Francis Zaake must be a politically lonely man

Dear reader, you could have noticed by now that I am fascinated by the member of parliament from Mityana Municipality, Francis Zaake.

I know that many of our elitist commentators and some of his colleagues in parliament ignorantly think he is undeserving. I know that he struggles to be coherent when speaking English (and being that our colonised heads consider fluency in the English language as the measure of brilliance, you rate him quite poorly).

But I also know, if it is love for country—and determination to challenge the oppressor — Zaake ranks way above many folks in our opposition politics. He is the quintessential soldier of the struggle (deserving to be partnering with Dr Kizza Besigye without joining the FDC). But he must be a lonely man nowadays.

I started thinking about Zaake’s potential political loneliness while watching a recently- released Netflix documentary on singer and activist Nina Simone. It was not Dr Kizza Besigye that I thought about, nor Bobi Wine (who would have vividly mimicked Nina Simone’s resume, but lost his antennae along the way) but, rather, I thought about Francis Zaake.

He strangely beat his principal in this assessment of mine.

Let me begin with the story of Nina Simone. After the murder of Malcom X and later Dr Martin Luther King Jr, The Blues singing legend Nina Simone, became a radical activist, vowing to fight and defeat white supremacy in America by whatever means necessary. Simone started composing blues that directly sought to galvanize her listeners in active struggle against white people.

It was unheard of. The more she wrote these songs, the more friends abandoned her. Promoters and event organisers stopped booking her. Radio stations stopped playing her music.

She had become too radical for them. Friends begged her to tone-down her activism. But she could not. She became angry, her family disintegrated, and when poverty set in, she was shattered. Depression set in and later was diagnosed with bipolar complications.

From the time of the coronavirus pandemic (when Zaake got badly battered for delivering food to help the "poor and vulnerable" in his consistuency), to the voting of the speakers of parliament (where him and Muhammad Ssegirinya deliberately spoiled their votes); to protesting when President Museveni came to address parliament, this young man remained a standout act.

He is the only opposition legislator who has consistently donned himself in red suits, or casual wear where the faces of his incarcerated colleagues Allan Ssewanyana and Ssegirinya are emblazoned. The red beret remains part of his script. Other MPs are simply unrecognisable chaps content with the crumbs that Museveni throws at them.

Especially after his removal from his seat as parliamentary commissioner, I am suspicious he has been afflicted by ‘oppositional loneliness.’

Notice that I am not talking about losing the perks that came with being commissioner of parliament — of course, these perks and related benefits matter to a degree — although, it is arguable Zaake never joined politics for wealth; with a dad who doubled as NRM supporter and good businessman, this boy was sufficiently resourced. [See The Observer profile that appeared on January 16, 2018].

But I am dealing with that old psychological condition that was first diagnosed among trade unionists and radical activists, as cited in the example of Nina Simone: the activists find themselves “too hot to touch.”

Thus, they are abandoned by friends and colleagues, and sometimes, even by family. The oppressor not only manages to buy off hitherto equal-footing colleagues, and they then see you as a threat to their bribes, but might also simply manipulate public discourse into belief that you are headed in the wrong direction.

It hurts especially when you are pretty sure to be on the right course. If the case of Nina Simone is too distant, consider Winifred Madikizela Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid heroine whose activism was so honest that it frightened the collapsing apartheid regime, which also wanted to retain its wealth.

The regimes managed to manipulate friends and colleagues – including her husband Nelson Mandela—to abandon her. She may have sustained a close circle of friends (which saved her from full-blown depression), but turning folks like Desmond Tutu and her man, Nelson Mandela against her must have hurt a lot.

Yet, she was right, and remains right to this day. I have argued before—and will repeat for the umpteenth time—that the folks we selected from amongst us as opposition MPs can only prove to us that they are working if they are in trouble with the Museveni machine.

But these folks are in bed making mad love with the Museveni machine. Museveni is them, and our opposition is Museveni: legislative agendas, cooperation agreements, lofty English in parliamentary committees, whatever trouble-free actions they carry out in parliament, they are simply doing the type of opposition that actually benefits Museveni’s more technocratized autocracy.

The last time I wrote about Zaake in these pages, I argued that this 11th parliament was his parliament. He was the only man doing exactly what he had been sent to do. And it was his honesty to the struggle that landed him in trouble. I have come back to say, our star could be politically and personally lonely, and those nearby, please try to keep him going.


The author is a political theorist based at Makerere University.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd