By Agather Atuhaire
NRM favourite for speaker loses to a “rebel” as parties assess damage, victories and future
The National Resistance Movement (NRM) party was supposed to be the ultimate victor in the election of Uganda’s delegates to the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA). Of the nine seats, it took six, thanks to its majority. Thanks to confusion in the opposition camp, its main challenger, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), lost its two seats. Both candidates for Speaker were its members, so it was running a race it could not lose.
Yet, Margaret Zziwa’s victory as EALA speaker is a bitter-sweet one for NRM, because she never had the party’s blessing.
Even before NRM held its EALA primaries, Dorah Byamukama had the party’s blessing to run for speaker. Lydia Wanyoto appeared to be the other name in the race but she was blocked from contesting because she had already served the two terms provided for in the East African Community Treaty.
After nomination, Mike Sebalu and Margaret Zziwa revealed their interest. A top team of the NRM Secretariat reportedly called Sebalu and Zziwa and told them that if they did not leave the speakership to Byamukama, they could be blocked from making it to EALA at all.
Meanwhile sources privy to the contest say, after being blocked, Wanyoto ran to Arusha and kicked up a campaign against Byamukama.
At election time for Uganda’s representatives, many found it strange that Byamukama, who seemed to be the most popular not only within NRM but the whole Parliament, came as number four in the ranking of party candidates by number of votes they got, beating only Zziwa and Nusura Tiperu. Something was wrong.
Parliamentary Commissioner and Kinkizi East MP Chris Baryomunsi attributed it to tribalism and told The Independent that MPs from the East and the Central region had been convinced not to vote for Byamukama because she was a Westerner.
But she remained the party’s favourite. Before the voting process concluded, Ssebalu and Zziwa flew to Arusha to start their campaigns for speaker. Top party officials convened a meeting to reassure the candidates that Uganda was floating only one candidate – Byamukama. Zziwa and Ssebalu missed that meeting.
Observers say this was the same reason former parliamentarian Ben Wacha, who contested as an independent and seemed like a shoo-in to victory, lost to little-known Susan Nakawuki, also a former MP. NRM saw Wacha as a threat to Byamukama’s claim on the speakership. Party sources say they had pledged to give Wacha votes on the condition he denounced any interest to be speaker in his campaign speech, which he refused to do.
In a meeting of the chief whips of all parties represented in EALA and the Speaker, NRM told the candidates to support only Byamukama for speaker. On June 1, word circulated in Parliament that NRM was threatening to recall Zziwa and Ssebalu. A knowledgeable MP told The Independent that that this was possible, but he hoped it did not come to that.
Another meeting was scheduled with the Speaker, the Prime Minister and the party whips the next day, to agree on a delegation to go to Arusha and demand that Ssebalu and Zziwa quit the race. It was feared that if Uganda floated more than one candidate, Burundi, which was still in the race, would take the seat. Yet, even after Burundi quit the race on June 4, NRM officials continued to coerce the other candidates to back down. Ssebalu gave in and dropped out.
Zziwa held to her guns. By the end of Election Day on June 5, she had beaten Byamukama with 33 votes in the 52-member assembly, becoming EALA’s third speaker.
Party observers say Zziwa may still face disciplinary action for having gone against the wishes of the party, but the NRM Caucus Spokesperson Evelyn Anite sounded conciliatory when she talked to The Independent after the victory was announced.
“It is not a big loss because she is also a party member and looking at her record she has been cooperative,” Anite said. “The party will look at how to work with her.”
However, the dispute revealed that the fractious politics of EALA election, which had savaged the defeated opposition parties like FDC, did not spare even the victorious NRM.
Most observers think that the EALA is still largely inconsequential, since the institutions of the East Africa Community have not yet gained any significant influence over national decisions. Yet the election of Ugandan representatives has fractured the national assembly and opposition parties to an extent no one ever envisaged.
The biggest casualty has been the opposition, whose only real strength, in a Parliament where the ruling party enjoys overwhelming majority, was its united front. Leader of the Opposition Nandala Mafabi has now disbanded the Shadow Cabinet, expelled members from the Democratic Party and Uganda People’s Congress, and accused them of being moles for the NRM.
Infuriated by the perceived betrayal, after learning that his colleagues had disregarded an agreed opposition boycott of the EALA elections and instead fielded candidates, Mafabi fired his cabinet on the floor of Parliament. This was after members of DP and UPC also declared that they were independent parties that would not be ordered around by another party – even if it was the official opposition party.
The accusations and counter-accusations have rolled back many years of building a united coalition to counter NRM’s ubiquitous strength.
Some observers (even those from FDC) have criticised Mafabi’s decision as irrational and impulsive, but it was upheld by a meeting of the National Executive Committee of the Forum for Democratic Change.
Mafabi said even if FDC had the mandate to form the Shadow Cabinet on its own, it still recognised the need for a united opposition front, but would handpick trusted individuals to cooperate with, instead of whole parties.
“Our thinking was that the opposition recognised the importance of unity and therefore needed to pull as a single force,” Mafabi said in a June 4 statement, following the meeting. “It was this illusion we lived in until events of the EALA elections exposed the true character of some of our colleagues. Opposing a corrupt government can be a tough call and as you can see from recent events, only the principled and genuine believers in democracy and rule of law can survive.”
