Copyright © 1998 National Endowment for Democracy and the Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.
Journal of Democracy 9.2 (1998) 49-63

"No-party Democracy" in Uganda

Nelson Kasfir

African Ambiguities

Have Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) invented a form of "no-party democracy" more suitable for Africa than Western-style multiparty competition? Under the NRM government, Uganda has made remark-able strides in recovering from the insecure, lawless, and economically immobilized regimes that came before, even if some sections of the country have not yet reaped the benefits. Since the NRM took over in 1986, it has organized three national elections! . Each, according to local and foreign observers, was freer, fairer, and more open than the 1980 election, the only other one held since Uganda gained its independence from Britain in 1962. Moreover, in a development never seen before in Uganda, the NRM has repeatedly held elections in every village. In the no-party presidential election in 1996, Museveni won more than 70 percent of the vote, soundly defeating Paul Ssemogerere, the candidate of a coalition formed by groups with allegiances to the Democratic Party (DP) and the Uganda People's Congress (UPC), the two most important among the old political parties.

To most Ugandans, Museveni's victory seemed to validate no-party democracy, and for two reasons. First, he won by a landslide; few impartial observers felt that he would have lost to Ssemogerere even had parties been allowed to campaign. Second, the bankruptcy of the old multiparty system was made manifest by the willingness of Ssemogerere, the! "real" winner of the 1980 elections, to ally himself with the UPC, the party that he had always charged with cheating the DP of its victory by threatening to use the army. [End Page 49]

Were Museveni to cite as evidence for the superiority of no-party democracy the Kenyan multiparty elections of 1992 and 1997--which featured multiple candidate defections from one party to another as well as ethnic bloc voting in half of all legislative constituencies--few in either country would dispute him. Indeed, most would probably agree that Kenya can hardly be said to be more democratic than Uganda, though the former has 27 parties and the latter has none.

Many foreign donors, who have become entranced by Uganda's economic and political recovery, have praised its new form of democracy. "What is happening in Uganda is . . . your own type of democracy that is trying to fit into the Ugandan context," said one. The new British Labour gov! ernment has decided that it "will not press for multiparty reforms in Uganda." 1 This is particularly significant because elsewhere in Africa, donors have insisted that aid depends on continued progress toward permitting parties to form and compete freely. What envy Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi must feel when he hears the praise that is heaped upon Uganda for its staunch refusal to allow parties!

Both the foreign and the domestic audiences are right in one respect and wrong in another. They are right to think that Uganda has never been as democratic, either at the village or the national level, as it is today. But they are wrong to imagine that the no-party system has made it so. The great puzzle is to figure out what no-party democracy stands for, and whether it has a future. A look at the treatment of no-party democracy by top NRM officials helps to show why these questions are hard to answer.

While the NRM's leaders prefer to speak of "movement" democracy, I refer here to "no-party" democracy because its authors actually discuss it more in terms of what they wish to avoid (parties) than in terms of what they claim to have created (a movement). In the Ugandan version, all adults, by virtue of residence, are members of the Movement and of their village Resistance (now called Local) Council (RC). An interlocking structure of elected RCs reaches up through five administrative levels that culminate in district government. Parties may exist, but are barred from political activity. This, says the NRM, is necessary to prevent appeals that smack of "sectarianism"--a term that in Ugandan usage refers not only to conflicts based on religion, but also to those based on ethnicity or regional ties (in Uganda, the three are often closely linked). In theory, elections at every level are conducted on the basis of personal merit rather than political affiliation. Offi! cials make great efforts to ensure that all candidates have an equal opportunity to present themselves in each locality within their constituencies. The Movement has a small national secretariat, funded by the state, that supervises a few political schools and engages in modest mobilizational activities. [End Page 50]

No one in the NRM has done much to develop or articulate the principles behind no-party democracy, other than to insist that parties may not nominate candidates or campaign for them, and consequently cannot form a government. Besides the NRM's original manifesto, known as the "Ten-Point Programme," and brief discussions by Museveni in some of his speeches and articles, very little has been written about no-party democracy. 2 Nor has there ever been a concerted campaign to educate the public about it. Oddly, after putting great energy into developing RCs in every village and at higher lev! els, the NRM quietly handed over the shaping of Ugandan democracy to a state-appointed Constitutional Commission and a subsequent Constituent Assembly.

