By Haggai Matsiko
President’s 30-year grip shaken as party primaries throw up new leaders
President Yoweri Museveni is weaker. No he is stronger. Those are the contrasting views from the recent NRM party primaries and National Conference. And Museveni was out to make a statement about it when on Nov.1 he sprinted to the podium to accept his nomination as the party flagbearer during the National Conference. The 71-year old has been unwell, with his right hand in plaster. But his slightly leaner frame and the energetic sprint should have dampened speculation surrounding his fitness for the grueling race ahead.
The `Museveni is weak’ side, in reality, was pointing at how big names of the party and incumbents were defeated in the primaries for flag-bearers for district and parliamentary seats. The losses could have continued at the National Conference during elections to fill some party executive positions but Museveni intervened quickly. The move also revealed part of his strategy for the 2016 elections.
Top on the list of losers is Gen. Kahinda Otafiire, an abrasive bush war comrade of President Museveni who has been in parliament for three decades. He is reported to have said that even if he offered his coat to contest in his Ruhinda Constituency, the voters would elect it.
In the primaries, Otafiire was defeated by a little known local called Capt. Dononzio Kahonda. Otafiire’s loss was doubly humiliating because, at the time of the election, Kahonda was in prison.
Voters were reportedly fascinated by Kahonda’s name which loosely translates as “the pounder” and at rallies sang about how Kahonda should “pound Otafiire”. In the end, Kahonda got 21,467 votes against Otafiire’s 12,949.
By the time he arrived at Namboole Stadium for the National Conference, Otafiire was a deflated figure. His ambition to rise even higher in the party by contesting for the coveted party Vice Chairman for western region was dead and little attention was paid to his withdrawing in favour of another bush-war comrade and lame-duck party leader, Maj. Gen. Matayo Kyaligonza. It was the second time Kyaligonza’s dying political life was being resuscitated. President Museveni rescued him first in the primaries, when he asked his son-in-law, Odrek Rwabogo not to run against him.
Another NRM top gun whose loss signified a major shift in the party was Edward Francis Babu, the former powerful vice president for Kampala. Babu was vying for the same post again. But he was a dejected figure when he arrived at the National Conference after losing the Kampala City mayoral primaries to one Daniel Kazibwe, a musician and businessman with no previous political record. He soon fell out of the race. Babu’s loss was a double blow to Museveni following his wife, Nantongo Zziwa, being booted out of the speakership of the East African Legislative Assembly over incompetence. Zziwa also contested for the Kampala district woman MPs slot and lost in what could be the political end of this once powerful family.
The only vice president race that was squarely won is the northern slot where the Minister for Disaster Preparedness Hillary Onek defied Museveni and run against the Minister of State for Housing, Sam Engola. Onek lost.
Another one who defied Museveni is Godfrey Nyakaana who insisted on running against the powerful former treasurer of the party, Singh Katongole for the party vice chairman for Kampala district. Nyakaana won.
Critics say Otafiire’s loss and that of his peers is a sign that voters are tired of long-serving incumbents; that the wave for change has the momentum and could in 2016 throw up the unexpected for Museveni who is capping 30 years in power. They point at the enthusiasm surrounding the candidature of former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, who was the NRM secretary general and Museveni’s consigliore.
Fortunately for Museveni, he had ring-fenced his position as the sole candidate for party flag-bearer. Still, he arrived at the National Conference, looking very much like a commander who top-guns were being taken out. He spent long hours plotting to save them.
In the end, Museveni retained five out of the six old guard party regional vice presidents. The regional vice presidents are critical for Museveni, especially in the 2016 elections. As he told the delegates at Nambole, Museveni’s strategy involves ensuring the party is united going into the election. He also said the party needs the young to work with the old.
Critically, although Museveni usually relies on informal structures outside the party – including his trusted relatives, friends, and cadres – to run his election campaigns, the regional vice presidents are crucial.
Unfortunately this time, as he goes into the election in 2016, Museveni will be sitting in the party’s politburo, the Central Executive Committee, with only 11 of the 22 people he started off with after the last election in 2011. It could have been worse if he had not rescued the four vice presidents, among them Alhaji Abdul Nadduli who pulled out of the election of the Luweero District chairmanship he held. Nadduli’s failure to hold Luweero was deeply emotive for both Nadduli and Museveni as this was ground zero of the five-year bush war that brought Museveni to power and Naduuli was among the top civilian mobilisers for the war effort. To seal its talisman-like position, Museveni always starts his campaigns in Luweero. But the halo of the war is fading.
Museveni, Nadduli, Kyaligonza, and Gen. Jim Muhwezi are now the only surviving bush war fighters in the powerful NRM party CEC. Jim Muhwezi suffered a glancing blow when his wife, Susan Muhwezi failed to secure the chair for the NRM Women’s League. Although Susan had installed herself as the de facto leader when Jacqueline Mbabazi’s leadership floundered following the fall-out between her husband, former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and Museveni, the chair was snatched by Lydia Wanyoto. Another Museveni camp insider, the controversial businessman Hassan Basajabalaba is also out of the CEC.
Despite the glaring losses, the `Museveni is strong’ side insist, the losses are an opportunity for Museveni and the party.
They say a review of the new comers easily shows that the primaries might have improved prospects for Museveni’s quest to muster more control on the party and by extension parliament.
Since the inception of the multiparty dispensation, Museveni has thrived on using the ruling party’s majority to circumvent parliament by doing most of its business in the NRM parliamentary caucus. The decisions are then presented to parliament to be rubber-stamped. That has made Museveni’s grip on the NRM MPs critical.
