By Haggai Matsiko
Can they unite to beat Museveni?
With nominations and campaigns just about eight months away as per the 2016 polls roadmap, early 2015 is when the serious contenders will be separated from the jokers and pretenders. The Badru Kigundu-led Electoral Commission has set to September 1 and September 18, 2015 as the dates for nominations and start of campaigns respectively and already about 10 potential presidential contenders have emerged. Some will drop off, and a few surprises might jump in but as the campaign year begins, the goings on in three political parties—the President Yoweri Museveni-led National Resistance Movement (NRM), Gen. Mugisha Muntu-led Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and Norbert Mao-led Democratic Party (DP) promise to be very exciting.
These three are set to hold decisive meetings between February and May to hammer out preparations for the polls.
Museveni appears to have moved ahead of the pack as he used the close of 2014 to defuse tensions within his party, kick out of top party organs his former ally Amama Mbabazi, who seemed the biggest threat, and therefore further consolidated his grip on the party ahead of 2016. In contrast, almost all of Museveni’s potential competitors are loaded with self-destructive baggage.
Amidst the cacophony of intra-party squabbling, political observers are already keenly marking out who of the potential competitors are serious contenders, pretenders and the jokers.
For now, the list of potential contenders includes Gen. David Sejusa aka Tinyefuza, whose return from exile in London has generated a lot of activity that many including those in the opposition and NRM are watching closely. President Museveni is in, just as are former VP Gilbert Bukenya, and perennial rabble-rouser Capt. Ruhinda Maguru, who attempted to take on Museveni within the NRM in 2010 and has already printed posters. The Democratic Party’s Norbert Mao, military giant Maj. Gen. Benon Biraaro, perennial contender Beti Olive Kamya, who heads Uganda Federal Alliance and Olara Otunnu, the president of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) are in. Museveni’s main challenger in the previous three elections, Kizza Besigye, is neither in nor out.
Kizza Besigye’s equivocation is worrisome for supporters of Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) whose president; Maj Gen. Mugisha Muntu eyes 2016. The FDC broth might be complicated further if Muntu’s main challenger, Nandala Mafabi, joins the race.
Everything is still speculative, but the held view is that if any of these potential contenders is to stand a chance, they need to forge alliances against President Yoweri Museveni, who not only boasts a 29-year spell of incumbency but also access to all state resources—the most prized being state coffers—the 2015 campaigns are set to be eventful.
President Museveni closed 2014 even stronger as he wrested more powers over the running of his party. With Amama Mbabazi out of the post of Secretary General, Museveni does not appear to have any worries.
Mbabazi’s supporters say he plans to take the matter over how he was replaced to court and to take on Museveni over the party leadership but critics do not see much in these efforts. The only visible activity from the former NRM Secretary General is that since he was ousted at the Dec.15 National Conference, he has maintained a public presence but remained cagey about his next move.
During the party’s Dec.13 National Executive Committee (NEC), Mbabazi threatened to sue the party over a technicality—that the party leadership did not give delegates the legally required 30 days to review the amendments that made his post appointive.
But the smart politician that many see in him cannot hope to translate a suit against the NRM into his reinstatement as the head of the head of the Kyadondo Road party secretariat. At best, Mbabazi can use that suit to negotiate with Museveni or cause controversy from which he might hope to suck political capital and remain relevant on the Ugandan political scene. All this would, however, be totally out of character. Bukenya has said that Mbabazi will end up like Sejusa; in exile, and all parties have disparaged both Mbabazi and Sejusa.
Whatever he does, however, within the NRM Mbabazi no longer gives Museveni and his henchmen sleepless nights like he did when he firmly guarded and later confiscated the ruling party’s voter’s registrar after the party leadership declined to repay his daughter Nina Mbabazi the funds she borrowed to help compile it.
Museveni has since replaced Mbabazi with Justine Lumumba who as party chief whip impressed in the way she handled party legislators. Lumumba is deputised by Richard Todwong. The same appointment wave saw Rose Namayanja become the party Treasurer and Keneth Omona, her deputy.
All these officials face common uncertainty. Apart from giving up their constituencies, they will be working at Museveni’s pleasure. Their job will be to impress him. So far they have done well in tearing down the Mbabazi bogey. Their mass mobilisation abilities have, however, remained doubtful as they have lost a raft of parliamentary by-elections.
