Is Uganda ready for a political revolution through civil resistance?

Political revolutions occur principally because the oppressor refuses to address the concerns of the oppressed and the latter refuses to withdraw them. Political revolutions, like revolutions in other areas of human activity, take time to occur and have virtually similar background characteristics. When people live under constant conditions characterized as “poor, nasty, brutish and short’, they eventually band together so that their voices for reform are heard by authorities. Regarding peasants, it has been demonstrated time and again that when they get hungry and believe they are being overtaxed (broadly defined), they rebel.

In Uganda, the NRM government has heard grievances of the people and is aware of the gathering and approaching political storm. But like an ostrich, it has decided to bury its head in the sand hoping that by some magic the storm will change direction and spare NRM regime. This attitude has been vividly displayed in the press statement issued by the Uganda Media Center on March 9, 2012 about achievements to date and future prospects. It states in part that Uganda has achieved sound economic fundamentals and the people of Uganda especially those in the north have began a path of rebuilding, reconciliation and reintegration and are now vibrant and prospering communities. Regarding a brighter future, the statement underscored the discovery of oil and immense tourism potential as the bedrock. The overall impression is that Ugandans should not worry because everything will be fine: we have sound economic fundamentals, vast oil reserves and huge tourism potential. The press release did not talk about social benefits from the sound economic fundamentals or environmental costs. And it could not have been an accident because the benefits of economic growth have not trickled down to the majority of Ugandans and economic growth has damaged the environment to increase the export crop and meat. However, should, in the unlikely event, the storm continue to move towards Uganda, the government has decided to neutralize it by beefing up intelligence to deal with champions at home and abroad fomenting and directing the storm toward the NRM regime.

Without the oppressor and the oppressed coming together and resolving their differences through negotiation, the political storm will neither be diverted nor neutralized. Before we explain why, let us review conditions worldwide that have led to political revolutions. We shall summarize those that led to revolutions in Europe in 1848, in Cuba in 1959 and in Iran in 1979.

The pent-up discontent of Europeans burst out in 1848 which is dubbed the “year of revolutions”. There were many factors acting in concert. The ideas of liberalism and nationalism inspired by the French Revolution of 1789 which were not addressed flared up sporadically since 1815. Rapid population growth and urbanization produced large numbers of people that were shut out of the political process by autocratic leaders. The middle class and artisans demanded written constitutions, end of arbitrary governments and their replacement by representative institutions, wider franchise and freedoms including of expression. Intellectuals increasingly identified with the oppressed masses and provided justification and guidance for revolts against oppressive rulers that failed to offer reform proposals. The economic and social strains and stresses of urbanization and industrialization added to political grievances. Impoverished and exploited workers were herded in filthy towns that created conditions for anti-regime mobilization. Lessons of success and power of unemployed, poor and hungry mobs in the Paris revolts of 1789 and 1830 were still fresh in the European minds in the 1840s. The deteriorating economic, social and health situation caused by economic recession, food shortages due in large part to the potato blight and cholera made matters worse.

In sum, these political, demographic, economic and social developments created conducive environment for a revolt. What was missing was a trigger which was provided by revolutions that started in Paris and southern Italy. Except in Britain which had already taken corrective measures, the revolution spread to most parts of Europe. Initially the towns were the centre of discontent which drifted to the countryside. The 1848-9 revolutions occurred principally because autocratic leaders refused to make changes and the oppressed people felt they had had enough to remain silent. These revolutions initiated changes whose results were felt in the second half of the century.

In December 1956, 82 Cuban exiles embarked on a daring mission against a strong Cuban government. Their difficult mission was to free six million Cubans from conditions of exploitation, poverty and repression. Most Cubans worked on sugar cane and tobacco plantations owned by wealthy landowners who paid them low wages and forced them to live in overcrowded, unhealthy shacks on the landlord’s property. In the countryside there were very few public services such as schools keeping many Cubans illiterate. At the same time Havana, the islands capital, was full of privileged foreigners who engaged in gambling and prostitution and provided the Batista regime with funds that he used to maintain a repressive army of 46, 000 soldiers and secret service. The Cuban people were unhappy with the status quo but feared military reprisals if they rebelled and so kept silent. The spark was provided by the 1956 exiles attack. Instead of negotiating and neutralize the revolt, Batista and his government chose to destroy the resistance. The brutal force used against the guerrillas produced opposite outcomes. Instead of Cubans denouncing the guerrilla war, many were inspired by it and joined especially when they witnessed the savage reprisals meted out to the rebels. They were not deterred by the deprivations they suffered. Sickened by the national army brutality, some of Batista’s soldiers deserted and joined the rebels. The secret police and its sophisticated methods did not prevent circulation of propaganda leaflets. The army, police and secret service were overwhelmed by the swelling of support to the rebels. As support for the Batista regime diminished, which under sensible leadership would have called for dialogue, savage reprisals were increased. The oppressed Cuban people were also determined to push on and gradually Batista lost support of his people and foreigners. The government fell and in January 1959 Havana welcomed the victorious guerrillas.

