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Sembabule: Why Kabatsi had to lose to Kawooya

By Obed K. Katureebe

In early February 2006 President Yoweri Museveni called an urgent meeting with the Sembabule district NRM leadership at State House Nakasero. High on the agenda was who should be the NRM’s official woman candidate for Sembabule district in the February 2006 parliamentary elections?

Museveni, who was himself preparing to face off with FDC’s Col. Dr Kizza Besigye in the presidential race, had just received intelligence reports that the two top women candidates vying to represent Sembabule were all from his NRM party and had failed to agree on who should step down for the other. This was after Hanifa Kawooya had defeated Joy Kabatsi in the primaries. Kabatsi contested the outcome citing massive rigging engineered by current Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa and had vowed to stand as an independent.

The State House meeting was attended by all Sembabule NRM top brass: Sam Kutesa (Mawogola), Theodore Sekikuubo (Lwemiyaga), Hanifa Kawooya (Woman MP), Joy Kabatsi, and Herman Sentongo (LC5 chairman), among others. Also invited were all NRM councillors and opinion leaders in the district.

President Museveni in his characteristic style began by informing his guests how both Ms Kawooya and Ms Kabatsi had been his strong supporters from time immemorial. However, he told Kabatsi and her supporters especially Sentongo and Sekikuubo to step down for Kawooya. In justifying his support for Kawooya, Museveni revealed the hitherto unknown secret. He told the attentive audience that Kawooya was a close relative to his political rival Col. Kizza Besigye. He said that Kawooya had rejected several approaches from her cousin Besigye to join FDC. For that matter, Museveni argued that Kawooya needed to be rewarded for her loyalty to the NRM.

Museveni further said he was aware of Kawooya failings as a person but that despite her ‘madness’ she had never schmoozed with the opposition especially Besigye’s FDC. ‘Ninkimanya Kawooya nomugwiraro kwonka eiraro rye takaritwaraga aheeru ya NRM’ (I know Kawooya’s eccentric behaviour but she has never taken it outside the NRM household), Museveni said.

He further assured Kabatsi that he would get her a job of her choice only when she agreed to step down for Kawooya. He told Kabatsi that he would give her money to bolster her milk business so that she could have cooling plants throughout Sembabule. At this point, Sekikuubo shot up and told the President point-blank that he would not support Kawooya because she had always de-campaigned him in his electoral contests.

Finally, Kabatsi told the President that she would first consult her supporters and then inform him of her final position. Kabatsi stayed in the electoral race and stood as an independent.

She lost to Kawooya by a small margin. Kawooya polled 50 per cent of the vote while Kabatsi had 45.6 per cent. Kabatsi petitioned court, accusing Kawooya of rigging the elections. Court nullified Kawooya’s election and ordered for a by-election which was held on January 7, 2009.

According to a senior NRM figure, who declined to be named, Museveni took Kabatsi’s defiance as a slap in his face.

‘President Museveni hates being disobeyed especially when it is from a member of his sub-ethnic group [the Bahima]. That is why he was so harsh on the likes of Brig. Henry Tumukunde, Gen. David Tinyefuza when they attempted to defy his authority. On the contrary, Museveni has been soft to the likes of Dr Kizza Besigye to a point of allowing them to quit the army even when they had taken strong opinions against his government. He probably expects absolute loyalty from his own people,’ the source said.

‘For example Maj. Gen. Kahinda Otafiire can say anything and walk away with it, but not with [people like] Nasasira,’ the source added.

Kabatsi, a Muhima like Museveni, has variously infuriated the President. On several occasions Museveni is said to have requested Kabatsi to allow Kawooya finish her term and he [Museveni] would then see how to cater for Kabatsi in the 2011 elections. Kabatsi still refused to heed Museveni’s counsel. For this, NRM insiders say, Museveni vowed to teach Kabatsi an unforgettable lesson.

Was there rigging in Sembabule?

The Sembabule by-election was held in the background of these silent battles with Kawooya, Kutesa and Museveni on one side, and a rebellious Kabatsi, backed by some Baganda (Ssentongo and Ssekikuubo) on the other.

It was so bad for Kabatsi that several intelligence reports submitted to Museveni linked Sekikuubo to the Mengo establishment that apparently has become ‘rebellious.’ Sekikuubo is branded an NRM ‘rebel’ who is fighting it from within on the orders of the Buganda Kingdom administration at Mengo.

