By Haggai Matsiko
During the NRM National Executive Council (NEC) meeting early this year, Angela Kebba, a staunch supporter of the ruling NRM from Adjumani district, accused politicians from northern Uganda of hypocrisy.
She said members of parliament, LCV chairpersons and other top local politicians pretend to support President Museveni but fear to campaign for him openly during elections. Instead, in order to win votes, she said, politicians in northern Uganda criticise the government to please voters. This trend seems to be changing especially in the opposition stronghold of northern and eastern Uganda.
In recent times, at every NRM function presided over by President Museveni, it has become routine for former ‘silent’ supporters to ‘cross to the NRM’.
They come out publicly wearing a yellow shirt, T-shirt, scarf or wrapper to proclaim their yellowness ‘ the official colour of the NRM.
Alex Onzima (MP for Maracha in West Nile), formerly opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) Vice President for Northern Uganda; Amuge Rebecca Otengo (Lira district Woman MP), formerly an independent; John Ogwang, former Uganda People’s Congress MP for Kole County; and Franco Ojur, Lira LCV Chairman have openly ‘crossed’ to the NRM.
Others such as Tororo Municipality MP Geoffrey Ekanya, publicly said ‘they will work with Museveni,’ when the president was commissioning a power plant in Busia last month. Some people have interpreted this to mean that Ekanya has crossed to the NRM, although he has repeatedly denied the claims. The NRM has also won key MP seats like Padyere, which was formerly held by UPC but is now represented by Pascal Odoch of NRM.
Some analysts say the inroads made by the NRM in northern Uganda spell rough times for the opposition in the 2011 elections.
Although Museveni has consistently performed poorly in northern Uganda, garnering only 29.6 percent of the vote in 2006, his party won 18 of the 57 parliamentary seats in the northern region, compared to 16 for the closest rival FDC and 14 for the Independents.
Going by the trend of ‘crossing to NRM,’ analysts claim the NRM is set to capture most independents (who are mainly disgruntled NRM offshoots) in next year’s elections.
A recent study, funded by the European Union and conducted by the German NGO, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and the Uganda Media Development Foundation, shows the opposition is likely to perform worse in 2011 than in the previous elections.
‘Parties are considered to be weak in their structure and their performance with regard to their democratic functions and as a result people are pessimistic about them,’ the study says.
The study, ‘The State of Pluralism and Democracy at Local Government level in Uganda’ is based on research in seven districts of Arua, Gulu, Kasese, Masaka, Mbarara, Mbale and Soroti that represent all the regions.
The report cites major challenges such as lack of funding, unclear programmes, weak organisational structures, weak or even absent structures at grassroots level, conflict within and among the parties, and oppression by the state.
Weakness at the grassroots is one of the opposition’s biggest problems. During the 2006 district and city level elections, the opposition fielded candidates in only 24 percent of the total electoral offices available. The NRM and independent candidates constituted 76 percent of all the candidates in the election. There are 37 independent candidates in Uganda’s parliament. Out of these, not more than five including Cecelia Ogwal were from other parties. About 30 of the 37 independent MPs are offshoots of the NRM, having opted to stand on individual merit after losing in the NRM party primaries.
This pattern was repeated in local council elections for sub-countries, municipalities, town councils and urban divisions. Here, 54 percent of the candidates were from the NRM while 26 percent were independent candidates translating into 80 percent of the total number of candidates who contested. Only 20 percent of the candidates in the election were from the opposition parties. Whereas at the local level, the NRM vote may be split between the official party candidate and the independent candidate. At voting the president, however, both are likely to vote the NRM candidate. This means that when the independent candidates’ votes are added onto the NRM, the party becomes much stronger than it actually looks.
However not everyone ‘crossing’ is joining the NRM. Santa Okot, a former NRM Pader District Woman MP, has gone to the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) of Bidandi Ssali.
Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda, the Inter-Party Coalition Spokesman, says party structures usually become active during elections. He argues that the opposition parties not having offices in villages does not mean that they will perform poorly or that they do not have support at the grassroots.
‘There are party members and supporters. What we see today is supporters, therefore what we are doing is galvanising that support into party members and we will perform well,’ he says.
Ssemujju adds that not fielding candidates or having few candidates does not mean that the parties will perform poorly.