In lieu of a solid justification for no-party democracy, the regime has put forth a series of rationales marked by internal inconsistencies and occasionally abrupt shifts in reasoning. The only thing that has not changed is the insistence that no-party democracy means no parties may participate. Although establishing motives is difficult, the NRM leadership may support no-party democracy primarily to help itself maintain its rule in the face of the various local conflicts that it has inherited and to which it must respond. It would be wrong to conclude from this, however, that Uganda is merely a dictatorship with an attractive but misleading facade. In fact, the country is much more democratic today than it was before the NRM took power. Nevertheless, one wonders whether any of its new democratic forms c! an outlast the tenure of their founder, the current president.

Sectarianism and Politics

To understand Ugandan no-party democracy, it is necessary to know something about the nature and origins of political "sectarianism" in Uganda. The NRM's analysis of this problem lies at the root of each of its successive rationales for restricting parties. The NRM's initial premise is that competition among the old parties exacerbated sectarian tendencies, and hence could never produce democracy. This argument is plausible, though it may go farther toward explaining the NRM's use of no-party democracy than toward justifying its acceptance as a system of government.

A look at Uganda's history of political and economic conflict helps to clarify what the NRM government has had to take into account. When Museveni's National Resistance Army (NRA) marched into Kampala in January 1986, it inhe! rited a series of complex relationships that each preceding government had in its turn made considerably worse. From the inception of their collaboration with the British, the leaders of the southern kingdom of Buganda--then as now the largest, richest, most coherent, and most assertive political entity in Uganda--made their relationship to the British Protectorate (1894-1962) and [End Page 51] later the independent state an enduring political issue. The more Buganda pressed its own dominance or autonomy, the more other groups tried to combine to hold it in check--or to assert an equivalent political coherence. Ethnic identity became a central factor in Ugandan politics because it became bound up in these conflicts.

So did regional identification, partly because there was somewhat greater cultural similarity within each region, but also because the southern regions, particularly Buganda and the east, achieved greater economic development and th! us had more in the way of social services, schools, hospitals, and jobs than did the west or especially the north. Before independence, rank-and-file military recruitment was con-centrated in part of the east and in the north. Afterwards, officers also came mostly from the north. Cultural similarities notwithstanding, each region played host to several fractious political conflicts. In addition, rivalries among missionaries left behind a degree of political competition among Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims that is unusual for sub-Saharan Africa.

Consequently, Ugandan politics has always been extraordinarily local, based on complicated and highly unstable political and economic alliances. The DP and the UPC, not surprisingly, took on the coloration of these conflicts. From the late-colonial period on, each party sought to mobilize votes on the basis of ethnicity, region, and religion. Museveni and his colleagues argued, correctly, that the parties' b! ehavior made the country's conflicts worse and diverted attention from economic problems. This attack on sectarianism resonated with Ugandans, who had coped for some time with the consequences of the parties' penchant for using religion, ethnicity, and regionalism to expand their support, and thus lent greater legitimacy to the NRM's early espousal of "popular democracy" as an alternative to multiparty democracy.

In the 1960s, the complex federal arrangements embodied in the independence Constitution and the relationships among politicians from the DP, the UPC, and the Kabaka Yekka (or KY, a party representing Baganda ethnic interests) gave these conflicts room to grow. The UPC government of Milton Obote, the northern, Protestant politician who became independent Uganda's first prime minister, jettisoned its original allies from Buganda and strengthened the central administration. In 1966, Obote made himself president and scrapped federalism, trying to ! achieve through unitary presidential rule and coercion what had not previously been achievable through bargaining.

In its growing isolation, the Obote government became ripe for a coup. The ax fell in 1971, when power was seized by General Idi Amin, Uganda's highest-ranking military officer and a Muslim from a different part of the north than Obote. Both Amin's religious identity (Muslims make up less than a sixth of the population) and his regional [End Page 52] affiliation were disadvantages when it came to creating a political base broad enough to allow the possibility of consensual rule. In 1972, he expelled most residents of Indian descent--traditionally the mainstays of business and mercantile life--pushing the economy into a downward spiral. Shortages and growing corruption soon followed. Arbitrary government and the application of military force to existing local conflicts led to widespread killing.

