By Haggai Matsiko
How the tussle between top party guns over Mafabi’s job is giving Muntu headache
Gen. Mugisha Muntu, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) President, faced a tough choice on Nandala Mafabi, his former opponent, a head of a top party governing body meeting on Oct.22. A move by top party members to have Mafabi’s post of Leader of Opposition (LoP) reviewed together with other party leadership positions come December put Muntu on the cusp of a high-stakes-gamble.
Under the multiparty dispensation, MPs have an unwritten law to review the leadership and membership of Parliamentary Sessional Committees after every fiscal year and Standing Committees after every half a session of Parliament, Opposition Chief Whip and Kasese Woman MP, Winfred Kizza told The Independent.
We agreed to do this for purposes of preparing everyone to be a leader and continuity,” Kizza noted. These changes extend to the Chief whips and the LoP among others.
It is on the basis of this that some officials in FDC demanded that the office of the LoP be reviewed. Reports indicated that these officials wanted Mafabi to be the new Shadow Finance Minister replacing Godfrey Ekanya.
This has apparently thrown the proverbial cat among the pigeons. Mafabi’s supporters view these changes as politically motivated and intended to deal with mainly their man. From LoP to Shadow Finance Minister is clearly a big demotion, given the lofty status of that office.
It’s the reason that Mafabi’s supporters are up in arms. They also note that the tradition is that the LoP serves a five-year-term—they cite former LoP Morris Ogenga Latigo to justify their argument. Ogenga only left the office following a fatal motor accident and not a review.
“It has been the tradition for the LoP to complete his term,” Party strongman Jack Sabiiti told The Independent, “and we expect Mafabi to finish his term, if he is replaced for some political reasons, we shall not accept it and many people in the party will not accept it.”
Sabiiti, an ardent Mafabi sympathiser, represents many silent voices. Leaders from Eastern Uganda, particularly Sironko District, are also on record about this. This region, being Mafabi’s ground zero where FDC has beaten NRM stalwarts hands down on several occasions, is FDC’s stronghold.
But the opposition chief whip disagrees with Sabiiti. She says that for anyone to call it a tradition, it needs to have happened over the years.
“As you are aware,” Kizza said, “we have only had Latigo, a multiparty dispensation is a thing of yesterday, so it is not accurate to say there has been a tradition.”
She also dismisses talk of politics and witch-hunting. “We agreed at the beginning of the term that these posts would be up for review, so there is no harm in the review. The party can choose to retain the LoP or change him, there would be no politics and no harm,” Kizza added.
As the biggest opposition party with 36 MPs of the 382, FDC commands the position of LoP and other top four oversight committees.
Divisions over replacing Mafabi have struck right at the heart of FDC – the National Executive Committee (NEC) – which is the party’s top governing body.
Apart from the four regional Vice Chairpersons, the party President and Secretary General are amongst those that sit on the NEC.
The NEC holds meetings every two weeks on Wednesday and was expected to meet on Oct.23 to iron out these issues as The Independent went to press.
But even before the meeting, it was clear; it would be a hard call for Muntu.
While he wanted to retain Mafabi, his secretary general Alice Alaso was already reported to be canvasing for support to replace him.
For Muntu, therefore, retaining Mafabi means offending the likes of Alaso, who are interested in the position yet firing him, could easily throw a group of party members in disarray because it will be seen as a consequence of the differences between the two.
With 2016 around the corner, Muntu, who is keen on contesting against President Museveni, is walking a tight rope as he must garner support from all his members. Any unpopular decision would risk posting a backlash to his disadvantage. Already, there is discomfort among the party faithful over the confusion with accusing fingers being pointed at the ruling party.
“There is already concern that these party squabbles are cheating us on time to concentrate on 2016,” a source noted, “we wouldn’t want to open another can of worms.”
That is why he ruled out talk about Mafabi’s fate as “NRM propaganda.” Muntu told local media that no discussions have been held about the position of LoP and that his party is expected to send its position on the matter to Parliament by Feb.6 next year.
Muntu’s decision was even compounded by the fact that the party was yet to heal the scars from the war of words that dotted the November 2012 party elections that saw sharp swords drawn between Muntu’s and Mafabi’s camps.
The party is still grappling with divisions that emerged during the campaigns and when Mafabi lost to the man who now appears to have the key to his fate as LoP. Mafabi lost the polls by 32 votes to Muntu in the hotly-contested elections. Wounds are yet to be healed completely.
Indeed, the party is yet to come to terms with a recommendation by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee chaired by city lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuzi to have party presidential elections repeated next year.
Apart from other efforts to rest this matter, the party’s last hope to deal with the issue is the committee of elders led by Augustine Luzindana. All signs, according to party insiders, were that this committee too, would quash the recommendation for a re-election.
All these stemmed from the fact that Mafabi and his supporters are yet to appreciate Muntu as their president, sources say.
“Do not see Muntu going out of his way to settle scores with the Mafabi camp and think he is unwise,” an insider told The Independent, “We know that the Mafabis are waiting to win on another day but it is important that they fight their wars in the party than outside.”
It all started with a petition Mafabi’s team submitted citing malpractices in an electoral process that got Muntu to the top job in the party.
Muntu, a party member noted, being a consensus builder, wants to do all he can to ensure no one breaks away from the party.
