Uganda: Gen. Museveni’s Ruling NRM Party Torn By Rivalries During Election Primaries

Echoes of Mobutu?

Gen. Museveni, Echoes of Mobutu? The late Congolese dictator once said “I am the state.” Photo: Facebook

[The View From Uganda]

Uganda’s ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) primary elections held on September 4 this year revealed a party gazing into the abyss. And, as German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would say, the abyss gazed back.

The violence which convulsed the party left at least six people dead and scores injured. Labor State minister Mwesigwa Rukutana, who was declared Rushenyi County MP NRM flag bearer, is facing trial for alleged gun violence during the aftermath of this pistols-at-dawn election. Some sort of restitution was thus required.

In a meeting at State House Entebbe last week, President Yoweri Museveni challenged the NRM party’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) to ensure the party first delivers justice to members aggrieved by party primary elections before any olive branches are extended. “Let us do justice first. People may not heal when they have not received justice” sources quoted Mr. Museveni as saying.

However President Museveni knows that NRM-induced justice is as elusive as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. It is impossible under this NRM dispensation. And there are two reasons for this. One is historical. The other is institutional.

Historically, the NRM never perceived democracy as an instrument of justice but as a tool for control. Having risen to power through popular violence rather than democratic means, the NRM democratized the rules of engagement to reflect the mood of popular enthusiasm it generated during the guerrilla war.

In doing so, it interpreted representative democracy to mean “no-party democracy.” This presupposed mass participation without parties and decentralization to ward off federalism of the ethnic variety. This also entailed what the NRM 10-Point program prescribed as follows: “there must be people’s committees” at the village, parish, sub-county and district levels.

“Above all”, these committees “would be political forums to discuss relevant issues concerning the whole country and act as forums against corruption and misuse of office by government officials. . . They would be a channel of communication between the top and the bottom”.  This fed into the second point on this Program: “Security,” which added the idea of a politicized army and police to this heady cocktail. Resistance Councils (RCs) were expected to screen applicants who applied to both.

RCs were hierarchically linked so that the villagers at the bottom were only indirectly represented in the councils at higher levels. All adults were automatically members of their village RCs and served as “listening posts” feeding the top with information about the bottom. Thus democracy, in this sense, was deployed as a foot soldier of the NRM militocracy. This is still the case today, due to a patron-client relationship between the leaders and led.

This patronage has hampered the pursuit of equity institutionally, which is the second reason why Mr. Museveni cannot achieve justice for the aggrieved members who dueled for power during the NRM primaries. The institutional fragility of a highly fragmented NRM is more real than apparent and is due to the party operating in a formal-legal framework that is out of joint. Because it has no unifying ideology beyond the pursuit, maintenance and use of power. So there is no consensus within the party to resolve political conflicts short of violence.

In this contentious ecosystem, each NRM politico seeks to establish their ascendancy over other competing political forces so as to gain access to State resources dispensed as spoils for the victor. Even if Museveni finds common ground for the warring factions, they will only adhere to justice as long as it serves immediate particularist interests over long term party gains.

Again, if NRM political actors feel disadvantaged by this justice, and if they are strong enough to operate outside the party, they will be only too ready to do so and thereby become Independents–and thus imperil the party’s existence in the process.  

After all, the NRM is essentially an arena for political action relating to the allocation of State resources, at the expense of the growth of legitimate central party institutions. So how can Museveni ensure justice without ensuring that State resources line every contender’s pockets?

Of course he could strengthen the party and thereby make it functional enough to smooth over grievances, in order to unite party members behind the party banner. However this would weaken his supreme position as dispenser of patronage and thus expose him to the real effects of democracy. One of which would spell the end of his rule.

So the NRM will continue to tear itself apart as it remains divided against itself in favor of Museveni’s eternal rule.  While justice remains an item on the ledger instead of a means to extending the shelf life of the NRM beyond Museveni.


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