By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi
Rivalry could cost party in 2016
Col. Kizza Besigye’s home turf, the Kasangati Ssaza Grounds outside Kampala city, was on Aug. 23 the scene of excited ululations, political speeches, and feisty dancing to the kadodi, the imbalu circumcision dance from Mbale, eastern Uganda.
The scene of numerous battles between police and the opposition, Kasangati has gained the name, Benghazi, in reference to the Libyan city that first revolted against former leader Muammar Gaddafi.
This time, however, there was no teargas, running battles, or gunfire. It was opposition stalwart, Nandala Mafabi, launching his candidature for the Forum for Democratic Change’s presidency.
Besigye is not running for party presidency this time but he can still be the party flag-bearer in 2016. The Independent has it on good authority that he backs Mafabi, with whom he seems to feel more comfortable entrusting his legacy.
In a race laced with symbolism, surprise alliances, and potential to both unite and divide the party, the FDC has three men to choose from for the presidency to replace Besigye, who has led the party since its founding in 2005. However, only two contestants are really in the running; former army commander Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu and Mafabi, who is the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament.
It is unclear why Tororo County MP Geoffrey Ekanya, who is also Shadow Finance Minister, unexpectedly threw his hat in the ring but it appears he will remain irrelevant as the focus settles on Muntu and Mafabi.
The stakes are highest for Gen. Muntu. If he loses the election slated for Nov. 22, he will probably have lost every chance of ever becoming leader of his party. Muntu launched his campaign in eastern Uganda, compensating lack of pomp with a heavy dose of political savvy.
Muntu’s candidature was initially challenged because he comes from the same region as Besigye, the west of the country. The argument was that it was time for a regional change of leadership. As if deliberately seeking to cancel out the ethnic card, Muntu picked MP Francis Epetait (Ngora North), from the east as his campaign chairman. But cancelling out the view within some FDC circles that he is a Museveni-sympathiser will not be as easy for Muntu, who appeals mainly to the faction that is unhappy with President Yoweri Museveni’s leadership but are also uncomfortable with Besigye’s style of leadership. These people, the critics say, “sent Muntu to take over FDC”. Unfortunately for him, out-going president and former bush war comrade Col. Besigye, is not making it any easier for Muntu to grab the mantle.
Muntu’s campaign also lacks the shine one sees and feels in Nandala’s. It is evident that Muntu does not have the money-bags of either Besigye or Nandala. Already, Mafabi, who is from the east, has also countered the ethnic card by picking Rubaramira Ruranga, who comes from the western district of Kanungu. His camp appears determined to use the money card against Muntu.
“The time for using Dr. Besigye’s resources to fund party activities is over,” Ruranga, an acerbic former bush war fighter, said at the launch of their campaign. The jibe was designed to hit at Muntu, who has been the party’s secretary for Mobilisation, for failing to raise money for the party. Ruranga urged delegates to vote for “he who pays what is due to the party.”
FDC members, especially those holding elective positions where they earn salary, are required to remit to the party a portion of their monthly earnings. But Muntu, who was an FDC representative in the East African Legislative Assembly, is accused of failing to remit his contribution to the party.
When he stood up to campaign, Mafabi pushed the nail farther.
“There is a very bad culture within FDC,” he told the crowd, “during campaigns, people mobilise personal resources to campaign but when it comes to mobilising to do party work; many of us disappear.” The roar of the crowd showed that this was code for something bigger.
Besigye skipped the launch but Sam Njuba, the FDC chairman, did not. It was symbolically poignant because Besigye and Njuba go back a long way. It is Njuba who convinced Besigye to leave Nairobi and join the bush war that brought Museveni to power in 1986. Njuba and Besigye were also among the first people within the Movement to disagree with Museveni in the early 1990s. In FDC, Njuba has complemented Besigye and when Besigye lost the 2006 presidential election, Njuba offered to resign his Kyadondo East seat to let Besigye stand and lead the opposition in parliament. It is also because of Njuba that Besigye settled in Kasangati.
