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DR Congo and Uganda offer different lessons on political power

By Joseph Rwagatare

Our neighbourhood is experiencing a lot of political jostling, more intense than usual and in some cases in unfamiliar ways.

The neighbours to the north are embroiled in a bloody general and presidential election campaign. That in itself is not unusual. For most of Uganda’s post-independence history, political arguments have been settled through violence. It would indeed be abnormal if it were otherwise.

But even with that history, the level of violence of the ongoing election campaign has not been seen before. It is not the usual sort expected from noisy and passionate partisans of rival camps that sometimes degenerates into fist fights and the state coming in to restore order. This time it is the state initiating the violence against political opponents of the ruling party’s presidential candidate it deems most dangerous.

Also not heard before is the silence from the usual quarter – human rights groups and their media accomplices and allies in politics.

President Yoweri Museveni’s 35-year old hold on power is threatened like never before and from an unlikely source. That perhaps explains the amount of force and violence the state is ready to unleash on the president’s rivals.

The Museveni campaign does not seem to know how to deal with his main rival for the top job because he is in many ways an unconventional opponent. They cannot use conventional means to defeat him. They cannot debate with him on terms they set. They cannot discredit his work because most of it has not been overtly political.

Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, is a young man who until recently had no known political ambition or experience, or to have been involved in youth or student politics in the usual way. He does not seem to espouse a particular ideology or to have advocated a specific cause. He was only a pop musician, but apparently able to mobilise huge numbers of people.

That is why he is dangerous. President Museveni cannot take him on on ideology or political programme. He has not expressed any. He has only articulated the general grievances that most Ugandans share.

That makes him a potent force because he speaks for a huge section of disaffected or marginalised Ugandans, those that have not benefitted from Museveni’s long rule.

To counter this, the Museveni campaign presents their candidate as the results man. He is shown inaugurating a market here, a ferry there and a road in another place.

And then the mother of all threats. Kyagulanyi seems to have great ability to mobilise supporters. The young man draws huge crowds wherever he goes. That has taken Museveni and his team by surprise and has them rattled.

Kyagulanyi also represents another big demographic, young people. This adds another element to the rivalry. It is also a generational contest, not just a normal political fight. Which perhaps points to the failure by the NRM to treat the youth as key stakeholder and partners in the nation’s affairs.

Come January 14, the current dispute will be resolved, most likely in the usual way and with the usual outcome.

The other interesting political developments are taking place to Rwanda’s west, in the D R Congo. A different power game is playing out there, not through violence, although there has been some, but by political manoeuvres.

President Felix Tshisekedi has been governing through a coalition with former president Joseph Kabila. It has not worked for him. He has been frustrated every step of the way by his coalition partner. And so in recent days, he seems to have said enough is enough and moved to untie his hands and get the power necessary to exercise his authority as president.

His first step was to take control of parliament. He got many deputies on his side and was able to remove the Speaker of Parliament who belonged to the Kabila faction of the coalition. We can expect more actions to consolidate his power and a Kabila push back.

But whatever the outcome of the ongoing manoeuvres for power, there are some lessons to be learnt from what is happening in DR Congo.

First, coalitions based solely on sharing of political positions are inherently unstable and usually don’t last. Coalitions work best when one partner is dominant and can use its strength to keep parties in line, or when formed on the basis of a common programme.

Second, no one should be underestimated even when they are novices or appear weak, or are constrained by other circumstances. They will bide their time and when the time is right wriggle free or wrest power from those that won’t give it up.

Third, holding on to power after leaving office by pulling strings remotely or by proxy is tenuous. It can only happen where an individual has unquestioned moral authority, undisputed social and political standing, and a solid record of achievement, and is the paragon of wisdom.

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere could do that in Tanzania, and indeed, in Africa as a whole because of those qualities. Not many can measure up to him.

In the end the exercise of power out of office can only be by a sort of national consensus. It can never be grabbed or imposed.

Finally, everyone, including members of parliament, love their job. Dangling the carrot or threatening to withdraw it altogether can be an effective stick. It is understood that when faced with the possibility of dissolution of parliament, Congolese MPs readily ditched party affiliations and helped President Tshisekedi achieve his objective.

These are interesting times for two of Rwanda’s neighbours. Both are engaged in momentous political battles and demonstrate two ways to keep power. One seeks to maintain a grip on it through a combination of tear gas, bullets and the ballot. The other how to wrest it from those that won’t let go through negotiation, realignment and other kinds of manoeuvre. We watch with great interest.

This article was published by The New Times.


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