By Agather Atuhaire
Mutual suspicion undoes the fragile unity of the Parliamentary opposition and hands victory to the NRM
A conflict between opposition parties Forum for Democratic Change and Democratic Party has destroyed any hope of opposition unity and jeopardized equitable party representation in the East African Legislative Assembly.
On May 28, when Kinkizi East MP Chris Baryomunsi read a list of nominated candidates for the regional assembly on behalf of the Clerk of Parliament Jane Kibirige, only Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and JEEMA had no candidates.
The ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM)’s six nominees do not face any competition, and will be joined by two opposition representatives from Democratic Party and Uganda Peoples Congress and one Independent, to constitute Uganda’s delegation. This would be the first time for DP and UPC to send delegates to the regional assembly, and the first for FDC, Uganda’s main opposition party, to be missing.
FDC has lodged a petition in the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) in Arusha, challenging the amended rules of procedure and arguing that they still do not conform to Article 50 of the East African Community Treaty. By press time in Tuesday, there had been no ruling from the court.
Since the election had been scheduled to take place on Wednesday, May 30, Uganda’s main opposition party may be forced to sit out the next five years of the regional assembly, which is scheduled to commence on June 5.
The speed with which an earlier presumed united opposition front has come undone reveals major fault-lines in the opposition and a depth of mistrust that raises doubt regarding their ability in future to unite on any major issue.
On May 18, when opposition legislators stormed out of Parliament after an amendment proposed by Leader of the Opposition Nandala Mafabi was voted out, they unanimously agreed to boycott the EALA elections.
NRM had allocated itself six seats, leaving 2 to be shared by the remaining five parties and one for the independents. The opposition described this as arrogance and greed on the part of the ruling party because the EACJ had ruled that the representatives be chosen to reflect shades of opinion, not numerical strength in the local Parliament.
Ruling in the case of Democratic Party Legal Advisor Fred Mukasa Mbidde versus the Attorney General, EACJ ordered that Uganda must amend its rules before it elected EALA representatives.
Opposition parties argued that the cosmetic amendments to the rules passed earlier this month in their absence by the majority NRM MPs still did not put them in conformity with Article 50 of the EAC Treaty, hence the boycott.
Betrayal and bad blood
But DP went behind the other parties, which had agreed to first seek the intervention of the regional court, and nominated Mbidde for the race.
After learning of DP’s nomination, UPC also nominated a candidate, leaving out FDC which learnt about its colleagues’ betrayal after nominations had closed.
Distrust between DP and FDC goes back to 2007, in the Kalungu East by-election when Mbidde and DP asked their FDC counterparts to withdraw Godfrey Kayemba’s candidature to bolster the opposition’s campaign against the NRM rival.
FDC refused, and NRM’s James Sserunjogi won the election.
During the 2011 presidential campaigns, opposition parties proposed to unite and front one candidate who could easily defeat NRM’s incumbent, Yoweri Museveni. DP refused to join they Interparty Cooperation umbrella that had been formed for this purpose.
In the confusion and bad-blood that followed, opposition candidates lost seats in areas which had for long been their strongholds. Observers say if DP and FDC had agreed, Makindye East and Rubaga South seats wouldn’t have been won by NRM.
In 2011 when the Entebbe Municipality seat fell vacant after MP Mohammed Kawuma’s victory was annulled, DP asked FDC to throw its support behind Kawuma in the by-election to avoid dividing the opposition vote and giving leverage to NRM’s Patience Mubangizi. DP was of the view that FDC’s Wilberforce Seryazi, who had polled 1,000 votes in the general election, had fewer chances than Kawuma who had polled 13,000.
But FDC refused, citing DP’s refusal to join the opposition coalition in the presidential election. FDC further questioned why DP always wanted them to step aside, when they were the bigger party, with more members in Parliament.
It appears despite attempts at unity, this discord has continued to fester, and came to the surface in the wrangle over the sharing of seats in the regional parliament.
Mbidde says it is FDC – which has had two representatives in EALA over the past 10 years – which betrayed the opposition, by sitting comfortably with its two seats while they were left in the cold.
“Even in this case, FDC did not want to boycott,” Mbidde told The Independent. “It is just that the nomination exercise found them unprepared.”
Otherwise, he said, they would not have asked for postponement of nomination.
“The party secretary General wrote to the clerk asking for postponement of the nomination exercise,” Mbidde said. “Does that sound like a boycott to you?”
The Independent saw the letter FDC Secretary General Alice Alaso wrote to the Clerk of Parliament asking her to postpone the nomination exercise beyond May 23, to allow the party time to vet its aspirants.
It appears it is not only DP that is suspicious of FDC’s intentions. Oyam North MP and UPCs Legal Advisor Krispus Ayena said FDC was “too ambitious to be trusted”, acting like a selfish co-wife who did not want to share with her co-wives.
“You cannot count on FDC because as I have said before, they have bad table manners,” Ayena said. “For example, we have three accountability committees and they chair all of them.”
UPC members recently questioned, on the floor of Parliament, why FDC occupied the highest number and most important posts on the Shadow Cabinet, on top of chairing the Public Accounts Committee.
Politics of greed
“All parties are now free to contest unlike before when the representatives were chosen only from FDC and NRM,” Mbidde said, adding that he disagreed with boycotting as a strategy, as complaints should arise after elections, not before.
“I explained to these parties when they invited me in a meeting at Katonga but they failed to understand how the law works,” Mbidde told The Independent.
“For you to take a grievance to EACJ, you must have participated in an election and me being the one that went to court I must be vigilant enough to get evidence,” he explained, accusing FDC of “politicizing the matter”.
UPC candidate to EALA Chris Opoka, agreed with Mbidde. “One must first conform to the law before they seek equity,” he said.
But former Supreme Court Judge George Kanyeihamba says Mbidde and Opoka are just politicking, as one did not have to first participate in something unconstitutional before seeking court’s guidance.
“Mbidde and the others are just politicking,” Kanyeihamba told The Independent.
Kanyeihamba said if the amended laws did not comply with the EAC Treaty, the opposition would have a case. In any case Mbidde himself did not first participate in any election to take a complaint to Arusha.
Alaso said FDC would stand its ground. “We are not going to be diverted even if we stay alone,” Alaso said. “DP and UPC are pursuing immediate gains but we are pursuing a principle.”
She said the court’s ruling wouldn’t be good only for FDC but all players. “It will save the next parliament a lot of trouble,” she said.
Observers say Uganda’s opposition is being divided by greed and selfish interests. They argue that DP and UPC feared to lose out in case they lost the petition in Arusha and saw FDC’s boycott as an opportunity to hedge their bets by taking its seats. Indeed, UPC’s Opoka told The Independent that going to court was like casting dice.