Understanding the “small victories” in a dictatorship

Understanding the "small victories" in a dictatorship.

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By David Lewis Rubongoya

In the past, Uganda has been described by scholars and researchers as a “hybrid regime”. Hybrid regimes are those which are dictatorial at the core, but for convenience, they also put in place a semblance of democratic features.

Therefore, a hybrid regime will hold regular elections every five years, but those elections are not free and fair. They will ensure that power does not change through those elections. At MP and local government levels, they may allow the opposition to get some seats, but substantially they ensure that real power remains in the hands of the autocratic regime.

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Likewise, although the judiciary is under capture, every once in a while, the opposition may get some court victories on matters not so great in significance to the regime. But on matters with potential to upset the status quo, such as Presidential Election Petitions, the Age Limit case, etc courts will not move an inch.

In the same way, Parliament which is under the dictates of the autocrat, may sometimes pass resolutions that appear to be pro-people, but this can only be possible on matters that have no potential to answer the democratic question. When it comes to questions of term limits, substantive electoral reforms, etc, Members of Parliament are either persuaded through manipulation, or coerced and reminded how they must vote. If there is potential for rebellion in the August House, military choppers will hover over the Parliament building!

This goes for all other agencies including the Electoral Commission, security agencies, UCC, etc.

The regime will determine elections where they do not have much interest or where massive rigging may lead to worse problems for them. In those cases, you may have an opposition leader declared winner.

In a hybrid regime, the media may be allowed to operate and even criticise the autocrat. But the plug will be pulled when what is aired on the media gains traction and has real potential to rally the masses into action. Then the media houses will be closed, licenses revoked, etc. The fate of CBS in 2009 comes to mind.

In a hybrid regime, you may have institutions mandated to fight corruption. But those institutions are only capable of holding to account “small fish”. The real corrupt people in powerful places will always be shielded.

You may have a Human Rights Commission in place. They can entertain human rights complaints and even release reports critical to the state. But you will not see them call for the prosecution of the Generals who ordered for the execution citizens in broad daylight. Cases of missing persons- if political in nature, will always be given a blind eye. Why? Because the institution heads know who appoints them and butters their bread.

But to an outside observer and even an insider who is not very critical, the presence of these institutions will be hailed as symbols of democratic rule.

One may ask, why do these regimes do this? They are super pretenders. They pretend to be democratic in nature for several reasons.

  1. To keep the international community persuaded to deal with them or simply not to throw them out. Outright dictatorship (rule by decree) has fallen out of favor internationally since the 1980s. At present, there are a few regimes which can manage to be outrightly autocratic and get away with it.
L-R: David Lewis Rubongoya (the writer), Fred Nyanzi Ssentamu, Joel Ssenyonyi and Francis Zaake Butebi after the Court of Appeal declared Joyce Bagala the duly elected Woman MP- Mityana District on Friday. The same court ordered for a fresh hearing of a case in which Nyanzi is challenging Muhammad Nsereko’s victory in the Kampala Central Parliamentary Elections. PHOTO/ COURTESY.

So most dictatorial regimes will pretend to exercise some democratic tendencies simply to hoodwink or manipulate the international community and keep them convinced that there is room for improvement. You will often hear a diplomat say, “Yes, things are bad, but they could be worse”. And so the regime is able to live to another day.

  1. To keep the population in check. Regimes of this nature know the inherent capacity of the people to rise up when they are pushed to the wall. So they will often throw some small victories to oppressed people, in order to keep them optimistic and not offended all the time. They may carry out nine oppressive moves and then notice the brewing anger. A “small victory” at that point may pacify the situation. However, if the oppressed people decide to, nonetheless go on to express their anger, then the regime puts every pretense aside and shows itself for the military dictatorship it is.
  2. Propaganda value. The few victories handed to the opposition in a dictatorship are often used by regime apologists to discredit the argument that things don’t work in the country. So if Parliament strikes down the Vinci Coffee Agreement or a court orders for the release of an opposition activist, you will often hear regime apologists say, “The opposition claims that courts don’t work, only when decisions are not in their favor.” This is always well planned and choreographed in order to discredit a right argument.

Here is another example. At the height of protests and political activities, political leaders will be trailed, beaten, arrested, harassed and kept under house arrest. But when there are no activities and in their assessment the risk is low, they will allow political leaders to move around freely but under watch. And their propagandists will be saying, “How can you be free to move around if we are in a dictatorship?” This is all manipulation.

There are other reasons for the pretense, including using small victories as baits for compromise and manipulation of desperate leaders within the opposition.

Because hybrid regimes are dictatorships in pretence, their true colors will always come out when they are under real threat. Survival is their main business and they don’t compromise on that. That is why we saw what we saw during the Age Limit debate. It wasn’t any debate. It was about the survival of the regime, and so they had to bring out all manner of violence and force.

Likewise, during the 2020/21 campaigns when it became clear to the regime that there was no chance of even getting 30% of the vote, they resorted to the kind of brute force not experienced before in this land. Broad daylight executions, abductions, torture, illegal detentions, etc. What we saw between 18th and 19th November 2020 was the real military regime come out of its shell because they felt that their survival was on the line.

I have written this down to simply supplement on the call for us no to be overly excited by some small victories we get a long the way, and forget the bigger picture. It is important that citizens understand how manipulative hybrid regimes are. That is the only way we shall be able to look beyond the small crumbs that fall off their table and pursue the right to sit at the table and charter the course for our country.

There is hope. At the fall of Omar al Bashir, I read an article titled – “Sudan’s Master-Manipulator Falls”. They fall.

The writer is the General Secretary for the National Unity Platform (NUP) Party.

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