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Ganging up on Museveni

By Andrew M. Mwenda  

Mulwanyamuli’s long walk with Besigye

Bidandi, Butime, Kiyonga pulled out

On June 8, two former katikkiros (prime ministers) of Buganda Kingdom officially ‘announced’ that they were joining active politics. The two men’Dan Muliika and Mulwanyamuli Ssemwogerere ‘would reportedly campaign for the coalition of the opposition ‘ the Inter Party Cooperation (IPC) in the 2011 parliamentary and presidential elections.

The announcement was received with shock inside the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM). A top NRM leader who did not want to be named told The Independent that the Movement had expected Muliika to take such a move but not Mulwanyamuli.Â

The news was received with excitement and enthusiasm in the opposition, especially in the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and the Baganda faction of the Democratic Party (DP) led by Members of Parliament (MPs) Betty Nambooze and Erias Lukwago.

Mengo, the seat of Buganda kingdom, has been going through a low intensity conflict with the central government since 1995 when the Constituent Assembly failed to grant the region a federal status. The confrontation exploded last September when the government blocked Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi from visiting Kayunga district.

How did the announcement by the two former katikkiros come about? What does it signify for Buganda given that Article 246 of the constitution re-establishes the kingdom as a cultural, not a political institution? And if the government of Uganda allows the two former katikkiros to campaign for the opposition, what effect will they have on the presidential election?

According to highly placed Mengo and FDC sources, attempts to woo key pillars in the kingdom into the opposition began in 2004. Sources say that when Kizza Besigye was still in exile in South Africa, he was not sure he would return for the 2006 elections. He contacted Mulwanyamuli and proposed to him to be the FDC presidential candidate. However, Mulwanyamuli was reluctant to take on the mantle suggesting that the time was not ripe.

After the election some key Besigye advisors continued to pressure him to build an alliance with Mengo. In 2009, Besigye proposed to Mulwanyamuli the same offer, but again he declined it. The former katikkiro felt that although he was widely known in Buganda, he was not widely known in the rest of Uganda and there was not enough time for him to be introduced to the entire country.

Besigye has had a long relationship with Mulwanyamuli spanning more than 20 years. When Besigye was National Political Commissar, Mulwanyamuli, as District Administrator in Masaka, was reporting to Besigye, then a colonel in the UPDF. Yet when Col. Besigye was demoted to battalion commander and was deployed to head Masaka Mechanised Regiment, Mulwanyamuli became his boss.

This is not the first time Besigye has tried to promote a Muganda candidate in a presidential election against President Yoweri Museveni. In 2000, he tried to convince veteran politician, Jaberi Bidandi Ssali, to stand against Museveni. Bidandi, it is claimed, had initially indicated he would take on the challenge but later withdrew arguing that the time was not ripe as Museveni had a second constitutional term. Besigye tried to convince other colleagues in the NRM, among them the late James Wapakhabulo, Tom Butiime and Crispus Kiyonga, but in all these cases the plans failed.

Besigye has always favoured federalism, Buganda’s key demand; he has previously tried to win over Buganda through an informal understanding with Mengo that he would be sympathetic to its demands. Key pro-Mengo forces supported his candidature in the 2001 and 2006 elections. But the support was clandestine and therefore unable to deliver a decisive punch.

However, as it became clear to Mengo that Museveni would not yield to its federal and other demands, discussions began in Buganda two to three years ago on an alternative strategy. Many initiatives were launched but they suffered a high mortality rate even though many senior and influential Baganda involved in business, the professionals, academia, religion and civil society lent support. Mulwanyamuli has been central to these initiatives; not Muliika.

The announcement on June 8 that the two katikkiros would join the opposition was therefore a culmination of these efforts. However, sources say that Muliika was reluctant to be party to the announcement. Inside sources say he was invited only four days to the official announcement ‘ after Mulwanyamuli had negotiated everything.

‘Muliika went in purely for showing team spirit,’ a highly placed source close to the former katikkiro told The Independent, ‘He had written a speech giving his feelings which never appeared in the media. But if you read the speech, it was clear that he was skeptical about the whole thing. Mulwanyamuli’s speech was taken as representing Muliika’s views which is wrong.’

In an interview with The Independent, Muliika said he is neither a member of the IPC nor of Ssuubi 2011, the pressure group which threw its weight behind the Interparty Cooperation. Muliika expressed concern that IPC lacks a unifying national objective beyond removing President Museveni from power. ‘Since independence we have seen changes of guard in the government but not a fundamental change in the politics of our country,’ he said.

‘When I went to the IPC conference in Pope Paul Memorial Hall, my aim was not to join IPC or FDC as the media implied in their stories. My speech was clear. I said I came to attend the meeting to promote unity. We need unity because the problems of Uganda are more than the interests of political parties. Even Besigye clarified in his speech that I had gone to the meeting not as a member or supporter of FDC but as a respected elder in the country.’