The Tanzanian a! rmy, accompanied by a Ugandan faction under Obote and a rival one under Museveni, overthrew Amin in 1979 after he had foolishly invaded and ravaged northwestern Tanzania. The transitional government that followed included several civilian groups that collectively added another layer of conflicts, immobilizing administrative activity and deepening Uganda's impoverishment. Eventually, Obote gained the preponderance of power in the army and shaped the rules ensuring that the 1980 elections, which returned Uganda to "civilian" rule, would be party-based.

When Obote used his military edge to declare the UPC the winner, Museveni and a few of his followers turned to guerrilla war, in competition with several other small groups. This war probably resulted in the deaths of as many civilians--perhaps 400,000--during Obote's second period of rule as had been killed under Amin. In July 1985, Obote was overthrown by officers from a northern district other than his o! wn. Six months later, the NRA defeated this rump army and the factions, including some of Amin's old troops, that had rallied to it.

At the time it took power, the NRM had only a limited political base. It had done most of its fighting in Buganda, drawing most of its recruits and social support from the south, and taking control of the west only in the ten months preceding victory. Much to the alarm of northerners, it became the first Ugandan government to be run by southerners. About six months after the NRM took over, rebellions broke out in parts of the north and east. The eastern insurgency ended after several years, but the war in the north continues. The NRM's legitimacy has thus remained in question, especially throughout most of the north.

The NRM was caught in a dilemma. Having taken power by force, it nonetheless aspired to a democratic justification for its rule. The NRM proclaimed no-party democracy as a new approach to! government that would bar the expression of sectarian loyalties, though all the sectarian conflicts inherent in the old political issues still had to be faced, as well as the new ones produced by the NRM's victory.

The Original Rationale

The NRM has never engaged in extensive analysis of its notion of no-party or movement democracy, offering instead justifications that are frequently ambiguous or mutually contradictory. Moreover, the [End Page 53] NRM has made surprising changes in the later rationales it has used to justify no-party democracy, ignoring its most creative political contributions. It has never formally asked whether its original approach--developed by the NRA, not its civilian wing, the NRM--should be changed to fit peacetime conditions. This absence of sustained attention by its founders leaves open several fundamental questions about what can be considered democratic ab! out Uganda's no-party democracy, questions that include some familiar disputes in the literature of democratic theory.

The "Ten-Point Programme" espouses a complex definition of democracy that combines important ideas often thought to be in contradiction with one another. Democracy "must contain three elements: parliamentary democracy, popular democracy, and a decent living for every Ugandan." 3 Each of these notions has received significant attention in discussions of democratic theory. The combination promises an original approach.

It would be best to start by considering how the founders of the NRM regarded each of these ideas, and then to ask how they responded (or failed to respond) to the difficulties of joining them together. The NRM's approach to popular democracy involved its most exciting democratic initiative, even if popular democracy was undercut both in design and later in ! practice. The village-level RCs are a textbook example of participatory democracy, with all adult residents gathering to decide village issues, electing a council to govern and judge local cases, and recalling any elected officials who have lost their confidence. In Museveni's words, they are involved in "making the decisions which affect their daily lives." 4

In 1986, the NRM devoted enormous energy to instituting an RC in every village. Greeted at first with widespread popular enthusiasm, the councils represented a local governmental structure wholly new to Ugandans, who had always been ruled by chiefs or male elders before, during, and after colonialism. The village councils may turn out to have been the NRM's most important democratic initiative. So long as they remained the institutional expression of popular participation, they supplied no-party democracy with its most persuasive justification.

Above the village level, however, the case for popular democracy is more difficult to defend. Higher RCs are composed of the Resistance Committees elected from the next lower level, a system that holds all the way up to the fifth, or district, level. In other words, they are ever more indirectly representative of the villagers acting at the bottom level, and are chosen by ever smaller electorates. In addition, indirect representation erodes the right of recall, since only the council that elected a committee has the right to recall one of its members. Thus even if a village RC wanted to remove someone whom it had originally elected, say on grounds of corruption, it could not do so after that [End Page 54] official had been elected to a higher level. A 1987 commission of inquiry argued that it would be more democratic to permit voters in the villages to elect officials at all levels, but the NRM government rejected this suggestion, claiming that it would! lead to more sectarianism. Employing indirect representation at higher levels is a substantial departure from participatory democracy.