Targeting new MPs
But a double blow appears to have been inflicted on this strategy in just one month – October. First, the NRM primaries threw up new faces who are largely unknown quantities. This means Museveni, who has often insisted that you should not change a winning team, will be running the 2016 campaign with an unknown and untested team.
Then on Oct.30, the Supreme Court ruled that even if an MP is expelled from a political party upon which one was elected to parliament, it does not automatically mean they lose their seat in Parliament. In what has been described as a landmark, the court quashed an earlier decision by the Constitutional Court.
Lawyers for the petitioners said the ruling frees MPs from the stranglehold of party bosses.
“The ruling will enforce discipline on party leaders to learn to be accommodative,” said one of the lawyers, Peter Walubiri.
“I think that the MPs in the next Parliament will be freer,” said Dan Wandera Ogalo, another renowned lawyer, “It also sends a clear message to them (MPs) that they are in Parliament to speak for the people that voted them and not for Political Parties.”
The new MPs mean Museveni will have challenges of acclimatisation if he wins the 2016 election. The court ruling meanwhile means he has lost part of the stick he has in the past used to beat them into line. He needs new tricks. But he has been there before.
Soon after his election in 2011, he faced a tough-talking parliament dominated by the so-called young Turks and a speaker who appeared determined to enforce legislative independence. It was tough early days as MPs debated the oil bribery scandal, the death of young vocal MP Cerinah Nebanda, and later Public Order Management bill and the Anti-homosexuality law. In the end, Museveni tamed them.
This time, when it emerged that over 20 new comers and returnees had trounced a host of incumbents including 12 ministers in the primaries, the fears of newcomers returned.
Inside the NRM, speculation lingers over whether the newcomers are strong enough to beat opposition candidates. Can Daniel Kyazze (Ragga Dee) beat the opposition candidate for KCCA Lord Mayor, the incumbent Erias Lukwago?
The older party stalwarts they defeated may have grown complacent within the party, but their experience, thick financial muscles, and control of the state apparatus owing to their many years in government, counted in contests with the oppositions.
The newcomers meanwhile are stepping into positions favoured by past results. Early this year, the polling agency Research World International (RWI) released a report showing that a majority of the voters want change. Also, a 2013 parliamentary report showed that in the 2006 elections, out of 303 MPs only 144 returned to parliament putting the attrition rate of incumbents at 53%. In the 2011 elections, of the 332 MPs, only 150 returned to the 9th parliament, putting the attrition rate of incumbents at 55%. There is no reason for 2016 to be different.
What the attrition rate shows is that out of 10 MPs, 6 do not return to parliament. This shows that fresh contestants have a bigger chance of coming to parliament than an incumbent has of retaining their seat.
Defeating incumbents and ministers in the NRM primaries has become a trend. In 2010, several ministers and party stalwarts were walloped by minions. Michael Mawanda Maranga, defeated Dr. Richard Nduhura, then state minister for Health to take Igara East. Nduhura had represented Igara East since 2001.
Wilberforce Yaguma Rutashokwa, beat Urban Tibamanya, the State minister for Urban Development in the race to seek NRM’s endorsement in Kashaari County. Yonah Nsubuga beat Ian Kyeyune to win the NRM endorsement for his candidature in the Wakiso district LCV race.
Eng. Yorokam Bategana Katwiremu, beat incumbent minister Prof Ephraim Kamuntu. Cerinah Nebanda beat Dorothy Hyuha in the Butaleja district woman MP race. Eddie Kwizera beat Ethics minister James Nsaba Buturo in Bufumbira East.
Vincent Bagiire beat Aggrey Bagiire, the State Minister for Agriculture for Bunya West. Muhammad Nsereko, who beat veteran politician Francis Babu and Nakawa RDC Fred Bamwine to win the NRM ticket to run for the Kampala Central parliamentary seat.
Maurice Kibalya beat Lands junior minister Asuman Kiyingi to carry the NRM flag in Bugabula South. Raphael Magyezi, also beat Prof. Tarsis Kabwegyere to become the NRM flag bearer in Igara West. Fox Odoi, beat George William Oketcho to claim the NRM ticket in West Budama North in Tororo. And Saleh Kamba defeated state Minister for Water Jennifer Namuyangu in the NRM primaries.
Looking at this trend, observers say any of the losers could easily have lost against any serious opposition candidate. The losers include ministers like Tarsis Kabwegyere (General Duties), Sarah Opendi (Health), Francis Babu (NRM Vice Chairman Kampala), Nyombi Thembo (ICT), David Migereko (Lands), Jessica Alupo (Education), Seezi Mbaguta (Public Service), Vincent Nyanzi (Office of the President), Sulaiman Madada (Elderly) Flavia Munaaba (Environment), Asuman Kiyingi (State Minister of Works) and Peter Nyombi (the former Attorney General).
The losers can petition. However, so far the party electoral commission has received only 11 petitions contesting the results. These pale significantly in comparison with the 1500 petitions of 2010. Kahinda Otafiire has petitioned, together other high profile losers.
Museveni, who has in the past said his party is like its symbol, the bus, with people disembarking while new ones board, is urging them to accept the vote results. He appears to be going ahead full blast, or as his supporters would say, `paka last’ – in unstoppable fashion. The party secretary general, Kasule Lumumba, has already warned losers in the primaries not to dare run as independents. It is a shallow threat, as there is no law barring them.
Pundits claim their departure gives Museveni an opportunity to dangle their positions to newcomers. They say Museveni wins tones of support whenever he appoints a new MP as minister for the first time. Before current Minister of State for Economic Monitoring, Henry Banyenzaki, and Chris Baryomunsi of Health were appointed ministers, they were acerbic critics of government. The jobs silenced them. Museveni has mastered using cash and cane to control parliament and the new comers will be even more vulnerable if he wins in 2016.