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Inside the fight at FDC

Why money will keep rocking Besigye’s party  

COVER STORY | IAN KATUSIIME | One of Uganda’s main opposition parties, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), is in disarray as an ongoing fight for its leadership has degenerated into allegations of bribery and illicit money. Accusations of dubious procurements, ferrying of suspicious bags of money, and a lack of accountability have crept up and threaten the 19-year old party.

On July 20 the fight served up salvo after salvo of drama, including what could become the image of the year, when its elderly chairman; Wasswa Biriggwa, was sneaked over the party headquarters fence.

Whatever the explanation, the incident appears to have left in tatters any claim to internal democracy within the party which has always claimed showcasing that as its raison d’être.

The main face of FDC; its legendary leader Col. Dr Kizza Besigye, has always proclaimed that he left the ruling NRM party of President Yoweri Museveni because it lacked internal democracy.

But on July 20, Biriggwa who is 75 and an accomplished diplomat looked distressed as a bunch of youth helped him over the wall on a ladder under the full glare of press photographers and a small crowd of spectators. With his dark suit and matching striped tie flying about, the elder gentleman gasped for breath before being whisked away on a small truck normally used for farm work.

According to earlier notices, Biriggwa was at the office for a conference with journalists regarding the ongoing factional fights within the party, but he was instead mishandled by the side in charge at the party headquarters at Najjanankumbi on Entebbe Road. This faction is led by the party President Patrick Oboi Amuriat and Secretary General Nandala Mafabi (MP Budadiri West).

In 2017, Biriggwa signaled that he would challenge Amuriat when he picked nomination forms during the party presidential race. He later stepped down but it appears relations between them remain frosty. After his ordeal, Biriggwa told journalists that he was forced to scale the fence because Amuriat and Nandala were holding him hostage.

Having fizzled out of the 2021 presidential election race, the FDC has been struggling to stay afloat with perceived weak leadership, constant defections, while lingering in the shadows of its former leader Dr. Besigye. Patrick Amuriat, the party president, faces an insurmountable task of calming the waters.

Besigye tacitly backed Amuriat to become party president in 2017 when, together with Nandala, they ganged up against Mugisha Muntu; one of the party founders, in a bitterly contested election.

Amuriat, a little known politician who had kept by Besigye’s side triumphed over Muntu, a well-known national figure in an election where ideological differences played out again. It was a repeat of the 2012 delegates’ conference where Muntu, then tacitly backed by Dr. Besigye, beat Nandala Mafabi. In that election, Muntu was infamously branded a mole. In 2018, he formally quit the party.

Just like at national level where NRM slugs it out with opposition parties when it is election time, elections seem to leave FDC divided and bleeding. There has been a wave of propaganda, subterfuge and name calling as FDC prepares for internal elections.

In an official announcement on July 19, FDC released an election schedule and asked party members to take part in the exercise.

Dr. Besigye, the leader who towers over the party, however says elections should be suspended and the party holds sessions for harmonising rival factions. Besigye said if the party does not first sort out its disagreements, it risks treading the path that parties such as the Democratic Party and the Uganda Peoples Congress have traveled.

DP and UPC have MoUs with the NRM where senior officials are in cabinet. DP president Nobert Mao is Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs while, Betty Amongi, a UPC member and spouse to UPC chairman Jimmy Akena, is minister of Gender, Labour and Social Development. Besigye’s fears are well founded because the NRM has done good fishing from FDC in the past; Beti Kamya, Beatrice Anywar, Thomas Tayebwa, Anita Among and the latest big fish; Joyce Ssebugwawo.

Since emerging from being Besigye’s sidekick, the former Kumi County MP has borne the brunt of leading FDC at a time of political upheaval in the country. Along the way, Amuriat and Nandala appear to have fallen out with Besigye.

Now the leadership fight has appeared again as the party is set to hold internal elections at a National Delegates Conference sometime in November. All top positions will be contested including the positions of President, Secretary General, and National Chairman, Secretaries for Publicity, National Mobilisation, National Youth, and National Women.

This is the first time FDC is holding a delegates conference since 2015. In 2017 it held elections for party president only. Before the Delegates Conference, the party was set to hold elections for village, parish and sub county leaders from July 21-25.

As Secretary General, Nandala is in charge of the process but according to party insiders, he sparked the current fracas when he failed to provide party cards to accredited members and a voters’ register.

The faction that appears set to challenge Amuriat’s leadership at the November Delegates Conference accused Nandala of plotting to infiltrate the election with non-party members. The faction, which is led by party Spokesperson Ibrahim Semujju Nganda (MP Kira Municipality) and party neophyte Erias Lukwago; who is also the Lord Mayor of Kampala City, said Nandala’s move would throw FDC into the hands of the ruling party.

The friction started on July 17 when the maverick Ssemujju organised what he dubbed a consultative meeting at Nsambya Sharing Hall with the theme “Redirecting FDC to its core mission.” It was attended by Lukwago, Buhweju County MP Francis Mwijukye and hundreds of other party delegates. Mwijukye is the FDC deputy treasurer.

At the meeting, Semujju took a swipe at the Amuriat-Nandala group saying the two intended to deliver the party to Museveni and NRM just like has happened to the opposition DP and the UPC under Norbert Mao and Jimmy Akena respectively. Semujju said FDC does not have a voter’s register for the scheduled elections and listed other failings by Nandala and Amuriat.

FDC secretary general Nandala Mafabi and party president Patrick Amuriat at a press conference at the party headquarters in Najjanakumbi on July 19.

Then on July 19, party big wigs from each side held press conferences simultaneously that captured the split at the heart of the FDC; the erstwhile largest opposition party in Uganda.

