By Agather Atuhaire
FDC’s Muntu responds to calls from DP, UPC for him to quit if he cannot offer direction
Barely eight months to the next general elections, President Yoweri Museveni opponents should be counting on the leader of the biggest opposition party, retired Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu, to provide leadership. But, according to some of them, he is not. And the frustration is showing.
The latest venting venue for them was a joint retreat for opposition MPs to plot a response to President Yoweri Museveni’s rejection of their electoral reforms ahead of the polls. Opposition parties and activists jointly handed government last year over 40 proposed electoral reforms; dubbed `The Uganda Citizens Compact on Free and Fair Elections’ (UCOFFE). But none of them was in the document on April 30 when the government tabled the long-awaited Constitutional amendment Bill to Parliament.
Instead, the government tabled six amendments with only one of them touching on the electoral process. As a result, the opposition groups are working on a reaction to the government snub. Thus, the MPs retreat. The MPs invited leaders of main opposition parties to offer direction.
Held at the unlikely venue of Rivonia Suites; the little hideaway saddled between the Mbuya Army General Headquarters and Kinawataka local cost informal settlement better known for its long distance drivers, and their drinking and busy nightlife, the retreat turned into a shouting match targeting Gen. Muntu.
Former leader of the FDC, retired Col. Dr. Kizza Besigye was the first to vent. He arrived at the venue at 9am sharp when the discussion was to start, but none of the MPs had arrived. To Besigye, this was a mark of unseriousness. Alice Alaso, the Secretary General of his party arrived shortly after but, seeing no other MPs around, she left. In the end, the discussion started as the MPs drifted in one-by-one. Although there are 63 opposition MPs in parliament, only 12 showed up and most of the seats were taken up by staffers from the office of the Leader of Opposition in Parliament, Wafula Oguttu.
Only the leaders of the Democratic Party (DP), the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP), Federal Alliance, and FDC leaders attended. The Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), JEEMA, and the Conservative Party were absent. When the discussions started, they were punctuated by cut-ins and unfinished pitches and sentences, as MPs accused their leaders of wasting time on constitutional amendments well knowing that the government will not adhere to their proposals.
They said their leaders should be aware that the ruling NRM will overpower them on the floor of parliament and pass the laws that its boss; President Museveni, wants. Some also alleged that even some of the opposition MPs, due to indebtedness pay, allegiance to Museveni.
“We have done research and over 300 MPs are HIPIC (highly indebted); they are at Museveni’s mercy because they want him to bail them,” said opposition stalwart, Nandala Mafabi (Budadiri West).
“All of us know as day follows night that there will be no reforms,” said Jinja Municipality East MP Paul Mwiru. “So what are we telling people as time is running out?” he asked.
Mwiru’s fears were also expressed by Mbale Municipality MP Jack Wamai Wamamanga who said that his colleagues should be aware that the government will never accept the reforms they want.
“We are wasting time when we must be thinking of alternative B,” he said.
“What do our leaders expect us as MPs to do?” asked Bugweri MP and Shadow Attorney General Abdu Katuntu, “We don’t want to continue with this confusion where each of us goes to parliament and starts doing their own things.”
Katuntu warned that lack of direction will create chaos. “We need to have a clear message,” he said, “is it the elections or no elections? We are running out of time.”
Katuntu reminded his colleagues that with less than a year left, tough decisions needed to be made.
“I know it is tricky because we need to discuss thoroughly and weigh the consequences. We need to have consensus at summit level. When is that decision going to be taken by the official organs of the parties?” There were also hints of desperation.
The DP Secretary General, Mathias Nsubuga, said it is unfortunate that after all this time; the opposition does not have anything new to facilitate victory in the coming elections. “What do we do after knowing that we don’t have anything new to apply to this election?” he said.
Dick Odur, the chairman of the little-known People’s Progressive Party which does not have a single MP spoke on the same point.
“At the moment,” he said, “the issue of a level playing field is not going to be easy. We are dealing with mission impossible.”
Earlier, Nsubuga had told the meeting that the opposition is confusing its voters with its ambiguity about the elections.
“I have heard reports in the media that Besigye says we boycott but Muntu says we must participate in the elections,” he said. “Which is which? We should speak with one voice and by this time we should have decided on these issues.”
Nandala Mafabi would have none of it.
