Tuesday, February 11, 2014

MAFABI AND THE CHANGING TONE OF UGANDA’S OPPOSITION



The replacement of Nandala Mafabi, MP Sironko West as the leader of opposition in parliament last week marked the final shift of opposition politics away from one of rabble rousing and confrontation to one of quiet and calculated machination. 

FDC boss Major General Mugisha Muntu replaced his nemesis with first time legislator Wafula Ogutu.

One of the most enduring images of Mafabi from the last election is of him atop a double cabin pickup, his spindly legs sticking out of white khaki shorts and his arms raised in clenched defiance. 

The picture was taken on Election Day, the story being that he was resisting attempts to steal his vote during the polls.

With this image in mind subsequent pictures of him in suit and tie caused a kind of cognitive dissonance.

Political rivalry aside Mafabi’s sideling may be one of a series of attempts, starting with the urbane Mugisha Muntu assuming the helm of FDC, to change the face of the opposition in Uganda.

The political thinkers must have worked out that bashing their political heads against the entrenched position of the NRM nationally is a losing strategy and are looking to use a more subtle approach to win their way.

In the last ten years or so since the lifting of political party activity the opposition has had two major challenges, a clumsy transition from the geriatrics of yesteryear to a younger, newer leadership and a dwelling on past glory by the old leadership, which bore no resemblance to the new political landscape and as a result found themselves out manoeuvred at every turn.

FDC unburdened by the baggage of history, has been raised to its current pre-eminence by sheer force of will of the founding president Kizza Besigye.

Besigye continues to pursue an openly confrontational stance against the government, a situation one may argue has been forced upon him. But after the dust has settled, the tear gas has dispersed and the cameras have stopped rolling, FDC and the opposition have been found wanting in structure and presence across the country and unable to make a credible challenge at the polls.

In a political environment where superiority of numbers at the polls and not whining before the media determine the victor, those tactics had their limitations.

This is the challenge the retired-Major General and his new lieutenant will have to address if the party is to make any serious dents in the NRM’s stranglehold on the country’s politics.
The NRM has its weaknesses, most recently captured by the fallout with the “rebel” MPs but observers will not have failed to notice that the party seems to emerge more coherent from such “crisis” than when it went in.

The opposition will do very well to take from the Yoweri Museveni’s own playbook. 

In 1981 going up against the government with only the mythical 27 at his back, Museveni knew that a head on approach against the better equipped UNLA would be suicidal.  So the NRA used hit-and-run tactics, choosing their battles carefully, minimising losses while sapping the enemy’s morale and resources.

Mafabi’s side lining points to a shift in strategy based on a realisation that the opposition needs to go beyond grandstanding in front of the cameras and work more in building networks countrywide.
One tends to think that Oguttu was appointed to appease eastern Uganda, where Mafabi is a leading light. The suggestion is even that he might make way for a more seasoned politician with a better feel for the kind of political manoeuvring that will be required in coming years.

It would be full hardy to expect the NRM to look on as the opposition roll out into the countryside and that is where the mental flexibility and cunning of a quieter operator may prove useful.

The vehemence and bluster of a Besigye played a critical part in building the FDC’s profile and reshaping the political opposition, the future will belong to the backroom operators, those intent on building structures, recalibrating what constitutes victory as they go, not harking after publicity but confident that the painstaking work will pay off eventually.

However one should not assume that the FDC and the opposition as a whole have lost a taste for running streets battles with the police, it’s just that they may used more judiciously and intermittently.
As for Mafabi the temptation for his bruised ego is to break away and form his own party, there will always be praise singers on the sideline who would encourage such a mover. 

But FDC still remains the dominant opposition party and the NRM is not going anywhere soon, in breaking away he will have doubled his work in getting to state house. At 48 he has to wonder whether he has the time to go it alone.

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