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Gambling on Otunnu

By Melina Platas

Is he worth it or is Besigye, who got 37% of the vote in 2006, better?

Olara Otunnu has re-entered Uganda’s political scene. But does this internationally renowned figure come home to divide or unite the opposition? The Inter-Party Coalition (IPC) meetings in the past few months have suggested that several of Uganda’s major opposition parties, including the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), Conservative Party (CP) and Justice Forum (JEEMA) will cooperate to field a joint presidential candidate for the 2011 elections. But the opposition parties are divided between and among themselves as to who exactly this candidate will be.

What is their best option? To stick with FDC’s Kizza Besigye, who has energised the opposition but failed to wrestle the crown from incumbent President Yoweri Museveni on two occasions? Or is it time for a new face for the opposition, possibly Otunnu? Reaction to Otunnu’s return reveals numerous challenges facing the opposition. Perhaps most worryingly, power struggles among opposition leaders threaten to undermine their joint cause to unseat President Museveni.

Otunnu supporters are hopeful that he will become a presidential candidate, either for UPC or for an opposition coalition, the IPC. Otunnu’s return seems to have reignited the fire of the UPC, or at least a faction of it, energising those who see him as a person who can bring one of Uganda’s oldest political parties to the forefront of the country’s politics. Yet even within UPC, Otunnu’s return is already showing signs of causing rapture, not unity.

His impressive international experience and credentials, including serving as Uganda’s Permanent Representative to the UN, UN Under-Secretary General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, are proof to his supporters that he would be an excellent leader of the nation. ‘We are praying that Dr. Otunnu stands on the UPC ticket,’ says Benson Obua-Ogwal, MP for Moroto County in Lira, ‘He is our best shot.’

Otunnu was a classmate and roommate at Oxford University with former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who is his personal friend. Otunnu was also close to former US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. When he visited Africa recently, he was hosted to a party in Pretoria by key African National Congress (ANC) leaders. When he visited Kenya, he was again hosted to an informal dinner that was attended by many political big-wigs in that country including Prime Minister Raila Odinga, and Minister for Medical Services, Prof. Anyang’ Nyong’o among others.

‘These connections give Otunnu good standing especially in attracting international attention to the election, a factor that may undermine potential for rigging because many people will be looking,’ an observer who did not want to be named told The Independent. ‘His international experience and connections may help the opposition in raising funds. Lack of campaign money has previously been a major factor in undermining the ability of the opposition to organise.’

But while there are those who think he should shoot for the highest position in the land, others are not so sure ‘ even members of his own party leadership, who themselves may have presidential ambitions. Moreover, there is resistance from UPC’s would-be allies in the event that a cohesive opposition coalition was to develop. Some in FDC leadership, for example, have expressed concern with fronting a man who has been out of the country for 23 years.

The worry is that Otunnu is out of touch with the people or the issues on the ground. ‘The country needs a local brand name, not an international name,’ says FDC member Abdu Katuntu, MP for Bugweri County in Iganga. ‘We need one of us ‘ someone who has been here, has known the bad management of this regime, not someone who has been out of the country,’ Katuntu says. Within the UPC, there is concern that he does not have a constituency and the corresponding support on the ground.

Dr. Jean Barya, Associate Professor in the Department of Public and Comparative Law at Makerere University, also believes it would be difficult for Otunnu to run as a presidential candidate immediately upon his return to Uganda. ‘A presidential candidate is likely to be a greatly contested position,’ Dr. Barya says, ‘I doubt whether he could jump from returning from exile [to contest for the presidency]…if he stood as a leader of UPC it would be a starting point, but it wouldn’t get him very far.’

What Otunnu brings to the Ugandan political scene, says Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Prof. Ogenga Latigo, ‘is not a capacity to fill some void for presidential candidates.’ Instead, he says, ‘his international credibility will compliment what efforts we were doing internally.’

After all, FDC’s most likely candidate, Besigye, has already proved a formidable opponent for Museveni. In 2006, Besigye won 37% percent of the vote nationally. It is not certain whether Otunnu could garner that level of support. Would it be worth the gamble?

What concerns Latigo is that Otunnu, should he have presidential aspirations, will be confronted by so many challenges upon his return that he would be unable to run an effective presidential campaign. It is already anticipated that if Otunnu runs for president, he will be attacked by the NRM on both fact and fiction, whether relevant or not to his candidature  ‘ from his role during and following the 1985 military coup, to being an LRA ‘sympathizer.’

Others worry that opponents will tarnish his reputation on a more personal level. Some top NRM strategists are happy with Otunnu’s candidature saying he is a better target for slander than Besigye at whom they have nothing more to throw. Sources say that the main instrument in NRM’s strategy is going to be former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) spokesperson, David Nyekorach Matsanga. Matsanga, who has declared his intention to contest in the 2011 presidential election,  will according to NRM sources, be used to accuse Otunnu of having been a key LRA supporter and sympathizer. This, Museveni’s allies calculate, will damage Otunnu’s appeal as a candidate especially in the West.

