By eriasa mukiibi sserunjogi
Besigye unleashes powerful strategy, Museveni reacts
On April 7, over 200 leaders of opposition parties gathered at Fairway Hotel in Kampala to launch a boycott of public transport in protest against escalating prices of fuel, food, and other commodities.
According to Uganda Bureau of Statistics figures, the rate of inflation has swung from six percent in February to 11 percent in March, driven mainly by food prices which have more than doubled; fuel prices are up and the value of the currency continues to depreciate. Government’s aims to keep inflation below five percent.
The price protests were the second time in one week that the opposition politicians, led by Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) president Rtd. Col. Dr Kizza Besigye, have called for a product boycott.
On March 29, the FDC announced a boycott of the services of the largest telecom company in Uganda, MTN, which they accused of colluding with the government to frustrate Besigye’s February 18 presidential election.
Unlike the MTN boycott call that passed off uneventfully, the “Walk-to-Work” on April 11 led to skirmishes between the riot police and several opposition leaders.
For most of the day, people were glued to television watching scenes in which Besigye, clad in dark denim pants, blue checked shirt and carrying a backpack was bundled on and off police trucks.
The police were battling to stop him and hoards of people following him, from walking from his home in Kasangati, a city suburb, into the city centre. Police fired teargas to scare away the crowds. Public transport along Entebbe Road, where the main offices of Besigye’s FDC are located, was paralysed.
Police also blocked FDC stalwarts Wafula Oguttu, Nandala Mafabi, Abdu Katuntu and other politicians from walking to work. The Democratic Party boss, Norbert Mao was also blocked and arrested as he walked to the city centre from his home in Ntinda, a city suburb.
Boycotts are the latest form of opposition protests. The opposition groups have formed a pressure group, the Activists for Change (A4C) for the purpose. Until now, opposition politicians have relied mainly on calling protest rallies to make their case.
The police and the general security apparatus should brace themselves for more opposition protests. Information available to The Independent indicates that the opposition is preparing more surprise protests. The form and character the protests will take is not yet known but certainly the April 11 Walk-to-Work protest was not the last of the clashes between the opposition and the state. They have just started.
The switch of tactics comes at a time when opposition leaders’ efforts to regroup after losing the Feb. 18 elections are facing some pressure within their own parties to relinquish leadership, pressure from donors to accept the election results, and the speculation that President Museveni intends to appoint some key opposition figures to big government positions.
Within one week early this month, FDC leader Kizza Besigye faced demands from some party leaders for him to step down immediately; the UPC President Olara Otunnu shuffled his cabinet while Democratic Party leader Norbert Mao was confronted by calls from renegade member Betty Nambooze for “a renewal of party leadership”.
Rampant but unconfirmed claims that President Museveni whose inauguration is slated for May 12 plans to appoint some leaders of opposition parties into his cabinet have added to the pressure.
If that happens, it will add, not reduce, pressure on opposition party leaders to show that they are not mere rebels against Museveni but revolutionaries with a vision to change the lives of Ugandans.
It appears the protests against high prices are designed to show the opposition’s concern for the common people. They accuse the government of fueling the peoples’ suffering by levying high taxes on commodities like fuel, failing to provide food security policies and yet engaging in profligate expenditure.
“Government officials do not care about high prices because none of them buys fuel,” says Besigye, “I am not sure they even buy food.”
It isn’t clear how some of the opposition allies will receive the news of the protests. They are concerned that the opposition parties, especially FDC, risk losing credibility by continually refusing to accept that President Museveni won the Feb. 18 election.
The protests could also widen the rift between the opposition parties, especially FDC, and their sponsors like the Deepening Democracy Project (DDP) and the European Union.
The donors are unhappy that the FDC leaders at their latest party retreat on March 19-20 at City Royale Hotel in Kampala insisted that their party won the election according to their own tally of 76 percent of all votes cast.
The Independent has learnt that the donors took up the FDC challenge to the Electoral Commission (EC) to controvert this claim by making public all the election results declaration forms.