Since participatory democracy means that the people govern themselves directly, it can only remain meaningful if the RCs' function as deliberative bodies is retained as fundamental. Yet it was their administrative utility rather than their deliberative quality that seems to have recommended them most strongly to the NRM's founders. The RCs were first organized to enlist sympathetic civilians in the acquisition of food, recruits, and intelligence for the NRA war effort; "later on," Museveni has written, "we made them elective." 5 Their administrative origin is not surprising, and the NRM deserves much credit for taking the risk of introducing a degree of democracy while it was fighting a war.

The RCs have always been closely supervised in what they can dis! cuss, with most power remaining in the hands of the Central Committee of the National Resistance Council (NRC)--originally the commanders of the NRA, but after the takeover, the parliament. A 1987 law placed the RCs under the direction of the minister of local government, who has broad powers to suspend them. In addition, each district has a presidentially appointed resident commissioner, who may intervene to reverse RC decisions and even remove existing councils.

Early enthusiasm notwithstanding, the years after 1986 saw widespread demoralization among RC officials and a drop in RC participation. 6 This happened in part because ministries heaped unpaid village-RC officials with responsibility for tasks such as tax collection, road building, and security provision. Many rural officials complained that they no longer had time to work their farms. In addition, the leaders of the NRM, governing between 1986 and ! 1989 without benefit of national elections, had no gauge of their own legitimacy and were worried that the old parties, particularly the DP, had enough grassroots support to capture the RC hierarchy from the bottom up. Indeed, in 1988 the DP held a large majority of the seats in two-thirds of the District Councils and thus in all lower RCs as well. 7

Thus the real question was not whether the state could create popular democracy from above, but whether the NRM could live with the risk that letting people choose freely might open the door to an embarrassing challenge from the parties. Since the adoption of the 1995 Constitution and the 1997 Local Government Act, local councils at all levels have become more clearly part of the state and less part of the NRM, though the adoption of an entrenched decentralization scheme protects their autonomy to a modest degree. Yet the reduction in their role as genuinely delib! erative [End Page 55] assemblies greatly diminishes the justification that they can provide for no-party democracy. And if they can no longer be justified on the basis of participatory democracy, why should parties be barred from running candidates to serve on them?

Participatory versus Parliamentary Democracy

The "Ten-Point Programme" neither defines "parliamentary democracy" nor even specifies that parties are to be banned. Indeed, despite the NRM's subsequent refusal to allow party activity, an earlier NRM manifesto had stated that while constituent-assembly candidates would "have to run on a nonparty basis," the enactment of a new constitution would mean that "political party activity shall be permitted to resume." 8 Clearly, the eventual decision to ban parties did not grow out of a longstanding NRM vision of a no-party parliament. On the! other hand, as late as 1989 Museveni offered a proposal (quickly withdrawn) that parliament would simply be the culminating RC, comprising the members of all the district-level resistance committees. But in that case, it need not have been singled out as a separate element essential to the definition of Ugandan democracy.

The first test of the electoral meaning of parliamentary democracy occurred in the 1989 elections for the NRC, which also included all the lower RCs. The rules that the NRM leaders designed for this contest betrayed their anxieties about the extent of their popular support. 9 Upon taking power three years before, the leaders had declared that their interim rule would last four years. With that deadline looming and so many problems still unresolved, they knew that they would extend the interim period, and thus felt the need to seek some sort of democratic legitimation for it. Yet aside from ! the lower-level RC elections and the 1980 races (in which they had done poorly), their electoral appeal was untested. With that in mind, and without the time or money to conduct a conventional election, they designed an electoral scheme that would be quick, cheap, and (last but not least) hard to lose.

