By Patrick Kagenda
Namboole Stadium outside Kampala was on March 13 the venue of an election that has become the talk of the country.
‘I have felt, smelt, experienced true democracy,’ screamed Dickson Opul to an excited crowd of about 1,000 people who gathered in the stadium last week for the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) Delegates Conference to elect new party officials.
It was 4.a.m on March 14 and they had been at it since they arrived at 8.a.m on March 13. Clad in black, red and blue shirts, caps, and dresses and waving a thousand flags in the party colours to the crowd, unfazed by weariness, cheered Opul whose excitement was odd. He was not the night’s winner. But his message was powerful.
‘Let this be a microcosm and an opportunity for us to spread democracy not only in Nambole but across the entire countryside. Olara Otunnu, I pledge my full support to you.’
Otunnu, the man who had just won the presidency of Uganda’s once vibrant party had not spoken yet. But, in a gesture not seen anywhere in Uganda before, the UPC Electoral Commission Chairman Nelson Ofono, had let the losers speak first. It was a risky gamble. In all previous elections, across all parties; the losers would have cried foul and hurled the microphone at the winner. This did not happen.
There were the usual shenanigans. At one point the election process was stopped without explanation for about one hour. Then rumours started about how one of the candidates was handing out money to voters provided by the ruling NRM party to defeat Otunnu. An electoral official was fired on the spot for attempting to rig the results and all day long, SMS kept popping up on phones about how one candidate or the other was either ditching or joining one camp. One sms said the government feared Otunnu and was doing everything to ensure he was defeated.
Ultimately, Otunnu won the election with 623 of the 893 valid votes cast. His main challenger Jimmy Akena, son of the late Apollo Milton Obote – UPC’s legendary leader and twice former president of Uganda – got 180 votes. After that it was total annihilation. Third was Yona Kanyomozi, the former minister for co-operatives in the UPC second government in the 1980 who walked away with 35 votes, Henry Mayega 17, Akwenyu Sospatar 16, Samuel Luwero 11, Joseph Ochieno 9, and Dickson Opul 2.
Despite the over-whelming win, Olara Otunnu, the 59-year old son of Yusto and Justina Otunnu of Mucwini village, Cwa County in Gulu district, who had travelled to become United Nations under-secretary for children in New York USA, and returned home just five months ago after 23 years in the Diaspora was gracious to the losers.
‘May I express my respect, my tribute and my admiration for the very distinguished and talented candidates that we`ve had,’ he said, ‘I think very few parties could boast of this reservoir of talent coming forward to lead their party . If we walk out of here divided we shall have lost, UPC will have lost and Yoweri Museveni will have been the bigger winner.’
In 65 words, Otunnu had spelt out his mission at the helm: Be humble, unite the party, and drive Museveni out of power.
Former ambassador Harold Acemah, who was one of the delegates, said it is such clarity of mind that had earned Otunnu the overwhelming vote.
An official of European Union delegation to the UPC delegates’ conference had a similar comment.
‘Apart from Dr Opul, it was clear from the beginning that Otunnu was a class apart intellectually.’ Most commentators at the conference said they were surprised by Jimmy Akena’s lack of vision for the party and invoking his late father’s name, while others were shocked at the poor performance of party stalwarts like Ochieno who got only 9 votes.
‘I expected him to do better. It was so embarrassing,’ one delegate said.
Otunnu takes over from Obotes
Otunnu’s victory ends 50 years of the Obote family being at the helm of the UPC. One observer of the UPC elections noted that Otunnu’s victory represents a new direction for Ugandan politics at two levels. First, it shows that Ugandans can vote correctly without being influenced by money. Secondly it showed, especially to the apathetic elite, that change is possible; and thirdly it showed that Otunnu’s message ‘ proclaiming the likely support by the international community for Uganda’s aspiration for change ‘ has been well received by the voters.
Otunnu has been in the country barely six months. He has been way for more than two decades. He was blocked from reaching the voters through the government-dominated mass media, especially FM radios. Yet he was able to communicate in a manner and of ideas that swayed the voters. How did he do it?
