By Edward Ssekalo
Coalitions as general elections draw near are a common thing. You could even add, a fashionable thing. But they are not always the right thing. Yes, sometimes they work. Just look across the border. Kenya’s politicians have engendered a culture of coalition politics so profound it is hard to imagine a politician ascending to the presidency without some form of coalition backing his effort.
It is possible that the successes of coalitions across the border have duped some into believing they would, or must work in Uganda. I won’t bore you with a comprehensive breakdown of the workings of Kenyan politics. There is, however, a very important lesson to pick from our neighbours.
The first lesson in coalition politics is that the players must have something they bring to the table. With only this one consideration in mind, during today’s attempt at forming a coalition, Norbert Mao, Asuman Basalirwa, Michael Mabikke and Abed Bwanika would have been asked to step out of the room. They would add nothing of much use to a presidential bid. Neither witty comments nor controversial sound bytes add a percentage point to a tally of presidential election votes—as in deed Mao and Bwanika know too well.
Coalitions have been meaningful in Kenya because they have consistently had politicians who guarantee 5-15% of all votes available. For a Ugandan politician to make it to 5% of votes cast, he would need at least 500,000 votes in his favour if voter turnout was 10 million. What do the facts tell us though? Exhibit A: Abed Bwanika. Presidential elections, 2006: 67,000 votes (0.95%) obtained; 2011: 51,000 votes (0.9%) obtained; 2016: 89,000 votes (0.9%) obtained.
Exhibit B: Norbert Mao. Presidential elections, 2011: 147,000 votes (1.8%) obtained. Exhibit C: Amama Mbabazi. Presidential elections, 2016: 139,000 votes (1.3%) obtained. Let’s imagine Bwanika had got into a coalition with Kizza Besigye for the 2016 elections… Would a man who cannot raise even 1% of the vote be really useful in the grand scheme of things? Okay, maybe Norbert Mao has better brand recognition. Look how he fared in 2011, and in 2016 backing Amama.
Why do we want to delude ourselves that by bringing together an inconsequential Bwanika, Mao and Kyalya we suddenly stand a better chance of success, even when the person they would be backing has demonstrable support (whether this would be Bobi Wine or Besigye?)
The more important thing for Ugandan politicians to do is not to try and build alliances, but rather, build solid bases that make meaningful coalitions inevitable. What Opposition forces should be focused on is finding at least three politicians who can cross the 10% mark individually at the next election. To do that, one no doubt has to have the capacity to do one of two things, possibly both; first, to rouse voters who would ordinarily stay away into coming out to vote, and second, to take away supporters from rivals in the Opposition and in NRM alike. Amama at the last election managed to do the former, to an extent, although ultimately Besigye was the beneficiary. Bobi Wine could potentially do both. Perhaps Mugisha Muntu as well, if he can figure out a way of not being all talk and invisible structures.
Other than that, it doesn’t matter if an Opposition politician is escorted by 20 jokers, if they cannot win even half the votes available in their own families, no amount of coalitions will save anyone. If such a coalition were to be likened to a relationship, it would be the kind where one partner only contributes the sex, and probably the shopping list.
There is, however, an even bigger problem with doing coalitions in Uganda’s politics. For every election since 2006, one of the presidential candidates has ended up serving directly or indirectly in Museveni’s government, or at least working for Museveni’s interests.
From Miria Obote (remember her?) in 2006 to Beti Kamya in 2011 to Venansius Baryamureeba in 2016. Let’s not forget the likes of Maureen Kyalya who wanted to turn the presidential debate into a job interview. Let’s also not forget that folks like Mao have had accusations of being in bed with Museveni’s regime hanging over their heads for long enough and with reason enough to create reasonable doubt as to where they truly stand. If Mao’s isn’t a full-blown affair with NRM, it is at least at the level of “friends-with-benefits”. Pray tell, why would a self-respecting politician want to commune with such?
Let no one fool you, allying with Bwanika and Mabikke and their ilk is not much different from getting three impotent men into a room and hoping they will get a woman pregnant by overwhelming her with the power of their numbers. I am not a doctor, but I believe even the quality of the sperm counts. For the Opposition therefore, unity should NOT be the only option, because it is probably even a bad option to start with.