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Has Museveni lost Luwero?

By Patrick Kagenda

Fight for May 22 by-election win shows President’s desperation

When President Yoweri Museveni and his NRA rebels captured power in 1986, Brenda Nabukenya was a two-year old toddler in Luwero where most of the war of `liberation’ was fought. She turned 18 years-old in 2002 and, therefore, did not vote in the 2001 election where Museveni scooped 80% of the vote in Luwero. Museveni and the NRM were popular here then.

Today, Nabukenya is an opposition party parliamentary candidate with a real chance of defeating President Museveni’s anointed candidate; Rebecca Nalwanga Balwana, in a by-election for the District Woman’s seat slated for May 22.

Museveni and his NRM party being challenged and losing a popularity vote was unimaginable here even as late as a few years ago.

Opposition politicians, like Moses Kabarema, an opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) politician who run in the 2011 parliamentary election can testify to that.

In 2010, Kabarema was campaigning against NRM stalwart and Nakaseke North MP, Syda Bbumba when suspected pro-NRM supporters torched his Mitsubishi Canter truck, destroyed his restaurant, and beat up his wife.

They said they were angry that he dared stand as an opposition candidate in an `NRM stronghold’.

At the time people feared to reveal their support for the opposition parties. When The Independent spoke to residents,however, some said opposition is growing. “Opposition supporters exist silently in their homes and their number is increasing,” said Samuel Musasizi, a resident of Nakaseke town.

It was also the first time the opposition leader, Dr Kizza Besigye, then-FDC presidential candidate was campaigning in the area and attracting a crowd to listen to him.

“This was not the case in the previous election,” said Musasizi, “These people came all the way from their villages to this town on their own will.”

Turning against `our government’

Luwero district is located north of Kampala through Wakiso district and is at the heart of the so-called “Luwero Triangle” where Museveni’s NRA rebels camped and fought most of their guerrilla war. In the 1980s, when Museveni was waging war there, it comprised Luwero district and parts of the adjoining districts of Mpigi, Mubende, and Mukono. Today, this area covers the mother district; Luwero, and Kiboga, Nakaseke, Nakasongola, Luwero, Mubende, Mityana, and Wakiso.

Nakaseke, Luwero, and Kiboga districts are the locations of the 25 mass graves where people who were killed in the five-year Museveni war are buried.

Until recently, residents of this area viewed themselves as the midwives of Museveni’s government. Many spoke of Museveni’s government as “our government”. That appears to be changing, especially among the young generation.

Memories are fading and bonds gained in battle are losing their grip as the grandchildren of Museveni’s war come of age.

Luwero residents may still stare in awe at the memorial sites full of the skulls of the thousands of the relatives who were killed in the war that brought Museveni to power, but many are turning away from the victors in that war – led by Museveni.

Nabukenya is the latest in a growing list of candidates who are successfully breaking with history.

Police blocked Nabukenya’s procession when, after her nomination on May 5, she attempted to move across town on her nomination day. The police threw teargas and fired live bullets at her supporters and Nabukenya and other opposition leaders, were, briefly held. It was, however, a whimper of the old NRM supremacy here.

The by-election is the latest the latest twist in a tale that started soon after Nalwanga defeated Nabukenya and others in the 2011 parliamentary election. Another loser, Dr Lugudde Nabatanzi accused Nalwanga of bribing voters. She sued, won and Nalwanga’s win was quashed and a by-election ordered. When the votes were counted in the November 2011 by-election, Nabukenya had won with a narrow margin -30 votes.

Under the law, a recount is mandatory. In this case, however, when the returning officer discovered that the ballots had been tampered with, he declared Nabukenya the winner and she entered parliament despite a pending court petition. In March, the Court of Appeal finally quashed Nabukenya’s win and ordered another by-election.

Closely watched race

There are four candidates in the race but the real contest is between Nabukenya of the Democratic Party (DP) backed by the opposition and Nalwanga of the NRM. The race is being closely watched because of the symbolism attached to Luwero in Uganda politics.

Luwero is central to Museveni’s ritual preparation for tough political fights, including election. He likes to go there, mingle with the peasants, and visit the places where he fought major battles and won.

The villagers used to love it. Not any more, it appears.

Nalwanga, the widow, who is holding the NRM flag today, was 22-years old when Museveni took power in 1986. She is also a product of a rebellion against Museveni, in a way. In 2006, she cause a major upset in the NRM party when she defeated Prof. Victoria Nakiboneka Mwaka, one of the most respected politicians who had been elected deputy chairperson of the prestigious Constituent Assembly in 1994 and went on to represent the area in parliament.

Like most people in Luwero, Nalwanga is believed to have been a DP loyalist who switched sides to the NRM and could pay a heavy price if Museveni’s star dims and old allegiances to re-emerge in this former DP stronghold.

Nabukenya, meanwhile, is 30-year old relative political debutante. She draws loyalty mainly because she a local girl, born at Kigavu village in Luwero Town Council. She has the toughness of a woman who was raised by a single mother and is determined to make it in life. Her outlook has been shaped by her farming background. When she campaigned in 2011, she gave her supporters hoes and pangas (machetes) to work the land.

Poverty bites

Sheikh Haji Abubakar Katende the Imam of Masjid Bagalana in Luwero town was impressed back then.

“This lady Nabukenya gave out hoes before her first election campaigns and people still remember that because they used the hoes to cultivate food for home use and some for sale,” he told The Independent on May 10, “This is an example of getting people out of poverty.”

He adds: “People down here are living in biting poverty.  We have heard of NAADs but it’s only a few well-placed people who have benefited from it and who are benefiting on everything including the money they are now distributing to promote Rebecca Balwana. NAADS has not benefited the local person,” he says.