Ssemwogerere and others have since formed Ssuubi (Luganda word for hope) a pressure group aimed at mobilising people across the country to vote for MPs who favour a federal system of government. Muliika has disassociated himself from it, giving an early indication of an emergent rift within Mengo over whether it should take on the central government. Muliika told The Independent that he cannot join Ssuubi because he does not know its objectives and its internal organisational structure.

But many questions have been raised against Mulwanyamuli in Buganda. For example, Mengo was unhappy with him for signing the government- favoured regional tier, which the Lukiiko rejected and made Mulwanyamuli look like he was a sell-out. With this baggage, it is not clear whether he has the political clout and credibility to rally Baganda behind him to vote for the opposition.

More threatening, however, is that sources at State House, who requested anonymity, claim that Mulwanyamuli had approached Prime Minister Apollo Nsibambi in 2005 seeking a job from Museveni. Reportedly, Malwanyamuli was in a difficult economic situation and could not afford to maintain his dignity and lifestyle in his existing financial condition.

But according to reliable sources, Museveni was still disturbed by an earlier speech Malwanyamuli had made in which he attacked the government’s land policy in Buganda. Apparently, Museveni called off his plans for giving him a job. Some people speculate that Malwanyamuli’s current support for the opposition is personal payback for the president’s rejection.

Effect on elections

Whatever the difference in approach between Mulwanyamuli and Muliika, it is clear that forces at Mengo are preparing to challenge Museveni at the next polls. This decision comes in the context of the Kayunga riots of September 2009. If these riots have any political meaning at all, can Mengo influence the outcome of the election? And if so, by what margin?

Dr Frederick Golooba-Mutebi from the Makerere Institute of Social Research believes that if Mengo sustains its current stance, the ultimate result will be an eventual and inevitable loss by Museveni. ‘He may win the 2011 election, but that will only be equivalent to winning a battle,’ Golooba-Mutebi says, ‘but eventually Mengo will win the war.’

According to Golooba-Mutebi, Museveni runs the risk his archrival, Milton Obote, faced in 1966. ‘Obote thought he had abolished monarchy in Buganda,’ Mutebi told The Independent in an interview, ‘But he only abolished the trappings of the monarch, but not the monarchy.’

According to Mutebi, it took 20 years from 1966 to 1986 for Obote to eventually lose the war with Buganda. ‘It was therefore for this reason that Museveni based his rebellion in Buganda,’ Golooba Mutebi said, ‘Had it not been for 1966, he would not have based his rebellion in Buganda and, if he had, it would not have attracted popular support.’

However, Jaberi Bidandi-Ssali, a veteran politician and former Museveni confidant-turned-critic, does not agree. In an interview with The Independent, Bidandi said that there is no longer a single authority in Buganda that can claim to monopolise the views of Baganda.

‘Mengo is one influential voice among many voices in Buganda,’ he said. ‘And more critically, Mengo itself is not one voice. So when you talk of Mengo, what are you talking about? Most Baganda are loyal to the institution of monarchy for cultural reasons. But when it comes to issues of national politics and religious beliefs, the majority of Baganda do not follow the whims of Mengo and the Kabaka.’

However, Prime Minister Nsibambi believes that although the entry of the two former katikkiros into active politics on the side of the opposition will have some effect, it will not be significant. ‘They may increase the vote of the opposition in Buganda by five to eight percent,’ he said, ‘And that is not sufficient to decide the outcome.’

In the last election, about two million people voted in Buganda region. Ten percent of these would be 200,000 ‘ not a small number for Museveni given that he was 640,000 votes away from a re-run in 2006. If there is any decrease in his share of votes in Western and Eastern Uganda, especially given the strong anti-incumbency bias in the country now, the president may be placed in electoral danger.

Many other persons interviewed on this subject shared diverse views on the influence of Mengo on the voting behaviour of Baganda in the 2011 elections and the opinion polls are just as ambiguous.

When Daily Monitor did an opinion poll in May with a total sample of 2,000 people, 22 percent of who were from central region, only 11 percent agreed that Museveni should stay until 2011. And 89 percent of people in central Uganda, slightly over 50 percent of who are Baganda, wanted the president to retire. But wanting the president to retire is different from voting against him if he contests the election.

The most approximate indication therefore is the 2006 presidential election results in central region and the by-election in May in Mukono North. In 2006, Museveni got 61 percent against Besigye’s 34 percent in Buganda. In absolute terms, Museveni got 1.2 million votes against Besigye’s 730,000 ‘ a difference of 470,000 votes only.

Therefore, Museveni’s position in Buganda is not unassailable especially because it is possible that a significant share of his votes were the result of vote rigging and intimidation. The Supreme Court ruled that there had been massive rigging in favour of the NRM, but still upheld the election outcome on a 4-3 majority verdict. If this hypothesis holds any merit, then the opposition needs to calculate how many votes they need to increase in Buganda to secure a victory.

The most recent election in Buganda was the Mukono North by-election where Betty Nambooze campaigned on a pro-Mengo stance and defeated NRM’s Mukasa Bakaluba. The sub-county in that constituency with the largest concentration of Baganda (at 82 percent) is Kyampisi. There, both candidates saw their share of votes decline ‘ Nambooze by 2.1 percent and Bakaluba by 8.5 percent compared to 2006.

