By Haggai Matsiko
Can Besigye, Bukenya, Mbabazi, Muntu work together?
The morning after about 98 percent of the top contenders against President Museveni launched a coalition dubbed The Democratic Alliance (TDA) on June 10, there was a lot of excitement among hundreds of supporters gathered at Hotel Africana in Kampala. Frank Tumwebaze, the Minister for Presidency immediately took to his Face Book.He said there was nothing new with the coalition.
The fact that an alliance is formed on an adhoc basis only aiming at fighting an individual called President Museveni without any other substantive and principle driven interests for the parties to coalesce on, makes their whole move hollow,” he wrote, “They did it last elections with IPC but it even collapsed before the campaigns could end. Elections are not worn by schemes and conspiracies but rather by superior ideas sold in manifestos.”
But Bishop Zac Niringiye, one of the key organisers of the coalition told The Independent that the latest coalition presents a unique opportunity for Uganda.
“This is not just opposition, this is a country uniting against a dictator,” he said, “I hear people saying that coalitions have always emerged and failed, this is completely different because the times are different and process leading to it (alliance) are different.”
He explained that the alliance is a result of efforts by the civil society and political parties’ that started last year to push for electoral reforms.
The campaign has involved upcountry rallies and a series of meetings. Niringiye said concrete terms for the alliance were hammered out at a four day retreat at Katomi Kingdom resort between June 3 and 7.
TDA brings together Uganda’s biggest political party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), Democratic Party (DP), Conservative Party (CP), ), People’s Progressive Party (PPP), Justice Forum (Jeema), Uganda Federal Alliance (UFA), Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) and other groups opposed to Museveni.
All the leaders of these parties attended the function. Apart from the party leaders, former FDC President Kizza Besigye also attended just like former Vice President Prof. Gilbert Bukenya and Hope Mwesigye, the sister in law to former Prime Minister, AmamaMbabazi, who has just declared his candidacy for the 2016 presidential elections. Mwesigye said she attended to show Mbabazi’s solidarity with the other participants.
Effectively, the launch brought together about 98 percent of the top contenders against President Museveni thus the hope that from this newly forged alliance might emerge the weapon that will end his 30-year hold onto power. There is a lot of interest in an alliance. Donors like Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), who have partly funded some activities surrounding the reforms with about Shs500 million.
But even as they gathered and launched the alliance before cameras, it was not lost on many that the leaders of the coalition have a lot of ground to cover to patch up their disagreements.
Museveni’s supporters easily laughed off their effort because they claim the 71-year old leader has never been this firmly entrenched in power with such high chances of trouncing the opposition and they point to opinion polls.
When President Museveni in the 2001 Presidential campaigns referred to himself as an elephant and his main opponent, Kizza Besigye, as a dog, he was criticized for playing unfairly by belittling his opponent.
But increasingly, as Ugandan opposition parties have become weaker because of divisions and fights, many are no longer surprised or offended by such comparisons.
Museveni’s critics admit what a political giant he now appears just months to another round of polls that could see him make 35 years in power. And for many an alliance by all opposition players is seen as the only possible way of dealing this giant a blow. That is why it creates a certain level of excitement whenever top political contenders attempt to coalesce for the purpose of ousting him. Opposition leaders say they have never had such a sharp and clear unifying factor as they do in the struggle for electoral reforms.
Divided over 2016 elections
Yet when he spoke at the launch of the alliance, Besigye hinted on his major point of departure with those at the forefront of the alliance; participation in the 2016 elections.
Some see the major driver of the alliance as negotiating flag bearers for different posts in the upcoming elections. Opposition candidates stand better chances competing only against the NRM candidates and not against each other, they say. The same applies to the post of presidency—the opposition is better off fielding one contestant against Museveni.
And those who have never contested against Museveni, cannot wait to offer themselves as that single candidate. On that list now isBukenya, Mbabazi, and Muntu, according to observers.
But Besigye, who has lost thrice to Museveni because his supporters say he has been rigged out, says there is no point in participating in an election where Museveni is both a player and a referee.
At stake now is whether the opposition should participate in the 2016 polls or not especially after Museveni’s government refused to adopt the over 30 electoral reforms proposed by the opposition.
Besigye and his supporters have already stated that there is no point in elections. This is at the heart of claims that he did not even want to attend the launch of the alliance. Besigye, who remains Uganda’s de facto opposition leader, came in late. Before he arrived, there were rumours he was likely to ditch the event. And he left no doubt when he spoke.
“I appreciate everybody involved in this process,” he said, “but I am sorry to end on this note; we agreed that we shall have elections after reforms. Let us make sure it happens.”
Besigye’s issue is that while an alliance is important, it cannot result into the desired need given the political environment. He won’t put it this way but in effect he is saying that there is no point in alliance given the circumstances, one of the officials who attended said.
But some in the opposition do not even see sense in the fight for electoral reforms. They argue that before the 2011 elections, the opposition tabled reforms but government ignored them and that nothing has changed.
The opposition all together has 64 MPs against the NRM’s 259 MPs, a clear indication of who would lose the battle on electoral reforms in parliament.
Still, the Jeema president Asuman Basalirwa, who read the group’s press statement, says that they are still committed to pushing for a credible electoral management system.
Niringiye also dismissed talk that the alliance was a contradiction of the push for electoral reforms.
