The path to democracy, liberty, justice and dignity through the ballot box has not produced the desired results in Uganda and will not unless major reforms are undertaken. In developed societies institutions and laws permit citizens to elect representatives and hold them accountable. When they do not perform they are either recalled or voted out at the next elections. In Uganda these institutions and laws have been virtually destroyed. The NRM government has returned Uganda to the law of the jungle where strong animals do what they want with weak ones with impunity. Currently, in Uganda the weak are losing land to the strong, the weak are denied quality education and healthcare which are provided to the strong, the weak are going to bed every night on empty stomachs while the strong are busy exporting Uganda food and the weak are unemployed while the strong are importing workers through a liberal immigration policy etc.
In the absence of institutions and laws these injustices will not be addressed in a democratic manner through the ballot box. With security forces that have chosen to serve one individual instead of the people, unlimited money for NRM campaigns, advantages of incumbency and some donors insisting that the ballot box is the only method of changing a government in Uganda, NRM cannot be defeated. Pretending otherwise would be disingenuous. Ugandans in the opposition must either accept this reality and live with it in humiliation or gather courage and challenge it. If Ugandans choose the latter option, the youth will have to play a major role alongside other demographic groups. From time immemorial, youth have changed history. The youth of South Africa used as an illustration here changed the history of that county. Uganda youth should draw a lesson from this experience and do likewise.
Until 1994 blacks in South Africa were categorized and treated as inferior; people that did not deserve what was needed for decent lives of white people including education the most basic of human rights. Verwoerd declared that Africans had to be measured by different standards, stressing that black education should equip students to meet the demands which the economic life will impose on them (mostly menial labor jobs). Consequently he did not see the need to teach them mathematics which they would never use. It could not be more humiliating especially when ANC underscored education as a vital tool in the development of black people.
The youth got disturbed and began to organize themselves and to think seriously about their future beginning in the 1960s. Steve Biko, a medical student at Natal University, was the prime mover whose efforts led to the launching of Black Consciousness (BC). The philosophy of BC resonated very well with blacks. It resulted in the formation by 1972 of a Black People’s Convention to act as an umbrella organization to coordinate black activities across the country. Through BC it was recognized that liberation of blacks would never be realized until “Africans threw off their shackles of fear and their feelings of inferiority, and conducted their own political campaigns instead of relying on white liberals to map out their strategies for them”(Reader’s Digest 1994). The message spread, was understood and fear was shed.
The moment to prove that fear had gone came in 1976 when more than 20,000 pupils in Soweto began a protest against the introduction of Afrikaans as another language of instruction in black secondary schools. The protest spread to other black townships across the country. It was the worst revolt since the protests that peaked in 1960. South Africa would never be the same again. The 1976 protest marked a turning point that ended two decades of African political inactivity and launched a generation of black activists determined to struggle on their own for their rights and freedoms. The brutality used to end the protest forced the white minority regime to reassess the wisdom of that method to keep the whites in power. The revolt cleared the way for battles between African and Afrikaner nationalism.
The political disturbances continued into the 1980s which were also marked by deep economic problems: falling living standards, rising unemployment and capital flight. These depressing political and economic developments forced state president Botha to advise the white population to “adapt or die”. Following that statement, the government lifted the ban on mixed marriages, recognized black trade union rights, accepted the permanent status of blacks in towns and withdrew the pass laws. Botha even went further. He invited Mandela for tea at his official residence in Cape Town. Notwithstanding these commendable openings, Botha continued to rely on security forces to run the country against the advice of many at home and abroad.
In 1989 Botha was succeeded by F. W. de Clerk as state president. De Clerk was honest and pragmatic enough to conclude that apartheid had reached a dead end, leading to a logical determination that there was no future in relying on security forces to protect white rule. In 1990 Mandela and other political prisoners were released and ANC and other liberation organizations were unbanned, opening the door for a negotiated settlement that ended white minority rule and ushered in majority rule at exactly 19 minutes past noon on May 10, 1994 when the Chief Justice swore in Mandela as president of a new South Africa.
This story has important lessons for the youth, NRM government and opposition groups. First, the youth need to shed fear which has shackled them for a long time. They also need to organize themselves and protest against unemployment, poverty and the humiliation they are experiencing as normal people who cannot fend for themselves. They need to restore their pride and dignity quickly and this will not be realized without a struggle against a regime bent on keeping them down to exploit them indefinitely. United Democratic Ugandans (UDU) elected a youth representative who is coordinating youth activities at home and abroad. The needs of Uganda youth were articulated in the National Recovery Plan (NRP) posted at www.udugandans.org. Just as the youth of South Africa opened the door for negotiations that launched black majority rule in 1994, the youth of Uganda should do the same to facilitate negotiations between NRM and opposition groups leading to a transitional government.
Second, the political and economic challenges facing Uganda today in 2012 are similar to what South Africa experienced in the 1980s inducing major political changes. Museveni should advise NRM to adapt or die and facilitate Ugandans to enjoy their full rights and freedoms and ipso facto refrain from using force to keep NRM government in power.
Third, opposition parties and organizations need to solidify unity under one umbrella organization and demand changes with one voice in the political field to inter alia restore term limits and separation of powers; create an independent electoral commission; demand an end to corruption, sectarianism and mismanagement of public funds. NRM and opposition should negotiate in good faith a transitional government to prepare for and conduct free and fair multi-party elections and put the fraudulent 2011 elections behind us and begin a process of healing.