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Election chaos leaves NRM in mess could widen rift within party ranks

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Election chaos and controversy that threatened to derail the NRM primaries two weeks ago continued to haunt the party up to September 12 when it elected its national leadership at Nambole Stadium.

Tempers flared and the delegates held their breath as the fire-spitting NRM stalwart Maj. Gen. Kahinda Otafiire raised to the podium to campaign for the position of party Secretary General. He made a scathing attack on the incumbent Amama Mbabazi whom he accused of printing different accreditation cards for the delegates with the purpose of rigging the elections.

‘Mr Chairman, before I begin campaigning I have two complaints,’ Otafiire started. ‘Up to now we are going to vote in a few hours, but we do not know which delegate with which card will be allowed to vote. The genuine delegates have been denied entry into this venue and non-delegates have been allowed in. We the candidates have been denied access to the voters register. It is unfair that one of the candidates is involved in the organisation of the election process,’ he said amidst wild applause from the delegates.

Otafiire then left the campaign podium for the President where Mbabazi was seated. He grumbled as he waved a sample of two different accreditation cards. Journalists rushed to capture that dramatic photograph of an angry Otafiire making his case before the President. Tension gripped the audience. The presidential guards dashed to make a security ring around the President. Everyone watched in awe and anxiety. The visibly charged Otafiire, who is the minister of trade, tourism and industry, demanded level playing election ground. The audience fell silent. You could hear a pin drop. After three minutes of dead silence, probably figuring out what to do with his fighting strongmen and whether he should support one against the other, President Museveni extricated himself out of the crossroads. He asked the party electoral commission to explain.

‘We assure Honourable Otafiire that his concerns are being taken care of. The voters’ register will be displayed at the polling stations,’ said Felistus Magomu, the NRM electoral commission chairperson.

Unsatisfied with the explanation, a defiant Otafiire went on to openly attack Mbabazi of distributing different and less amounts of money as allowances to the delegates. ‘You heard Honourable Mbabazi saying one of the candidates was moving around telling delegates that they complained of receiving less amounts of money than they were entitled. I am that candidate and I will say it again,’ Otafiire charged. Mbabazi, who campaigned first, had said one of his competitors was spreading malicious rumours about him on distribution of money to delegates. After the other contenders for the Secretary General Gilbert Bukenya, Elijah Mushemeza, Theodore Ssekikubo and Kibibi, had made their two-minute campaign speeches, Museveni gave Mbabazi a chance to react to Otafiire’s accusations. Mbabazi fired back. He counter-accused Otafiire of peddling false accusations without consulting the relevant people for facts. He said delegates were receiving varying amounts of allowances depending on the distance from their districts. He said delegates from far away areas like  Karamoja, Rwenzori, West Nile, Acholi, Lango and Kigezi were given Shs300,000 as accommodation and transport allowance for the two-day conference while those from other regions were given Shs250,000 for the same period. Each district had 100 delegates. But Mbabazi did not comment on the different accreditation cards and denying genuine delegates entry into the conference as Otafiire, Bukenya and Ssekikubo had alleged. Museveni did not call back Otafiire to respond to Mbabazi’s answers.

Mbabazi appeared to have outdone his opponents. Each district was made a polling station. Even at voting time at 4p.m, a sweating Otafiire kept moving around telling delegates: ‘This is the time to redeem our party’ but the delegates seemed to have already made their choice. Mbabazi’s camp too was making similar rounds to groups of delegates selling their candidate. It was Bukenya’s camp that was making rather quiet campaigns.

Mbabazi’s ‘super’ authority in the NRM cannot be underrated.  Even after the electoral commissioner’s reminders that campaigns had closed, Mbabazi continued canvassing votes 30 minutes into the voting time. It took the intervention of the president to announce that campaigns had closed for Mbabazi to stop.

When the results were announced Mbabazi had carried the day with 5694 votes against Otafiire’s 1256, Bukenya’s 903, Elijah Mushemeza’s 190,  Apolo Kibibi’s 41 and Ssekikubo’s 23.

