Political coalitions are not a new phenomenon in Uganda—it is a common practice that dates back to the 1960s when the country attained political independence from Britain. Many social and political cleavages emerged on the eve of independence , the most notable being ethnic- and religious-based. In every general election cycle since independence, there have been attempts at forming political coalitions—but each time they either failed immediately, or briefly materialized before collapsing after the elections. There are many explanations for these coalition failures, ranging from inner-party struggles to contextual conditions.
Mwambutsya Ndebesa is a lecturer at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.
Elections under Corona: What’s at Stake?
Uganda is heading for a general election in February 2021. After 34 years of unbroken leadership under incumbent president Yoweri Museveni, opposition parties and movements are strategizing to drive him out of power, despite the fact that all organizational factors work in favour of the incumbent president. As in many hybrid regimes, the Ugandan state is fused with the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party and the incumbent president is able to use state resources to win the competition over his rivals, while opposition parties have to build their popularity through actual politics.
Political factors favouring the opposition include rampant corruption, the government’s failure to deliver on its economic promise of turning Uganda into a middle-income country, high unemployment, and the president’s exceedingly long term in office. The ruling party does not allow the opposition to organize or campaign freely and thereby exploit the aforementioned political factors that favour them. Complicating things even further is the fact that this election will take place in the shadow of COVID-19, with some observers thus dubbing them the “scientific elections”. Public campaigning has been restricted, and candidates are largely limited to campaigning through the media. However, even access to the media is not easy for the opposition parties. The parties and their leaders are not allowed to assemble or hold rallies. Every attempt to address the electorate has been met with police brutality and arrests.
Against this backdrop, the political opposition has been entertaining the notion of forming a coalition in order to off-set the political restrictions imposed by the regime. Currently, the opposition forces include both young and old parties. The older ones are the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), whose founding leader is retired colonel Dr. Kiiza Besigye, the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), and Uganda’s oldest political party, the Democratic Party (DP). The new ones include the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT) led by retired army general Mugisha Muntu, the little-known Jeema party, and the National Unity Platform (NUP) party led by the youthful musician Hon. Kyagulanyi Sentamu, popularly known by his stage name “Bobi Wine”. The NUP has operated under the name “People Power” (PP) for about two and a half years, but its operations have been greatly hampered by the state. The leader has not been allowed to visit the country’s interior, his concerts have been banned, his movements are monitored, and any gathering around him are promptly dispersed.
Ugandan Political Coalitions since Independence
The major political coalition in Uganda on the eve of independence in 1962 was arranged between two parties, the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) and the Kabaka Yekka (“Only the King”, or KY) party. This political coalition is known in Ugandan historiography as the “unholy alliance”, because it was between two strange bed fellows. The UPC leadership and base were ideologically unitary and republican in nature, having their roots in the struggles for social economic justice during the colonial period, when the economic division of labour was heavily racialized. Europeans dominated the most important productive sectors of the economy such as the import-export sector, finance, and banking, as well as the nascent industry. Indians dominated the commercial sector, while Africans were largely in the least productive sector of crop farming. The party was thus strongly pro-social justice in orientation. KY, on the other hand, was monarchist, federalist, and favoured retaining the Buganda monarchy, which enjoyed a privileged status during the colonial era.
However, despite the ideological differences, the two parties formed an unprincipled coalition to defeat their common rival, the Democratic Party (DP). Their electoral alliance temporarily succeeded, and the two parties even went ahead to form a coalition government based on sharing cabinet posts. As widely predicted, it did not last long. There was no ideological proximity or convergence between the coalescing parties. The UPC/KY alliance broke up in 1964 and culminated in a political crisis in 1966, when the leaders of the two parties clashed and King of Buganda Edward Mutesa II (the de facto head of KY, doubling as Uganda’s ceremonial head of state) was deposed and exiled by his coalition partner, UPC leader Milton Obote. The latter went on to abolish the monarchy in Uganda. The lesson here was that an alliance based on political convenience to take office and enjoy the spoils of power cannot succeed—at least not for long. To be successful, a coalition needs policy-based goals inspired and motivated by a vision of legal and constitutional reform.