When he spoke at the rally, Mafabi was all praises for the people of “Benghazi” for supporting Besigye and FDC. But his attempt to rally the crowd was a far-cry from Besigye whose croaky voice usually threatens to rip the microphone apart as he follows it up with frantic gesticulation to keep the crowd on tip-toes. Mafabi spoke meekly and sometimes inaudibly; his was the kind of speech one would expect in a boardroom but not a campaign rally.
Keen to play up his likeness to Besigye, at least as far as bravery is concerned, Mafabi probably overdid it. “I am a beneficiary of a bullet in my leg,” he said as he pointed to his right leg without removing garment to show the scar.
Mafabi hassled with the police and military guards of former Presidency Minister Beatrice Wabudeya, who was challenging for his Budadiri West constituency in the 2011 elections. Mafabi knows that Besigye’s fearlessness that has endeared him to many Ugandans and he seems keen to emulate him.
Publicly, Besigye has said he will not endorse any of the candidates; that he will leave it to the about 1000 party delegates to decide. But, as an administrative staff at the FDC headquarters put it, “The mood at Najjanankumbi is unmistakable.” Besigye backs Mafabi. Most of the party’s ideologues at Najjanankumbi have taken cue.
Appearing determined to stick together as a party despite a contest that threatens to tear them apart, senior FDC leaders are not commenting on the strengths and weaknesses of either candidate, but at least one of them has told The Independent that Muntu and Besigye have “serious ideological differences”, whatever that means.
Whereas Muntu has opposed Museveni’s leadership for about a decade now, he has not been combatively critical of his former commander. He seems to favour the approach among Museveni’s colleagues, past and present, that Museveni, “the leader of the revolution”, should not be publicly vilified. In its extreme form, Museveni’s party’s top organ usually just ignores any internal challenger and declares Museveni unopposed. That is how Maj. Ruhinda Maguru, who sought to challenge him for the chairmanship of NRM in the run-up to the 2011 elections, was treated. Col. Besigye does not belong in this camp of pussy-footers.
When he prepared to run against Museveni in 2001, he had to ignore advice from some of his senior colleagues who wanted him to, out of respect, let Museveni serve his “second and last” term and then retire in 2006. But Besigye reportedly swore “in the name of his late father” that Museveni would change the constitution and run again.
To prevent this possibility, senior Movement members including Museveni’s childhood friend Eriya Kategaya and others like former Local Government Minister and now opposition party PPP President Bidandi Ssali made Museveni to sign a manifesto pledging to step down after his “last” term. But Museveni broke the promise.
Besigye appeared to have a better reading of Museveni’s intentions than most of his colleagues. Still, why didn’t people like Bidandi, who left NRM over the deleting of presidential term limits from the constitution, which Besigye had warned them would happen anyway, not join Besigye in FDC but instead start another party? Why didn’t Kategaya feel at home in FDC when he momentarily left NRM over the same? Why does one get a feeling that former East African Community Secretary General Amanya Mushega, who is a vice president in FDC, is not very active as far as party activities are concerned?
One view is that some do not want to be led by Besigye, who was relatively junior to them in the army and Movement. When Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi said that Besigye had “jumped the queue” to succeed Museveni when he stood in 2001, this is probably what he meant.
But others have criticised Besigye for what they call his militarist approach. In a conversation with a senior army officer, he blamed Besigye for Museveni’s “refusal” to hand over power. He said that Museveni would probably have already left the presidency but he cannot do so “until he is sure that Besigye won’t take over Uganda”.
Muntu’s backers say that his non-confrontational approach reassures Museveni that there might be no retribution in case he loses power to a Muntu-led opposition. This makes the notion of Museveni ceding power a faint possibility not a solid impossibility. Such arguments are made in favour of a Muntu succession to Besigye and later Museveni.
Some within FDC have based on this to accuse Muntu of working to weaken FDC on behalf of Museveni. A Mafabi supporter picked on Mushega’s support for Muntu to drive this point. He said: “Mushega is always on the verge of crossing back to NRM; no wonder he supports Muntu”. Mushega graced Muntu’s campaign launch in Iganga on Aug. 24, heaping praise on the former army commander, who he said he used to consult when he was secretary general of the East African Community.