“How can an entire household be given only two hoes, a whole parish getting six cows to share among 600 people, forgetting that a cow produces after two years, when will the last person ever get the cow? Some people have sold the cows after producing three calfs and the story ends there.”

“Museveni is not the problem but the people who are around him who keep telling him lies all the time and not conveying the true picture on the ground.”

Haji Katende is also frustrated about the poor service delivery.

“We see trucks deliver drugs at the hospital but when we go there for treatment there is no medicine. The nurses refer us to the clinic which they own and that is where we buy the drugs,” he says.

“We have a minister of Works and Transport who hails from Luwero but when you look at our roads they are the worst.  They are graded every six months yet in the past roads would take up four years without needing to be re-graded.

“All the people who have been at the helm of the NRM leadership in Luwero district have done nothing for the locals,” he says, ““My view and most people`s view is that it is time we voted people into office who will mind about our wellbeing.”

Hajji Katende and others allege that Museveni and the NRM are spending like sailors in the campaign. It is alleged they hire vans to ferry people to campaign venues and give each Shs5000.

“That is wastage of money,” Katende says, “that money should have been used to buy drugs and other necessities for the hospital including pens and exercise books because every patient is made to buy his /her own exercise book and pen when they go for treatment.”

Hajati Halima Sonko, the Luwero Presidential Lodge attendant and also councilor for Luwero South East Parish in Luwero town council, is also unimpressed.

“Many people have hated Museveni because of the people around him. Nothing is coming down to the grassroots because of these people and Museveni needs to do something about it before it is too late.”

“What will happen in this by-election, assuming nothing is done, is that the opposition will again win because people are tired of the NRM way of doing things. It is now 28 years since the war ended but people in Luwero are still living in poverty despite the promises of making Luwero a model city. We have no hospitals; people have to travel to Mulago in Kampala for treatment. We have no factories to create employment for our children despite the many promises of factories that would be built in Luwero.”

NRM leaders have no answers

“Museveni fought in Luwero and many people died but to date we have not realised any benefit from his government. Even me who attends to the presidential lodge, when he is coming to Luwero I am shoved away and it’s only the well-connected who ever get close to him,” says Halima.

“People are asking us as their leaders what is happening but we have no answers because we don’t ever reach Museveni.  Even ourselves we are thinking we need to do something to make the president realise that something is gone wrong down here,” adds Hajati Halima.

Meanwhile, Hajati Sonko is angry that the government has failed to fix the roof of the district headquarters that was blown off in a storm.

“Look at the district headquarters; it is now four months since it lost its roof to a storm. Even the people whose homes were destroyed by the storm, up to now have never received anything from government. It is only Uganda Red Cross that gave us five jericans, four basins and 10 kgs of posho and its now four months since they did that.”

Robert Okello, the councilor for Luwero West in Luwero Town Council, agrees.

“If people remain annoyed as they are about NRM, the party is again losing the woman seat to Brenda Nabukenya.”

Councilor Robert Okello says, “ NRM has neglected the local people. Most voters are now saying they want a change come what may.”

It is such frustration that has turned Luwero into a stronghold for Nabukenya and the Democratic Party. Support for her is said to be strong in Wobulenzi, Bombo and Luwero town.

Museveni appears to recognise the frustration in Luwero and attempts to assuage voters there. He has been in the area to campaign for Nalwanga. He also always appoints a special minister for Luwero. He has also poured in money to compensate families in Luwero that either lost main providers or resources or both.

President Museveni’s brother, Gen. Caleb Akandwanaho aka Salim Saleh, who has a farm in the area was reported to be distributing coffee seeding to voters. When we were in Luwero we failed to see any of that.

But Luwero NRM District Chairman, Haji Abdul Naduli, is unshaken.

“What the people are saying has no meaning to us the fighters,” he told The Independent on May 10, “My view is different from every one’s view because we all fight to win and it is the day that will decide. Every success comes from God. When we were beaten in Luwero and went to western Uganda didn’t we win the war and came back?”

Youth vote targeted

Local opinion leaders told The Independent that the elderly Nadduli is clinging onto a fading past. The future is with the youth.

In 2001, Nabukenya was ranked among the 139,000 children below 18 years who were 59% of the district population. The youngest of these then is now 13 years old and still ineligible to vote. But up to 70% of these children were then above five years old and are now eligible to vote.

Nabukenya belongs to the eldest in the group. When she and her group joined other voters at the polls in 2011, they gave Museveni only 68% of the vote. His tally had declined 12 percentage points in 10 year, one drop each year in Luwero. That drop stood out because in the neighboring districts, Museveni scooped 84% of the vote in Nakaseke, 92% in Nakasongola, and 88% of the vote in Lyantonde.

Meanwhile, the vote for his main challenger, Kizza Besigye, had swung from 19% of the vote in Luwero in 2001 to 28% in 2011. Effectively, where Museveni and NRM has been losing one percentage point of the vote each year, Besigye and the opposition has been gaining. All things remaining constant, by 2016, the NRM could be at 63% of the vote and the opposition at 33% in Luwero. Museveni would still be ahead but the opposition would be catching up.

Low voter turn-out, usually an expression of disillusionment with the status quo, is also prevalent. According to the Luwero District Returning Officer, Alex Komuhangyi, the district has 91 Parishes, 596 Villages and 375 polling stations. In the last by-election up to188, 755 people voted.  In 2011, only 55% voted in the presidential election. That was among the lowest turn-outs in the country. In 2001, up to 68% had voted.

In politics nothing stays the same for long and, in Luwero the surprise could come from young people like Nabukenya and her supporters. They have defeated Museveni’s anointed candidate before and appear determined to do so.

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