Forgive me if am not as excited as the clergy about the ‘olive branch’ extended by the President to talk to the opposition via the Inter Party Organization mechanism (IPOD). You may recall that in January this year Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and the Justice Forum, which are among the six parties under the umbrella organization - IPOD, declined to sign a document called the Election Pledge 2011. Point Five of the ‘Pledge’ committed the parties: "To continue to engage in dialogue as a means of resolving any dispute that may ensue and to follow the due process of law in resolving such disputes, or to follow legally accepted dispute-resolution mechanisms that are in place." The main aim of the agreement was for parties to ensure the holding of free, fair, transparent and non-violent elections last February.
Hossein Kyanjo of JEEMA argued then that the courts of law could not be relied upon regarding such contentious issues because they have been defied before. He could not have been more accurate. The reason that Kizza Besigye did not rush to court to present his grievances after the last presidential election is because the people of Uganda and the opposition in particular are aware that the courts are powerless to overturn electoral results in which President Museveni has been declared winner; even with overwhelming evidence of electoral irregularities. That conclusion has been reached over the space of a decade and after two preceding presidential elections, in which the Supreme Court agreed that there were election irregularities of a significant nature but failed to overturn the results announced by the Electoral Commission.
Based on those experiences the opposition made a decision to take their case to the people of Uganda rather than to the courts of law. Another problem with Point No. 5 of the contentious document was its reference to dialogue, where one of the parties, the NRM-O holds a track record of not respecting any process of dialogue. From the Nairobi Peace jokes of 1985, to the Ebyaffe and Land Talks with Buganda, to the extension of presidential term limits, to the peace talks with Joseph Kony and civil society’s pleas to establishing a credible Electoral Commission; the only consistent action of government when it engages in talks; has been to push through its argument with little regard to the dialogue process. The government will use military means, bribery of opponents, buying parliamentary votes or just bulldozing its will through parliament with little regard to minority views.
If we have no confidence in the courts of law to resolve an electoral dispute between Candidate Yoweri Museveni and his opponents, then we have even greater suspicion of the government’s ability to conduct genuine and forthright dialogue with an opposition that it loves to humiliate.
There is something intuitively wrong with trusting a government that has displayed a high level of brutality against opponents and peaceful citizens that are exercising their constitutional right to protest. There is something inherently troubling about a head of state who declares that his main opponent will not ‘walk to work’ under any circumstances and two days later – after security forces have beat, tortured and shot the opponent; the same leader says he is now ready to talk without offering any regret, but instead publicly justifying the use of brutal force against that opponent. There is something terribly suspicious about an olive branch that is extended only after throwing several political opponents in jail and denying them the right to bail.
A serious opposition must demand some guarantees before they even consider talking to an opponent that should not be trusted. For starters the government must drop all imagined charges against all walkers: leaders and activists. Secondly, the opposition must be defined to include its most serious and well known leaders. Thirdly, we all know that a laundry list of conditionalities would not be enough to guarantee meaningful dialogue. The key to unlocking peace and understanding between the opposition and the government requires political will. That sadly has remained the key missing ingredient in relations between the state and its opponents in Uganda.
Even as we mull over the possibility of dialogue there are things that this government can do to ease the suffering of Ugandans. President Museveni has correctly stated that peace and stability are key ingredients for our well being. If he truly believes this then he should respect and guarantee our right to assemble and to protest without being brutalized by the state. His government should not put the collection of revenue from oil products at this critical time above peace and stability – fuel and import taxes should be drastically reduced. Moreover, it is not a time to party when our neighbors are starving, and while our children are being tear-gassed and killed on the streets by rowdy police constables. The expense of the May 12th swearing in ceremony should be foregone to demonstrate empathy with the ordinary Ugandan. It is such simple gestures that may surprise us and allow some to believe that this government can still be redeemed and that it might even be trusted to speak to its opponents.