Muntu, however, will not apologise for associating with anyone. “I will take the opportunity to speak to anyone,” he said in response to accusations that he keeps in touch with army generals.
Unfortunately for Muntu, his approach and what is said about him distances some of his FDC colleagues and they cite it as reason for him not to be made FDC president. Ruranga captured the concerns at Mafabi’s campaign launch.
Ruranga, known for plain speaking, said he had come out of retirement to help Mafabi get elected FDC president. He said that some people in NRM have been “advising” them that they should vote for Muntu because “he can easily access President Museveni; that he can access generals in the army”. “We are not going to be advised by the Movement on what we want to do for our party,” Ruranga said.
But Muntu says that is not what his candidature is about.
“I live on hope,” Muntu told The Independent.
He vowed not to “attack back”, saying that he has a duty to demonstrate that FDC is different from NRM and that he aims to build party structures to “give a fighting chance” to the FDC flag bearer in the next election.
In contrast, since the 2011 elections, Besigye and some top FDC officials have repeatedly said that there will be no election in 2016 since they believed the last election was stolen.
Francis Mwijukye, Besigye’s aide and FDC youth leader, says in response to complaints by some FDC members that Besigye was concentrating on protests instead of strengthening the party: “What is the use of building a strong party when you can’t win elections?”
Muntu has been accused of being soft-spoken and generally less charismatic than Besigye who has defeated him twice; first for the party presidency in 2009 and a year later for the party flag-bearer for the 2011 presidential elections. Some FDC members say that Muntu has a point in some of the issues he has raised in these campaigns, especially regarding strengthening the party at the grassroots, from village level upwards.
Some FDC members identify with Muntu’s approach. But Besigye always trumped Muntu because what he lacked in organisational ability, he compensated for with charisma on the stump.
The picture that emerges is that whereas Besigye and his close allies are bent on an immediate confrontation with Museveni, Muntu is open to pursuing a gradualist approach. This highlights the so-called ideological difference between the two former bush-war comrades. In this mix, Mafabi appears to be a Trojan horse for Besigyeism.
This time, Mafabi, the man Besigye wants to succeed him, does not have comparable doses of charisma. Instead, he has evolved a strategy that seeks to benefit from Besigye’s popularity while promising to fix Besigye’s failure to build party structures.
Mafabi is promising to build party structures all over the country within six months to one year of taking office. He says he has done it in the Elgon area and asked for “an opportunity to replicate it in the whole country”. He also pledges to improve communication within the party by buying more computers, providing internet and printing facilities and fix the problem of lack of party offices in some places due to lack of rent. A careful assessment of what Muntu and Mafabi are promising shows that they agree on what needs to be done to make FDC stronger. Both strategies show it is time for a new approach. Who will drive that change will, however, remain unclear until Nov.22 when the party delegates will decide. Even then, FDC’s future will remain pegged on whether Besigye runs for the fourth time in the 2016 presidential election or not.
Besigye’s support for Muntu is a high stakes gamble. In the 2011 presidential elections, his archrival,Museveni got 68 percent of the vote to Besigye’s 26 percent; his worst performance in three elections.
Besigye lost his bastion of support in northern Uganda and Buganda. Museveni beat him in Gulu with 29 percent of the vote to his 20 percent and 15 percent in Kitgum. Even former Leader of Opposition, Ogenga Latigo, who represented the northern Uganda constituency of Agago, was trounced.
In Buganda, Besigye’s highest vote tally was in Kampala, 47 percent and in Wakiso 42 percent. FDC former bastions Masaka only gave him 37 percent support.
Currently, former FDC leaders from Buganda, Beti Kamya and Sam Njuba, are out; Kamya to her own party and Njuba in retirement.
From the north, MPs Okumu Reagan, Odonga Otto, and Beatrice Anywar, who carried the FDC flag, seem to have shrunk back. Only the east, especially the Teso area, remains reasonably strongly FDC. Whether the east alone can give FDC victory in the 2016 presidential elections is highly doubtful. That is why concentration on Muntu from the West, and Nandala Mafabi from the East to the exclusion of Buganda and the north could be what experts call a “concentrated investment”. In other words, it is a bad decision.