This is why, another party source said, it was likely that Muntu would most likely retain Mafabi as LoP. But he added, Muntu is also on record admitting that Mafabi was a performer in Parliament.
Talents are different, Muntu noted the day he became President, Besigye is a natural activist, let him keep doing it because it exposes the rottenness of government. In Parliament, Mafabi is vocal at exposing corruption; let him also keeping doing that.
However, while Muntu would be keen to keep his word, he also faces a tough call convincing those who want Mafabi out.
Party sources told The Independent that the trouble for Muntu is his supporters who are also interested in the prestigious LoP job.
“Mafabi realises that continuing to be LoP does not add anything on him, if anything it has cost him like during campaigns when he was accused of using that office,” a source said. “He also does not need to be LoP to become party president, Besigye and Muntu never held that post.”
However, while these supporters have watched and lent a hand in all these efforts to ensure Mafabi and his supporters keep in the FDC fold, the position of LoP, might be the biggest test of their endurance.
For most of the party insiders, The Independent has talked to, the biggest challenge for Muntu is how to skirt a bid by party strongwoman Alaso.
Alaso, as already noted sits on the NEC that wants Mafabi out. She wants to become LoP. She is reportedly already campaigning together with senior politician, Cecilia Ogwal. Both have since 2011 eyed that seat and party insiders admit that both fit the bill. As party SG and a genius mobiliser, Alaso has all it takes to be a LoP.
Ogwal, on the other hand, commands a lot of respect in the House having been there for a very long time even though she only crossed from Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) in the late 2000s to seek election on an independent ticket.
Powerful Mafabi rivals
Former FDC President Col.Dr. Kizza Besigye, basing on this seniority, had wanted to name Ogwal LoP but the party’s National Executive Council (NEC) declined citing the fact that she was only a new entrant into the party. FDC’s NEC then zeroed in on Mafabi.
That is how Ogwal and Alaso lost to Mafabi in 2011. It is not imaginable how they would stomach another loss at the hands of Mafabi.
Party sources admit that she was the engine that delivered victory for Muntu in the 2012 elections. This cost her, the last thread of friendliness to Mafabi, if there was still any. Besigye is on record citing bad blood between Mafabi and Alaso after the former was appointed LoP in 2011.
As early as campaign time, Alaso was already distablising Mafabi. She wrote to the Speaker Rebecca Kadaga asking her to request Mafabi to step aside because she wanted to “save the image of the party because it was alleged that the LoP was using government resources to campaign,” she personally noted. Mafabi never stepped aside.
During the campaigns she made sure that all was in place for Muntu to win, at least according to Mafabi and his supporters.
That is why in their petition against malpractices, the Mafabi camp levelled all blame on Alaso, who was party SG even demanding that she resigns.
Apart from accusations Alaso sided with Muntu and disadvantaged Mafabi yet as secretary general she was supposed to be neutral. The Mafabi camp were also concerned that Alaso never recognised the Shs 700m donation that Mafabi ‘donated’ to the party. He was angry that Alaso had never recognised this ‘donation.’
All these were interpreted as Alaso’s machinations to favour Muntu. Naturally, therefore, Alaso, who as a politician wants to grow, party sources say, expects a return of the favour from Muntu.
Alaso is Muntu’s ardent supporter, loyalist but also her commitment to the party has seen her deliver Serere, her constituency all the time.
This is what makes choosing a LoP for Muntu a tough call.
“She would the best choice,” a party source said, “but being Mafabi’s arch rival, if Muntu appoints her, Mafabi’s supporters would count it a double loss and this might force them out.”
Party sources say that given that state of affairs, Muntu faces two choices; retaining Mafabi or appointing Bugweri County MP Abdul Katuntu or Cecilia Ogwal.
For some members, Katuntu too fits the bill. He has reportedly performed excellently as the Shadow Attorney General, a party source told The Independent.
In the past, Katuntu wanted to become party chairman but was convinced out of it—party officials have for long coveted the position for a Muganda. Other sources say NEC has already identified another post for Katuntu.
As party president, all these decisions rest squarely on Muntu and so do the consequences.
According to Rwakafuzi, since this is change dictated by rules, Mafabi is not likely view it the wrong way.
But as Sabiiti put it, those in Mafabi’s camp are likely to view such a move in bad faith and is their leader. Such would further complicate efforts towards party reconciliation.
“If some people take positions contrary to what has been the tradition and if some people ignore the proposal by the committee [Rwakafuzi committee] because of politics, then they shall be held responsible for whatever happens to the party,” Sabiiti told The Independent.
How Muntu deals with these issues will no doubt have a big bearing on restoring cohesion in the party and shaping his bid to contest against Museveni come 2016. So for FDC to be in disarray is like music in the ears of the ruling party and more so with the next general elections knocking at the door. But most importantly, the confusion in the country’s most powerful opposition party also portends disappointment for many who hoped that it represents Uganda’s best chance for change from the monotony of Museveni’s 30-year hold on power.
Observers say how Muntu handles this crisis will be keenly watched as any appearance of weak leadership could force the party faithful to demand that his predecessor Dr. Besigye, Museveni’s long-term nemesis, returns to the contest to be the party’s flag-bearer come 2016.