Since the officials are the core of the party technical leadership, however, Museveni might be happy that he no longer has to worry about a possibility of being undermined by an insider or hitches with in the core leadership team that will be organising his campaigns for the 2016 polls. But then he must craft another vote-catching machine. In the past elections, he has fallen back to family, especially his brother Gen. Caleb Akandwanaho aka Salim Saleh and other tested and trusted hands.
While some might criticise the results of the Dec.15 conference, Museveni might see a chance in it to re-organise party structures and focus all the spokes towards one objective—his re-election in 2016.
For the opposition, however, things are very different.
While Museveni has crystallised his grip on the NRM machinery, all the opposition parties are riddled with factions and different power centres. They all appear weaker going into the 2015 campaigns.
The FDC, which usually leads the opposition pack, have the Besigye elephant in the room. He has lost thrice to Museveni but remains by far the most popular opposition politician in Uganda. His consistent fearless opposition to Museveni easily make him stand out amongst the rest. But many, including some of his supporters, feel that three losses is enough and that he should give other contenders a chance.
Besigye also faces a big dilemma. Should his supporters call on him to stand, he has to fight the current FDC leadership or form another party—all of which would create fodder for his competitors to discredit his candidacy.
For now, Besigye says there is no point in participating in elections for as long as the electoral landscape is still skewed in Museveni’s favour. That is not very convincing as it has always been skewed and he has always run.
Even if Besigye does not run, it will be no home run for Mugisha Muntu either and things don’t seem to be looking up. Just weeks to the venue of his latest test, the Dec.5 delegates’ conference, Muntu saw three top party officials resign over disagreements on the direction the party was taking. While the reasons for Nandala Mafabi and Jack Sabiiti’s resignation might have been lost in the fact that they had had differences with Muntu since the Nov.22 election that Mafabi lost, the foreign-based top honcho; Sam Akaki, authored a critical resignation letter, labelled it `Top Secret’ and made a point of leaking it to the media.
The fuss would have been funny but the frenzy it created added to the tension expected to play out at the December Delegates conference. Somehow, the dark clouds passed and Muntu pronounced it a success. But FDC supporters are waiting for the February Delegates conference—where the decision over who becomes flag bearer might be decided—with bated breath.
On one hand, an FDC insider told The Independent, there are party supporters who feel the party needs a flag bearer like Nandala Mafabi who can fire up supporters and on the other; there are those who feel that as the party president, Gen. Muntu is the natural flag bearer. Yet majority of the party supporters still feel that Besigye is the party’s best shot. Meanwhile, the FDC might emerge stronger as, the leadership says, it is revitalising its grassroots structures without focusing only on the presidential elections. Still, a strong FDC presidential candidate should emerge when all these interests are reconciled.
Chairman Mao’s DP
The DP’s Mao emerged the third strongest candidate in 2011. This time, he is set to deal with a storm at the party’s delegate conference early this year and the hangover from the fallout out with some of the party leaders still haunts the party.
Some recall that Mao, who took over DP in 2010 promising to revitalise it, has over the years faced challenges with the Uganda Young Democrats (UYD), the party’s youth wing and some of his party top honchos. Tensions worsened when Mao fired party publicist Kenneth Kakande. Already, elections that saw him take the DP mantle had led to the fall out with Nasser Ssebaggala, the loose-cannon who quit DP and formed the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Ssebaggala increased the ranks of top DPs who had broken ranks with Mao like Betty Nambooze, Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, Prof. Joseph Mukiibi, and Lulume Bayigga. Mao stretched to spats beyond his party with claims that Besigye, in cahoots with Lukwago, were undermining DP. Up to date, Mao does not cooperate with Besigye at all and has told The Independent that Besigye is no different from Museveni—they both aim to build and consolidate their personal hegemonies.
But for now, Mao would rather focus on the positives.
For instance, at a Dec.16 presser, he told journalists that DP now had 15 parliamentary seats up from a paltry seven that the party had before he became president pointing to that as signs of the party was growing stronger.
He also told The Independent that he cooperates well with other party leaders; Muntu and Otunnu, which is why they have been able to win almost all bi-elections against the ruling party—the latest being the Amuru victory by FDC’s Lucy Akello.