The elections began at the village (RC1) level only three weeks after the original announcement. Open-queue voting was used at all levels, doing away with the need for ballot boxes and voter registration. Counties were adopted as NRC constituencies and candidates were elected by convening all the subcounty councils (RC3). These "territorial constituencies," however, accounted for only five-eighths of the seats in the NRC. The 38 previously appointed "historical members," comrades of President Museveni from the guerrilla war, simply retained their seats. Museveni also named 20 new members, while the NRA, under his direct control, named 10 more. Thus almost! one quarter of the seats were controlled by the government. The presidency was not contested, nor were parties allowed to participate. [End Page 56] Nonetheless, the government carefully followed the rules that it had set. Most neutral observers concluded that, within those limits, the elections had been free and fair and the votes honestly counted.

By connecting the removal of poverty, the third element in the definition, to democracy, the NRM manifesto makes a familiar argument recognizing the importance of substantial economic development for the success of democracy. Many analysts agree that a high level of national income is a necessary precondition for sustaining democracy. 10 But, if by "a decent standard of living for every Ugandan," NRM leaders mean the achievement of economic wealth in any way comparable to that of industrialized nations, then the leaders must have an extremely long time! horizon--one that would render suspect their claims that democracy currently exists in Uganda. Thus if no-party democracy is to apply to contemporary Uganda, in terms of this definition, it can only take its meaning from its other two elements--parliamentary and popular democracy--despite the difficulties that each of them presents for an NRM rationale.

Putting them together creates an additional challenge, for students of politics have usually seen these two forms of democracy as contradictory. Indeed, the distinction between representative and participatory (or "popular") forms of self-government is a staple of democratic theory. The former is typically thought to center on elites who compete in elections, usually through parties, in order to represent the voters. 11 Its advocates insist that the process of creating the set of policies through which each party tries to make its voter appeal broade! r than that of its rivals makes the system democratic. Participatory democracy is usually thought to privilege direct participation by ordinary citizens, particularly their deliberations concerning issues that directly concern them. 12 Proponents of this system usually assert that no one can fully represent the views of someone else and, for reasons of difference in culture or wealth, will more likely misrepresent them.

Proponents of participatory democracy frequently reject parties, complaining that in the process of creating a common program out of the preferences of some citizens, parties are likely to distort the views of many others. But in anything other than a very small polity, insist defenders of representative democracy, direct citizen participation in governing is awkward if not impossible, so that representative institutions actually offer greater opportunities for improving the quality of delib! eration. Finally, advocates of popular democracy place a high value on the notion of individual equality in actually influencing outcomes, while proponents of representative democracy are typically content with the equal opportunity to participate. Thus parliamentary and popular democracy are rarely found in the same definition, and most of those in either camp would say that they cannot be.

Whether the NRM leaders believed that they could square this circle [End Page 57] is difficult to say. They thought about making parliament the top tier in a hierarchy of no-party RCs. Such a parliament, required to consider important policy positions adopted by directly elected autonomous lower councils, could have become the apex institution in a popular democracy. But the NRM never accepted any of these conditions. Alternatively, the leaders could have opted for a straightforward representative democracy by allowing open party activity. Instead, they hav! e permitted a de facto, though unacknowledged, form of party competition to become the basis for the actual practice of Ugandan electoral democracy. In the first years after the NRM came to power, the old parties, especially the DP, had considerable success in running candidates at all RC levels, even though they could not publicly admit what they were doing. Even the UPC--in effect the loser of the guerrilla war--managed to win four parliamentary seats in 1989. The NRM itself, meanwhile, became sufficiently organized to win a majority of seats at every level in the 1989 and subsequent elections, even while denying that any parties were participating.

The interesting question is whether, in spite of the analytic difficulties, the NRM could have combined popular and parliamentary democracy, as its manifesto proclaimed. Indeed, the Constitutional Commission's 1992 report dismisses any possibility of combining a movement and a multiparty system. 13 Yet the "Ten-Point Programme" suggests that parliament and the local RCs could be handled differently. It might have been possible to let parties run in national elections while banning them from RC races. Checks and balances might have helped to maintain a creative tension between partyless popular councils at lower levels and parties at the national level. Using parliamentarism at one level and popular democracy at another might have attracted wider support from both the middle and lower classes, thereby enhancing political stability. 14 Despite the foundational status ascribed to the "Ten-Point Programme," neither the NRM nor the constitution-making bodies paid any serious attention to combining popular and parliamentary democracy once the guerrilla war was over.