The old party leadership was returned save for the posts of National Party Treasurer, which Museveni’s former principal private secretary Amelia Kyambadde won unopposed after the incumbent Ndaula Kaweesi pulled out at the last minute. Other new faces were in the posts of national vice chairpersons for Karamoja (Janet Okorimoe), Northern Uganda (Sam Engola), Central Uganda (Abdul Naduli) and Kampala (Francis Babu).  Museveni was chosen party national chairman and NRM presidential candidate unopposed and so was Moses Kigongo for national vice chairman. Rebecca Kadaga was chosen national deputy vice chairperson and Michael Mukula for Eastern region. Matayo Kyaligonza defeated Chris Baryomunsi for vice chairman for Western Uganda.

How Mbabazi won and why

Mbabazi is still President Museveni’s blue-eyed boy. And the delegates knew very well from the days of the Temangalo controversy when the President defended Mbabazi’s role in the land deal. And the fact that Museveni did not fault Mbabazi on any of the accusations the senior NRM officials were making against him at the conference, spoke volumes about how close the two are. Nearly every candidate who stood up to campaign had to repeatedly cite Museveni’s name to boost their campaign. You could clearly see how candidates were fighting to endear themselves to Museveni. Therefore they could not dare throw out his man.

But besides this, being the party’s Secretary General, Mbabazi was the lead organiser of the elections in which he was a candidate. He had an additional edge over his rivals. For instance, while addressing the party’s national conference on September 11, Mbabazi addressed the delegates as SG on the new innovations the party was introducing. This gave him more time than his opponents to market his candidature. The delegates kept chorusing ‘abewo!’. He had enough time to speak on the first day of the conference and kept reminding the delegates of his name and candidature. On voting day Mbabazi and his opponents only had 2 minutes to market their manifestos and candidature.

Apart from the advantages of incumbency, Mbabazi is a shrewd strategist. He allied with most delegates and candidates from the north, east, Karamoja and central regions. Each of the candidates from these region campaigned for themselves as they did for Mbabazi. His only strong opposition came from the western region. Strategically it was these regions that had the swing vote and a candidate who would win them would be the SG. Indeed Mbabazi won in all the north, West Nile, east, Karamoja and central regions despite persistent accusations of voter bribery. Delegates who spoke to The Independent alleged that Mbabazi’s camp was giving Shs10,000 to every delegate who voted for their candidate. A delegate who campaigned for Otafiire actually admitted to The Independent that he had been given Shs20,000 by pro-Mbabazi election officials to vote Mbabazi but on condition that he wrote the name in their presence. He did and was given the cash. But the other camps were also giving out money to delegates to vote for their preferred candidates. Probably the difference was who had more money and clout. But overall it underlined the indispensability of bribery in NRM elections.

Mbabazi’s camp had also pulled off a tactical media manipulation the previous day, which worked in his favour. On the first day of the conference, September 11, a government-owned newspaper reported in its lead story that the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) had asked Bukenya and Otafiire at a meeting at State House the previous night to step down for Mbabazi. This created doubt among some delegates who had intended to vote Bukenya and Otafiire. In fact on the first day of the conference Bukenya spent the biggest part of the day doing damage control, denouncing the media reports as he moved around hugging delegates as his main rival Mbabazi intensified his campaigns.

Bukenya’s troubles were not over yet. The following day ‘voting day ‘knowing that other media would have carried Bukenya’s rebuttal, the government newspaper moved faster. It followed up with another story that Bukenya and Otafiire had defied the party’s central executive committee (CEC) directive. Bukenya had no more chance to rebut this. He was appearing to be an insubordinate candidate who has no respect for party decisions. How could such people be entrusted with a top party office? This did not only affect their supporters’ morale but also created doubt about Bukenya and Otafiire’s loyalty to the party.

Addressing the party delegates at 2:30 am on Sunday night, Museveni dismissed the media reports that Bukenya and Otafiire had defied the CEC directive to stand down.