“Me Nandala to leave Budadiri West for the NRM to take?” he said, “Never!”
As they spoke, the man in the eye of the storm; Gen. Muntu stared at each speaker expressionlessly. Only occasionally, as when Nandala spoke, would he avert eye-contact. Muntu and Mafabi have a running feud over the FDC leadership and only party discipline and decorum appears to keep them in the same room.
Muntu’s blunt axe
Gen. Muntu’s dilemma is that most of the people who spoke are leaders and should actually have been contributing strategies, instead of blaming him. Even influential voice, like LOP Wafula Oguttu, appeared content to stay quiet and let Muntu to be wrung through barbs from all sides.
Part of Muntu’s problem is that he has opted for a leadership style that is major departure from that of Kizza Besigye whom he succeeded. Their different approaches have come to be defined as Besigye’s loud activism versus Muntu quiet party building.
Muntu has explained that building the party is important whether they win the election in 2016 or not. But his remarks have been interpreted as a sign that he is not burning to kick Museveni out of power. Some have labelled him weak and clueless.
So when Muntu’s turn to speak came, only a few were surprised by the direction he took. Muntu said the opposition needs to take deliberate steps; one step at a time.
“Right now our focus is on electoral reforms,” he said.
He then called for unity and cohesion in the process of making the necessary decisions. “We have got to maintain unity of purpose and we need to have discipline as leaders. If we can’t manage ourselves, how will we manage millions of Ugandans?” he said.
Muntu emphasised the point of preparation and organisation. He said that whichever path seems relevant to the opposition cannot succeed if they are not well organised and prepared.
His peak point came when he alluded to the 14th President of the USA, Abraham Lincoln. “Abraham Lincoln said that if he were to be given eight hours to fell a tree,” he said, “he would spend six hours sharpening the axe. Let’s spend time sharpening the axe to be able to fell the tree.”
But Rukiga MP Jack Sabiiti would have none of the axe sharpening.
“Why is the axe not sharp enough after all this time,” he said, “I am seeing a problem; how long are we going to spend sharpening the axe?”
Sabiiti said the retreat was waste of time if it was not addressing practical issues.
“I have come to conclude that we don’t know why we are here today,” Sabiiti said, “some of us have long been frustrated. We wanted to go to war long time ago but we were discouraged by our leaders. They told us to take a certain direction and now that we took this direction we are being discouraged again.”
Ibrahim Semuju Nganda, the Kyadondo East MP was equally agitated.
“If our leaders can’t communicate to us a clear message; what did they come here to do?” he asked, “Can the party leaders help me and show us where we are going? If they can’t give us direction they should all resign.”
It was not lost on anyone that the sabre-rattling was flowing from MPs known to be anti-Muntu and Pro-Nandala/Besigye.
Nandala threw his own punches.
While other members were urging the leaders to rule on what should be done next, Mafabi, who came in more than an hour into the meeting said he will be selective when listening to anyone telling him what to do. “If Kizza Besigye speaks,” he said, “I’ll be convinced because he knows what an election means. But someone who has never participated in an election; not even at LC1, to tell me what to do!”
If that barb was aimed at Muntu, it was clearly misfired because Nandala contested against Muntu in the election for party presidency, and Muntu beat him hands down.
Besigye’s mixed message
But Muntu is not the only leader of the opposition to admit that he does not have all the answers.
On the morning of the retreat, The Independent had asked Kizza Besigye whether he would contest in next year’s general election or not.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Besigye insists there is no point talking about the elections when it is clear that elections in Uganda are just a formality.
“You will miss the point if you look at elections in Uganda as you look at them in another country,” he said, “The fundamental struggle isn’t an electoral contest. It is a contest of restructuring state power and that is not a struggle that is mediated by an ordinary sham election.”
He said that an election in Uganda is an exercise in futility and just a formality that the opposition shouldn’t focus their time and energy on. “What are elections?” he asked, “elections are moments when people give power. If the citizens have no power what are they going to give?”
He added; “we must not talk about elections but restructuring the state.”
Besigye insists he has never called for election boycott. He says the media has either deliberately misinterpreted or failed to understand that “no election” is not the same as “boycott”.
At the retreat, Besigye called on his colleagues to fully appreciate what they are dealing with. He said the current parliament cannot facilitate the passing of ideal reforms.
