By Patrick Kagenda
On May 30 before Olara Otunnu, the UPC outgoing president, went to bed, news had come in that his arch rival Jimmy Akena had overwhelmingly won the party primaries. Otunnu could not believe what he was being told until the following day when the party electoral commission announced publicly that Akena had scooped 67 districts out of the 106 districts that had handed in their results.
That translated into over 70% win in the primaries thereby making Akena the party’s sole candidate for the party presidency.
Searching questions are now being asked. How could the man that Otunnu trounced at the High Court less than two weeks before, sweep the party presidency primaries overwhelmingly?
According to the UPC Constitution, district executives and constituency executives constitute the district conferences. It is only in case of single constituencies that UPC councilors vote at district conferences. Most of these executives are well-educated and are regarded as the cream of the party.
Majority of them are elderly and have stuck to the UPC because of what it stood for in the past and hope that one day it will return to power. By ignoring Otunnu and choosing Akena, son to UPC founding president the late Milton Obote, as the party sole candidate, speaks volumes about the party members’ hopes. Some analysts say Akena is riding on the popularity of his late father, but others think the MP has his own merit.
While Akena may not have been groomed for high office, he seems to have inherited some political skills. A number of the party members the Independent talked to said they voted Akena because he is “a true representative of the UPC.” He was born, bred, and suffered most times for the party every time his father was overthrown.
Hajji Muhmoud Kazimbiraine, the Masindi UPC delegate at the UPC delegate`s conference, suggested that Akena’s strategy worked for him. “Akena’s win should not surprise anyone. From 2010 when he was defeated by Olara Otunnu at the national conference, he immediately embarked on mobilizing support for the 2015 party presidency elections. He has spent the last five years preparing for this election and has been to every district of this country unlike his competitors who just came in one month ago,” he said.
He added, “Then when he was allowed to compete in the party presidency elections after the High court ruling legalizing Otunnu as the party president until a delegate’s conference is called, Akena rushed to the regions to meet the district and constituency executives who really matter in the primaries. No other candidate mobilized the way Akena did.”
Another UPC diehard Robert Kanusu a former party spokesperson under the Otunnu administration and a UPC delegate for Jinja, said, “Akena knew how to beat Otunnu, so let the young man enjoy his success. Otunnu is the one who organized that election so let him explain whatever happened.” Jenifer Kulabako, the Entebbe Katabi sub county chief during the Obote II government who is the UPC coordinator in Buganda region, agrees with Kazimbiraine. She said Akena won because not only because of Obote’s legacy but also because he took time during the last five years to meet all the UPC delegates in the country while the other party presidency contenders just used phones to call the voters after they had picked nomination forms.
“Using his late father’s mobilization skills, Akena even won in sub counties in Acholi, which area was a strong base for Otunnu in the 2010 party presidency elections. We voted Akena because we wanted to pay his late father for the good things he did for this country because we all saw Obote in Akena,” said Kulabako.
Hajji Ibrahim Kayongo a UPC chairman of Gomba district, described the young man as disciplined and who listens to the party members regardless of one’s social standing. “He will listen and take your advice unlike the other party presidential candidates we have had.”
Joseph Ochieno one of the party presidency contenders who picked nomination forms but opted to return to the UK where he is employed, suggested in an e-mail that the system was designed to favour Akena and Otunnu from the very beginning. He added that some people “voted for Obote” and the sense of ‘security/fear’ of the party being ‘lost’ at the [expense] of the issues people are concerned about. “Yes, they have been at it for nearly 10 years and Akena played his cards right,” he said.
To sum it up, Prof. Fred Charles Oweyegha Afunaduula attributed Akena’s win to the frustration of the party supporters. “I think frustration of party members has led them to vote Akena. They have lacked leadership and they resolved that only Akena can salvage their party. He is articulate and has a very good grasp of issues and what his party needs to do to rise from the doldrums. All the other contestants were not well-known too throughout the country. I don’t know what else explains his electoral show.”
Other UPC party observers warned against perpetuating family rule as was the case in India with the Gandhi family in the Congress Party. But it remains to be seen how Akena will steer the party through the coming election period ahead of the general elections in the next few months. Though seen as well-intentioned, Akena remains a rather reluctant leader. In Parliament, he usually sits at the back bench, and is only a shadow of his late father having barely made an important contribution to the debate in the House over his last five years as an MP.