‘Nobody can defy CEC, that is a dream. It can’t be any single moment. CEC sat and passed through these names. Others were removed for various reasons. If we had wanted to vet Bukenya or Otafiire out, they would not have come here,’ Museveni said, confirming that the media story had been a hoax.

‘I don’t work alone. I put my thoughts to CEC,’ he added in response to reports that Otafire and Bukenya had defied his orders.

Only 13 positions in NRM that are vetted, which include that of the party  chairman, Vice chairpersons, SG, deputy SG, Treasurer, and deputies, CEC assesses the suitable candidate.

Prior to and during the voting, phone text messages were sent to delegates claiming NRM opinion polls had put Mbabazi in the lead with 72% followed by Bukenya 15% and Otafiire 13%. At 7 pm another text message was sent to the delegates that provisional results now showed Mbabazi in the lead. Yet at this time, voting was still going on in all polling stations. These text messages swung the voters’ mood. It would be futile to vote a losing candidate. It cannot be mathematically established that voters changed their mind because of this. But usually voters don’t want to vote a losing candidate. This might have swayed the voters in Mbabazi’s favor but what cannot be ascertained is how many were influenced by the text messages.

Many things worked in Mbabazi’s favour. His daughter was in charge of accreditation and managing data of delegates. In fact there was grumbling among the candidates that Mbabazi’s family had taken over the election process. ‘The party can’t be centred only in the centre. You have the same person manning accreditation cards, the same person handling transport, and the same person ensuring that you are registered. Why can’t we decentralise?’ Bukenya asked. He was alluding to Mbabazi’s family.

His daughter, Nina Mbabazi, was in charge of the party IT system which stored information on every delegate. His wife, Jacquiline Mbabazi, was elected chairperson of the NRM Women’s League. Her rival Nusura Tiperu accused her of bribing the voters. Mbabazi’s wife was also handling the issue of refunding the delegates’ transport fare and allowances. The hotels and restaurants that served food to the delegates were procured by the Mbabazi’ camp. Literally they were in charge of the conference. Even the ushers were campaigning for Mbabazi. They veiled their heads with scarfs with inscriptions to vote Mbabazi.

‘Mbabazi had all the machinery under his control. He has the money and was literally in charge of everything at the conference ranging from organisation to determining who accesses the venue. All the buses transporting the delegates were campaigning for him, how would you expect him to lose?’ said a delegate from Mityana.

Hitches in organization

In the June conference the NRM came under strong criticism by its members after logistics for the delegates were mishandled and Mbabazi later apologised over the confusion. The same mess was repeated during the September 6 -9 Special Organs Conference. Hundreds of delegates queued up the whole day to get accredited as other delegates who were lucky to have secured accreditation earlier were already attending the conference.

The organisers of the conference argued that they were overwhelmed by the number of delegates as they expected only 12,000 but 30,000 turned up instead.

Museveni’s reserved post

Unlike in other political parties where the race for the party presidency was tight, Museveni’s was like God-reserved post. Nobody stood against him. Even those who had expressed interest in the post were vetted out by the party’s NEC. They were also of no known political clout. In fact one of them Ruhinda Maguru was an aide to Gen. Salim Saleh, Museveni’s brother and he is a junior officer in the army. This is not a person who would put Museveni on competition.

In March this year FDC nominated the incumbent Dr Kizza Besigye and the party’s Secretary for National Mobilisation Maj. Gen. Mugisha for the party presidency. They carried out three-month rigorous campaigns countrywide. Nobody was sure who would win the presidency. That competition was totally lacking in the NRM elections for the presidency at Nambole. The only competition was in the lower positions especially the Secretary General.

This has played in the critics’ hands who say the NRM is a one-man’s party. You can aspire for other positions in the party, but not the presidency. Analysts say that the fact Museveni still does not allow anyone internally to compete against him for the party presidency after 25 years at the helm, reinforces the assertion that he is not about to hand over power to anyone.

