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 government 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...