By Haggai Matsiko
As seen from the delegates conference
When delegates of the ruling NRM party convene for its special National Conference at Nambole Stadium in Kampala on Dec. 15, the outcome will be a foregone conclusion; the Secretary General, Amama Mbabazi will be kicked out and President Yoweri Museveni will be crowned as sole candidate in the 2016 elections. The NRM’s 10,000 delegates easily dwarf the 1000 delegates of the biggest opposition party, FDC, who met earlier at the same venue on Dec.5. But, according to pundits, the NRM could pick some lessons that could propel the country forward from the FDC meeting.
A very low key affair, the FDC meeting reflected the quiet tenor of its current leader, retired Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu. This was a collection of delegates from across the country, not just the supreme party leadership organ but the heart of FDC support and the electors of the party’s leaders. However, if Muntu had hoped to use the occasion to show that he is in charge of the party, he was quickly disillusioned.
The FDC meeting really only took off when its former president, Dr Kizza Besigye arrived in the Kiprotich Hall at about 10am. The party chairperson, Joyce Sebugwawo, who was speaking had to pause as Besigye was received with a roar that left nothing in doubt; he still can, and with a lot of ease, beat anyone in a leadership contest where this gathering is the decider.
It was the first time Besigye was appearing before the party’s National Delegates Conference since 2012 when he relinquished the leadership of FDC, leading to party polls in which the current president Gen. Mugisha Muntu beat Nathan Nandala Mafabi.
When Besigye spoke, he showed he was fully aware of his powerful position in the party and described the dilemma he faces over the party leadership and events it organises. He said if he decides not to attend a party function, some people start alleging that he has abandoned the party. Yet when he attends many of the party’s functions, there are those who feel he is trying to overshadow the current party leadership. He said such considerations had required him to think deeply before deciding to attend the conference. He said, therefore, he was happy that the party has finally formed an `Elders Forum’ where past leaders like him could repose without stealing the shine away from the current leaders.
“Since I am now some kind of elder,” Besigye said, “I hope I will fall in that elders’ forum”. Throughout his speech, in which he talked about how to deal with the differences within the party, transparency, tolerance, the importance of dialogue and the 2016 elections, delegates kept cheering and ululating. It is clear that Besigye is an inspiration figure in FDC.
When he talked about the party’s struggles with in-fighting, he did it in such a calm and reassuring tone that many felt that he was restoring hope in the Muntu leadership, even when it is clear to some he is not a big fan.
“If there is pulling and jostling in a political party,” Besigye said, “that is what parties are about. They are about politics, they are about dynamism. What makes the difference is how you manage those differences.”
On the 2016 elections, Besigye implored the party leadership to focus its energies on ensuring there are free elections. He seemed to discourage the party faithful from participating in the election if they saw that it would not be free and fair.
Participating in an unfair poll, he said, would be tantamount to escorting the dictator to the polls that he would win again. He urged them to ensure that even the structures they are forming are aimed at not just participating in another election but a free and fair one.
The push for free and fair elections has been Besigye’s biggest preoccupation since he quit party leadership. He was one of the loudest voices in the recently concluded campaign for electoral reforms by the opposition and civil society.
Even when he stepped out during a break and addressed a ring of journalists, swarms of delegates followed him. Many were mesmerised. A woman delegate from eastern Uganda, wearing a party-blue gomesi, could not contain her excitement as she kept jumping, cheering, and chanting “Our man, one Uganda, one people”.
Just next to this thick ring of delegates and journalists, the current FDC party leader Muntu was also talking to a television reporter. When he was done, other reporters gathered around him too but not many delegates followed. Besigye attended only the morning session before excusing himself to attend to other “engagements”.
But from just this sight, even the most clueless person could tell that the FDC faces a huge dilemma over choosing between Muntu and Besigye in 2015 when the party choses its flag bearer. Besigye is the natural choice, but Muntu is the correct choice.
