By Mubatsi Asinja Habati & Joshua Masinde
Next stop Rukiga; NRM already has an `independent
When former Mbale Municipality MP Wilfred Kajeke resigned on December 20 last year, his Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party members feared they would again lose the seat they had just snatched from the NRM in the 2006 general elections.
At the time, talk was rife that President Yoweri Museveni and the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party had plotted Kajekeâ€™s sudden resignation as a means of capturing the seat.
The Feb. 16 Mbale Municipality by-election brought to light two important questions:Â Is the NRM plot to wrestle urban constituencies from the opposition workable or should NRM resign itself to ruling the rural constituencies? Two, is the NRM so internally undemocratic and undisciplined that its primary elections always breed disgruntled independent candidates since the country reverted to multiparty political system in 2006?
On the urban versus rural question, of the 14 municipality parliamentary seats in the country including the capital Kampala, the NRM supporters control only four (28%), leaving the rest (72%) to the opposition.
Out of the eight parliamentary seats in the five divisions of the city, which are equivalent to municipalities, the NRM has only one, which translates into 12 % of the total parliamentary seats in Kampala while the opposition has 7 seats (93%).
Even Mbarara, one of the four municipalities now held by NRM, had previously been in the opposition hands until its MP Winnie Byanyima (FDC) resigned her position to take up a UN job. Fort Portal municipality mayoral seat too, had been in the hands of the opposition FDC until the mayor Asaba Ruyonga crossed to the NRM.Â Â Â
The NRM is allegedly popular among rural voters because to them, sleeping or travelling peacefully and drinking until late hours of the night without being harassed by a security person, is such a big issue that it can influence their choice on who to vote. But urban voters demand things that improve their standards of living such as good infrastructure. In rural areas, people are less likely to be bothered by political harassment, suppression of freedom of speech and assembly which are common and big issues in towns.Â
The Mbale municipality seat was, therefore, a must win constituency for the NRM because it wanted to shed off its vulnerability in urban areas and loss of support among the enlightened voters.
Museveni exposed his plot to woo Mbale when this yearâ€™s NRM 24th Anniversary Celebrations were hosted in Mbale and Museveni, for the first time handed out medals to over 100 people predominantly from one tribe. Up to 50 per cent of the medal recipients were Bagisu/Bamasaba.
A few weeks later, Museveni returned to Mbale to personally campaign for his anointed choice in the Mbale by-election John Wambogo who was battling renegade NRM-turned-independent candidate Shinabulo Mutende.
Before the President went to Mbale, a battery of ministers including Amama Mbabazi (Security), Beatrice Wabudeya (Presidency), Dorothy Hyuha (Without portfolio), Michael Werikhe (State for Housing) had attempted to convince Mutende to step down.
While addressing supporters of the two NRM contestants at Mbale SSS Museveni pleaded with the voters.
I have come here to appeal to you not to waste this opportunity. Unite and rally behind one candidate, he said.
In an attempt to show strength, Museveni received the FDC Chairman of Mbale Northern Division, one Habib Wandege, who had crossed to NRM.
Both the NRM gimmick and Museveniâ€™s persuasion did not work. Mutende refused to back off. Wambogo lost.
This is not the first time that Museveni is being publicly humiliated in Mbale. His choice in the area, Wanjusi Wasieba, has been rejected several times.
The Mbale snub was reminiscent of the Bugweri County by-elections in 2007 when Minister Kirunda Kivejinja was contesting against FDCs Abdu Katuntu. Museveni visited the constituency to drum up support for his party candidate but his efforts did not bear fruits.
Mbale town has been an opposition stronghold since son of the soil, James Wapakhabulo who had been speaker of the national parliament and perceived NRM insider, died in destitution.
Mbale holds a special place in Museveniâ€™s political life. In his book, Sowing the Mustard Seed, he narrates how in 1971 he set up guerrilla camps in the Mt. Elgon area with the help of prominent NRM sons of Mbale like Magode Ikuya and Maumbe Muhwana. It is also in Mbale, Museveni narrates, that he lost one of his friends, Martin Mwesigwa in a firefight with soldiers of Idi Aminâ€™s government.
But Mbale could also be punishing Museveni for turning his back on them. Even Magode and Muhwana, who were central to his ascendance to power, appear disillusioned. However, those who know him well say Museveni never gives up.Â Analysts claim the NRMâ€™s chances of winning the Mbale seat were jeopardised by the unrelenting intra-party wrangling. Underlying the Wambogo- Mutende rift, however, is the simmering battle among Mbale political elite for supremacy since the 1990s during the late Wapakhabulo days. Wapakhabulo feuded with Wanjusi Wasieba. After his death, the Minister for the Presidency, Beatrice Wabudeya took over the Wapakhabulo camp. She has now been joined by other ministers like Michael Werikhe, whose bodyguard shot Abdu Kayiwa, a supporter of the independent candidate, and David Wakikona.