Another major coalition formed in 1979 between exiled political groups in Moshi, Tanzania. Dubbed the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF), its goal was to overthrow dictator Idi Amin. Like the unholy alliance of 1962, the UNLF was also a coalition of convenience to remove a military regime. The parties coalescing in 1979 sought to overthrow Idi Amin and subsequently share political office. Cracks began to emerge in the UNLF shortly after overthrowing Amin, seizing power, and installing President Lule, who was in turn overthrown 68 days later by the same coalition parties. His successor, President Godfrey Binaisa, was also deposed within eleven months of taking office. The UNLF was an unstable and uneasy coalition, as the leadership had little in common when it came to policy. The different political groups that formed the coalition had limited objectives—to depose Idi Amin and take power. They shared no broader ideological or policy goals, and were merely interested in taking office and the accompanying spoils once in power.
Yet another coalition emerged in 1982 between the Popular Resistance Army (PRA), led by Yoweri Museveni, and the Uganda Freedom Fighters (UFF), led by former President Yusuf Lule. This political coalition formed in the bushes of Luwero, Central Region of Uganda, where the two rebel factions were fighting a war against the Milton Obote government. This was also a coalition of convenience between the conservative forces of the UFF and the then-radical and socialist-oriented forces of the PRA to form the National Resistance Movement (NRM). This was an uneasy alliance, maintained by the sheer fear of being defeated and killed in the war. Analysts argue that if former president Lule had not died of natural causes while still in exile in 1982 and been subsequently replaced by his deputy, Museveni, in all likelihood the two forces would have clashed. After all, Museveni had been an active participant in the camp that deposed Lule in 1979.
Lule and Museveni had nothing in common in terms of future plans, ideological orientation, or what society they wanted to build in Uganda. If the NRM had come to power in 1986 when President Lule was still alive, its fortunes would have been different and the coalition forces between Lule and Museveni would have inevitably followed the pattern of coalition politics in Uganda. This coalition has since disintegrated since the NRM came into power in 1986. The UFF forces lost their identity in due course. Some had hoped for a cultural-based federal system in Uganda, but they did not succeed and later abandoned the cause, now championed by other actors such as the Buganda Kingdom organization, which still pursues the cause of cultural federalism.
The National Resistance Movement (NRM) that took power in 1986 and remains in place did not allow electoral political competition in Uganda for ten years, from 1986 until 1996. It also did not allow political parties to organize and assemble for 20 years, until 2006. The NRM allowed general elections to take place in 1996, but under the movement system, according to which political parties were banned from sponsoring candidates. Nevertheless, as soon as elections were permitted, yet another political coalition bringing together all de facto political parties and organizations formed: the Inter-Party Forces Coalition (IPFC). It was led by the veteran politician Paul Ssewogerere, who had already competed with Obote back in 1980. This was repeated in the 2011 elections, when the opposition parties formed the Inter-Parties Coalition (IPC) led by retired colonel Kiiza Besigye. These were both uneasy coalitions, as some parties would not join and even those who did continued to grumble, among other grievances complaining that the major parties such as the FDC were stealing their supporters. After the elections, these coalitions would disintegrate and acrimony would ensue until another general election took place.
Before the 2015 elections, all opposition parties and forces attempted to form an electoral coalition known as The Democratic Alliance (TDA). Negotiations took place between the notable contenders for a joint candidacy of the opposition. Former Vice-President Gilbert Bukenya and former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi were among them. The two had served in the NRM under Museveni but fell out with him over the issue of presidential succession, among others. Many meetings and negotiations took place between the opposition parties and some non-state actors. These involved the existing political parties, the most important (FDC) led by Besigye. The other force involved in these negotiations was the Go-Forward outfit led by Amama Mbabazi, who had split from the NRM. Another contender was presidential aspirant and later candidate Betty Kamya (presently serving as a minister in Museveni’s government) with her party Uganda Federal Alliance (UFA). Protracted negotiations continued, but the parties failed to agree on a single candidate. The opposition parties and forces nominated Amama Mbabazi, but the FDC rejected his candidacy and the TDA alliance collapsed. The parties subsequently faced Museveni individually.