“Parliament is still an NRM caucus chaired by Museveni,” he said, “Museveni won’t facilitate a system that changes the power structure. If not removed otherwise, Museveni will rule this country until he dies.” Besigye said that participating in the elections is important but said there should be reforms this time.
He said one cannot continue participating in a football match where the captain of one of the teams is also the referee. “Do you want us to participate in another election when Museveni is still holding the whistle?” he asked, “or should we first pull the whistle from him?” Besigye said: “Museveni isn’t just a presidential candidate; he is an incontestable candidate, the omnipotent.”
But as the opposition ponders all that, time is running out. It is just nine months to the election and the man they aim to defeat; President Museveni has shown that he is a non-stop campaigning machine. After kicking into campaigning mode as early as 2012; just a few months after the 2011 elections, Museveni in February last year was declared his party’s sole candidate.
Muntu is unfazed.
“We are democratic,” Muntu said, “we can’t operate like Museveni, we have procedures we must follow.”
Muntu says the opposition parties will elect their flag bearers in June and decide whether and whom to front as a joint candidate. “There is a clear plan,” “Muntu went on, “but we must go step by step.”
The party’s Secretary General Alice Alaso told the Independent that the party will hold its Delegates Conference on June 11 and select a flag bearer thereafter.
By this roadmap, the opposition is running slower than in the last election. In the run up to the February 2011 election, the FDC chose a flag bearer in April 2010 and voted a single candidate for the opposition Inter-Party Coalition in June.
Too late for opposition?
That is a point being made repeatedly by observers.
Former ICT minister, Aggrey Siryoyi Awori, who contested against president Museveni in the 2001 presidential elections, says “it is too late for the opposition”. According to him, they can’t do much with the remaining time.
“It is too late,” he said, “the way I see it, they have a number of obstacles.”
Awori said that the opposition is still wasting time on reforms well knowing that the reforms they seek will not be passed. “There’s no way a predominant NRM Parliament is going to make laws that are favourable to the opposition.”
Awori adds that even if government were to agree to their proposals, there is no time for parliament to approve and pass them. He said that instead of putting the electoral reforms first, the opposition has a lot to first deal with for it to adequately prepare for an election. “They have to first deal with issues of financial constraints and internal strife,” he said, “it looks to me that the FDC has never fully accepted Mugisha Muntu as their President yet things are not any better in UPC and DP.”
“They have a formidable opponent called the NRM,” he added, “The NRM has all the resources needed to win an election.”
Awori advises the opposition to get their eyes off things they cannot attain like the presidency and focus on parliament and local government. “What the opposition should do is to focus on parliament,” he said. “Let them increase their presence in Parliament with MPs that can make a difference to fight the battle from parliament. But if they are fighting for State House, they are wasting their time.”
He advises them to stop wasting time on electoral reforms which he says is wishful thinking and go to the grassroots to sensitise people. But like Besigye, Makerere Law Professor Jean Barya thinks the most important thing is to fight for a credible election. He thinks it is not too late for the opposition to decide on the course of action regarding 2016 but also stresses the need for organisation and preparation.
Prof. Barya says that with good organisation especially at the grassroots level, the opposition can give Museveni a decent challenge even with the current electoral laws.
“When you are in the opposition,” he says, “you have to operate in the terrain that is available to you. If you look at the examples of the by-lections, they were operating under the same circumstances but they managed to win majority of them.”
General Secretary Alaso says that is what FDC is doing currently. She says the party is working on establishing committees on the ground to make the party more firm.
As for the electoral reforms, Barya says the opposition does not have to depend on parliament. He says they can pile pressure on other institutions like the Electoral Commission to make them make some changes before the election gets underway.
But FDC is not the only one with internal leadership issues. A faction of the Uganda People’s Congress was recently in court contesting its leader; President Olara Otunnu’s stay in office after his term expired in March. The case was, however, thrown out.
On the Democratic Party’s part, its President Nobert Mao who is now ill in hospital took leave of office; but that has not stopped a contender for the party leadership; Samuel Walter Lubega from petitioning the Electoral Commission to block any funding to the party until the party’s leadership wrangles are resolved.
With barely nine months to the election, the opposition seems to still be occupied with wrangles and bickering and not the election.
Their critics have said that even if Museveni were to hand them the electoral reforms they want, they would not win an election in their current state.