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Beyond Mbabazi, Besigye, TDA drama

By Independent Team

What it really says about Ugandan politics

Until Aug.17, the de facto leader of the Opposition, Retired Col. Kizza Besigye and former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi were on opposite sides in Uganda’s two-horse race politics. Unknown by many people, a major swift occurred that morning when Mbabazi picked nomination forms to run as an independent candidate in the 2016 presidential election.

Besigye had anticipated this move. Although he had quit the leadership of the main opposition party, FDC in 2012, he returned in June to challenge FDC President Mugisha Muntu for the right to carry the party flag during the 2016 election and won it on Sept.02. After that, it appeared almost certain that he would be endorsed to be the single joint candidate for The Democratic Alliance (TDA), a loose collection of numerous opposition political parties and civil society activists.


Besigye was so confident that when Mbabazi finally headed to Mbale for his first rally, word on the grapevine was that groundwork was laid by the FDC network in the area, led by son-of-the soil Nandala Mafabi (MP Budadiri West), who is also the Secretary General of the party.  If correct and with hindsight, that was possibly Besigye’s biggest mistake.

In an arena where the crowds a politician attracts are proportional to how they are rated, Mbabazi tipped the scales in Mbale on Sept.07. The thousands and thousands of people who turned out to hear him speak at the main grounds in the town became the talk of the country. Leaders of state security organs that had promised not to interfere with his consultation meetings, once again swung into action. When Mbabazi attempted to hold a similar meeting in another eastern Uganda town, Jinja, it was dispersed with teargas and a hail of bullets. The crowd responded by pelting the police with stones.

Amidst the gunfire and teargas in Jinja, however, Mbabazi did something unusual. He opened the door of his Toyota SUV and without leaving the car and surrounded by his body guards, he started waving his hands calmly, appealing to his supporters to remain restrained. Then he leaned over to negotiate with the police. When he turned to speak to journalists, he retained his calm composure and even managed to joke.

“I think you are now going to call me Mr. Teargas,” he said. It was comic relief as bullets, stones, and teargas were still flying. It was Mbabazi’s baptism into opposition politics. By the time he reached Kampala, he was an opposition hero, although he still maintained that he was a member of the ruling NRM party of President Yoweri Museveni.

From that point on, the ground beneath Besigye’s grip on the opposition leadership started to shift. The crowds in Mbale and Jinja, which the FDC had ‘engineered,’ had propelled Mbabazi into a formidable challenger within TDA.

`Tired old men’

The element of novelty also contributed to the excitement around Mbabazi. Besigye has run against and lost to Museveni three times already, and for opposition supporters looking for a possible winning candidate, Mbabazi suddenly became quite attractive. And Mbabazi, it was said, has money to spend on the campaign. The TDA leadership started to be really nice to Mbabazi. Its Secretariat coordinator, retired Bishop Zac Niringiye reportedly made trips to convince him to join the alliance and three times the TDA extended the deadline to close nominations for candidates. Mbabazi was finally nominated in the middle of the night on Sept.11. Besigye and his supporters got really miffed.

One supporter reportedly said: “We are tired of you old men. You are to blame for the mess. You even decided to extend the nomination date for one single candidate without consulting FDC and other stakeholders. What kind of process is this?”

That set the mood for the TDA candidate selection. Initially, the so-called Summit of leaders, which was really a collection of opposition characters of all shades, was supposed to sieve the candidates basing on recommendations by another body of the alliance, the National Candidates’ Committee. But the work of the Candidates Committee was quashed after it rated Mbabazi as the best candidate, followed by Democratic Party President Norbert Mao. Besigye came in third and former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya fourth.

Then on Sept. 17, angry Besigye supporters stormed the TDA meeting at the Royal Suites in Kampala and dragged him out of the meeting. They accused TDA of bias and orchestrating a fraudulent process. They were also angry that TDA was pushing forward Mbabazi even when he had not renounced his NRM membership.

“We have spent all these years fighting against NRM,” said one of the supporters of Besigye, “how do we now go telling our people to vote for an NRM candidate?” he asked.

