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Kampala’s Lord Mayor Lukwago

By eriasa mukiibi sserunjogi

He comes to a downgraded office with a common man’s agenda. Will it work?

I have not beaten only Sematimba, I have won against President Museveni and the entire state machinery.”

That was the declaration of a triumphant Erias Lukwago, moments after Kampala District Returning Officer, Molly Mutazindwa, announced him winner of the mayoral race at 4.50am on March 15.

Uttered in a moment of outpouring emotion, those words could signal that Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, will remain a theatre of bullfights between its mayor and the President. Under previous mayors, who have mostly belonged to opposition parties, the friction has further undermined the already deplorable service delivery in the city.


Lukwago spent the entire campaign warring over what he called Museveni’s schemes to rob him of election victory. Lukwago said the President met with Electoral Commission (EC) chairman Badru Kiggundu and Uganda National Examinations Board secretary Matthew Bukenya to plot his disqualification over alleged lack of academic qualifications and was also secretly meeting his agents at State House.

Lukwago’s supporters and the wider opposition generally believe Museveni wanted to rig him out.

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A few minutes after the close of polling in the Kampala city mayoral race on March 14, the downtown areas were already jubilating Erias Lukwago’s victory as the first results showed him in the lead.

Bodaboda motorcycle taxi riders, shop attendants, hawkers, market vendors and others had taken to the streets in wild celebrations.

In the used car parts Kisekka Market, one excited man moved about with pen and paper recording results from various polling stations. According to his tally in that area, Lukwago polled 809 votes against his closest rival Peter Sematimba’s 18.

“We wonder who gave Sematimba these 18 votes, but we will investigate,” he said. It was the joke of a sarcastic winner and it reflected the general mood among the city’s lower income earners, who generally supported Lukwago and the opposition generally against Sematimba, who had Museveni, the ruling NRM party, and the more affluent voters.

Even when police moved in fast to stop the early celebrants and teargas canisters were fired to disperse the jubilating market vendors, the vendors carried Lukwago’s posters, sang his praises and denigrated Sematimba.

The early celebration was tactical. Winning opposition candidates have seen their victory reversed in this election and it was their way of thwarting any possible attempt by the EC to manipulate the election.

“We don’t want to give them a chance to rig us out,” a vendor at Nakasero Market told The Independent.

As supporters of opposition had seen their candidates lose the presidential, parliamentary, and local government election over questionable vote tallying, many became convinced that merely garnering the winning votes was not enough for an opposition candidate; pressure had to be exerted on the EC to declare the candidate winner.

Lukwago was lucky and the EC acted faster; declaring results in less than 12 hours after voting although they had up to 48 hours to do that.

In a race of six, Lukwago scored 229,325 (64.4 percent) against Sematimba’s 119,015 (33.4 percent). Another opposition candidate, Michael Mabikke of the Social Democrats Party, came a distant third with 4,092 (1.1 percent), followed by Edward Babu, who is the ruling NRM regional vice chairman for Kampala but was running as an independent with 2,059  (0.58 percent), and two other independents Sandra Ngabo (1,035 or 0.29 percent) and Emmanuel Tumusiime (539 or 0.15 percent) completed the list.

In a worsening trend of voter apathy, only 30 percent of the 1,196,992 registered voters showed up to cast their ballot. Some say, however, that the turnout was in fact higher but the voter register was inflated by ghosts.

Many doubt that Kampala city, which has about 2 million people by day and an estimated 1 million residents by night, can have 1 million voters. A more accurate number would be just 500,000 voters.

Sematimba’s campaigners were accused of going around telling voters it would be unwise to vote Lukwago because “his win won’t stand anyway”.

Had Lukwago lost, the opposition would have had difficulty convincing people in the future that voting for them is not a waste. His running presented the opposition with an opportunity to regroup after being mauled in the presidential and parliamentary elections.

Leading opposition leaders moved to protect Lukwago’s vote. FDC vice president for Eastern Uganda Salaam Musumba was deployed to protect Lukwago’s votes in Mbuya Army Barracks in Nakawa Division, centre of previous vote rigging. She was joined by other FDC members like defeated FDC Ngora woman MP contestant Sarah Eperu and Kyadondo East MP-elect Ssemujju Nganda.