In the by-election the Wabudeya group supported Wambogo. On the other hand, former state minister for works, Wasieba heads a rival camp together with Mbale LCV Chairman Bernard Mujasi. The Wasieba group supported Mutende in the by-elections.Â It was a case of local influence trumping national politics.
Rigging at the polls
While the NRM split its energies between solving the internal wrangles in Bugisu region and campaigning against the opposition parties, the FDC saw the discord in NRM as an opportunity.
Some disgruntled individuals in the NRM started leaking information about their internal plans to the FDC. For instance there was an alleged attempt to create a fake polling station. But the information was leaked to the FDC who went to the place and stopped it.
On the polling day, FDCâ€™s fears were cleared when Jack Wamai Wamanga reclaimed the seat in the February 16 by-elections after polling 4,776 votes to beat NRMâ€™s Wambogo with a vote margin of 901. Mutende, an independent candidate and offshoot of the NRM internal disagreement, garnered 1,199 votes. The vote count of the other five contestants combined was slightly above 300.
Mathematically Mutendeâ€™s and Wambogoâ€™s votes combined are higher than Wamangaâ€™s ballots. Some analysts claim that if the two NRM candidates had not split the vote, the seat would have fallen to the ruling party. But the FDC claim the margin of their win was in fact bigger but the NRM deliberately engineered the failure to count votes at three polling stations where the FDC won by huge margins.
Rigging NRM primaries
Having two candidates in the Mbale by-election did not bring out something entirely new about the NRM. But it boosted the claim that the party has no internal cohesion and that without President Museveni, the NRM would fall apart into several factional parties. For instance, nearly all the 40 independent MPs in parliament are offshoots of the NRM following internal disagreements during the party primaries in the run up to the 2006 elections, akin to those in the Mbale by-election. In 2007 sixteen of the 40 independent MPs signed a memorandum of understanding with NRM in which they would participate in party caucus debates but without powers to vote.
Observers say the problem stems from the fact that the process of electing the NRM flag bearers is often flawed, leading to disgruntled losers to contest on individual merit.
In the Mbale case, tension had been building up within the NRM before the elections. It emanated from the primaries which Mutende alleged were manipulated, forcing him to stand against the partyâ€™s official candidate Wambogo.
The divisions within the NRM escalated. The more the conflict heightened, the more the FDC made inroads. Then on polling day Minister Werikhe’s bodyguard shot Mutendeâ€™s supporter, the bad situation became worse and things fell apart. The NRM, for the first time since the first general elections under President Museveniâ€™s reign in 1996, conceded defeat and congratulated the FDC candidate, although critics dismiss this as a mere publicity stunt for the NRM democratic credentials.
The FDCâ€™s deployment of party functionaries and officials at polling stations to monitor the voting is said to have minimised rigging. FDC big shots like Nandala Mafabi and Kizza Besigye who had earlier visited the constituency helped to bolster Wamangaâ€™s vote. Members of other opposition parties also claim that they advised their supporters to vote for Wamanga after determining he had chances of winning the election.
How critical is Mbale in politics?
Mbale is arguably the lead town in the eastern region and was once the third largest town in the country. Former president Milton Obote saw Mbaleâ€™s strategic importance in the early 1960s when he made it the Mecca of his UPC government. Although, the UPC candidate David Amos Walyemera got only 131 votes in the by-elections, the partys presidential hopeful Olara Otunnu blames his partys failure on the Electoral Commission. He says the EC delayed to display the votersâ€™ register until the last day to the voting.
MP-elect Wamanga says Mbale was once a beautiful, clean town, but it had been neglected during the NRM time. He said the NRM defeat was a protest vote for neglect of health care, water services, electricity, schools etc by the government.
Magode Ikuya agrees with Wamanga. To him the FDC win in Mbale is not a enough proof that the opposition is more popular there than the NRM since the majority of the voters did not turn up to cast their ballot. â€œThe low voter turnout should be the concern of the parties. Mbale used to be the cleanest town in the region but the garbage is now overflowing in the streets, the roads are bad, poverty is increasing. In the end people withdraw from participating in the political process as seen in low voter turnout. It appears elections are becoming meaningless for them,â€ said Ikuya Mbale Municipality has 42,000 voters but less than 10,000 voted.
But Nandala Mafabi says the Mbale win, coupled with his election as chairman of the Bugisu Cooperative Society and MP for Budadiri West, is testimony of FDCs strength on the ground.
Whatever the case, itâ€™s a growing trend that NRM is strong in the villages as the opposition especially FDC is taking over the urban constituencies.
The Rukiga County by-elections which are scheduled for March 23 will be another test of NRM popularity. Rukiga was previously represented by the now FDCs national treasurer Jack Sabiiti until 2006 when he lost the seat to the NRMâ€™s Samuel Byanagwa. The seat fell vacant when he died on Jan. 23.Â The NRM primaries on Feb.19 were won by Adison Kakuru, the current district chairman. However, his main challenger Amos Mugisha, rejected the results and has vowed to run as an independent. Agriculture minister Hope Mwesigye is accused of influencing the results in favour of Kakuru. FDCs Sabiiti is running.