By Andrew M.Mwenda
With nominations for parliamentary candidates finished, independents (largely malcontents who lost in the NRM primaries) are now the largest political party in the contest albeit a non-organised and unconscious one. By November 30, out of the 238 directly contestable seats, independents had fielded 269 candidates (in 95 of the 112 districts). The NRM had a candidate in every constituency; FDC in 170, UPC in 162, DP in 150 and the PPP in 33. This is an impressive show of performance on the part of opposition parties. But it also shows their core weakness in the short term, a subject I will return to later.
For now, we are witnessing the split of the NRM into two factions: NRM Official (NRM-O) and NRM Discontents (NRM-D). The NRM constitution makes it clear that any member standing as an independent has to renounce their party membership. Secondly, President Museveni has previously categorically said that he and the NRM would not tolerate independents. That over 250 of his party faithful have defied him personally and the party constitution is the first sign of open rebellion against his leadership. If these people were to find a leader who can inspire them to form a common front, they could launch the largest political party in the country.
The good news for Museveni is that NRM-D members also profess loyalty to him as an individual. So the president is caught in a dilemma: if he accepts to retain NRM-D members in the party, he will have shown that the provisions of the NRM constitution amount to nothing. By accepting such open defiance of his authority and the rules of the party, Museveni has rendered the NRM constitution irrelevant and paved way for indiscipline. This is likely to increase the tendency towards open defiance of party rules.
Museveni has to be walking a tight rope on this. By yielding for this open defiance of his authority, he may be revealing a weakness which future rebels may exploit to challenge his leadership in the party. NRM-O candidates are going to demand that the party officially cripples NRM-D candidates. If the president throws his weight behind this demand, he will risk pushing NRM-D people into forming their own party. If this happens, Museveni may face the biggest organised challenge to his authority ever.
My suspicion is that Museveni is smart enough to play both sides and still remain on top of the situation. First, NRM-D candidates’ rebellion is legitimised by the blatant fraud in the party’s primaries. The person most accused of orchestrating this fraud is the party Secretary General, Amama Mbabazi. Whatever role the president may have played in helping Mbabazi be re-elected, Museveni will have a lingering fear that the secretary general may accumulate sufficient political clout in the party to challenge him.
Therefore, it is very likely that Museveni is not going to alienate NRM-D people. Instead, he is going to court them and cultivate them as a counter weight to the growing influence of Mbabazi in the party. Knowing Museveni, he will provide financial assistance to many NRM-D candidates informally while the NRM gives money officially to NRM-O candidates. Through this divisive strategy, Museveni will retain the loyalty of both sides while neutralising the emergence of a strong power centre within NRM.
Yet beyond this political strategising, Museveni and the NRM face a real dilemma: the party constitution says that any member who defies the party and runs as an independent could be kicked out of the party. In fact the constitution says that if a member chooses to stand against an official NRM candidate or offers support to a candidate who is not an official candidate of the NRM, they would be cautioned, warned or even expelled from the party and from the position they hold in the party.
Right now, the NRM seems incapable of exercising any of the above choices. This is partly because for the party to demand discipline and adherence to the rules, it should exercise such discipline and adherence to the rules itself. But in a situation where the party itself was organisationally involved in blatant fraud, it became difficult for the party secretariat to discipline its members. Besides, members who felt genuinely aggrieved by the party’s incompetence and lack of impartiality had no option but to disobey it. In fact those close to Museveni say that the president has accepted NRM-D’s defiance of the party largely because of these internal problems.
Of course those who know Museveni well say that the president thrives on chaos. What we are seeing inside the NRM is actually the management strategy that the president uses to run the country, a factor that explains the failure to develop an effective and capable state. Therefore, the internal incoherence within NRM is only a reflection of the wider crisis of the state in Uganda ‘ with its potholes, poor public education systems, atrocious health services, garbage on the streets, open manholes, broken pavements and corruption in high and low places that has run out of control.
Yet the chaos inside NRM also reflects the wider weakness of the political class in Uganda, a crisis of opportunism and selfishness. For example, one would have expected those cheated in the NRM primaries to quit the party in defiance and join the opposition or form a rival one. They have not and cannot because the NRM still holds the key to the grocery. By remaining inside the NRM in spite of their personal disenchantment, they are able to retain the possibility of access to power and privilege and also to avoid the risks of openly siding with opposition parties.
Meanwhile, whatever advantage the opposition parties would have gotten from the NRM split has been undermined by their own inability to unite their forces at constituency level. Consequently, the opposition is running against itself just like the NRM. Both sides seem to believe in the principle of ‘divided we stand.’ The lack of opposition unity is certainly a bonanza for the NRM. While in the long term it serves each party better to build its own organisational infrastructure, in the short term it denies them an opportunity to win more seats against a divided NRM.