Overcoming Barriers: Looking Back- and Sidewards
Until now, all formal and informal attempts at forging a coalition under a single candidate seem to have eluded the parties. The reasons for this failure are many—including structural, ideational, and agential factors. The new coalition attempts in the runup to the 2021 elections have been beset by inter-party feuds, acrimony, suspicion, and numerous defections from one party to another. The opposition electorate has lost hope that a coalition will form before the February 2021 elections and is demoralized.
Why have political coalitions not succeeded in forging unity and achieving their goals in Uganda, although some successes have been registered in some neighbouring East African countries? In Kenya, a coalition of political parties under the umbrella National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) managed to defeat Moi’s KANU in 2002. A coalition of political parties in Tanzania under the Ukawa (Umojawa Katiba ya Wananchi) label managed to get 40 percent of the vote in 2015, shaking the traditional dominance of CCM in the political landscape of the country. In Kenya different ethnic groups have learned to use ethnic mobilization as an instrument of political bargaining. It is even said that the Kikuyu ethnic group uses oath-taking to forge and promote ethno-nationalism and maintain the ethnic group’s unity.
Ethno-nationalist coalitions like the one in Kenya are negative when viewed from a normative perspective. However, when viewed from the realpolitik angle, the paradox or irony can be appreciated in the sense that it creates an ethnic voting bloc that eases negotiations with other ethnic blocs. An ethnic party is united by an ethnic ideology, which provides the glue that unites voters behind their negotiators. An ethnic political bloc is more cohesive than one united by the spoils of office like in the case of Uganda. In Kenya, ethno-nationalism has become an accepted norm in everyday politics. In Tanzania, on the other hand, a strong regionalism persists that has fostered unity of political purpose among the electorate in certain oppositional regional strongholds, especially Zanzibar and the Kilimanjaro region. This regional and ethnic balance has eluded political parties in Uganda. In Kenya, political alliances have also been facilitated by an active and political civil society and the church. Ugandan civil society and faith-based organizations are organizationally weak and fragmented, and many have been co-opted by the ruling party.
For the opposition to have a real chance of either winning an election or forcing the incumbent president to concede some space in the political arena or in the constitution, some conditions need to be present. There must be political will among the party negotiators. There should also be a convergence of interests, goals, and/or values among the negotiators. Equally important is their willingness to compromise on interests, values, and principles, along with the existence of trust among political elites. Many times, coalition negotiators harbour mistrust and suspicion towards each other and fail to identify and support a policy or constitutional issue beyond seeking to remove the incumbent president as a uniting factor.
The structural challenges facing oppositional forces in Uganda are many. The country has a long history of militarism that has cowed down Ugandans. Most citizens are afraid to challenge the state due to historical memories of those who did so and were brutally murdered or forced into exile by previous dictators like Idi Amin. A culture of political apathy prevents many from active participation in oppositional politics. The politics of militarism under Yoweri Museveni have worsened the situation. In Uganda under the NRM, militarism (meaning the use of the military in political competition for political ends) has become the norm. Oppositional forces have tried to counterbalance the military by enlisting retired generals in their ranks as leaders of political parties, welcoming the ex-soldiers in order to shift the balance of forces as Museveni continues to use the military for political gains.
Nearly every oppositional leader who posed a formidable challenge to Museveni has been in and out of prison. These include Dr. Kiiza Besigye, who has been imprisoned many times and still faces many court trials for political offenses, former Prime Minister Mbabazi, who was arrested in the run up to the previous elections in 2016, and Bobi Wine, who has been beaten and imprisoned repeatedly and still faces politically related charges in court. His concerts, his most potent political mobilization instrument, have been banned by the regime. The retired generals who tried to challenge Museveni through civil political competition in parties have also been in and out of prison on politically motivated charges.