“There is no doubt some people appreciate the methods of the current president but no one can beat Besigye, even people in the villages we come from can’t stop talking about Besigye,” Honrat Okello, the speaker Municipality told The Independent at the side lines of the conference. “Besigye is very popular,” Jimmy Okolimo, the FDC chairman of Amuria district chipped in.
Besigyeism Vs Musevenism
In a popularity contest, President Yoweri Museveni in NRM is in a similar position to Besigye in FDC. Museveni’s popularity is doubled because he consistently wins elections.
The patronage that surrounds him adds to his magnetism. Those that surround him know that he can change their life in a second if he decides to appoint them to a public office, assign them to a financially lucrative project, or as he has done sometimes, give them a bag of money, a tractor, or an expensive vehicle.
Recently, when he appeared on Capital FM’s Capital Gang talk show and spoke of his 28-year stranglehold on the presidency, Museveni attributed it to his popularity.
“When I go to ask them for an election victory, five million people say stay,” he said, “you have heard them singing tajja kugenda, tajja kugenda”.
With Museveni and Besigye as popular as ever in their respective parties, many says they are not ruling out a tussle between them for the presidency during the 2016 election. It will be the fourth time they are contesting against each other.
Critics claim that it is a worrying trend for Uganda’s two strongest political parties to be dominated by two men who also happen to be the party founders.
Without intra-party leadership competition, the emergency of full-blown democracy on the national stage could be stymied.
Some point out that voter turn-out during the presidential elections, which has been going down because Museveni’s re-election has almost be guaranteed, might slide further. Presidential election turn-out was lowest in 2011 at just 59.3%, according to official’s figures. In the earlier 2006 election, when the country had just switched from Movement to multiparty politics, the turn-out was 69.2% and Kizza Besigye scored the highest tally ever for an opposition candidate at 37.3%. However, it appears when that push failed to unseat Museveni, anti-Museveni supporters opted to stay away from the polls. As a result, Museveni gained 10 percentage points and the opposition suffered a similar set-back. Without competition, therefore, it appears the 2016 elections might witness the lowest ever voter turn-out.
Besigye has so far kept everyone guessing about his 2016 game plan. But the show of support for him at the recently concluded FDC delegates conference might nudge him to attempt a fourth strike against Museveni.
But Political scholar Fredrick Golooba-Mutebi cautioned that the cheers Besigye receives may not necessarily mean that people want him to stand again.
“As you know he has made three attempts and failed. The last attempt was even worse. One can’t conclude, therefore, that he is the one people want to contest,” he said.
He said Besigye’s popularity might be an indictment of Muntu’s leadership of FDC. He said sometimes when a leader leaves and is replaced by another leader whom people feel does not measure up, the former leader tends to excite crowds at functions.
Golooba gave an example of South Africa’s ANC and former President Thabo Mbeki. He said Mbeki used to be unpopular but when he got out and Jacob Zuma came in, Mbeki now gets the biggest applause because people feel that Zuma has not measured up.
“I think this might be the same situation with Besigye,” Golooba said.
Whether Besigye stands or not, however, for internal party democracy enthusiasts, the problem seems to be the fact that he dominates the party and that Museveni also dominates the NRM as Namboole delegates conference is set to prove as he has way against Mbabazi and his supporters.
If Besigye stands in 2016, some fear it would turn the FDC into a mirror-image of the NRM that it criticises for over-staying.
Those who disagree with a possibility of Besigye contesting again say the party’s founding leader who has remained consistent in his quest for political change for the last one and a half decades, risks falling in the same trap as Museveni.
Such a move would lend credence to criticism from the likes of Democratic Party’s Norbert Mao, who claims that Besigye, like Museveni, has always been about building a personal hegemony. “Besigye and Museveni are birds of a feather,” Mao told The Independent recently, “one pursues Besigyeism and the other Musevenism.”
For Mao, issues with Besigye were at the heart of why the opposition failed to agree on the strategy to unite and defeat Museveni in 2012. As a result, Museveni won the election with 68 percent victory—Besigye, the closest opposition candidate garnered a paltry 26 percent.