The Rationales After Taking Power

Just after ! the NRM took power, it stressed the importance of building a "broad-based" government in order to bring all political tendencies together. A few years later, it sought to highlight its own singular inclusiveness by denying that there were any basic economic cleavages dividing Ugandans. The notion of inclusiveness--and hence the rationale for no-party politics--had changed, but in both cases their intention was to distinguish the NRM from all previous parties and governments by characterizing them as inherently sectarian and thus incapable of ruling Ugandans democratically. [End Page 58]

"Broad-based government" meant appointing erstwhile opponents to high positions in both the government and the army. The new rationale gave the NRM a brilliant opportunity to avoid appearing as one more narrow government bent on appointing only its own supporters to power. At first, its performance was as unprecedented as its creation of the RCs. The NRM's rival! s received many of the most desirable posts. Yet once it installed them, the NRM gave these new officials no basic direction. As Mahmood Mamdani points out, the NRM did not create a program to reconcile groups, but simply expanded its base of support by offering jobs to their leaders. 15

In Uganda as elsewhere, buying loyalty with patronage is a time-honored practice. But for the NRM, it meant squandering what little ideological coherence it had achieved during the war. The NRM's willingness to include people who had been cabinet ministers or army officers under Amin or Obote meant relinquishing any claim to policy consensus. "Broad-based government" expanded nominal support for no-party democracy, but only by making it even harder to establish its basic tenets. Over time, the rhetoric of "broad-based government" has faded along with the practice of appointing opponents to high office. For example, the propo! rtion of significant cabinet portfolios held by members of parties has declined in each succeeding cabinet.

"In our own model, which we call no-party democracy," Museveni recently insisted, "there is no exclusion at all." This time he made no reference to RCs as the core of participatory democracy. Instead, he justified no-party democracy with an argument premised on the claim that Uganda has no salient economic or class cleavages. Unlike Western societies, where parties represent different classes and interests and thus offer different economic programs, Uganda, according to Museveni, is a rural society composed predominantly of peasants with essentially the same economic interests. Unable to attract votes by advocating distinctive economic policies, Ugandan parties turn instead to ethnic, regional, and religious appeals, breeding strife and diverting people from the important issues that affect their livelihoods. In short, says the president, "Tribali! sm, religion, or regionalism becomes the basis for intense partisanship. There is no healthy basis for honest competition." Consequently, given Uganda's social structure, it would be foolish to adopt Western-style multiparty democracy. But Museveni insists that his system is different from the former dictatorial "one-party states in Eastern Europe" because in Uganda all belong to the movement and "everyone who wants to stand for election is free to do so." 16

With this rationale, Museveni has revived the now-discredited defense that Tanzania's then-President Julius Nyerere made of his country's single-party system 30 years ago. Nyerere also insisted on "the historical difference between parties in Africa and those in Europe [End Page 59] or America . . . [which] came into being as the result of existing social and economic divisions." Since Tanzanians were not "divided over some fundamental issue," ! a two-party system would "merely encourage the growth of factionalism." Given "fundamental agreement, it would be far more sensible . . . [to] let the electorate choose the best individuals from among them all." Nyerere also distinguished between his own country and one-party communist states, insisting that "as long as TANU [Tanganyikan African National Union] membership is open to every citizen, we can conduct our elections in a way which is genuinely free and democratic." 17

Aside from his use of the term "movement" rather than than "party" (Uganda's 1995 Constitution outlaws a single-party system), Museveni adds two important points not found in Nyerere's argument. The first is the assertion that "Ugandans are overwhelmingly of one class, peasants." 18 Taking a familiar if no longer highly regarded view, he sees peasants as ignorant, undifferentiated, self-s! ufficient, and not dependent on markets. A peasant, he claims, is "not worried about markets, because he has little to sell. . . . The hill is the outer limit of his horizon." He "tries to build his own house, collect his water from the well, cultivate all the food he eats, look after his own cows, and become an informal teaching instructor for his children."

There are many problems with this argument. 19 First, it is foolish to say that peasants have nothing to do with markets when they have been responsible for growing and selling the coffee, the cotton, and a large part of the tea on which Uganda has long depended for almost all its foreign earnings. Economic surveys show that Uganda's small farmers invariably know the current prices for their crops. In addition, all Ugandan peasants, however poor, have to pay taxes and school fees and buy certain foodstuffs, clothing items, and tools that they consider ! essential but can no longer make for themselves.