The donor investigation into election rigging focused mainly on claims by the FDC leader Besigye that the EC altered the results on declaration forms from polling stations across the country to hand Museveni undeserved victory.
The FDC Secretary General Alice Alaso’s claim that the votes cast for presidential candidates were two million more than those for parliamentary candidates yet the voting took place simultaneously were also investigated. The extra votes, Alaso alleged, were a result of ballot-box stuffing.
A representative of one of the donors has told The Independent that the European Union (EU) election observer mission has been perusing the declaration forms to verify the FDC claims.
The EU reportedly compared results from 200 randomly selected polling stations to find out whether there were discrepancies between the results declared by the EC and those that were declared at the polling stations.
“They found a hundred percent match,” said the source.
This claim could not be independently confirmed either from the EC or the EU. The source from a donor agency said they got a copy of the scanned copies of the results declaration forms from the Electoral Commission. “These forms are available on request,” the source said.
The EC Deputy Chairperson Joseph Biribonwa also told The Independent that anyone who wants to access the scanned declaration forms should apply to the Secretary to the Commission.
Another tallying exercise commissioned by a donor agency to investigate the alleged wide gap between the votes cast in the presidential and parliamentary elections found only about 100,000 vote difference, according to the source.
Whereas some of these extra votes could have resulted from ballot stuffing, some voters could have opted to vote only for the presidential and not for MP candidates. Up to 8,272,760 votes were cast in the presidential race and the declared winner, Museveni, received 5,428,369 votes (68.38%0) while his nearest challenger, Besigye got 2,094,963 (26.01%).
An official in the donor community who was involved in the vote-rigging investigations says the opposition parties most likely know they did not win the election but are at a loss to explain their poor performance and are not sure how to proceed.
“The opposition lost the election but are living in denial,” the source said.
Since the election, Besigye, who has lost to Museveni three times since 2001, has faced calls from within his FDC party to step down.
FDC Party stalwarts Okumu Reagan, Abdul Katuntu, and Odonga Otto have said Besigye needs to step down. Academics like Makerere University Professor Aaron Mukwaya also say Besigye needs to step down immediately.
But the FDC leaders have said Besigye’s term as FDC President runs until 2014 and they are not yet ready to change the party leadership until his term expires.
An FDC member who attended the party retreat last month says the leaders addressed wrong issues and that Okumu is “right” to raise the succession issue now “so the party can re-invent itself”.
“Okumu’s views are shared by a number of top officials in the party but they are afraid to say so to “Dr’s (Besigye’s) face.
“What Ugandans need to see now is what they missed by our failure to take over power,” he argues.
A leading independent political analyst, Dr Yasin Olum of Makerere University’s department of Political Science says political parties must deal “honestly” with the need for changes in their management.
The Deepening Democracy Programme and other donors who provided financial and logistical support to the opposition parties are grappling with how to deal with the position taken by Besigye since he rejected the election results.
Besigye’s party, with 34 seats in parliament, is the third most powerful grouping after Museveni’s NRM with 279 seats and the Independents with 37.
On March 29 the Deepening Democracy Programme, the Institute for Security Studies and the Hanns Siedel Foundation organised a debate for political party leaders on post-election issues.
They noted: “Opposition presidential candidates have all denounced the process and the outcome of the elections, raising both tensions and significant questions about Uganda’s future political dispensation.”
Earlier, on Mar. 5, the Inter Party Organisation for Dialogue (IPOD), a donor-funded initiative that facilitated dialogue between parties during the election period, had held a similar meeting at Sheraton Kampala Hotel. All major parties were represented except FDC.
They are concerned that the opposition party leaders have been calling for street protests and boycotts since they lost the election. So far the protests have been small and easily contained by riot police. However, a tense atmosphere persists and security has deployed heavily.
The Inter-religious Council, which has been fostering dialogue between the opposition and the ruling NRM party since the campaigns, has set up a committee of elders led by former Principal Judge James Ogoola to facilitate dialogue between the rival political players.
