to share power with those they don’t agree with. Why not Uganda?