Some opposition members think Mafabi may have overreacted.
“I think he was overwhelmed by emotions of betrayal or perceived betrayal,” said Buikwe MP Lulume Bayiga, a DP member and, until the sacking, Shadow Minister for Health.
Bayiga said Mafabi’s decision, especially announced on the floor of Parliament without prior communication, had embarrassed the concerned members of the Shadow Cabinet, and will further disintegrate the opposition front.
Senior FDC members and members of the Shadow Cabinet Abdu Katuntu and Ibrahim Ssemuju Nganda, agreed with Bayiga.
“I did not expect the leader of opposition to make that announcement in the House,” Ssemuju said on the Capital Gang radio talk show. “Even if I agreed with sacking them, I can’t agree with the way he did it.”
Semujju compared it to the story of Edward Rugumayo, former Tourism minister, who reportedly got the news of his sacking from Yoweri Museveni’s cabinet from his house-girl.
Katuntu said Mafabi should have consulted first, instead of acting in anger.
“The whole situation is looking very ugly right now and as the opposition we have been a disappointment to our supporters and the whole country,” said Katuntu. Katuntu is leading the FDC’s appeal in the East African Court of Justice to overturn the election, arguing that the rules that guided it still do not conform to Article 50 of the EAC Treaty which demands wider representation.
But some agree with Mafabi.
Independent, but DP-leaning Masaka Municipality MP Mathias Mpuuga, famous for coordinating the Activists for Change protests, said he would have done the same.
“When you have children and they connive with your opponent to undermine your decisions, what do you do?” asked Mpuuga.
“I am not FDC but am proud of the position the leader of opposition took,” Mpuuga said, adding that FDC has set the agenda to ensure that the opposition in Uganda was respected and other opposition parties should respect it for that.
Researcher and political analyst Fredrick Golooba Mutebi also supported Mafabi, and said the problem is that MPs do not think they owe their parties anything since most of them were personally responsible for their being in Parliament. This creates indiscipline and criticism of anyone that tries to bring them to order.
“There could be people within the party who want to use this incident against Mafabi’s leadership which might even cause a fall-out,” Golooba told The Independent.
Even before his formal statement, Mafabi showed no regret.
“This decision has been long overdue, said Mafabi, “I should have taken action a long time ago. I took a decision in the best interest of FDC as the official opposition.”
Mafabi said most people challenging his leadership just wanted his position.
“You know, I was not around when I was chosen. Many people thought they would take the job and were not happy when the party leadership chose me,” Mafabi said.
He said his record, especially in resurrecting Bugisu Cooperative Union in Eastern Uganda, had showed him to be a good leader.
“When I was Public Accounts Committee chairman, there was no single minority report,” he said.
But Mafabi faces a dilemma. Not all DP and UPC members in Parliament were party to decisions to abandon the EALA boycott. Ssemujju says most DP members did not agree with their party and should not be punished for it.
“Not everyone in UPC is unreasonable either,” he said.
This thinking will guide Mafabi’s new Shadow Cabinet.
“We are still reviewing to identify those we can work with and those that have been derailing us,” Mafabi told journalists on June 1.
A few things are clear. The two UPC members in the cabinet – Ministers for Rehabilitation, Relief and Disaster Management Father Jacinto Ogwal and Benson Obua Ogwal, for Communication and Technology, must go.
Two committee vice chairpersons – PAC Vice Chairperson Maxwell Akora (Maruzi County) and Local Government Committee Vice Chairperson Florence Namayanja (Bukoto East), were also fired.
But observers warn that a partnership based on separating individuals from their parties will not be easy.
“I don’t know how that arrangement will work,” said Bayiga, adding that none of them would stop belonging to their parties.
But Mpuuga said there were no more parties in Parliament. He gave the example of DP, whose members came to Parliament under the pressure group Ssuubi. He said the last nail in DP’s coffin was the further division of the few that had remained in the mainstream party led by Nobert Mao over internal disagreements over EALA candidates and whether to participate at all.
UPC is equally factionalised, and television footage of ruling party NRM members singing UPC praise songs in Parliament has many wondering if there is any party left in the House.
But Mpuuga agrees it will not be easy. “It is inevitable situation, but it creates a bit of a crisis,” he said.
Some think FDC’s chances of over-turning the election petition in the EACJ are slim.
NRM’s Chris Baryomunsi said FDC will lose because it did pick and return nomination forms, only to withdraw one Louis Dramadri’s candidature afterwards. But Jinja Municipality East MP Arusha Paul Mwiru, one of the lawyers in the case, said the dispute is not about participation but representation.
Baryomunsi added that even if they were to win, the assembly could be in its third year when the case is resolved.
Regardless of a court victory or a seat in the EALA, Mafabi has declared FDC a winner; “From this incident we have emerged stronger,” he said.
Mpuuga agreed, and said FDC had retained its respect, while DP and UPC, which each got a seat, “lost the little credibility they had”.
However, Golooba said the EALA issue was being given undeserved attention and advised FDC to focus on internal restructuring and fence-mending.
Bayiga agreed with him and urged Mafabi to focus on the bigger picture. “My advice to the leader of the opposition is to call a reconciliatory meeting focusing on the bigger picture because there is life after EALA.”