On December 8, 2009 Otunnu re-entered Uganda for the second time, this time via Busia border. Then in early February he re-entered Uganda, through western Uganda. On all these occasions, his campaign task force ensured that he was met by mammoth crowds. He was blocked from radio FMs but used smaller meetings to interact with voters. He re-awakened old UPC cells led by party die-hards. In Busia he was met by district UPC chairperson and party heroes like Alex Sirondo Maloba, the man who allegedly helped Obote escape into Kenya during the 1985 military coup. Those are the people who voted at Namboole. But people who know Otunnu well say he is a great listener. They say he will listen attentively for hours. That is how he gathered ideas about what issues the party needs to address. Otunnu spoke about the widespread poverty, the breakdown of public services and infrastructure in health and education, the lack of support for agriculture, the terror spread by government officials, agents and spies and the general sense of helplessness among the common people.
But while the adulations piled up at Namboole, some were voicing their opposition to him.
Yoga Adhola, the former editor of the party’s newspaper ‘ The People ‘ who lives in the USA sent The Independent an email commenting on Otunnu`s victory.
‘It is a disaster. It will demoralise certain sections of the party. It could even lead to a split. Some NRMs in Lango are feeling confident and openly saying their chances of winning parliamentary seats have tremendously increased. Ideologically Olara is an extremely right wing. This is very dangerous to UPC.’
He accused Otunnu’s camp of fixing the register of delegates.
‘The whole process was so arbitrary that some real delegates of the 2005 election found themselves not on the list,’ Adhola claimed.
‘Olara’s win was masterminded by what we UPCs call the Gang of Four. These are people who are rabidly anti-Obote family. The group is composed of Peter Walubiri, Livingstone Okello Okello, Patrick Rubaihayo and Chris Opio. These people have various reasons for hating the Obote family,’ he said
Adhola said Ugandans in the Diaspora were jubilant. But he said Otunnu has been away too long and lacks knowledge of Uganda’s problems.
‘He is what the Americans call an empty suit. Apart from the removal of Museveni he has nothing else for UPC. He has not given serious thought to problems of Uganda nor has he given them serious study,’ he claimed.
The NRM spokesperson Ofwono Opondo had his own barbs against Otunnu. ‘Otunnu’s attacks on the person of Yoweri Museveni will add no value to Ugandan politics or the UPC politics. NRM has been around for 24 years implementing policies and it would be better if Otunnu attacked the policies and methods of the NRM,’ Opondo said.
Otunnu’s victory adds another strong personality in the Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC), a grouping of the leading opposition parties in Uganda. It includes Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) of Kizza Besigye who has been President Museveni’s strongest challenger in the two previous presidential elections. Other parties are JEEMA, CP, and UPC.
Observers say that Museveni could face an unprecedented challenge in 2011 if three things follow from Otunnu’s victory; first, the other strong opposition candidate, Norbert Mao of DP reconciles the various factions in his party and joins the IPC. Secondly, IPC can cause all opposition parties to field one joint candidate for each parliamentary constituency. Thirdly, Otunnu can agree on a joint presidential candidate with Besigye and Mao. At this point, the challenge appears to be Besigye, who heads the strongest party but has failed to defeat Museveni at the polls.
‘It would be interesting to see if Mao and Otunnu agree to push the cart while Besigye drives,’ said one observer. But other pundits are more concerned with whether Besigye can let a leader of a ‘smaller’ party to be the IPC flag-bearer in the presidential election. Besigye has in the past personally said he would support any joint presidential candidate the IPC elects.
In December, Lenhat Karlsson of the Centre Party addressed that point at an IPC meeting at Pope Paul Memorial Centre, Kampala. He said under an alliance both small and big parties benefit. According to him, although the Centre Party controls only 29 out of 349 seats in the Swedish parliament, it controls ‘very important and heavy ministries’. The Centre Party leader, Maud Olofsson, is the deputy prime minister and minister of Enterprises and Energy. The Centre Party also has the portfolios of Agriculture, Community, and Environment.
In an interview after his election, Otunnu told The Independent that whether he contests under the IPC or as a UPC candidate and wins, he will form a coalition government.
‘I would push; I would invite other opposition parties to join a UPC government. I would invite them to join in a coalition government even if we went our separate ways into the election,’ he said.
A member of Otunnu’s campaign taskforce told The Independent that the idea of a coalition government is modeled along the Centre Party of Sweden whose Centre Party International Foundation is sponsoring most of the IPC activities. The objective is to form an alliance of all political parties to defeat the incumbent as happened with the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) model in Kenya and the Ghana.
According to this plan, the parties would agree on how to share all political positions in government.
‘The positions of vice president, prime minister, Speaker of parliament, ministers of Defence and Internal Affairs have all been agreed on,’ the source said. In one scenario, if UPC provides the president, then the next strongest party based on number of MPs would take the next most powerful position.