Are Baganda turning away from voting? Often times, by-elections in Uganda attract a low voter turnout, a factor that disfavours the opposition. But does the 8.5 percent decline in the votes of an NRM candidate reflect anger Baganda feel against Museveni due to the Kayunga riots or a mere decline of his performance as an incumbent? The latter seems more credible.

Therefore, both the opinion polls and the recent by-election do not tell us much about how the entry of Mengo into open confrontation with NRM in elections will influence the outcome. What is known, however, is that in all elections ‘ 1996, 2001 and 2006, key forces at Mengo supported the opposition quietly without altering Museveni’s performance among Baganda. However, this may have been due to the clandestine way their campaign worked. With more open support for the opposition, the results may be different.

If NRM has reasons to worry, it is that its support is clearly not growing. However, NRM can take comfort in the fact that as things stand today, the opposition seems weak and disorganised. Without a strong motivational factor to increase voter turnout, Museveni can still win in Buganda. That is why Mulwanyamuli’s and Mengo’s entry into the race is vital. It may increase the enthusiasm of Baganda to vote’a factor that will put Museveni at a disadvantage.

However, Museveni has a decisive card in his palm, the election register. The Electoral Commission (EC) claims it has registered over 4.5 million new voters on top of 10 million old voters in the recently concluded registration exercise. Yet the Uganda Population Secretariat shows that by 2011, the number of Ugandans who are aged 18 and above will reach 12 million. Therefore, with over 2.5 million ghost voters on the register, the dice is loaded in favour of NRM.

Effect on national politics

What impact will Mengo’s public entry have on national politics? ‘The entry of Mulwanyamuli and Muliika into active politics on the side of the opposition will have powerful implications on our nation, but in the negative direction,’ said veteran politician and president of the Progress People’s Party, Bidandi Ssali.

Bidandi told The Independent that ‘the pioneers of Ssuubi are taking Buganda back into its insular mode of the 1960s ‘ seeing politics only in terms of Buganda and demanding that the rest of Uganda has an obligation to accept these demands without question.’

There is a legitimate concern that Ssuubi may be the equivalent of Kabaka Yekka (KY). Like KY, it is not a political party, but rather a movement whose aim is to control parliament and also help the opposition capture power. However, Mengo may be joining hands with IPC in a marriage of convenience as it has done over the years.

Mengo entered an alliance with UPC in 1961 purely to remove DP from power. That alliance ended in acrimony and the abolition of the kingdom. In 1971, Mengo entered yet a new alliance with Idi Amin and helped him consolidate his power. Amin, however, delivered nothing. In 1981, Mengo entered yet another alliance with Museveni which seems to be headed for a divorce.

Therefore, in all cases, Mengo’s allies never met its expectations. So why should Mengo think it can get a different result from IPC today when the opposition coalition is forged on a very contingent factor’the removal of Museveni from power?

One problem Mengo faces is that it seems that the popularity of the Kabaka in Buganda scares a president of Uganda hence these broken promises. The one person who seems to appreciate this fact is Muliika. He has now suggested that instead of negotiating with individual leaders of the country or political parties, Mengo should reach out to all Ugandans.

This comes across as reasonable as all opposition parties ‘ UPC, DP, CP, Jeema’are for federalism. Only the NRM is against federalism. Now, NRM’s popularity is not growing and the opposition’s is. Therefore, in the long term, Museveni’s position is a losing position.

But if the government felt threatened by the entry of senior Baganda cultural leaders into partisan politics, will it sit back and watch this violation of the constitution? What are Museveni’s options and what are the costs of such options?

Being a military man, Museveni may send in forces to Mengo and even abolish the kingdom. He can also arrest the Kabaka as had been suggested by Gen. David Tinyefuza during last year’s riots. However, Museveni’s dilemma is worse than that Obote faced in 1966. Obote’s attack on Mengo was welcomed in other regions of Uganda because they resented the self-importance Buganda wore on its sleeve.

Today, if Museveni sent forces to Mengo, would any region in Uganda be sufficiently resentful of Mengo to support him? Indeed, State House sources say, that in September 2009, a high level delegation of Bahima went to see Mutebi to apologise for Museveni’s mistreatment of the Kabaka. So even Bahima do not agree with Musevnei’s position on Mengo.

According to Golooba-Mutebi, only Baganda can abolish the monarchy. And they can only do that when Mengo gets what it wants. That will divert Baganda’s attention from the central government to the failure of Mengo and there the seed of its own internal collapse will have been sown.

Yet Museveni is not without merit in Buganda. In the battle with Mengo over land, Museveni has stood on the side of squatters while Mengo defends the landlords. Museveni has also formed bibanja associations although they do not seem to have gained much currency in Buganda. Will landless Baganda vote for their material interests or for their emotional attachment to their king? We can only wait and see.

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