Behind the fracas, observers say, was the unspoken truth that the return of Besigye to the leadership of FDC had scuttled the TDA plans. When the TDA Protocol was signed on June 10, FDC was being led by Mugisha Muntu. When weighed against the other TDA presidential hopefuls, Muntu stood a high chance of emerging TDA presidential flag bearer. He had the biggest opposition party behind him, was considered to be a gentleman acceptable to other party leaders like Norbert Mao of DP who had rejected Besigye, was seen as capable of attracting a reformist fringe within the NRM, and was also deemed to be acceptable to a donor community which had rejected Besigye’s militarist stance. At that point, it was almost certain that even if Mbabazi were to join TDA, he would play second-fiddle to Muntu. There was also a money element with reports that FDC has put into the Alliance more money than any other party or organisation. A source from the party told The Independent that the party injected in Shs 110 million. It had also provided the offices of TDA.

But that TDA plan was scuttled on Sept.2 when Besigye defeated Muntu to become the FDC flag bearer. Almost immediately, TDA scrambled to find a leader who was strong enough to challenge Museveni, was not militaristic, and was acceptable to the donor community. All eyes shifted to Mbabazi. Even when he arrived at the TDA headquarters, reportedly owned and bankrolled by a member of FDC, Besigye was a rank outsider. Among the TDA leadership, he could count only on the support of Nandala Mafabi, Leader of Opposition Wafula Oguttu, and FDC Chairman Wasswa Birigwa who is also a co-chair of the summit. In a minority report, the FDC’s Secretary for Mobilisation Ingrid Turinawe and one other FDC member on the Candidates’ Committee accused the co-chair of the committee Amanya Mushega of being biased against Besigye.

Even Bukenya who has always blamed Mbabazi for his exit from the Cabinet in 2011, his imprisonment over CHOGM charges, and had accused him of running NRM like a mafia, was reportedly on Mbabazi’s side. Sources say he was persuaded by UPC President Olara Otunnu to support Mbabazi because “he has the highest chance of defeating Museveni.”

Others like Zac Niringiye, Godber Tumushabe (the TDA coordinator), and Amanya Mushega who is an FDC were all against Besigye’s radical politics. Besigye had become a sort of Donald Trump of Uganda’s opposition politics. He was popular among voters but unsavoury among the boardroom decision makers. It was as if the TDA flag-bearer race was a double-edged sword that had slashed the opposition into two halves, one radical, militarist, and unacceptable to donors, and the other moderate, open to negotiations (even with Museveni’s NRM), and favoured by donors. Each had its extremist fringes.

“FDC is strong,” said one of the summit members, “we have to be cautious with our choice to make sure it doesn’t break the Alliance and the entire opposition.”

That complicated the decision-making at TDA. How could they reject ‘popular’ Besigye? On the other hand, how could they sell a militarist Besigye to donors? First they postponed the decision by asking the contenders to decide the issue and literally locked them in a hotel conference room for two days although almost everyone knew it would yield no outcome.

“It was your typical prisoners’ dilemma,” one observer commented in reference to the popular game theory conundrum.  Besigye reportedly said he would support any other candidate apart from Mbabazi. He said he cannot support someone who has refused to clarify on where he belongs; whether he is still in NRM, has renounced NRM, or has formed his own political party. Makerere University Political Science Don Sabiiti Makara is not part of TDA but he agrees with Besigye. He says Mbabazi has brought confusion in the Alliance by insisting he is still in NRM.  “The question these guys are asking themselves is; if Mbabazi is NRM what is he doing in the opposition? How can he lead the opposition?”

Muntu meanwhile appeared to maintain his calm strategic face. He told journalists at the party headquarters on the morning of Sept. 21 that the party was going ahead to make preparations for the electoral exercise of its candidate.

“We are going ahead with preparations, collecting signatures so that we are ready when the time comes,” he said.