Yet Museveni has not used only the stick to undermine coalition formations, but also the carrot of political patronage that permeates Ugandan politics. The regime has created numerous politically inspired posts that it dangles in front of potential political opponents to co-opt them. There is also a bloated cabinet consisting of more than 80 ministers, along with many local administrative units, municipalities, and new cities that have been set up. Uganda now has over 550 parliamentary constituencies, making it possibly the largest parliament per capita in the world. These political posts are used as patronage structures to buy off dissidents and prevent any formidable opposition coalition from emerging. Most prominent opposition leaders are co-opted into these patronage posts, thus depriving the opposition of new legitimate leaders.
Fragmentation and Ideology
The other challenge to political coalition formation in Uganda is the fragmentation of the political elite. The long history of political instability coupled with long spells in which political party activities were prohibited undermined the culture of political compromise and tolerance. There are political conflicts and infighting within the parties. For example, the DP has multiple divisions—many that the party cannot find a consensus on. In recent months, a large number of its members, including MPs, crossed over to the NUP party. The UPC has split into two factions, one allied to NRM and another to the opposition. The FDC has internal rifts and its former president, General Mugisha Muntu split from the party and started a new formation called the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT). Some FDC MPs have crossed over to join the ANT, while others remain undecided but have already left the FDC. Some members and supporters of the newly created NUP have been financially induced to switch to the ruling party, and there is a lot of bickering in the party. Without cohesion inside the parties, it is very difficult to reach binding decisions when trying to forge a coalition of the opposition.
As was the case for the previous coalitions described above, the necessary conditions for forming a successful coalition—trust, flexibility, and shared goals—appear to be missing. Matters have been made worse by the incumbent regime’s infiltration of the opposition. If decision-making in a party is fragmented and does not flow from one legitimate source, it is not easy to negotiate a partnership with other parties, as the decisions of the negotiator are not binding. Another weakness of political parties in Uganda is that while negotiating, party officials are eyeing the positions they will get in the coalition. The coalition negotiations are office-led, but not policy-led or driven by ideological proximity. Party officials are looking at what they will get from the spoils of power rather than being driven by the desire to use the coalition to pressure the incumbent government to change policies or institute legal and constitutional reforms. There is hardly any ideological convergence between the parties negotiating the coalition, although ideology is the glue that could bring different forces together.
The Way Forward
Despite these weaknesses and the challenges of coalition building, Uganda needs political coalitions. The advantages of successful coalitions outweigh the disadvantages. Uganda is an emerging, not an established democracy, and combining resources in running a political campaign makes a lot of sense. It enables the coalition to reach the electorate and stimulate and motivate citizens to actively participate in their own governance. A coalition would also have the advantage of combining human resources to guard against vote manipulation by the incumbent president.
In a country like Uganda, a single party, the NRM, is domineering. This is not good for democracy. A sizeable opposition can create incentives for political accountability from the ruling party and reduce political corruption. A coalition with a national presence can also be an instrument for national integration in a country that is fragmented along ethnic lines. More importantly, forming a coalition gives hope and confidence to voters that they can win an election, thus promoting political participation and reducing political apathy among the citizenry. If political parties unite and contest elections together, they will be strong enough to combat election rigging. Political coalitions across ethnic divides also have potential for conflict transformation. These and many other advantages are why political coalitions should be encouraged rather than undermined.
On the flip side, a coalition government in Uganda might also come with baggage of its own. The pre-election coalition attempts have a big chance of spilling over into the post-election period. My proposal is that coalition forces in Uganda should bury their hatchets, become too strong for militaristic political practices, and challenge the prevailing patronage system of Museveni’s Uganda, thus forcing the regime to accept a negotiated political settlement. If the oppositional forces marshal unity for the public good, they would have the potential to strike a balance between the political forces in the country, in which it would be politically costly for Museveni to ignore alternative voices. The coalition formed after a negotiated political settlement should not be like NRM coalition formed in 1986, when other parties were simply integrated and gradually co-opted. Instead, there should be cooperation and interaction, without one party swallowing, integrating, and assimilating others into a monolithic political system, which does not bode well for democracy or national integration.