By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi
Money, NRM intrusion and jostling for Besigye’s chair rock the main opposition party
The brush between Leader of Opposition Nandala Mafabi and FDC Members of Parliament reflects a deeper problem in Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), Uganda’s leading opposition party.
The Independent has learnt that as FDC President Kizza Besigye pays more attention to protests, a power vacuum has developed within the party that many players are now trying to fill, including perhaps, the ruling party.
Within FDC, jostling for the top job has taken centre stage and issues like fundraising been neglected, leaving the party broke, unable to finance crucial elections, and its leadership splintered.
President Yoweri Museveni has also stepped up to occupy the vacuum created in the party and the entire opposition, at some point insinuating that he used his “contacts in FDC” to break up the Walk-to-Work protests and sow other forms of discord.
If that’s the case, Mafabi may have already swallowed Museveni’s bait, as his accusations against opposition MPs that they are too close to Museveni have shattered the unity of its leadership.
Mafabi’s fears are not entirely baseless. Some FDC members, including his own former campaigner Moses Kisolo, have already been successfully wooed by the NRM.
But his confrontational approach is relatively new to the party and puts his bid for its presidency under closer scrutiny by drawing unfavourable comparisons with Besigye, who is a master at deflect ing NRM attempts at disruption. Besigye’s almost trademark reaction to claims that FDC members were dealing with NRM has always been scepticism, seeing it as the work of NRM operatives trying to sow distrust by framing active party members as moles.
Mafabi’s critics charge that he is “trying too hard to impress” in order to succeed Besigye, and with his latest accusations, shooting himself and the party in the foot.
But Mafabi and his proponents fire back that some members had been disengaged from party business, which was “unacceptable”.
“The demands on an opposition leader are too much,” Mafabi told The Independent, “and it is only the fully committed who will help FDC win leadership and change this country.”
Thanks to his “strict” approach, Mafabi is already facing a revolt in Parliament. Kitgum Woman MP Beatrice Anywar recently “stepped aside” from her post as Minister for Energy in the Shadow Cabinet, to allow the party to investigate accusations by Mafabi that she was cozying up too closely to Museveni.
MPs Abdu Katuntu, Judith Akello Franca and Geoffrey Ekanya, have previously been warned by Mafabi about “neglecting their duties” and being too close to Museveni.
Kassiano Wadri, chairperson of the influential Public Accounts Committee of Parliament, which Mafabi chaired and won plaudits for in the last parliament, is also not very happy with his leader and predecessor. Mafabi criticised Wadri for letting Museveni off the hook in a report about the controversial compensation to Hassan Basajjabalaba, in which the committee absolved the President of wrongdoing.
The situation has been tense for a while, and tended towards explosion last week, as Besigye held marathon meetings with Mafabi, the MPs and other party leaders, to try and resolve differences. But it all looked like fire-fighting, instead of deliberate reconciliation and consolidation.
Trouble over Besigye’s departure
The threat from NRM, though by no means new, has taken on greater significance. Besigye will soon quit the party presidency, as announced a few months ago. Given the fall-out between Mafabi and some MPs, holding the party together will be a tough job for whoever succeeds him. This is especially because there is no evidence, at least in Uganda, that changing leaders makes a party stronger.
Mafabi’s principal opponent, Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu, has also been accused of being too conciliatory towards Museveni and the NRM. If he wins, he too could find problems appealing to a section of FDC supporters who prefer a more confrontational approach. Muntu has told his detractors that he cannot completely cut off relationships with former colleagues in the army, whom he will have to work with then the party takes power.
Makerere University don Dr. Yasin Olum cautions FDC to be careful in responding to accusations like this, as the NRM may want to accentuate fears over Muntu’s [and other party members’] allegiance to create a “sense of helplessness, despair and suspicion” among FDC supporters.
But there are other ominous signs in FDC. The party is broke and the election of Besigye’s successor, which had been expected to take place this July, is likely to be postponed. Campaigns for party president are expected to take four months yet only two months to the earlier scheduled date of election, they have yet to begin.