“I don’t see any contradiction,” Niringiye said, “We want reforms so as to participate in free and fair election but you can only participate in elections if you have people who are ready, who are organising for elections. The two should be seen as leading to the same goal.”
Proponents of an alliance also argue that even with the current political environment, it is possible to make gains against President Museveni.
They point to a series of parliamentary and district by-elections, where the ruling state-party has found it very difficult to win.
Apart from the Bugiri by-election, from 2011 to date, the NRM has lost over 6 by-elections.
Stop causing confusion
Those pushing for a coalition candidate argue that after three major strikes against Museveni, the opposition and mainly Besigye should have realised that they cannot defeat Museveni individually.
They warn against confusing messages. They say the opposition lost northern Uganda to NRM mainly because of the confusion caused by DP’s Norbert Mao and UPC’s OlaraOtunnu, who despite being sons of the soil and opposition candidates, were speaking different languages.
While in 2006, the opposition nearly eliminated NRM from regions like the Acholi sub-region, in the 2011 election, the NRM reversed this trend claiming over half of the MP slots.
There may be changes in the leadership of UPC and to some extent DP, but the old rifts remain. The UPC’s new President, Jimmy Akena, seems less interested in any alliance. He has said his major focus is on building UPC.
However, Besigye who knows a thing or two about alliances seems to be playing cautiously. An alliance forged in 2008, three years to the 2011 polls, evaporated like the morning mist just months to the polls.
It all started when opposition political parties, in 2008, adopted a protocol committing them to work together in order to break the dominance of NRM. The following year, the IPC adopted another protocol providing for a common electoral platform in which the parties would field a single presidential candidate to run as the opposition flag-bearer.
In August the following year, following rumours that UPC was pulling out, its President OlaraOtunnu noted that the party was not pulling out but had concerns that there were partners within the IPC who despite opposing the EC were willing to work with it.
Otunnu announced that the UPC had left the IPC the very next week insisting that advocating for the change of the EC was the main issue that had brought the parties together, and that in light of the IPC’s decision to participate in the 2011 elections under the EC existing at time, the UPC was unable to continue working within the IPC. DP had not even consented to the additional protocol.
The IPC continued, supported by the FDC, JEEMA, the CP and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) but stood no chance against the NRM. Besigye and FDC was the target of Otunnu’s anti-election attacks. Now, it appears, Besigye is where Otunnu was in 2008.
Although the disagreement over whether or not to participate in the 2011 election has been presented as the cause of the IPC’s collapse, insiders say the real reason was down to the poor relationship amongst the parties.
In the end, the opposition paid a heavy price. Supporters were disappointed that the opposition had failed to stand together for a cause—defeating Museveni—that they all publicly claimed was their fight.
And the results of the 2011 elections showed this disappointment.
The percentage of votes earned by the strongest opposition presidential candidate, Besigye, who was also the IPC flag-bearer, fell from about 37 per cent in 2006 to 26 per cent. President Museveni’s, on the other hand, jumped from 59 per cent in 2006 to 68 per cent in 2011.
Even the percentage of seats held by the opposition parties combined also fell from about 18 per cent in 2006 to about 15 per cent in 2011.
Apart from this example, Uganda’s political history is replete with other failed alliances.
In 1979, some 22 temporary groups came together and formed the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) in Moshi, Tanzania with the sole purpose of liberating Uganda from the late Idi Amin.
Despite capturing power, by December 1980, the front had ceased to exist.
In 1996, despite the ban on parties, the DP and UPC came under the banner of the Inter-Party Forces for Cooperation (IPFC), supported the presidential candidacy of Paul Ssemwogerere (DP), against President Museveni of the NRM. Ssemwogerere lost.
In 2001, opposition parties also supported ‘Reform Agenda’, a pressure group of others who had broken ranks with the NRM, and fielded Besigye. He also lost.
After the 2005 referendum that returned multiparty democracy, other parties wanted a piece of the action and declined to join Besigye again.
It is the lessons of this election—mainly the failure to cooperate—that led to the establishment of the IPC in August 2008.
Each of these alliances, optimists say has offered a wealth of lessons that the current opposition needs to draw from and forge a better alliance.
A well thought out alliance, they claim pointing to examples like Kenya’s current government, has potential to turn around the fortunes of the opposition—all they need to do is make certain compromises.
But for former presidential contestant, AggreyAwori, the alliance is a non-starter.
“You have too many divergent views and people who are too ambitious,” Awori told The Independent, “These people’s main objective is removing Museveni from power but that is not what voters want to hear. Voters want to hear about the plans for education, health, name it.”
Awori added that when you look at the parties in the coalition, they all have serious internal issues. “Akena has not yet been accepted in UPC,” Awori said, “In FDC, the fights between Nandala and Muntu are far from over. There is also a serious question of whether these people have the mandate of their parties?”
Awori also noted that the platform the parties are using—electoral reforms—only appeals to elites.
“Ordinary voters do not care about electoral reforms,” he told The Independent, “governance appeals to people who are from a civil war but when you have been at peace for over 20 years, it is other things that matter.”
He advised that a better strategy would be focusing on strengthening parliament rather than eyeing State House.
“Because if they can get good numbers in parliament,” Awori said, “they can effect the reforms they are talking about and even legislatively embarrass Museveni by blocking a budget or even forcing him to step down. But as things stand now, there is no opposition in parliament.”