By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi
With NRM MPs reported to be poised to withdraw their support of the infamous oil resolutions, perhaps opposition MPs should have heeded their leader’s warning and stuck with the campaign that worked in the past
On Oct. 21, the day Phase II of the Walk-to-Work protests was to have climaxed into a rally at Kololo Airstrip, three workers spent the day mowing grass, blocking entry to the grounds. One of them told this reporter that they were only doing routine maintenance.
Police chief Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura later told Activists for Change (A4C) that it was their fault they had not sought permission from the President’s Office, which controls the airstrip. This was interesting.
A4C Coordinator Mathias Mpuuga, while declaring the week of protests, had informed Police that they intended to hold the rally at Kololo.
Ordinarily, one would have expected Kayihura to okay the rally, since he has always urged the opposition to take their rallies out of busy business places like the Constitutional Square, and try (specifically) Kololo Airstrip.
At another scene in the Kampala suburb of Kasangati, FDC President Kizza Besigye was at it again. With his attempts to “walk to work” through the bushes foiled by house arrest, the FDC leader took his fight to the police officers deployed to watch over him, questioning their patriotism, and expressing fear that they might defecate in his compound since there was no public toilet in the vicinity. They did not let him faze them.
Police also rebuffed DP President Norbert Mao’s pleas to let Besigye attend a meeting of opposition leaders at a Kampala hotel on Oct. 21. Sources told The Independent that police feared that the opposition leaders could pitch camp in Kololo airstrip and refuse to leave, re-enacting Egypt’s Tahrir Square vigil that brought down Hosni Mubarak.
This fear had earlier been publicly expressed by Tamale Mirundi, the president’s press secretary.
But Besigye, who is viewed as the main driver of the anti-government protests, this time round seemed to swim against the tide – even within his own camp.
One man who has made no secret of his intention to take over the FDC presidency from Besigye is leader of the Opposition in Parliament Nathan Nandala Mafabi. The Budadiri West MP has been enthusiastic, cultivating a Besigye-like public following. In Masaka, Kireka, Kasese or Mbale, Mafabi has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Besigye in Walk to Work and rallies. But when phase two of the protests kicked off on Oct. 17, Mafabi wasn’t among the walkers.
Also missing were prominent FDC members, including Mobilisation Secretary Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu, who has twice challenged Besigye in the FDC hierarchy; and MPs Ssemujju Nganda, Abdu Katuntu, Wafula Oguttu, Betty Anywar, Odonga Otto and Geoffrey Ekanya, who enthusiastically took part in the April to May protests that paralysed the country.
It is instructive that the one-week protests – which the Activists for Change (A4C) coordinator Mathias Mpuuga said were a continuation of the public show of displeasure against the deteriorating economy (especially rising commodity prices) – that started in April, coincided with a week-long retreat of the ruling NRM party MPs in Kyankwanzi.
President Yoweri Museveni summoned his party’s MPs to the National Leadership Institute in Kyankwanzi in the wake of an unprecedented rebellion in a special parliamentary debate regarding oil exploitation agreements, in which the majority ruling party MPs went against their party and demanded that senior three senior ministers implicated in oil related corruption step aside as the allegations are investigated and a halt of the implementation of the agreements until a legal framework is established.
To many opposition MPs, the possibility that the NRM might return from Kyankwanzi divided appeared like an opportunity to blur the party lines in Parliament in service of the common interest – to push out the implicated ministers and open the oil deals to public scrutiny. To provoke a confrontation with the state as resuming Walk to Work surely would, these MPs feared, would alienate the NRM MPs and abort their fledgling parliamentary alliance.
The Independent has learnt that Besigye discounted this apprehension, and argued that there was no better time to relaunch the protests. Senior FDC members said Besigye was unconvinced by the “promising signs” in parliament, and argued that to rely on NRM MPs to pursue the opposition’s long-term agenda was to be lazy and short-sighted.
Besigye reportedly reminded his party members that their objective was to remove Museveni, not to push for “cosmetic” reforms in government with Museveni as leader.
The much talked about independence of NRM MPs, he reportedly said, was a decoy to confuse and derail the opposition.
A week down the road, the FDC leader appeared vindicated when ruling party MPs who had taken a tough stance in the oil debate appeared to have been beaten or cajoled back into line, double-teamed by President Yoweri Museveni’s coercion and his Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi’s persuasion at the Kyankwanzi retreat.