Several intelligence reports further said that a victory by the Sekikuubo/Kabatsi camp would energise DP which could launch their assault on Sembabule to add it onto their Masaka stronghold.

After the arrest and brief detention of the controversial Maj. Kakooza Mutale and MP Ssekikuubo, the presence of over 500 intelligence operatives a week before the elections and the deployment of hundreds of police and LDU soldiers, it became clear to the Kabatsi camp that this was a security operation, not an election.

Rainbow Hotel in Sembabule town was the tactical headquarters of the ‘Operation Re-elect Kawooya.’ All the district chiefs were strategising with the Kawooya campaign team at Rainbow Hotel on how to ensure victory. The Kawooya camp imported ‘external’ manpower in the likes of Capt. Andrew Bashaija, the man who unsuccessfully tried to ‘install’ Ngoma Ngime as Mbarara Municipality MP in 2001 elections.

The presence of the head of operations at the Electoral Commission, one David Musiime, did not help matters. Musiime, a chronic loser in the Nyabushozi parliamentary elections, has been reported to be the point-man in areas where the NRM has been accused of rigging elections.

Musiime was tactfully camped at Rainbow Hotel throughout the by-election period.

The incidents at Mitama, Keirasha and Lutunku polling stations where there were reported cases of unknown people storming the stations and stuffing pre-ticked ballots into the boxes, and widespread intimidation weeks leading up to the polls means the rigging followed the pattern of previous elections'” ballot stuffing, intimidation, etc. Kawooya won with a difference of 4,500 after polling 26,445. Kabatsi polled 22,373. So much was the magnitude of the rigging that Kabatsi announced she would never participate in elective politics again nor go to court to challenge the outcome.

Museveni held hostage

Whatever the outcome of the Sembabule by-election, the biggest loser could be NRM for it has left the district so divided that Museveni has to pull something special to reconcile Sembabule. But more importantly, the events of Sembabule have raised another spectre in the NRM; the emergence of powerful power centres that are increasingly holding the President hostage. He no longer holds firm grip on the party and these emerging power bases seem to be calling the shots.

In the recent highly publicised NSSF-Temangalo land scandal, President Museveni had initially indicated he would not protect his Minister Amama Mbabazi who had been implicated in the scandal. Mbabazi is a key figure in the Kigezi area. Museveni had initially indicated that he would abide by the findings of the parliamentary committee which was investigating the Temangalo scandal. But later, inside sources say, due to pressure from the Mbabazi camp, Museveni succumbed and was forced to torpedo both Parliament and cabinet into exonerating his minister. This suggests Museveni is no longer his original self who would not yield under external influence from his cadres. He now has to take into account the price he might pay if he went against the wishes of some power brokers in his NRM.

Sembabule was simply a replay of that. There, Sam Kutesa, the Mawogola MP and Minister for Foreign Affairs is also an in-law to President Museveni. He has for some time stumped his foot and opposed Sekikuubo, Sentongo and Kabatsi. During the 2006 elections, Kutesa wanted Museveni to declare Kawooya the NRM official candidate at one of the public rallies, but the President refused. Museveni argued that both candidates were NRM and there was no logic in denouncing any of them. However this time around, Museveni went to Sembabule and publicly campaigned for Kawooya and denounced Kabatsi. Why? The Kutesa factor appeared to have weighed heavily on Museveni and he cracked.

Another recent example of Museveni losing grip on his independence is the crowning of Edward Columbus Wambuzi as the Kyabazinga of Busoga. The President initially supported the installation of the disputed Kyabazinga who had allegedly been elected through a fraudulent process. This can be explained by the presence of armed security personnel who attended the crowning of Wambuzi to ensure that nobody blocked the coronation.

The NRM sources say however that things took a different turn after the intervention of the Deputy Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga and Minister Kirunda Kivejinja, both power brokers in Busoga region who are opposed to the new Kyabazinga. The NRM sources say that Kadaga and Kivejinja warned Museveni of dire political consequences for him and NRM come 2011. The message was not lost on Museveni. He publicly announced that Busoga has no Kyabazinga and that NRM cannot support an illegally elected king. Yet his representative, the Jinja Resident District Commissioner, had been at the forefront of installing the controversial Kyabazinga against orders of the High Court, which had stayed the coronation.

The question many Ugandans will now begin asking is how much control Museveni still has of his political destiny and if, as it appears, he is increasingly subordinate to various power centres in the NRM, what omen do these power bases spell'” good or bad for Uganda?

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