Kisangala Onghwens & Bob Roberts Katende
A triumph for democracy or more of the same?
The second FDC Delegates’ Conference was concluded in the early hours of Saturday morning last week with every party member praising the maturity of the exercise. With departmental report presentations dealt with on the first day, the second and last day of the conference kicked off with constitutional amendments before real drama began: campaigns in the late afternoon leading to elections later in the night.
The excitement that characterised the early campaigning slowly gave way to anxiety as the evening progressed. Early on, there were mixed feelings about the seriousness of Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu’s candidature seeking to unseat retired Col. Dr Kizza Besigye as party president. Some delegates saw Muntu’s gambit as a mere public relations gimmick. But this perception soon evaporated when Muntu took to the stage to deliver his speech.
With an air of unwavering authority, defiance and determination, Muntu showed his readiness to take on Besigye for the FDC top job, which would place him almost automatically in a position to challenge President Museveni for State House in the 2011 general elections. At one point during the campaigns, it became increasingly uncertain on who would win between Besigye and Muntu.
Many delegates felt Muntu’s speech was the best at the conference. Muntu told the delegates that in 2011, it would be the atmosphere of democracy reborn in FDC that would distinguish the party from the NRM. ‘The best way of beating an enemy is when you use a weapon that he doesn’t have. It is called strategy and tactics,’ the General stated to thunderous applause. He lashed out at those who had criticised his character as reserved, saying, ‘It doesn’t matter how I operate, but I have the will and resolve to achieve my aims.’
Nabila Ssempala, the formerly estranged FDC MP, called Muntu’s bid a ‘trend-setter exercise.’ She added, ‘Our generation should grow beyond fear to challenge the status quo. The contest of Gen. Muntu was a subject of great appreciation by everyone, and the speech a pleasant surprise.’
In the conference’s fiercest contest, Sam Njuba was elected the party’s national chairman, replacing acting chairman Tom Butime. Njuba had originally been reluctant to stand for the position, but had a change of heart after the Buganda caucus meeting, when Obed Kamulegeya, who had been favourite to replace the previous incumbent, the late Suleiman Kiggundu, stood down for Njuba. This angered Abdu Katuntu, who had been favoured to fill Kiggundu’s shoes. Katuntu took a swipe at Njuba in his campaign speech: ‘Let’s not be pushed into serving in positions we are not interested in. This should not be about tribe but ability. Any successor to Mzee Butime should be a person who can seek advice from him, not a brother.’
Arguing that the FDC needed to broaden its appeal to the youth and women, Katuntu said, ‘you need a face that can sellâ€¦ and the youthfulness to move swiftly,’ a comment that an Arua delegate described as ‘a punch below the belt’ on Njuba.
One Katuntu-supporter, an FDC MP who preferred not to be named, described the contest for the party chairmanship as ‘a choice between an attempt to clean the Kamya mud and massaging Buganda interest, and a firebrand ‘ a potential successor of Besigye tomorrow.’
After he had been declared the loser, Katuntu charged, declaring that ‘tonight we have lost a chance to take care of FDC’s future.’ His argument was that the next generation of FDC leaders are almost all at the same level of power, influence and exposure. This, according to Katuntu, is likely to affect the party negatively when it comes to replacing Besigye. ‘It will be a do or die competition. That is when you will see real camps, and the losing camp may easily break away, he argued. ‘We needed to shoot one of them up now.’
Some delegates said they faced a difficult situation in choosing how to vote in the chairmanship election. In Katuntu, the party would have enjoyed political clout in Busoga, which would probably have tilted the kingdom decisively towards FDC. On the other hand, delegates said, Njuba can boast of wide experience in politics spanning over three decades, and has appeal throughout Uganda.
Amanya Mushega’s election victory over Chapaa Karuhanga for the post of vice president for western Uganda ‘ by 627 to 43 votes ‘ was phenomenal. It was always clear that Mushega, former secretary general of the EAC, was heading for victory, but not by this emphatic margin. Ingrid Turinawe, the recently elected national head of the FDC women’s league, said, ‘There is no better mobiliser for western Uganda than Mushega.’
A group of delegates from western Uganda described Mushega as a popular person to whom people from the region listen. ‘He speaks to people in small groups and they understand him well,’ said one. In his campaign remarks, Mushega explained this strategy. ‘You talk to people in small groups and leave them convinced that what you are saying is true. They will change and you continue building on that,’ he said.
The FDC has plenty of reasons to smile following the conference. There was a general feeling of party unity. The Kamya menace had settled or was settling. And given the support for Njuba, it was clear that the delegates were determined to build bridges with Buganda ‘ although no one would admit this on the record. With John Kikonyogo, one of the FDC leaders who had faced a disciplinary committee only a few weeks previously, contesting for a position and losing in good faith, and Nabilah Ssempala cheering, it seemed like the internal wrangles in the FDC had largely been buried. As Geoffrey Ekanya MP noted, this was a new experience for the party.
However, FDC watchers say the conference provided little if anything new. They point to the fact that most positions were retained by the old guard. If Besigye’s opening remarks at the conference were anything to go by, the party president may not be entirely happy about this state of affairs: ‘I must say that most of the people who were elected at the last delegates’ conference [in 2005] have been non-performers, and few have been committed to the party.’
And yet the majority of these ‘non-performers’ were returned to their incumbent positions. Will there be a dramatic reversal in their performance? Time will tell.