With Besigye out of the picture, Mao says he and his colleague Olara Otunnu, the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) president, were working well with Muntu.
It is not just Mao, who does not seem warm to the idea of another Besigye shot. Even FDC stalwarts like Kampala woman MP, Nabila Nagayi, say they see danger in entrenching a culture of a personality cult if only one person is seen as the best leader. Makerere law professor, Jean Barya, who has advised the FDC leadership on a few political aspects, admits that Besigye is indeed still the most popular leader not just for FDC but the entire opposition.
He says that, theoretically, there is nothing wrong with Besigye contesting if he has popular support.
Contrary to claims that contesting again would make Besigye similar to Museveni, who has stayed in power citing popular support, Barya said that given that Besigye does not hold any state power, that would not apply to him.
“With popular support,” Barya said, “Besigye would be in his right to contest again. But having said that, popular support is not the only consideration, I think for him what he could do is say, ` I have made my contribution and now I compliment efforts by other leaders’ and by taking that decision, he would have given other leaders a chance too.”
Barya adds: “I also know that for him he has taken a stand that as long as certain political reforms are not in place he will not take part in any elections because he thinks it wouldn’t make any sense.”
Political scholar Fredrick Golooba-Mutebi, also says he does not see Besigye contesting in 2016.
“Besigye has not said he will contest,” Mutebi said, “I also do not see how the FDC would pull of the hurdle to make him their flag-bearer because Muntu is currently the president and party presidents are usually the flag bearers.”
He said the only way Besigye can contest, therefore, is by officially quitting the FDC and forming his own party.
“But I don’t see him doing that,” Golooba said, “It would be highly damaging for the party and for him as an individual, people would see him as a person who is bent on becoming president by all means.”
Muntu appeared keenly aware of the unfolding dilemma. A behind the scenes organiser without the gift for stump speeches and fanfare, Muntu must have been aware of how critical the delegate’s conference was. The party leaders were meeting for the first time since his election on November 2012. Muntu should have been aware of the simmering criticism surrounding his leadership and that many would be watch for signs of his handling of divisions in the party.
When he spoke, he projected hope and drew contrasts with happenings in the NRM.
“There is instability in the ruling party,” Muntu said, “It is going to get worse. You are going to see a disintegration of the ruling party starting from December 15. And the country needs to see the difference between the ruling party and the main opposition party.”
Throughout his speech, he kept describing FDC as the government in waiting and himself as the leader that would deliver it.
Muntu scored some early victories at the conference. Among them was the endorsement of his plans to raise Shs5 billion that the party needs to implement his pet project; the building of grassroots party structures. The conference agreed to lend its powers to a smaller party organ, the National Executive Council, to approve the party platform and the party’s strategic plan, without which, Party Secretary General, Alice Alaso, had insisted the party would not have been able to secure funding from its donors.
But even as the party Treasurer General, Angelina Osege, led the fundraising drive with an appeal to delegates to contribute, most eyes were on Muntu’s main rival in the party, Nandala Mafabi. Previously, Mafabi has spoken firmly about Muntu’s failure to raise money for party activities. He could have stirred up opposition against Muntu on this issue. That he did not was a major victory for the party and Muntu.
There is no doubt, it took Besigye’s positive tone and convincing from the conference’s organising committee chairman, Augustine Ruzindana.
There had been fear that Nandala and his supporters would either snub the conference or attempt to fail the proceedings from several critical aspects central to the day to day running of the party. Instead, Nandala contributed constructively, some delegates said.
Muntu must have been happy that most top guns in the party showed up; among them Nabilah Naggayi, Ingrid Turinawe, Hassan Kaps Fungaroo and others. Only MPs Abdu Katuntu and Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda instead chose to engage President Museveni on Capital Gang.
Party Secretary General, Alice Alaso told The Independent that 80 percent of the invited delegates attended.
“It was a huge success given that all the party leadership had intended sailed through and without a lot of struggle,” she said. All eyes now shift to NRM and the Mbabazi, Museveni fight at Nambole on Dec. 15.