With so many criticisms to be exploited, some feel that choosing Otunnu as a candidate may be more trouble than it is worth. ‘It [running as a presidential candidate] will generate conflict that he is not able to resolve before the elections,’ Prof. Latigo told the Independent.

There is also concern that Otunnu would essentially be part of the old guard and that he would not bring anything new to the Ugandan political scene. ‘We cannot have our future and place it in the hands of our grandfathers,’ Katuntu says. ‘He [Otunnu] belongs to the political class of yesterday who should really be retiring from politics. He is part and parcel of the problems of this country in the past.’

Otunnu’s reputation and ability to lead the country may be under attack not only by the NRM, but also by the party with whom the UPC is supposed to be holding hands. ‘I see no difference between Museveni and Olara Otunnu,’ Katuntu says, a sentiment that cannot bode well for the Inter-Party Cooperation.

Nevertheless, even those who do not support Otunnu’s presidential candidacy acknowledge that he has an important role to play and will nevertheless make a valuable contribution to Uganda’s political scene. Latigo says that one of Otunnu’s great strengths will be as ‘mobiliser with the ability to bring the country together.’ Indeed, many are hoping that he will be able to bring back former UPC members who over the years had drifted to the NRM or left politics altogether. He may also have an important role to play in strengthening his own party.

Dr. Barya says that one of Otunnu’s greatest opportunities may be ‘to resolve the internal differences within UPC.’ UPC’s internal struggles have been apparent for some time, most recently with the reshuffle of the party’s executive, ordered by UPC president Miria Obote. This saw longtime party faithful Chua County MP Livingstone Okello-Okello removed as vice president, and Obote’s son, Lira Municipality MP Jimmy Akena, appointed assistant vice chairman to the party.

Secondly, says Dr. Barya, Otunnu may be able to ‘bring on board constituencies that used to be UPC,’ which could be helpful to the IPC even if Otunnu does not stand for the presidency. Some of these constituencies lie in parts of eastern Uganda, such as Bugisu, and the area between Busoga and the border with Kenya. There are also former UPC elements in western Uganda, including those in Bushenyi and parts of Kigezi. Otunnu could also help promote unity in UPC’s stronghold of Lango, and northern Uganda more generally. Indeed, says Obua-Ogwal, ‘Otunnu is a very conciliatory person, that is what he is foreseeing as his role.’

If the IPC is able to stand strong and front a single candidate, Otunnu could contribute significantly to the campaign by mobilizing those who had abandoned UPC and other opposition parties over the years. This includes campaigning not only for the presidential candidate, whoever it may be, but also for parliamentary seats.

In 2006, for example there were around 65 constituencies in which a majority of voters had voted for Besigye, yet in only around 20 constituencies did an FDC candidate win the parliamentary seat; 10 went to NRM candidates (largely because the opposition split their vote), and about 20 went to independent candidates. Many independents had been NRM members who had lost the party primaries. FDC fielded candidates in less than half of the constituencies nationally, a fact that can be partly explained by the fact that the party was then technically only a few months old.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that there is an opportunity available for the opposition coalition to expand its reach in parliament. If a constituency voted primarily for Besigye, it is reasonable to assume they would vote for an opposition MP if the opposition fielded one candidate.

Prominent Ugandan journalist and commentator Charles Onyango Obbo argues that Otunnu’s ‘best chance is to set himself up as an independent, then move into alliance with Besigye ‘ probably as a junior partner,’ Onyango Obbo says. He adds, ‘I think Otunnu’s mileage might be less than everyone thinks.’ In any case, his running as an independent is unlikely given the enthusiasm some of the UPC Otunnu-faithful.

Still, there are those even within UPC who see Otunnu not as the be-all end-all of the party, but as just another, albeit influential, member. Okello Lucima, a member of the UPC National Council and chair of a UPC Steering Committee in London, says that Otunnu’s return ‘will have a significant impact in boosting the ranks of the democratic forces in Uganda. He will inject some added high profile presence and political depth to the opposition forces…’ Nevertheless, he added, ‘I do not want to go into specifics on any of our many stellar candidates for the UPC presidency, of whom Olara Otunnu is only one.’

Thus, Otunnu is likely to receive a mixed reaction. There are those who see Otunnu as the candidate that may finally unseat the man who has run Uganda for nearly a quarter century. There are those who see the two men as indistinguishable from one another. His return may reveal more about the weaknesses than the strengths of the opposition coalition.

Otunnu himself may have the chance to make or break the IPC, depending on the role he is willing to play. ‘He is intelligent and realistic,’ says Dr. Barya, ‘He would take the most realistic opportunity for him.’ This may mean playing the role of a mobiliser in the 2011 elections, a role in which he could help deliver more nationwide support for an IPC presidential candidate, as well as strengthening parliamentary opposition candidates. And there is always 2016. ‘He is still young enough,’ Dr. Barya goes on, ‘He can still stand once the ground is more level, once he has grounded himself.’ How Otunnu decides to play his hand may determine whether or not the opposition coalition’s house of cards stands strong or comes tumbling down.

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