Their pact shifts national politics in ways unseen
Kampala, Uganda | IAN KATUSIIME | “A year ago I was offered a position in the government but I took time off to consult,” Nobert Mao said while appearing on the NBS TV political talk show Frontline the day he was appointed Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.
Mao, the President-General of the Democratic Party (DP), also shed light on the cooperation agreement he signed with President Yoweri Museveni a day earlier between the DP and the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) at State House Nakasero on July 20.
“The agreement is about commitment to a peaceful transition, constitutional reforms and national dialogue,” Mao said.
Museveni said he was a member of DP in his formative years and at the signing of the agreement, he heaped praise on DP with what has been interpreted as a hint of mockery.
“You know the history. I keep telling you that DP is not a serious group because I was a very active member of DP,” he said. Although DP has been in the opposition, they have not been destructive. They criticise but they are not destructive.”
It has been an open secret that Museveni had left the docket of Justice and Constitutional Affairs vacant with the impression that it was Mao’s for the taking at his convenience.
When Jacob Oulanyah was elected Speaker of Parliament in 2021, some hailed it as a New Deal with northern Uganda after years of marginalisation. The Acholi sub-region was beaming with pride with two heads of arms of government; Chief Justice Owiny Dollo and Speaker Oulanyah carrying its flag. Some now feel Mao’s ascendancy to cabinet is a tribute to his close friend Oulanyah.
Therefore, the appointment of Mao as minister was a consummation of a political marriage long in the making. It is also a climax for the eloquent former lawmaker after a drawn out year-long cyber war with the leading opposition party, the National Unity Platform (NUP), of Robert Sentamu Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine.
Mao said the cooperation agreement was signed between the DP and NRM; however riled members of DP have dismissed it as a deal between Mao and Museveni.
Richard Sebamala, the MP for Bukoto Central, and perhaps the most visible member of the party in parliament, told a press conference that Mao as DP leader did not consult the MPs at any given point in time. He said Mao not even reach out to the party’s legal advisors. Sebamala said he and other DP MPs have asked Mao to resign. He added that if Mao does not resign, the MPs will institute a motion of no confidence in him.
Sebamala’s comments signal the start of battles ahead by DP members to attempt to reclaim their party from Mao and Museveni’s clutches.
The battles will be interesting to watch because they are not without precedent. A similar battle for the leadership of a party has been running in the opposition Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) where Jimmy Akena (MP Lira Municipality) is also allied to Museveni.
In September 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled that James Akena has been holding the presidency of UPC illegally and ordered the Opposition party to organise elections to elect a legitimate leader.
In a unanimous decision, the court declared that since there have never been lawful elections by the UPC party since 2015, the de-facto president of the party remains Olara Otunnu, who retired that year.
Despite the court ruling, UPC has not held fresh elections and Akena continues to be the UPC president mainly protected by President Museveni. Similar battles appear set to play-out in the DP after the Mao-Museveni deal.
Diehard members of the party at various events held after Mao’s appointment have stated that anyone who dares to attend DP events organised by Mao should do so at their own risk.
Dressed in their green outfits, some traditional DP loyalists warned of dire consequences for those who will still go ahead to cooperate with the beleaguered president general.
Much as the earlier departure of the cream of DP leadership, especially in Buganda, left the current DP looking like a Mao affair with his Secretary General Gerald Siranda and a handful of cadres, there has been a lot of resentment towards Mao’s deal with Museveni.
Sembamala is among the younger Turks of the DP and may not be eying the leadership. But some of the old-guard, some of whom have previously challenged Mao for the DP leadership, have also spoken out against Mao’s claim that he signed the deal with Museveni on behalf of DP.
“Did he sign it on behalf of DP or himself?” Sebuliba Mutumba, former Kawempe South MP, said while speaking to journalists. “He has crossed to the NRM alone and not with the party structures.”
“This is a betrayal of a nation,” said Erias Lukwago, Kampala Lord Mayor and former DP stalwart, who crossed to the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) in 2020 to join his compatriot Dr. Kizza Besigye.
Lukwago tussled several times with Mao over the leadership of DP, the oldest party in Uganda.
He is not the only former or current DP leader who was taken aback with the agreement. Older members like Dr. Lulume Bayiga (MP Buikwe South) and Samuel Lubega Mukaku, former presidential candidate turned-political activist allied to Kizza Besigye spoke out strongly against the agreement.
Lubega, a breakaway DP politician, who is now known as a Besigye associate said Mao is continuing a pedigree of deception and lies. Lubega boycotted the Mbale delegates’ conference in 2010 when Mao was first elected as president general of DP. Lubega went ahead and stood as a presidential candidate in 2011.
But Mao’s move leaves some of these party stalwarts in a latch because, although they claim to still consider themselves DP at heart, some of them had left the party in protest against Mao’s leadership and joined other political parties.
Previously staunch DP politicians like Betty Nambooze, Mathias Mpuuga, Medard Ssegonna, Muwanga Kivumba decamped to the firebrand National Unity Platform (NUP) in 2020 when Bobi Wine registered the People Power movement to create a political vehicle for the movement in the 2021 elections.
