By Odoobo C. Bichachi
Kenyan lawyer-cum political consultant Erastus wa Mugo was the centre of attention at the Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC) meeting at the Paradise Hotel in Jinja last week as Ugandaâ€™s opposition parties struggled to find common ground ahead of the 2011 presidential and parliamentary elections.
A renowned governance consultant who has worked with many Kenyan political parties on strategy and structure, Mugo was invited to moderate the latest round of IPC talks aimed at creating a common electoral platform for the opposition. Another political consultant from South Africa had also been expected but he never made it, according to our sources.
â€œWe chose a Kenyan because of the experience they have had on coalitions. In fact we had very fruitful discussions and in the next few weeks IPC will announce to the public a way forward,â€ Uganda Peopleâ€™s Congress (UPC) general secretary Chris Opoka Okumu told The Independent.
In many ways, Ugandaâ€™s political situation today very much mirrors the dying days of Arap Moiâ€™s KANU regime except that unlike Moi who passed the baton to a protÃ©gÃ© Uhuru Kenyatta, Museveni remains very much in the running. It took the Rainbow Coalition to defeat Moiâ€™s group and five years later, another Orange Coalition virtually defeated incumbent Mwai Kibaki who had to rig to keep power.
Ugandaâ€™s opposition is therefore leaning on the Kenyan experience to take on President Yoweri Museveni. But are the parties reading from the same script, considering that some party followers continue to dismiss talk of an alliance.
â€œIt is unfortunate that some members of various parties are discussing things outside their party organs, and IPC structures,â€ says UPCâ€™s Okumu, adding; â€œbut this will be resolved by parties internally.â€
Okumu who chaired the Jinja IPC meeting last week however remained cagey on whether indeed the parties had agreed on a joint candidate and who it would be.
â€œThere will be a joint candidateâ€ is all he could say, adding that their consultations had widened to include Jaberi Bidandi Ssaliâ€™s Peopleâ€™s Progressive Party (PPP) and Abed Bwanikaâ€™s Peopleâ€™s Development Party (PDP).
Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) spokesperson Wafula Oguttu too declined to divulge any details of the Jinja meeting saying they had been â€œembargoedâ€.
The Independent has, however, established that another meeting scheduled for Thursday August 13 will finalise the 2011 election roadmap and the modalities of how joint candidates will be selected.
â€œOnce we have agreed on the roadmap in the Thursday meeting, parties in the coalition will then discuss it internally. But one of the things already agreed is that all parties must have had their delegates conferences by January 2010,â€ said Okumu.
For many opposition supporters, what the parties are not saying is perhaps what is most critical to the roadmap: will it be FDCâ€™s Kizza Besigye or will it be UPCâ€™s Olara Otunnu to lead the oppositionâ€™s charge?Â
Indeed it remains a difficult choice and according to our sources in both FDC and UPC, jumping this hurdle is what will make or unmake the opposition.
There are still many factors going for Besigye who has been the de facto opposition leader and currently leads the biggest opposition party FDC. His military background and his courage and resilience in the face of unimaginable state crackdown have cut him well to fit the profile of Museveniâ€™s opponent in the 2011 polls, an election that is expected to be perhaps the most violent and the most rigged given the stakes in light of the growing opposition that is eating deep intoÂ President Museveniâ€™sÂ support and the conduct of recent by-elections.
But Besigye is a familiar opponent having stood twice against Museveni in 2001 and 2006. Where he had an element of surprise in 2001 when he dramatically quit the army and in 2006 when he dramatically returned from South African exile, he currently carries little novelty.
Otunnu on the other hand brings onto the political scene new energy and life, just like Besigye was able to do in 2001 and 2006. An accomplished international diplomat, he has no military background to lean on but intellect, affability and international contacts to draw from. He is one opponent Museveni would wish to avoid because he does not fit his usual script. In fact the president has spent many years fighting him; labelling him a Kony collaborator, terrorist, etc but instead, Otunnu has scaled some of the highest international diplomatic positions, falling short of becoming UN secretary general.
He has however been out of the country for 23 years which means he is more or less unknown by a whole generation and will have to cultivate a political network from zero.Â
Be that as it may, a lone ranger â€“ be it Besigye or Otunnu â€“ is unlikely to defeat the Museveni juggernaut. A combination of the two could, however, change the countryâ€™s political landscape irretrievably.
Otunnuâ€™s return has now been set for August 22. However despite his proven past political leadership and current reputation, his impact on the national political scene will soon be measured on a strict test when he presents his candidature to the electorate.
The Otunnu homecoming national steering committee chaired by Moroto County MP Benson Obua Ogwal (UPC) and comprising among others FDCâ€™s Salaam Musumba, Jack Sabiiti, and DPâ€™s Dr Obonyo has been choreographed to reflect a national character and the bipartisan significance of his return.
â€œWe have finalised the preparations for his homecoming in the morning of August 22,â€ MP Ogwal told The Independent, adding that Otunnu will immediately address a press conference at Entebbe Airport and thereafter proceed to a reception to be attended by political leaders, diplomats and selected members of the public.
Otunnu will be in the country for 16 days before returning to New York to prepare for his final return ahead of the UPC Delegates Conference later this year.
The reaction to his coming from government remains muted; a far cry from the threats that were initially issued by deputy premier Kirunda Kivejinja two months or so ago.
â€œHas Olara Otunnu asked you to call me and ask if it is safe for him to come back? I know you people at The Independent are in touch with him. You do not need to call a minister to ask whether or not he will be arrested on arrival. Whatever will happen to him will happen when he comes back. Uganda is a free country, his country, so he should feel free to come back as soon as he can. About him being issued with a Ugandan passport, it is his birth right and constitutional right to be given one. If he has any problem, I will be more than happy to facilitate him personally,â€ Kivejinja told The Independent.