‘There are places where Museveni has lost to Besigye yet NRM has the majority candidates and there is where FDC has more candidates than NRM,’ he says.
However, failure by the opposition to win majority parliamentary seats is politically dangerous. It means that even if the opposition won the presidency, the executive would find it difficult to run the government with an opposition parliament.
The study by Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Uganda Media Development Foundation notes that parties ‘are mostly personality-driven; the more popular the candidate, the stronger the party is perceived to be in a given area.’
The study consultant, Makerere University political scientist Prof. Yasin Olum, says there was a high level of scepticism, frustration and mistrust towards political parties.
‘There is need for parties to work towards ensuring that they are in touch with the people and to move from the current situation where the parties’ support depends more on the support of individual party candidates rather than the parties themselves,’ he says.
The projected poor performance of the opposition in 2011 is not attributed to only internal weaknesses like the lack of or insufficient grassroots structures. Some of the problems are external. For instance, the study cites routine suppression of the opposition by the police and other state security agencies. The opposition cannot freely hold public campaign rallies because they have to seek permission from the police, which most of the time refuses them permission even though the Constitutional Court ruled that such a requirement is unconstitutional. This remains a big impediment to the opposition’s success in the forthcoming elections.
The NRM also enjoys the advantage of incumbency. The government is building schools, dispensaries, roads and providing social service for which the NRM party claims credit. Many voters cannot distinguish between the government and NRM party contribution.
However, major parties like FDC have also been holding elections for grassroots structures to increase their presence at the much lower levels ahead of the 2011 national elections.
‘We have decided to hold grassroots elections in order to reach out to our people at all levels throughout the country,’ FDC deputy spokesperson Toterebuka Bamwenda told The Independent.
Starting on June 27 in the Northern region, the FDC covered West Nile and Lango before moving to Busoga and Teso in the Eastern region. However, NRM is setting up infrastructure and offices in most regions at a faster pace.
Since 2008 in Lira, for example, Lands Minister Omara Atubo has been setting up offices. With the LRA insurgency subsiding, the opposition has a big task to keep their stronghold and hold NRM at bay.
New NRM converts like Alex Onzima are also setting up offices and programmes preaching the NRM’s peace and prosperity gospel in the wider northern region. Onzima set up the ‘West Nile Elect Museveni 2011 Network’. As a result, the NRM is becoming more visible in the region than before. The opposition has a lot of campaign to do to sell their brand to the voters.
The Konrad Adenauer/EU study looked at whether ‘all parties have established structures up to the grassroots level’ and whether ‘all political parties have adequately disseminated their constitutions and manifestoes’.
On leadership structures, Kasese district scored highest at 3.05 and Mbale 3.02. Arua and Soroti were again worst at 2.76 followed by Masaka at 2.89.It was found that voters are ignorant of the opposition’s manifestos. On a scale of 0-5 the parties performed poorly in all districts with the best, Masaka, scoring 2.93 and Arua and Soroti scoring worst at 2.61. In Mbarara, most respondents said they had seen only the NRM manifesto.
In these places, according to the study, all parties lack a broad membership base and are not succeeding in mobilising grassroots support.
‘In many cases, opposition parties even fail to field candidates for local elections,’ says the study.
However, Ssemujju dismisses this hypothesis. He insists that not fielding candidates or having few candidates does not mean the opposition will perform poorly. He says there are places where the NRM has majority candidates but has lost to the opposition. He also says there are places where opposition has more candidates than the NRM.
Another finding that might hurt the opposition is the wrangles between or among opposition parties. This is likely to play out prominently in areas like Gulu where there is likely to be two strong opposition candidates€”Norbert Mao of DP and Olara Otunnu of UPC. The vote split would boost the NRM.
It is unlikely that FDC will win the same or more MP seats than the 16 it holds in northern Uganda today. The FDC got only 21 seats outside the North, 15 in East, four in Central and two in the West.
Analysts predict that since DP, UPC, and PPP are unlikely to perform better than FDC, the opposition faces a big beating by the NRM in the 2011 elections.
NRM and FDC are Uganda’s strongest parties with 219 and 43 parliamentary seats respectively out of the 319 directly elected MPs.
