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National Dialogues can be about more than political transition

On the 8th of May 2019, I attended a symposium at Makerere University's Faculty of Law, titled: 'The proposed national dialogue for Uganda'. The event was well attended with a considerably high student turn up and the participation of all panelists and discussants was secured except for the Deputy Attorney General who for unknown reasons, could not make it. The plenary session was animated by an urgency of sorts. I imagine this was due to the impatience of the mostly young audience who did not seem to be very convinced by what their elders were selling at the podium. You see, the main presenters maintained the position that the proposed national dialogue was about broad aspirations such as creating cultures of dialogue rather than negotiation, developing a national values consensus, developing a political consensus around how representative and independent the various political and state institutions are, among other 'nice sounding things'.

The youngsters in the audience on the other hand, were interested in solutions to only one specific problem: when and how was the current President, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni going to relinquish power? Without this question on the table, the national dialogue was a waste of Ugandan Youths' time. This sentiment is not my own but rather one that was clearly voiced by the Youth Member of Parliament, Hon. Anne Adeke who was in attendance as a panelist. This rejection of the proposed national dialogue by the Youth was preceded by a similarly strong critique from an elder- Prof John Barya, who also maintained that the dialogue would very likely remain an academic exercise if the question of a political transition was not on the table. While closing the symposium, Prof Barya noted that three key positions emerged from the presentations and audience reactions:

1. The dialogue is necessary for the country and should have happened a long time ago. 2. The dialogue is a waste of time and nothing good can come from it. In fact, it might be hijacked by the regime to entrench itself. 3. The dialogue has this inherent risk but can be leveraged to mobilise the masses into more awareness and organised action for political transition.

I for one fell/ still fall under the last category of views (I hope I remain this optimistic!). I think that any opportunity for dialogue is good and necessary for Uganda beyond the question of a political transition. The Spirit of the National Dialogue Framework reflects as much. Clearly stated in the introduction of the framework: The goal of the Uganda National Dialogue Process is to agree on a new national consensus to consolidate peace, democracy and inclusive development to achieve equal opportunity for all.

Uganda as a colonial fiction is still struggling to form itself into a nation. Its turbulent history of wars and the loss which came along with them is a testament to the country's failure to evolve into its full self without violence. Dialogue is a central tenet of various African cultures including those within Uganda. The diverse communities in Uganda can tap into this rich culture to build a nation in which they all have a stake and where they can all thrive, without violence. The proposed national dialogue as a citizen owed process would be the beginning of the great 'coming together' which is a cry often heard after a political or other dispute erupts into violence. But Uganda need not wait for violence to call for peace and unity. The national dialogue would pre-empt this and in the process create a culture of dialogue rather than conflict. If applied continuously, Uganda could establish national structured frameworks of dialogue as avenues for conflict resolution and peacebuilding as is the case for Rwanda's Umuganda and Umushyikirano. It is perhaps through building such institutions that the angry youth in the audience might come to eventually achieve their goal of a political transition without using the violent methods of their elders before them.

As a side note, I was excited to see how passionate and outspoken Makerere University students were on a subject that is clearly close to theirs and their nation's welfare. One of the students who like myself fell under category 3 suggested continuous inter-communal dialogue, an arrangement I have always maintained is good for 'organic conflict prevention and peacebuilding' (I'm still developing the concept). It would be a close copy of Rwanda's Umuganda system but without the mandatory cleaning exercise. Or it could be with-if we think this would be beneficial. We can always use more of these initiatives. One important issue however, is to find ways to ensure that the processes are anchored in law to avoid the trap of lofty ideas left without implementation. Another key issue is to protect the processes from being hijacked for various political gains be they from the incumbent regime or the political opposition. As the Secretary to the National Dialogue Committee noted at the symposium: Uganda is more than Besigye. Museveni or Bobi Wine. Ugandans need to talk to each other without centring these political figures. And there is A LOT to talk about:

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