He added: “We were brought together by one objective,” he said, “ousting the dictatorship. We all need to be focused on that objective. We are looking for a winning formula. What brought us together two and a half years ago was because we wanted to build relationships amongst all those who want sanity brought back to this country and we believe we will come up with the winning formula.”

Radicals versus moderates

Finally, they appeared to reach a decision. Why not field two candidates? But Mao, one of the candidates took to his facebook page to reject this proposal.

He wrote: “Even as the Candidate’s Quartet talks about the Joint Presidential Candidate for TDA, I am obliged to say this because of the massive propaganda campaign, media manipulation and distortions about the primary objectives of TDA.” He went on, “we must get back to basics to avoid veering off our path. We must be committed to WHY we are together before being distracted by the HOW. We are obliged by agreement to field ONE candidate. To change that core principle to appease any individual would make our togetherness meaningless. It will demoralise our people eager to get rid of Museveni and create a bad precedent where even at the lower levels we may be tempted to field more than one TDA CANDIDATES despite the fact that while victory at the presidential level requires above 50% of votes cast, the lower levels are won by whoever scores the highest number of votes.”

He added: “This is a moment of TRUTH.” “Either we are true to our declared agreement in the protocol or we are false. It is a reality check. This is not a matter of procedural technicalities like adjusting time and adjourning meetings to allow for consultations. This matter is at the heart of our togetherness. This will be the true test of TDA’s courage and resolve to stand like a rock on matters of principle and to flow with the tide on matters of taste.”

Mao is anti-Besigye. Like many of the drafters of the alliance, sources say, he was disappointed when Besigye beat Muntu in FDC’s primary elections. Many in this camp argue that it is time to change the approach to accommodate the moderates in NRM that are also longing for change.

“Many should have by now realized that Museveni will not be defeated by noise and threats but by meticulous planning and cool-headedness,” says Political Scientist Frederick Golooba-Mutebi.

But sources close to Besigye say he thinks people talking about ‘extremists and moderates’ do not know what they are dealing with.  “What Besigye knows for sure is that no one will romance Museveni out of power,” says one of his supporters, “He knows it will take a struggle to get Museveni out of power and that’s what those that don’t understand what we are dealing with call extremism.” The source went on to say that that’s why Besigye stood against Muntu. He believes those with Muntu’s moderate mentality cannot take Museveni out of power.

“Yes, people like Muntu have good policies and can make good leaders but the policies won’t take this heavy load out of the road.

“Museveni won’t be defeated by who talks best or who has the best policies. That’s why it was possible for people like US President Barrack Obama to be President after the struggles of the Martin Luther King.”

Some analysts, however, say that the ongoing fight has little to do with ideological stances or radicalism and moderation. They say all the players are driven by selfish interests.

“Uganda is at crossroads of the interplay between radical and moderate politics,” said Makerere University lecturer of political history Dixon Kamukama. “For example I am not sure Mbabazi is a moderate. Each of them has selfish ambitions and they want to achieve them by whatever means possible.”  He also says the alliance was unrealistic to have expected either Mbabazi or Besigye to back down for another or accept to be thrown out of the race easily.

“Why did Mbabazi leave NRM?” he asked. “It is because he harbors Presidential ambitions. Did the Alliance think he would suppress these ambitions that easily? Look at Besigye who had said he would not  stand in an election organised under Museveni again. He came back and that shows he is also fighting for strong selfish interests.”

Makara agrees.

“The problem with all leaders is that they tend to be selfish at some point,” he told The Independent, “I think there’s a level of selfishness on the part of the candidates and other players.”

Others say Besigye has developed a ‘Museveni’s mentality’ of I am the only one capable of bringing about change.

Golooba also says Besigye seems to possess the “flag bearer” entitlement, which he says will not take the opposition anywhere. Yet Makara says this could be the problem for him. He says the reason many in the opposition would quickly support Mbabazi is because they have given Besigye three chances that have not yielded the results they seek.

But Godber Tumushabe, a director at TDA, says what has happened in TDA is “completely normal”.  “The process of selecting this country’s future President wasn’t going to be easy,” he told The Independent. Almost everyone agrees.

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