The Democratic Party under Mao has garnered more national visibility but remains embroiled in internal wrangles.
Observers say that UPC under Otunnu is likely to perform worse than in the previous elections because of the vote split of the northern vote between him and Mao. Both candidates come from the north. UPC got 0.1 percent in the 2006 presidential elections.
Unless opposition parties agree to field a joint candidate per constituency, something they have been unwilling to do to date, NRM will be a hard nut to crack. The disagreements among parties will cost them dearly.
In Masaka Municipality, the incumbent John Baptist Kawanga is facing stiff challenge from fellow DP colleague Mathias Mpuuga. In Oyam South, the incumbent Ishaa Otto Amiza is battling it out with fellow UPC leaning politician Betty Amongi Ongom, the Apac Woman MP.
In Rubaga North, which incumbent Beti Kamya is vacating to stand for president, FDC’s John Kikonyogo is likely to face off with Moses Kasibante, another opposition member. This might throw the seat back to the NRM’s Tom Kayongo who lost it in 2006.
Former Buganda Kingdom minister Medard Lubega Sseggona has declared to stand for Parliament in Busiro East yet DP contender Sam Lubega is also interested. The incumbent, Suzan Nakawuki of FDC is shifting from her current Busiro East constituency to stand for Masaka Woman MP, the seat currently held by NRM’s Sauda Mugerwa Namaggwa. This leaves Busiro East open for NRM’s Mike Sebalu unless the opposition field a strong rival.
The contests between opposition members became more interesting after the DP, which has traditionally been strong in Buganda, shunned the opposition interparty cooperation (IPC) of five parties. This means other parties will field rival candidates against DP in various constituencies.
In Makindye East, MP Michael Mabikke, who in 2006 lost the DP primaries to Sarah Kanyike Ssebaggala, but went ahead to win as an Independent, is expected to battle with Kanyike of DP. Mabikke is the Social Democratic Party (SDP) president and member of IPC.
In Nakawa Division, DP Spokesperson Kenneth Kakande faces off with FDC’s Ann Mugisha.
In Kyadondo East the incumbent and FDC national chairman Sam Njuba is retiring and IPC spokesman Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda is likely to face three DP candidates– Mukiibi Sserunjogi, Zziwa Lwanga and Charles Bwenvu–which might give NRM’s Sitenda Ssebalu an easy run.
In Chua County, the incumbent UPC’s Livingstone Okello Okello is likely to face fellow opposition members FDC’s Eric Lakidi and DP’s Richard Pacoto, which could give Henry Okello Oryem, the Minister of State for International Affairs, an easy win.
In Kitgum, Hillary Onek, the Minister of Energy, is likely to retain his Lamwo seat if DP’s Joseph Reno Opio Wod’Omal continues conflicting with FDC’s John Komakech Ogwok.
Agago seat held by Prof. Ogenga Latigo, the Leader of Opposition, is not safe either. If DP’s Christopher Okidi, a former Guild President of Gulu University, goes ahead to contest, observers say the seat might slip into the hands of NRM’s Charles Komakech Gatete, an experienced local politician.
In neighbouring Aruu County, the incumbent Samuel Odonga Otto faces Santa Okot, the Secretary General of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and DP’s Vincent Okoth Obutu. The division of the vote could hand the seat to NRM’s John Richard Otema.
In Erute South, NRM’s Sam Engola is taking on incumbent UPC stalwart John Odit who must keep fellow congressman, Patrick Aroma and FDC’s Joel Okao Otema, out of the race.
Mike Mukula is likely to regain the Soroti Municipality seat if FDC’s Charles Ekemu and his party fail to persuade fellow party member Anthony Ayamba to contest elsewhere.
In Kampala, an opposition stronghold, the race for Woman MP is tricky too. NRM’s Margaret Zziwa is set to bounce back. The incumbent Naggayi Nabilah Ssempala of FDC is said to have fallen out with some senior colleagues in her party who are now fronting Mayi Kiggundu, widow of former FDC national chairman Sulaiman Kiggundu.
The Konrad Adenauer report comes hardly eight months before Uganda’s second multiparty election. This means the opposition might suffer another disappointment unless it finds a quick fix for winning more local council positions and parliamentary seats.