Ugandans deserve a more policy-led political debate  

Odrek Rwabwogo
By Odrek Rwabwogo

Ugandan Entrepreneur & Presidential Advisor - Special duties

Posted on Friday, 1 October 2021 09:43

Ugandan musician turned politician, Robert Kyagulanyi also known as Bobi Wine arrives at the news conference at his home in Kasangati, Kampala
Ugandan musician turned politician, Robert Kyagulanyi also known as Bobi Wine arrives at the news conference at his home in Kasangati, Kampala, Uganda July 24, 2019. REUTERS/James Akena

An advisor to President Yoweri Museveni accuses the official opposition -- led by musician turned politician Bobi Wine -- of being driven by personality politics rather than policy options. He accuses the NUP of not having a substantive platform to offer Ugandans.

The Electoral Commission of Uganda, the government organ mandated to organise and conduct our nation’s elections, currently holds a register of twenty-six political parties. Some have been in operation long before many of us were born; many are newer to the scene given political parties can be formed with relative ease, thanks to a robust political environment that has been nurtured by a democratic process begun in 1995.

One of the most recognizable, and today our official opposition, is the National Unity Platform (NUP), only recently exploded into Uganda’s political firmament.

The NUP has quickly gained a reputation for personality politics and bold accusations, attracting international attention. This is not the first time, nor the last, that in the world a political party is built around the personality of a single charismatic individual. But such creations – no matter how successful – do tend to follow a pattern, one of which is to be as policy-lite as they are personality-heavy.

What this means in practical terms is sadly that parties formed in such a manner drive a personality and not a policy-led political discourse.

What is their policy on covid-employment subsidies, for example? What about the content of the school curriculum, or SME development and funding? And what is their policy on agriculture, the employment sector for the majority of working Ugandans in rural areas where – conspicuously – the NUP received fewest votes in the recent General Election?

Further afield, what are their views on regional economic integration, and indeed the future direction of the African Union? What role today should older organisations such as the AU and the Commonwealth play in Uganda’s advancement?

On all these issues and many more, as citizens we need to ask: what are their policies and – most importantly – what would they actually do differently to the government if they were ever in office?

The fact is, after two general elections contested and one NUP presidential candidacy we are simply none the wiser.

To be generous, producing a fully researched and costed policy programme takes time. But it shouldn’t take years.

When it does, it leaves us, arguably, looking back as far as 1996 when the Democratic Party, the oldest political party in the country, fielded Mzee Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere as their candidate as the last time Ugandans witnessed a near sober and sincere policy-based debate about their future.

Sadly, many new parties have proven they cannot seem to amount to this. Instead of policy alternatives to those offered by the government which they claim to oppose, these parties have instead resorted to in fighting, gimmickry, heckling and sloganeering.

What this does is deny true democratic debate to citizens and genuine alternatives to the young generation in future. It also means the government is held to account only on the implementation of its policies – and not on the policies themselves or their effects. In short, Ugandans receive party politics without policy.

We need to urgently address this void, in part, by encouraging robust policy debate amongst civil society, business, faith leaders, community activists and more. But it is also time for parties to step up to the table. After all, what are citizens expected to vote for if parties offer nothing different to the electorate other than different leaders to those who already hold office?

There are those, especially abroad of course, who say the government and the NRM should do more to develop other political parties as a way to broaden our country’s democratic debate. But find me a country in the western world where political parties in government have expended time and resources developing oppositions to themselves. Imagine if we tried it how we would be criticised for trying to “manage democracy” or build some sort of pretend democratic discourse.

No, it is the duty of opposition parties themselves to offer an alternative vision of how they would govern should they secure high office. Alas ours remain – at least for now – rather commentators on the political scene, a group of elaborate social media stars with seats in parliament.

Ugandans deserve a more policy-led political debate. But it is not the task of the government alone to create one.

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