Second, there are enormous differences in wealth among farmers in Uganda. Some hire others as laborers. Even if all of them--including those who serve as models for modernized agriculture--are labeled peasants, it makes little sense to consider them members of the same economic class. In truth, there is a considerable degree of class differentiation in rural Uganda. Third, the business of growing and marketing each of Uganda's food and export crops brings competing economic interests into play. It stretches the imagination to regard all these interests as belonging to one class. In fact, class interests might well be expressed by different parties, were full party competition openly permitted.

Certainly Uganda's social structure differs from that of an industrialized country. Museveni may be correct that copying a multiparty system lock, stock, and barrel from a Western country will ! fail to respond to local conditions. It is shortsighted and deeply [End Page 60] chauvinistic for Western donors to press on other states not merely multipartism, but almost always a form of multipartism based directly on the historical experiences of the particular Western state from which that donor comes. 20 But the one-class analysis that leads Museveni to the NRM version of no-party democracy is questionable enough to suggest that it has been designed to meet his immediate political goals rather than to support a new political theory.

The second novel point raised by Museveni is his suggestion that once Uganda modernizes, it should adopt a multiparty system:

What is crucial for Uganda now is for us to have a system that ensures democratic participation until such time as we get, through economic development, especially industrialization, the crystallization! of socio-economic groups upon which we can then base healthy political parties. 21

The clear implication is that no-party democracy has become a transitional device pending the day when Uganda can become a "real" multiparty democracy. Museveni has not offered even a rough idea of when this day will arrive. How long will it take for Uganda's peasants to become members of the working or middle class? Is the NRM saying that it must remain the guardian of no-party democracy until that happens? What seems disturbingly clear is that the NRM has abandoned any ground on which it could lay plausible claim to democratic legitimation, and now seeks to justify its rule on the basis of a highly suspect theory of modernization.

Given its claim of inclusiveness, it is paradoxical--under any rationale--that the NRM has resisted internal democratization. Until the 1995 Con! stitution required Parliament to establish a structure for the Movement, the NRM had never held an election for any of its officers, never convened a body to deliberate or vote on its policies, nor even written a charter for itself. Its response to the constitutional mandate evoked unhappy memories from Africa's recent past by proposing a structure that basically identified the Movement and the state. Its first bill declared the president of Uganda the chairperson of the Movement, thus avoiding election for the top position, and made all members of parliament ex officio members of a new body, the NRM "National Conference," regardless of the preferences of any individual MP. Parliament rejected this bill, but a rewritten draft, mandating elections for the chairperson of the NRM while changing few other details, passed in 1997. 22 The NRM leadership's evident lack of interest in its internal democracy further underlines the! hollowness of its post-1986 rationales for no-party democracy.

Has the experience of no-party democracy made Uganda more democratic? Uganda today is undoubtedly more democratic than it ever has been before. It is also currently more democratic than any [End Page 61] of its neighbors, Tanzania possibly excepted. Though there are significant exceptions, there is an impressively free press, considerable respect for human rights outside the zones of armed conflict, and a relatively independent judiciary. In addition to the 1989 election, Uganda held national elections for a Constituent Assembly in 1994 and, separately, for the presidency and Parliament in 1996. Parties were not permitted to participate in any of these, and there were severe restrictions on campaigning. All candidates were limited to presentations of their personal merits in public meetings with their rivals. There seemed to be little room for anyone to argue about policy. In an od! d way, Museveni's idea that Ugandans entertain no fundamental policy differences became true by fiat. Otherwise, the elections were conventional, following the usual norms regarding registration and secret balloting. Most Ugandans consider them to have been fairly conducted on the whole. After a long dry spell, both voters and election officials are becoming adept at handling the mechanics of these exercises.

Museveni's landslide election to the presidency in 1996 and the victory of many of his followers in the parliamentary elections have been a mixed blessing. Museveni in particular and the NRM in general have been democratically legitimated. Most Ugandans, and especially the rural dwellers, clearly believe that Museveni and the NRM have made fundamental contributions to improving life in Uganda and should continue to rule. But what is the NRM now? Without institutions, without an ideology, and, finally, without a rationale that can justify its no-par! ty democracy, it no longer has any existence apart from its leader.

