By Flavia Nassaka and Ronald Musoke
On Feb.24, Wasswa Mubiru, the chairman of the Uganda Young Democrats (UYD) in Makindye East constituency was at the Democratic Party (DP) head office with a petition for party President Norbert Mao.
He had hoped to catch Mao at the weekly press conference held at its City House headquarters on William Street in Kampala. Mubiru is concerned about the endless conflicts eating up the party in his constituency.
But Mubiru was not lucky that day.
Before he could talk to his president, Mao announced that he would take immediate leave from the-day-today running of the party. He cited the need to rest. Apparently, Mao’s doctors had recommended he get enough rest to fully recover from a bout of pneumonia which forced him to be bed-ridden for several weeks last year.
Mao’s announcement sparked a flurry of speculation. It was not helpful that Mao’s speech; at what might eventually become a historical date, was mostly spoken in parables and hints about the conflicts within the 61-year old party.
Quoting a verse from the Gospel of Mark 3:25 in the Bible that says “a house divided against its self cannot stand”, Mao explained that there’s a struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party.
“I am not a divider so I will embrace anyone who seeks unity because I don’t want to lead a section of the party but a party and I will surrender it to whoever can keep it strong. How to get this position is through the party constitution”, he said.
Mao emphasized he remains the party president but Mathias Nsubuga, the party’s Secretary General, and John Baptist Kawanga, the national Vice President will steer the party forward. Mao said he would decide whether he will still stand for the party presidency.
Although Mao preaches unity, he is accused by some party faithful of failing to walk the talk, especially in Buganda, and snubbing a Buganda DP Youth Conference at Sharing Hall in Nsambya.
Asked about his failure to attend, Mao again refused to give a straight answer.
“Buganda is pulling in one direction and the rest of the country in another. Some people in the central region have selfish ambitions to preach anarchy and tear the party apart,” Mao said.
Mao is reportedly unhappy with some top DP members led by the party’s Vice Chairperson in Buganda, Richard Ssebuliba Mutumba, who was beside Mao during the Feb.24 press conference.
In 2013, Mao suspended Vincent Mayanja, the deputy secretary general and Kenneth Kakande, the party’s spokesperson, accusing them of insubordination. The two had organised a delegates’ conference for the Uganda Young Democrats (UYD), the party’s youth wing, despite objections from the party’s executive committee headed by Mao. Kakande was only reinstated in mid-February. Mao says some MPs in the party have been moving around the sub-region—which is the party’s heart beat— identifying potential candidates for national and local electoral positions for next year’s general elections—an exercise Mao has called illegal since they have never been sanctioned by the party.
At the time of his takeover from John Ssebana Kizito as the party supremo in 2010, his election was hailed as a victory for liberal members within the party.
In his acceptance speech, Mao promised to heal divisions that had formed during the run up to the elections in the eastern town of Mbale. He also promised to rejuvenate the party to make it more vibrant as it was in the early 1960s and early in the 1980s.
That he has partly achieved. For instance under his reign, DP has won four out of the 11 Parliamentary by-elections held so far. That has made DP take its tally of MPs in the ninth Parliament to 14; six more than the party had in the previous Parliament. DP also has a member in the East African Legislative Assembly, Fred Mukasa Mbidde.
But that has not stopped party officials from Buganda from accusing Mao of poor leadership.
The rancour from the 2010 Mbale national delegates’ conference where several prominent DP leaders including the embattled Kampala Mayor, Erias Lukwago, Lulume Bayigga [Buikwe South], Betty Nambooze [Mukono Municipality], Muhammad Muwanga Kivumbi [Butambala County] and Medard Lubega Ssegona [Busiro East] Mao persists. This group shifted their support to then-FDC presidential candidate Kizza Besigye.
At the beginning of 2015, Bayigga wrote to Mao pointing out where he believed his president had gone wrong and what could be done to rectify the situation.
DP, Bayigga pointed out, had not held any delegates conference since 2010 and that NEC, which is supposed to sit at least once a month now convenes twice a year. These are all issues that have caused a near schism within the party hierarchy.
There has even been talk that Lukwago plans to stand for the party’s top position—a rumour that the Lord Mayor has actually warmed to. Mao insists forces from Buganda are on the forefront of an effort to tear the party apart. “Many of them think a leader should be chosen basing on his ethnicity but I say a leader should be chosen basing on the content of his character. I never filled an application form to be an Acholi, but I chose to follow the banner of Benedicto Kiwanuka,” Mao said.
Mao said at the City House conference that he has gone back to the land of his ancestors to recuperate waiting for a bigger battle which lies ahead for Uganda and not for DP.
With the 2016 elections just months away, could tribalism rather than poor health have eventually pushed Mao to take leave of his favourite party?