Augustine Ruzindana, FDC’s assistant secretary general, says the party has no money to finance grass-root elections in the new districts that were formed in the run-up to last year’s general elections. It also needs money to call a delegates conference, which usually lasts two to three days and brings together over 700 people from across the country.
However Ruzindana says the money problem is temporary, unexplainable, and not unique to FDC.
“Show me one political party that is not facing financial difficulties,” he challenges.
That said, party members fear that any further delays in replacing Besigye will worsen the rifts in FDC. They consider that while Besigye is a “lame duck”, incapable of influencing much at this point when his motivation to lead FDC seems to have waned, the prolonged absence of an active head will undermine the party’s support.
Members say part of the problem is Besigye’s “new love for protests”, which over the past year has diverted him from efforts to strengthen FDC.
“The party is no longer fundraising because Besigye is busy with protests,” a member of the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) told The Independent.
“But what is Besigye’s ultimate objective?” he wondered. “Why did he choose to build Activists for Change [A4C] when he was leaving the party presidency?”
There are emerging fears that Besigye could be attempting to use A4C to build a parallel party, as an alternative front of influence since he is constitutionally barred from seeking another term as FDC president.
This would enable him to continue as the most influential leader in the opposition even after leaving the FDC chair. Party members do not want this.
“Our disagreement with Museveni is that he became bigger than institutions,” the source said. “We don’t want Besigye to follow the same path.”
Besigye could not be reached for comment. But Francis Mwijukye, his close aide and a youth leader in FDC, says such fears about Besigye’s intentions are misplaced.
“There is no use in building a strong party that can’t win elections,” Mwijukye argued, adding that FDC has always been strong but their votes were stolen.
Besigye’s critics counter that even if elections are rigged, FDC needs to organise and build strong institutions.
Disagreement over how the party is run and disillusionment over its failure to win the last election have forced some party members to withdraw from the daily running of the party. MPs like Reagan Okumu, one of the most active before the 2011 general elections, no longer contribute to the running of the party, compounding the financial problem.
Others, like the party’s vice president for Northern region and former leader of the opposition in Parliament, Prof. Ogenga Latigo, “have not set foot at the party headquarters for about a year”, and have not been involved in mobilisation or fundraising.
In a recent newspaper article provoked by claims that Latigo had crossed to the ruling NRM, he was quoted saying he was busy with his farm in Nwoya district, northern Uganda, but still in FDC. The Independent couldn’t reach Latigo because his known phone number remained switched off.
Ingrid Turinawe, the leader of FDC Women’s League and front-line protester under A4C, dismissed the argument that emphasis should be put on building the party instead of protests – now a staple of party meetings – as mistaken.
“We are talented in different ways,” Turinawe said. “Let those who want to mobilise do so and us who are talented in protesting continue with protests. Who has stopped anyone from doing whatever they want for FDC?”
After all, Turinawe argues, even after Besigye told his critics that he wants to retire and concentrate on protests, they have failed to step up and guide the party.
“Ask each of them how much they have done to improve the party,” asked Turinawe. “Dr [Besigye] has been emptying his pocket working for the party.”
Some FDC members this reporter talked to say Besigye should have handed over power and helped his successor consolidate his hold on the party, before devoting himself to protests.
They say Besigye spends more time at Plot 6 Katonga Road, where protest activities formerly under A4C – now For God and my Country (4GC) – are coordinated, than at the FDC headquarters at Najjanankumbi.
Growing the party
Besigye is also accused of backing people from other parties over his own party’s candidates in elections, the latest being the parliamentary by-election in Entebbe Municipality. When DP’s Muhammad Kawuma lost his Parliament seat over election malpractices, FDC’s NEC settled on William Seryazi as their candidate in the bye-election.
But Seryazi had scraped through with only 209 votes against Kawuma’s 13,728, coming third. NRM’s Patience Mubangizi came second with 6,226 votes and independent candidate Hawa Nakibuule garnered 12 votes.