These gave Lukwago first rate vote protection. At Mbuya Church of Uganda Primary School, a soldier who attempted to vote twice was identified and whisked away by police. At another polling station in Naguru, a presiding officer was removed from the station in the afternoon following complaints by Lukwago’s supporters that he had been involved in a conversation with NRM agents.

Elsewhere, at Nakasero Market, voters pelted their Kampala Central Division Chairman Godfrey Nyakana, a member of NRM, with rotten tomatoes and mangoes when he turned up to observe the election on Sematimba’s behalf. He was chased away. At Kivvulu polling station where Lukwago voted, his supporters confronted and nearly beat up a woman they accused of bribing voters.

The Kampala mayoral race has always been acrimonious as the government fought to wrestle it out of opposition hands. This time, however, the rivalry, vote-rigging, and violence went a notch higher, and the EC was forced to postpone the elections soon after they started on Feb. 23.

The EC admitted on national TV that its officials were involved in rigging after boxes with pre-ticked ballots in favour of Sematimba were discovered by Lukwago’s agents. The EC had never postponed such a big election exercise on account of polling officials’ connivance to rig for some candidates. Lukwago said that was “proof” that the commission was incompetent as the opposition had always charged.

The March 14 repeat election was, therefore, as much a trial for EC as it was a challenge for the six candidates. The EC had to make several changes.

Polling materials were dispatched directly from the EC stores at Banda on polling day instead of being kept at Division headquarters overnight on the voting eve, which the EC said had led to ballot pre-ticking in the aborted Feb. 23 elections.

The March 14 election exercise was directly supervised by EC chairman Badru Kiggundu and manned by senior EC officials.

Sematimba’s sins

Lukwago was boosted by an unlikely ally – Francis Babu, the NRM vice chairperson for Kampala, who stood as an independent after he was controversially barred from representing the party, in favour of Sematimba.

When the first election was cancelled on Feb. 23, Babu was among the first to call for Sematimba’s dismissal from the race charging that he was responsible for the fracas.

Trouble started when boxes stuffed with ballots pre-ticked in Sematimba’s favour were intercepted at some polling stations. A club-wielding gang that emerged from Sematimba’s Super FM station beat up people, including journalists, in full view of the police. The EC subsequently called off the election.

Sematimba’s agents later charged that it was Babu who leaked the party’s vote-rigging scheme. But Babu shot back: “It wasn’t me. It is some of those agents who told Lukwago about the plan to pre-tick ballots, the man (referring to Sematimba) is a thief.”

Sematimba was unpopular even within his own NRM party. Apart from the nomination row with Babu, he was also castigated by mobilisers in Rubaga who campaigned for him in the race to take over Rubaga LC3 seat in 2009. They complained that when he took over office, he immediately detached himself from them.

During the campaigns, Lukwago moved around with a copy of information from the Justice Ogoola Commission of Inquiry report which named Sematimba’s Semat Productions in a Shs69.9m GAVI Fund scam.

Although Sematimba was ordered to refund the money, Lukwago charged that he never did. He told voters that it was evidence that Sematimba could not fight corruption in the city.

Sematimba tried to defend himself by claiming Lukwago’s allegations were loose talk, wolokoso, and Lukwago the “Saabawolokoso” (loose talk specialist). It did not work.

Many voters were disappointed that Sematimba, who claims to be a born-again Christian Pentecostal pastor, could be involved in such impropriety. City Hall, which is the seat of the mayor, has been embroiled in allegations of corruption.

The corruption is blamed for Kampala City Council’s inability to fix roads, collect garbage and sweep the streets, fix the transport system, and plan the city. Many concluded that Sematimba was not up to the job because of his tainted past.

Meanwhile, Lukwago positioned himself as a defender of the common man against the ‘thieving’ political class, a stance that endeared him to the low income earners who are the majority in the city.

“They are afraid that when I become Mayor I will ask them to account for every plot that has been illegally disposed of [Kampala City Council],” he often told supporters.

The “Field Commander,” as Lukwago’s fans fondly refer to him, reminded voters how he had defended the poor’s interests by protecting their market stalls from being grabbed by the rich.