In Iran as in Europe and Cuba, a number of factors converged to cause trouble to the Shah. A program of modernization or westernization that began in the 1920s by Reza Khan was continued by his son Reza Pahlavi in the 1960s. Secular laws were introduced in courts and western curriculums in schools. Other reforms included land distribution, voting rights for women, economic restructuring that included industries. International trade was promoted and foreign investors invited to Iran. Modernization included bars with wines and whiskies, cinemas and discos as well as European fashions and automobiles which could easily be paid for with oil money. This frantic modernization led to two problems that would result in a revolt and demise of the Shah government.

First, the benefits of economic growth did not trickle down to the majority of Iranians particularly peasants and poor manual workers. Rural-urban migration increased as peasants deserted the poor countryside aided by a network of roads in search of better opportunities. They were disappointed because many of them found urban life more depressing than the countryside they had ran away from. Corruption and sectarianism were rampant and protected exploitation of the poor and vulnerable by the rich.

Second, believers in Islam interpreted westernization of Iran in terms of immorality and blasphemy. Uncomfortable with the changes, many Iranians especially the poor turned back to their religion. Islamic leaders led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stirred their followers against the Shah in their sermons. The Shah responded by unleashing Savak secret police to suppress any opposition. The arrest of Khomeini in 1963 sparked a wave of protests which could not be handled by the police alone. The army was called in and many people were gunned down.

Fuelled by widening economic and social disparities and government repression, the oppressed people banded together for a fight. The unity of opposition forces was like a miracle because all the people: the young and the old, indeed the whole nation, came and worked together for the overthrow of the oppressive Shah’s regime. There was no compromise and the winner had to take all. In the end the well-armed military and sophisticated secret police could not extinguish the fires of the revolution. In the end the security forces declared neutrality after which the shah’s regime collapsed in 1979.

The pre-revolutionary conditions outlined above in political, economic and social sectors are all in Uganda right now. The majority of Ugandans have been excluded from the political process, economic growth and social development. They are unemployed, sick, illiterate, hungry and poor and increasingly becoming landless. NRM has buried its head in the sand hoping that the market forces will turn the economy around. Like Batista and the Shah, Museveni is suppressing the people using police, military and secret service in the name of national security but essentially to buy time, hoping an economic miracle will solve the mushrooming social challenges. He is therefore reluctant to negotiate a transitional government although close advisers share the idea of inclusive government as is being discussed through Ugandans at Heart Forum. Hopefully and soon these discussions involving General Caleb Akandwanaho will result in something meaningful for all the people of Uganda.

Three lessons from the above outline are worth mentioning for the NRM government and the opposition. First, when the authorities refuse to negotiate with revels, the result is government defeat as we have seen in the cases of Cuba and Iran. Earlier we had seen the same results in the French and Russian Revolutions. It is certain that Uganda will fall into this category if the government does not negotiate with the opposition. The situation we are in now (2012) is different from when NRM negotiated with a weak and disoriented Okello government in 1985. Now it is NRM that is weak and getting weaker, not the forces opposing it.

Second, the international community including development partners will support a sitting government as long as there are prospects that it will prevail over the opposition. Once it realizes that the government is on the losing side, the international community will support the winning side in order to protect their interests. That is the game and it is not new. It happened in Cuba, Iran, Philippines, Ethiopia and Zaire among others. NRM can’t win the civil resistance Ugandans have begun. The people are fighting a worthy cause to rid themselves of corruption, sectarianism, authoritarianism and exploitation of the majority by a tiny minority. At an appropriate time, we shall see deserters from the police, army, secret service and NRM itself. They are on the ready waiting for the right moment. That is why you see major changes in the intelligence department basically to figure out how to prevent desertion from happening. The international community isn’t happy with rampant corruption, sectarianism, mismanagement of public funds, absence of independent electoral commission and term limits.

Third, for the opposition to ride to victory, all forces must come together. In all the revolutions and revolts we have studied and reported through Ugandans at Heart Forum and, unity of opposition forces played a decisive role. Ugandans can’t hope to succeed when they remain scattered pursuing individual pet projects. The focus for all in the opposition camp must be regime change first unless there are some in our midst who will tolerate NRM if it gives them what they want. Non-military means should be applied because they work at reduced cost and are working in Uganda already. We need to fine tune them as we proceed.

Finally, to save the situation from deteriorating further, some Ugandans have been calling for the emergence of a trinity of a Mandela, a de Klerk and a Mcleod to bring the opposition, government and international community respectively together and hammer out a mutually agreed upon arrangement. The international community including African Union could serve as the mediator. The recent coup in Mali, a country that was considered a political, economic and social success story, should serve as a useful lesson because a determined people whose concerns are neglected by the government can’t be defeated in the end. Tiny Japan surprised huge Russia and the whole world during the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 which Russia lost. It is determination that matters most and Ugandans are getting determined to act decisively once and for all.