One press conference was at Najjanakumbi, the headquarters of the party, where FDC president Amuriat and secretary general Nandala issued sharp words and another at Katonga Road in the city centre where former president Dr. Kizza Besigye flanked by old comrade and new party entrant Lukwago addressed issues threatening to tear the party apart, again.

The tensions hit a crescendo on July 20 when Nandala blocked FDC national chairman Birigwa from accessing the party offices to address the internal bickering. The two also blocked journalists from covering Birigwa’s presser.

Goons emerged from the party offices—beating up journalists and snatching their phones. It marked a dark new chapter in FDC politics because it was usually police that blockaded the FDC offices– arresting party officials and lobbing teargas canisters at protestors.

Then a day later, a television appearance on NBS’ nightly political talk show Frontline by protagonists from both sides; Nandala facing off with Ssemujju capped the drama.

Nandala, secretary general took heat from Ssemujju, party spokesperson, on how he runs the party. As secretary general, the Budadidiri County West MP is the administrative head of the party where his roles range from head of the secretariat, accounting officer and being secretary to party organs like National Executive Committee.

2021 election money

Biriggwa appears to be in the same camp as Besigye, Ssemujju and Lukwago that accuses the Amuriat and Nandala leadership of receiving money from President Museveni to ‘sell’ the party to the ruling NRM.

This has sparked a flurry of counter accusations and recriminations that have flown back and forth.

Since its founding in 2004, FDC has operated in arduous terrain as the major opposition party. Struggling to raise money from its MPs, party members and businesspeople against a vindictive State ready to crush any individual or business suspecting of supporting the party financially. With all these constraints, members of the party became easy targets for Museveni to lure away with cash, government jobs and ministerial appointments.

At the Katonga presser on July 19, Besigye in his characteristic style sought to stay above the fray and laid down the imbroglio on “state capture.” The former party president and four time presidential candidate has also offered some counsel for party members.

“Leaders must take a breath, and calm down. I can’t predict where the FDC party will end, but most likely where others have ended, if leaders don’t step back and reflect on whether that’s where they want FDC to go,” he said.

He has also addressed a burning issue of President Museveni’s alleged hand in FDC’s woes.

“Museveni is behind the creation of feuds inside opposition groups,” Besigye says, “Part of that money is intended to sustain the separation of opposition political parties that are in captivity.”

Seated next to the veteran politician and listening intently were some of his loyalists over the years; Moses Byamugisha, Doreen Nyanjura, Kampala City deputy lord mayor and Mubraka Munyagwa, former Kawempe South MP.

Besigye revealed that he got to know in 2020 that party leaders had got money from questionable sources. Besigye said he wanted to come out and question the source of money making rounds in the party but he was advised by some officials that it would create internal bickering, spill out in the open and undermine the party on the eve of a presidential election campaign.

Besigye then said it was this money that influenced his decision to stay away from campaigning for the FDC flagbearer Patrick Amuriat Oboi. According to Besigye, he had misgivings about involving himself in a campaign whose source of money he did not know. Besigye also said that he started observing money being used in internal FDC elections and he wanted to raise it but received a pushback.

Dr Kizza Besigye (centre) addressing a press conference at his office on Katonga Road on July 19. PHOTO via @JBNyamate

“I wanted to raise this issue in the election of 2020 but I was advised against it by Hon Augustine Ruzindana who said that my coming out, will undermine our brand. I kept quiet but large sums of money continued to find their way in the party,” Besigye said.

Over at Najjanakumbi, Nandala laid into the issue of finances as there has been a lot of disquiet over party finances for the 2021 elections. “In 2021, we raised over only Shs3billion, the smallest amount ever.” He said the party used to raise way more money when Besigye was a presidential candidate and there were no questions about it.

Nandala dismissed talk by Semujju that he planned to hand over the party to Museveni in exchange for bucket loads of cash saying several defections have happened and the party remained intact.

While appearing on NBS TV, Ssemujju pinned Nandala on a suspicious batch of Shs300m that Nandala carried to Besigye’s home about two years ago. In summary, Nandala revealed that the party cannot reveal all sources of its finances.

Amuriat also attempted to address the intrigue around party financing in the last election. “We have maintained a policy where sources of funding that don’t wish to be disclosed are kept confidential,” he told journalists. “We are not going to betray some of our sources who are in business, in government but do not believe in the government of the day.”

Amuriat also said the resolution for the party to borrow from friendly sources was approved by the FDC National Executive Committee chaired by Joyce Ssebugwawo, then deputy president of FDC. This was around 2020 and unbeknown to some FDC honchos, it was at the time Museveni was courting Ssebugwawo.

By the time Museveni dropped Ssebugwawo’s name on the cabinet list in June 2021, FDC members knew that she had long defected. But it was a demonstration of how vulnerable opposition parties are to Museveni’s inducements.

To make matters worse for FDC, it had already been eclipsed by People Power Movement led by Bobi Wine which had gone a step further to register a party officially as NUP.

FDC has always had donors from within Uganda and abroad and the source is always a contentious issue depending on whom you ask. Uganda’s 2001 and 2006 elections, where Dr Besigye took on President Museveni had some whispers of Rwandan financing. In 2001 there were allegations that Rwanda funded Besigye’s campaign against Museveni and the same allegations cropped up in 2006 and 2011.

The FDC has survived many splits in the past over strategic differences on how to oust its nemesis; Museveni. In the last three years, state agents have arrested and abducted hundreds of youth in a crackdown aiming at breaking the back of opposition to President Museveni that emerged through the National Unity Platform (NUP). Money, intrigue, power struggles and so much more have been the cause of fights. Those who have watched the party emerge from similar crises say this could be just another mountain that FDC will climb over and thrive.

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