Lukwago has offered legal services to many underprivileged city dwellers. In one incident, when popular local singer Mathias Walukagga was locked up over a song that allegedly denigrated the tycoon proprietor of the Samona range of beauty products, Lukwago offered free legal services. In return, Walukagga joined Lukwago’s vote search.

Many opposition politicians have also benefitted from Lukwago’s legal services, the latest being Moses Kasibante. He is represented by Lukwago & Co. Advocates in his petition to overturn the results of a vote recount that overturned his victory in Rubaga North parliamentary seat in favour of NRM money-man Katongole Singh.

Sematimba, who speaks English with a faux American accent, powders his face, and perms, dyes, and oils his hair, has been accused of being out of touch with the poor working class people before.

Sematimba, on the other hand, spent most of his time abroad and his family lives in America. He has had little interaction with the ordinary city voters, the so-called seyas.

Even the incumbent mayor Ntege Sebaggala, who was challenged for the seat by Sematimba in 2006 told market vendors, bodaboda riders, hawkers and unemployed urbanites that Sematimba would throw them out of the city. Many of them still believe this theory.

Sematimba attempted to turn the accusation on its head. Usually, Sematimba, who has been accused of lacking the required formal education, looks and acts more urbane than Lukwago, his fiercest opponent.

But at rallies he attempted to appeal to the lowly educated by speaking their slang and claiming the elite had not done much to develop Kampala. The trick worked for outgoing Mayor Sebaggala who employed it to gain popularity among the uneducated in his first candidature in 1997. It did not this time work for Sematimba.

Instead, Lukwago continued to strike a chord with the ordinary city dwellers better than Sematimba whose lifestyle is more Western than local.

Lukwago grew up in the city suburbs and interacted with most of today’s voters at various stages either at school or playing football at a local playground.

“I went to a school in Kivvulu (a Kampala slum) and I have spent my five years as Kampala Central MP fighting for market vendors’ and bodaboda cyclists’ rights,” Lukwago bragged at a campaign rally before the elections. Indeed the down-trodden of the city formed the bedrock of his support.

“Lukwago has a good heart (and) he can’t stop us from selling our bananas,” a woman selling sweet bananas said. A vendor in Kisekka Market believes he needs Lukwago to stop the NRM from selling their market to businessman and NRM leader, Hassan Basajjabalaba.

Lukwago also enjoyed the support of the powerful Buganda kingdom establishment at Mengo. As a member of the Mengo-leaning Ssuubi 2011 pressure group, headed by a former Prime Minister of the kingdom, Lukwago’s candidature was backed by prominent Buganda MPs like Medard Sseggona, Hussein Kyanjo, Ken Lukyamuzi, Betty Nambooze, Ssemujju Nganda, Latif Ssebagala, Sebuliba Mutumba, Nabilah Ssempala.

They won Rubaga South (Lukyamuzi), Kawempe South (Sebuliba-Mutumba), Kawempe North (Latif Sebaggala), Makindye West (Kyanjo) and Kampala Women (Nabilah). The NRM on the other hand won Kampala Central, Makindye East and Nakawa.

The Mengo factor seems to have played a huge role in winning of Kampala seats, with only two constituencies that are less loyal to Mengo (Kampala Central and Nakawa Division which are the most cosmopolitan) going to NRM. Going by this trend, the Mayoral race was Lukwago’s to lose.

Lukwago’s challenge

He assumes office as a populist opposition mayor who has directly challenged President Museveni but Lukwago knows Museveni never takes such challenge lightly.

If Lukwago wants to protect bodaboda riders, market vendors, hawkers and other groups which constitute his core constituency, he must figure out how to either work with or around Museveni. Working with Museveni would be the easier option but it could discredit him among the core opposition supporters though it would allow him accept government projects to the city dwellers.

The mayor’s office has also undergone a major downgrade under a new law. In the run-up to the election, the NRM constantly downplayed the role of the new Mayor, arguing that under the new arrangement most of the work will be done by the Executive Director who is directly appointed by the President.

It will be Lukwago’s job to shape this relationship and carve-out a role for the mayor. He says the current position of Mayor is more influential since it gives him supervisory duties over the management of the city. Is that how Museveni’s team sees it?

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