Some of these have scooped plum positions courtesy of their new home- NUP. Mpuuga is Leader of Opposition (LoP) in Parliament while Ssegonna is head of the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
Mao has been open, if not ecstatic, about his dealings with Museveni. From as early as his time in Parliament representing Gulu Municipality from 1996-2006, Mao made himself a name as an interlocutor between the NRM government dominated by Westerners, and northern Uganda which strongly felt alienated.
Mao was instrumental in brokering the defection to NRM of politicians like Jacob Oulanyah, whose star was rising. Oulanyah was an MP on the UPC ticket who was welcomed to the NRM fold and rose to the heights of Speaker of Parliament until he passed away early this year.
The former Gulu LC V chairman took it a notch higher when he joined the peace talks between the government and the Lords’ Resistance Army (LRA) in 2006. His image was boosted with a famous shot of him hugging LRA leader Joseph Kony during the negotiations.
Mao has for long not been considered hard core opposition in the mould of Dr. Besigye, four time presidential candidate who is arguably the most arrested politician in Africa.
In 2015, Mao flirted with The Democratic Alliance (TDA), a loose coalition, involving former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, Besigye, and former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya. Since his TDA episode, Mao has closely worked with the NRM in different fora.
Mao’s DP has been an unwavering member of Interparty Organisation for Dialogue (IPOD)-a platform for political parties to discuss wide ranging issues in Uganda. The FDC and NUP have blown hot and cold about IPOD, calling it an excuse for Mao and UPC leader Jimmy Akena to schmooze with the NRM for cash handouts. Parties receive cash from IPOD, which is jointly funded by donors and the government, and for those like DP and UPC whose numbers have thinned over the years, IPOD has always been a welcome arrangement.
At one IPOD meeting in the past, Museveni stood up DP and UPC leaders for eight hours and even when he arrived, they were happy to receive him. For FDC and NUP who have borne the resistance of Museveni’s long stay in power, tolerating such behavior is unacceptable.
Inside Mao-Museveni agreement
Mao has also been doing a series of media appearances after news of his appointment. He mostly said the agreement between him and Museveni was not a merger of DP with the NRM. And he insists that he will remain the DP president general.
He has also touted the agreement as a tool of his negotiation prowess and ability to dialogue with the government saying it was necessary given the turbulent history of the country and as a way of laying the ground for a peaceful transition as President Museveni grows elderly and succession intrigue gets fever pitched.
“It’s not an accident that I have been offered that docket of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to lead that process of a national dialogue and a new consensus. Fortunately, the document is now out. Anybody can judge it,” Mao said.
Mao is partly right. The agreement can be seen as a sign of his negotiation prowess and ability to dialogue in as far as he is the only opposition politician to join Museveni’s government with a written document in his pocket.
The extent to which his claim that he is joining the government to work with Museveni on the President’s peaceful transition from power is correct appears highly doubtful. It would be a major breakthrough and departure from the President’s method of work.
Mao, a two time presidential contender, is now part of a possible early taskforce for Museveni’s election campaign in 2026. He has been praised by First Son Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba. And like Gen. Muhoozi, Mao too harbours presidential ambitions.
Mao stated that the pact does tie DPs hands. And he did ask the president to look out for DP members with an implicit plea for recruiting from other parties too.
“You must look for them wherever they are in all the political parties and in all the corners of Uganda,” he signed after the deal was inked.
The cooperation agreement states that other DP members can also be appointed to the cabinet. “Democratic Party ministers agree to be bound by the cabinet rules in the exercise of ministerial responsibilities, and in particular, agree to be bound by the provisions on conduct, public duty, and personal interests of ministers,” the agreement reads.
“Ministers from the Democratic Party agree to be bound by collective responsibility in relation to their ministerial portfolios. When speaking within portfolio responsibilities, they will speak for the government representing the government’s position in relation to those responsibilities,” it adds in part.
The NRM-DP agreement includes clauses on confidentiality. It spells out that matters relating to consultation on legislation, policy or budgetary matters, all such material and discussions will be confidential unless agreed otherwise.
Other parts of the agreement stipulate: “In addition, the National Resistance Movement will support the nomination of a Democratic Party Member of Parliament to be the chair of a Standing Committee, as well as a Democratic Party Member of Parliament in the role of Deputy Chair of an additional Committee.”
DP leaders working with Museveni is not a new development and neither is Mao’s closeness with the President.
The pact marks the end of Mao’s rhetoric and claim to fame as the only DP leader who had not served in Museveni’s government in the 36 years it has held power.
There are precedents for Museveni’s appointment of Mao to cabinet in DP history. In 1964, Basil Bataringaya, a DP top honcho and Leader of Opposition in Parliament, crossed the floor of Parliament with six other DP MPs to join then ruling party UPC in Uganda’s first independence government under Prime Minister Milton Obote.
Bataringaya was entangled in long running power struggles with DP leader Ben Kiwanuka when he crossed over to UPC to the shock of all and sundry. Obote subsequently made him Home Affairs minister.
In 1982, six DP legislators abandoned Ssemogerere’s DP and crossed to UPC in similar fashion in the second Obote government after he was elected President in 1980.
Kawanga Ssemogerere, DP leader elected in the 1980, followed suit when he was appointed minister in 1986 when the National Resistance Army (NRA) under Museveni captured power after a five year guerilla war. Semogerere was co-opted in the attempt to forge a broad-based government.
Ssebaana Kizito, DP leader in 2005, had served in brief stints as minister during the early years of the NRA government.