Despite this, on April 7 some opposition party leaders led by Besigye formed the pressure group to push for change through “prayer and walk” protests over rising fuel and food prices.
Besigye is not the only opposition party leader besieged by post-election challenges.
Mao led a split DP into the election and managed only 1.86 percent of the total presidential vote. He can still claim to have improved the DP performance though. In 2006, his predecessor Ssebaana Kizito, managed a paltry 0.9 percent of the vote. Mao was his campaign manager. But DP did better under Paul Ssemogerere in the 1996 election when it got 23.6 percent. It is believed to have won the 1980 election, but was denied by UPC’s Milton Obote. It remains a mere belief though.
Mao’s allies including John Kawanga (National Chairman), Mathius Nsubuga (Secretary General), Vincent Mayanja (deputy Sec. general), Mukasa Mbidde (legal), Mwaka Lutukumoi (publicity), Kenneth Kakande (deputy publicity), William Kamulegeya (NEC) and Maxensia Takilambule (National women leader) all lost the elections. Only Issa Kikungwe (treasurer) and Ssebuliba Mutumba (vice president) retained their parliamentary seats.
Meanwhile, the renegade group that opposes Mao within DP was buoyed by success at the recent polls. It includes MPs-elect Medard Sseggona (Busiro East), Mathias Mpuuga (Masaka Municipality), Betty Nambooze (Mukono Municipality, Lulume Bayigga (Buikwe South) and Kampala Mayor-elect, Erias Lukwago.
Between March 24-25, Mao held a DP National Executive Committee in Masaka that resolved to reconcile the party factions.
But outspoken renegade Nambooze has rebuffed the overture. She says instead, the party leadership needs to be changed. “There is nothing to compromise about,” she charges, “The accusation that the party constitution was flouted (when the new leadership came to power) holds water.
“The party should appoint a neutral electoral commission to conduct free and democratic elections from the grassroots to the national level,” she told The Independent.
Lukwago too says he is not interested in reconciliation talk. “I won’t comment on that (meeting the party leadership),” he told The Independent by telephone, “We spend a lot of time on party squabbles instead of doing constructive work.”
The renegades’ game plan is clear; exploit their visibility in parliament and the alliance with the pro-Buganda monarchy grouping Ssuubi to wrest the DP leadership from Mao. Mao appears keenly aware of this and appears ready to wield the whip early. His message to the renegade MPs: Toe my line or I kick you out of the party and (possibly) out of parliament. That should prove an interesting contest.
Otunnu, on his part, has already used the prerogative given to him by his party’s constitution to reorganise his team. In a limited cabinet reshuffle he announced on April 4, he put the day-to-day running of the party in the hands of outgoing MP John Odit as Secretary General. Joseph Bbosa, the former secretary general, was made vice president.
A new slot of Secretary for Policy and National Mobilisation was created for former chief spy David Pulkol.
Pulkol has called on the “children of UPC” to return to “mom and dad’s” party but his job will not be easy.
Many of its senior UPC crossed to the NRM during the campaigns and the family of former two-time President Milton Obote is yet to embrace Otunnu’s leadership.
During the presidential campaigns, one of Obote’s sons, Lira Municipality MP Jimmy Akena, said he would neither de-campaign nor campaign for Otunnu. He was one of the candidates Otunnu beat to the UPC presidency.
Observers say it was largely due to the lack of the backing of Obote’s family that Otunnu performed poorly in Lango, which is believed to be a traditional UPC stronghold. Odit’s appointment has been viewed as an attempt to revive the party support in Lango.
Only Uganda Federal Alliance party leader Beti Kamya, People’s Development Party’s Abed Bwanika, People’s Progressive Party’s Bidandi Ssali and Independent Samuel Lubega appear immune to change so far – largely because they have no parties to speak of and, as the election results and recent protests have shown, are largely irrelevant.
President Museveni and his government clearly view Besigye as the only viable threat. Less clear is whether the protests he leads will consolidate his position in FDC and alter the national political equation in his favour.