In a party meeting before the bye-election, Besigye expressed reservations over fronting Seryazi, arguing that Kawuma stood better chances of re-election. He also said supporting Kawuma would be a good gesture in promoting cooperation within the wider opposition. But the majority of FDC members disagreed. They argued that while Kawuma stood better chances of victory, the party needed to start building its own base in Entebbe and other parts of the country. Besigye’s critics argued that while they supported him whenever he stood for elections, he supports candidates from other parties when it suits him.
Despite Besigye’s pleas, there is a growing lobby in FDC to back party candidates in every election to build the party’s own base, instead of joining opposition-wide coalitions.
Backing other parties’ candidates is thorny bait for party leaders. It may yield immediate benefits by galvanising some unity in the opposition, especially around major election campaigns, but it may also endanger their legacy. A case in point is former DP President Paul Kawanga Semogerere, who backed Museveni after taking power in 1986 and later Besigye in the 2001 election, angering a section of the party’s supporters. Until this day, some still accuse him of “donating” the party’s support to rivals.
It is an accusation Besigye also risks. Some FDC members now fear he could end up giving away FDC’s support to people like Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, with whom he walks in city protests. Lukwago, FDC sources say, has shown a desire to vie for the presidency and they fear he could be using Besigye to “introduce him across the country”.
One source was angry that Besigye sided with candidates from other parties or stayed non-committal in key constituencies during the 2011 campaigns, making FDC lose out on seats it probably would have won. Choosing parliamentary and local council candidates in Buganda was primarily left to the Mengo-leaning pressure group Ssuubi, said to be biased in favour of DP.
Many FDC members are chagrined that they were left out in favour of other parties’ supporters. One of the most vocal of these was Rubaga North parliamentary candidate John Kikonyogo, who complained that he had been side-lined by Ssuubi and Besigye in favour of DP’s Moses Kasibante.
Jethro Nuwagaba, another FDC member, insisted on competing for the Kampala Central MP seat, despite pleas to let Jeema Chairman Muhammad Mayanja galvanise the opposition vote. They eventually lost to NRM’s Muhammad Nsereko.
In an interview with New Vision shortly after the election, Kikonyogo called on Besigye to quit before the end of his second and last term as FDC president in 2014, to enable his successor to prepare the party for the next election in 2016. Besigye eventually agreed to cut short his term, but has continually asserted that the 2016 election will not happen.
Critics say Besigye must pass on the goodwill and support he has cultivated over the years to the next FDC president by working hard for the party during the transition period.
But Besigye sees things differently. So when the Entebbe campaigns came, he didn’t set foot in the town. His critics say he feared to antagonise his Walk-to-Work colleagues, many of whom belong to Kawuma’s DP.
Angry that Besigye had “betrayed” the party’s cause, the FDC member who had given up his building for use in Entebbe withdrew the offer, leaving the party with no offices in the town.
Muntu vs Mafabi?
A group of FDC members who think the best way forward is for FDC to build grassroots support mostly back Muntu for the party presidency.
Describing the former army commander as a gradualist, as opposed to Besigye and Mafabi who want instant change, a source said that Muntu wants to build a “broad base” from village level upwards.
The source, who clearly backs Muntu, FDC’s mobilisation secretary, over Mafabi for the party’s top job, said he was disturbed that the opposition leader in Parliament had shown signs of replicating Besigye’s greatest faults. He said that Besigye’s biggest mistake had been to concentrate on winning elections at the national level – and removing Museveni – without paying enough attention to building the party’s base.
That is the reason why FDC MPs reduced rather than increased in the last election, he argues.
“How would Besigye govern with such a huge NRM majority (in parliament) if he had won the election?” he wondered, urging FDC to return to the basics and mobilise support from grassroots.
But will the grassroots trust FDC, especially without Besigye, if the party’s own leaders do not trust one another?