Nelson Kasfir, professor of government at Dartmouth College, is the editor of a forthcoming collection of essays critically analyzing the relationship between civil society and democracy. He is currently writing on the logic of neopatrimonialism and its impact on democratization in Africa.


1. These quotations are from The East African, 3-9 February 1997; and New Vision, 8 October 1997.

2. See Yoweri Museveni, Selected Articles on the Uganda Resistance War (Kampala: NRM Publications, 1985).

3. Museveni, Selected Articles, 46.

4. New Vision, 30 January 1991, quoted in Ingvild Burkey, "People's Power in Theory and Practice: The Resistance Council System in Uganda" (B.A. thesis, Yale University, 1991), 10.

5. Yoweri Museveni, Sowing the Mustard Seed: The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Uganda (London: Macmillan, 1997), 134.

6. Burkey, "People's Power in Theory and Practice," 11-13, 32, and 53; and Expedit Ddungu, "Popular Forms and the Question of Democracy: The Case of Resistance Councils in Uganda," in Mahmood Mamdani and Joe Oloka-Onyango, eds., Uganda: Studies in Living Conditions, Popular Movements, and Constitutionalism (Vienna: JEP, 1996), 377-78, 391-97, and 401-2.

7. Nelson Kasfir, "The Ugandan Elections of 1989: Power, Populism, and Democratization," in Holger B. Hansen and Michael Twaddle, eds! ., Changing Uganda: The Dilemmas of Structural Adjustment and Revolutionary Change (London: James Currey, 1991), 255.

8. Towards a Free and Democratic Uganda: The Basic Principles and Policies of the National Resistance Movement (Kampala: no publisher, no date), 16-17.

9. Kasfir, "The Ugandan Elections of 1989," 257-73. Nevertheless, the NRM did not try to reverse any results. Fourteen ministers and deputy ministers lost their NRC seats, while several DP and even four UPC candidates were victorious.

10. Adam Przeworski, Michael Alvarez, José Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi, "What Makes Democracies Endure?" in Larry Diamond et al., eds., Consolidating the Third Wave Democracies: Themes and Perspectives (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 297.

11. The classic statement is Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democ-racy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950), 269-83.

12. See Carole Pateman, Participation and Democratic Theory (Cambridge: Cam-bridge University Press, 1970).

13. Report of the Constitutional Commission (Entebbe: Uganda Printing and Publishing Corporation, 1992).

14. Nelson Kasfir, "Popular Sovereignty and Popular Participation: Mixed Constitutional Democracy in the Third World," Third World Quarterly 13 (1992): 587-605.

15. "NRA/NRM: Two Years in Power," in Mahmood Mamdani, And Fire Does Not Always Beget Ash: Critical Reflections on the NRM (Kampala: Monitor Publications, 1995), 48.

16. The quotations in this paragraph are taken from Yoweri Museveni, "Democracy and Good Governance in Africa: An African Perspective," Mediterranean Quarterly 5 (Fall 1994): 7 and 6. In the "Ten-Point Programme," 49-50, the NRM insisted that it would exclude "anybody that impedes the unity of the people of Uganda," a category that seems to embrace proponents of all forms of sectarianism and thus could have excluded most Ugandans.

17. The quotations in this paragraph are taken from Julius Nyerere, "Democracy and the Party System," in idem, Freedom and Unity: A Selection from Writings and Speeches, 1952-65 (Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1967), 198, 196, 197, and 200.

18. Museveni, Sowing the Mustard Seed, 195. The additional quotations in this paragraph come respectively from "Democracy and Good Governance in A! frica," 5; and Sowing the Mustard Seed, 197.

19. The points in the paragraph are more fully discussed in Nelson Kasfir, "Are African Peasants Self-Sufficient?" Development and Change 17 (April 1986): 335-57.

20. Thomas Carothers, "Democracy Assistance: The Question of Strategy," Democratization 4 (Autumn 1997): 121-22.

21. Museveni, Sowing the Mustard Seed, 195 (italics added).

22. This bill is known as the Movement Act of 1997.