They say such elections would allow Museveni and the NRM identify an emerging successor if he was interested in one anyway.

Museveni explains election mess

Museveni dismissed claims that the violence in the primaries spelt doom for the party. He instead said it shows the need for people to change attitude about time keeping and respecting electoral rules,’ he said defiantly.

‘People were still campaigning while time for voting had started until I shouted. The problem is that people have not internalised the struggle of democracy, the printer, transporter of the ballot wants and the returning officer also wants to steal, the problem is attitude,’ he added.

He explained that opportunists within the NRM who were charged with registering party members in the Yellow book were responsible for the mess in the primaries. He said they recorded names of their supporters leaving out others who did not support them. This forced the NRM to use the national EC voters’ register because of the greed of the unscrupulous party members. He partly attributed the mess to meager resources. He said Shs4 billion was released for the primaries for 60,000 polling stations yet the national Electoral Commission has 26,000 polling stations and uses over Shs120 billion to conduct elections. However, as he blamed shortage of resources for the election chaos, he lavishly dished out envelops of Shs40m to each of the 32 local dancing groups that entertained him at Nambole.

Otafiire left immediately when it became clear he had lost the vote. Vice President Bukenya too did not wait for announcement of the final results.

Museveni heaped the blame on the electoral commission which was unable to organise for a massive party with 8.8 million members on its register. But analysts say the chaos in the primary elections has revealed that NRM is a party controlled by power hungry individuals. The intense fight among the party officials suggests the thirst for power rather than to serve the country. That is why all complainants in the elections were petitioning Museveni instead of the established party structures to address their grievances. But Museveni had his own interpretation. He said this showed NRM is a great party.

Otafiire said old habits die hard: ‘we are the very people who fought UPC castigating election rigging. It is very unfortunate that our democratic principles have been brought under scrutiny. It is unfortunate that our leaders are being found with ballots, cheating, ballot papers found on the streets.’

Otafiire’s handicaps

Otafiire’s camp was headed by Jim Muhwezi as the campaign manager, Brig. Henry Tumukunde as his chief election strategist, Hassan Bassajja Balaba as the financier, Brig. Matayo Kyaligonza and Bernard Mujansi, the Mbale district chairman. But his camp was timid. They could not launch an open onslaught on Mbabazi because the president had cautioned them to conduct campaigns free of personal attacks. It was only dare-devil Otafiire who came out boldly to campaign for himself. Tumukunde,  although believed to be a good mobiliser, could not openly campaign for Otafiire as the law bars serving army officers from active politics. He would not dare reignite his subsiding troubles with the state especially that he would confronting security minister and a close confidant of Museveni. So he campaigned under ground and the results showed this.

Election petitions hang on

The NRM is grappling with about 350 election petitions arising from the primaries. Most of the petitioners are threatening to stand as independents if their grievances are not resolved. This is likely to increase the number of independents in parliament from the current 37 to probably the same number of opposition MPs in the House next year. This is the most contentious issue the NRM has to resolve or face a splinter force of disgruntled members.

Ofono Opondo says despite the mistakes in the NRM primaries the elections have made the party stronger and it has been a learning point for organising future elections. ‘The campaigns were stiff but there were no enmity generated. The exercise has built democracy and debate in the party. The contest has prepared the NRM minds to the likelihood of a better way that will eventually lead to a method of getting a successor to President Museveni,’ Opondo told The Independent.

He says all the party needs is to ensure an effective arbitration mechanism for those contesting the election results so that there is complete healing of the mistakes witnessed in the elections. He said a committee headed by former Prime Minister Kintu Musoke that includes Prof. Mondo Kagonyera, Moses Ali has been put in place to handle all election petitions and make recommendations that will leave the party united.

He says Otafiire and Bukenya disagreed with Mbabazi in principle but disagreements were based on falsehood. Opondo says the contest for various posts in the party prove to its critics that there is debate in the party.  He said when the accusations against Mbabazi became many, he admitted and apologised, an acknowledgement of his mistakes.

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