Reports say that Besigye maintained a liberal stance, and told his party members that since the protests were organised under A4C, not FDC, they were not bound to take part if they didn’t want to.
This is why most MPs kept away from the protests, keen to maintain influence with their NRM colleagues, some of whom reportedly have genuine cause to be disgruntled with the ruling party.
On the other hand, FDC members who hold no elective offices were most enthusiastic about the latest phase of Walk-to-Work. Observers argue that people like FDC’s Ingrid Turinawe and Anne Mugisha were increasingly concerned that the NRM MPs’ outspokenness against perceived wrongdoing by the executive appeared to render the opposition irrelevant.
But Walk to Work supporters were not only in the opposition. Makerere University political scientist Yasin Olum agreed with Besigye that it was dangerous to rely on NRM MPs to challenge government.
Olum said that like all politicians, NRM MPs naturally fight for political survival.
”It is a matter of time before they realise that their best chance of political survival is by sticking with their party,” he told The Independent.
Olum said it was unwise for the opposition to get carried away with the new alliance, thinking that the critical NRM MPs would fight their battles, because they would eventually turn around and toe the party line as soon as the 2016 election hovered on the horizon, leaving the opposition with no time to recover.
In any case, Olum added, the opposition had priority issues it needed to streamline that might not find as much favour in the bi-partisan alliance as did oil, for instance reform of election-related laws like the one on the composition of the Electoral Commission.
But FDC MPs disagreed with Olum, arguing that as a numerical minority in the House it was within the opposition’s interest – and they had a good chance – to win friends in the NRM camp, specifically to fight those executive proposals in which the national interest might override party loyalties.
FDC Secretary General and Serere district Woman MP Alice Alaso, said it was important to “encourage them to speak out against the excesses of the government because they owe it to their country”.
But, she admitted, “the opposition cannot reduce its role to wooing ruling party MPs, it has a responsibility to this country”.
Terego County MP and Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Kassiano Wadri, also seemed to bet his hopes on the unholy alliance with NRM MPs.
“There are issues some people think we should address first and there are good signs that they could be addressed,” he said without going into details.
Muntu said he was in principle open to Walk-to-Work, and a “conversation is going on about the resumption”.
Obviously, other sections of the opposition had grown impatient with that “conversation”.
Asked about concerns that the NRM leadership would use the resumption of Walk to Work to persuade NRM MPs to abandon the bi-partisan agenda, Besigye aide Francis Mwijukye, one of the organisers, retorted; “Let them walk with us [if they are serious about change]”.
Mwijukye wouldn’t be drawn into discussing the likely reaction of NRM MPs to working with a group that aims at overthrowing Museveni. Even at their most critical of their party, most NRM MPs have said publicly that they had no problem with their president, only the people “he is surrounded” with.
Mwijukye would in the course of the protests be arrested and charged with treason, along with his colleague Sam Mugumya and FDC Women’s League Chairperson Ingrid Turinawe.
Police chief Kayihura also publicly released an audio recording he said was of an A4C meeting in which the trio planned to wreck havoc in Kampala city and overthrow the government.
The opposition has castigated the treason charges as a ploy by the police to intimidate protesters and frustrate the campaign.
Mwijukye, Mugumya and Turinawe join a list of Besigye loyalists against whom treason charges have been brought. In 2005, Besigye and a host of colleagues, including his late brother Musaasizi Kifefe, were charged with treason in a trial that dramatically culminated in the invasion of the High Court by a section of the army that came to be known as “Black Mambas”. None of them was convicted.
Earlier this year, Didas Atunga-Bantu alias Colonel Iddi Kibwama Bendera, Boniface Mumbere Kinyambila (alias Ivan Musinguzi) and others were charged with plotting to overthrow the government by force of arms. Prosecution alleged that the plot was hatched in partnership with late Col. Edison Muzoora, who had been linked to a shadowy rebel group Peoples Redemption Army, for which Besigye was alleged to be political head.
For many reasons, including the absence of key opposition leaders, the latest Walk to Work campaign and Besigye’s house arrest did not attract the local and international attention of the maiden campaign in April. But partly they were also over-shadowed by other, bigger events – namely the controversies coming out of NRM’s Kyankwanzi retreat, and the spell-binding death of Libyan leader, Col Muammar Gaddafi. But the organisers say they are not deterred and will renew the call to walk until their ultimate objective – change of government – is realised.