In UPC, Otunnu also sent several officials packing and officially created more factions than were there during Miria Obote’s reign. But together with Beti Kamya, who also participated in the 2011 polls, Otunnu is an outlier. Beti Kamya has even mentioned she could instead vie for a parliamentary seat in 2016.
Interestingly, these are the politicians who have been tested in elections and who have tested political parties.
Yet even outside these political parties that were around during the 2011 polls, the opposition doesn’t see partners but suspicious characters.
That leaves Gen. Sejusa at the other unknown potential tough card. He created a lot of excitement when he authored his letter claiming some top officials were to be assassinated to give way for the President’s son, Brig. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, to ascend into power.
He then escaped to exile in London and appeared set to take up arms to oust Museveni. But then, he swung around again and returned to Uganda amidst claims he has cut a deal with Museveni. He denies it but the traitor label has stuck in some minds.
Gen. Sejusa recently told journalists at his home in Naguru that he had reached out to the opposition leaders and asked them meet him at the airport as he returned but they all declined saying they were not ready. He added that the opposition up to now doesn’t seem to know exactly the purpose of their cause.
“…Those trying to shun me partly claim I have not been discharged from the army…” Sejusa said, “Such arguments do not differ from those of NRM cadres. If you are serious about changing this country, join me whatever the situation.”
Despite the cold reception from his would be colleagues, Sejusa is still roaring and in him, some see a force to watch.
Whether he rejoins Museveni (as he has done in the past) or crafts an alliance between his Free Uganda (FU) party and powerful forces like the seat of Buganda power at Mengo, his bid remains foggy. As a serving soldier, how far he can go will depend on Museveni’s magnanimity.
The other high ranking army officer in the race, Gen. Biraaro, says he is polishing a document detailing the intentions of a party, Peace for National Union (PNU) that he formed in 2013 after being retired from the army after years of waiting. He says PNU intends to appeal to those who have been estranged by the factions in various political parties and all Ugandans keen on peace and unity.
But when The Independent back then reported that Biraaro was set to contest, opposition officials including Gen. Sejusa were not very warm to the idea.
From the list, Besigye, Muntu, Mao, Sejusa, Bukenya, Mbabazi and Biraaro, all have what it takes to take on Museveni, according to their supporters. That is not being said of Maguru, Nandala, Kamya, and Ssebaggala.
But one thing is clear—they all seem to be not only working at cross-purpose but undermining each other with zeal. This spells trouble for them, according to 2010 paper, Deepening Democracy Through Multipartyism: The Bumpy road to Uganda’s 2011 elections. Authored by Makerere University’s Dr Sabiti Makara, it cited failure to rally behind a single candidate and the failure of the opposition parties to cooperate, unite, and work together amongst the institutional bottlenecks haunting the opposition.
Indeed, if opinion polls and previous election results are anything to go by, more presidential candidates hurt the opposition than they do Museveni.
Research World International’s 2014 poll showed that the increase in the number of competitors only reduced the main opposition’s votes (as seen in the graph).
In 1996, Museveni got 74 % against Kibirige Mayanja’s 2.1 % and Kawanga Ssemogerere’s 23 %.
In 2001 when Museveni was facing five candidates– Aggrey Awori, Kizza Besigye, Bwengye Francis, Chaapa Karuhanga and Kibirige Mayanja—he got 69 % against his closest competitor Kizza Besigye’s 27 %.
When in 2006, candidates reduced to four—Abed Bwanika, Kizza Besigye, Miria Obote and Sebana Kizito—Besigye’s votes increased. Museveni only managed 59 % against Besigye’s 37 %.
And the increase to seven of candidates– Abed Bwanika, Kizza Besigye, Beti Kamya, Jaberi Bidandi Ssali, Norbert Mao, Olara Otunu and Samuel Lubega—saw Museveni’s votes increase to 68 % and Besigye’s drop to 26 %.
Of course, other factors like the suppression of voter turnout and valid votes in opposition areas alongside the creation of new districts and patronage in rural areas were cited as having contributed to Museveni’s chances. In 2016, Museveni will still have the tools—military to suppress opposition areas and money to oil patronage wheels. That is why his competitors, who have an insurmountable challenge to first clean their backyards, must work even harder if they are to pose any challenge to him—and they have just months to figure out how.