Inside the party’s new countrywide mobilisation drive
Kampala, Uganda | IAN KATUSIIME | The opposition National Unity Platform (NUP) on Feb.23 launched Kunga Uganda; a proposed countrywide mobilisation drive. The event at their party headquarters in Kavule, Makerere not far from Kampala’s central business district attracted hordes of supporters, party MPs, and other big wigs. Party secretary general Lewis Rubongoya, and party president Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine addressed them.
The event looked timely given the circumstances the party finds itself in. Two years after the presidential election that launched it into the rough and tumble of Ugandan politics, NUP is in a reckoning of what it has gone through: a 17-month detention of two of its MPs, internal dissent, continued abduction and torture of its supporters, and how far it can go in its ‘delta force’ politics as some commentators have branded it.
NUP is now focused on a mobilisation drive to keep its momentum with the occasional by election springing up and with eyes on 2026. The party also has to deal with the omnipresence of state machinery where it is vulnerable to fifth columnists, bribery of party members, and outright intimidation and violence.
At Kunga Uganda where thousands of NUP supporters turned up, Bobi used the occasion to dispel what he called state propaganda of party splits. He also revealed that he asked the Leader of Opposition in Parliament (LOP), Nyendo – Mukungwe Division MP Mathias Mpuuga (NUP) about rumours that he had negotiations with President Yoweri Museveni which secured the release of NUP MPs Mohammad Ssegirinya (Kawempe North) and Allan Ssewanyana (Makindye West) . He said Mpuuga denied the allegations.
Mpuuga, a NUP top honcho, was under scrutiny after reports emerged that he was involved in negotiations with Museveni to secure the release of Ssegirinya and Ssewanyana who were released on bail recently after a gruesome 17-month jail stint.
The almost two-year long detention of the two MPs had become a lightning rod in parliament and the country’s body politic.
Bobi Wine, the party founder, also faced questions of his own after he took two days to release a statement on the MPs’ new found freedom.
It is this aspect of NUP’s mobilisation that puts Mpuuga in the hot seat as the man tasked with dealing with government as LOP while also leading the party’s legislative agenda in parliament. After all manner of protests and public anger failed to yield results on Ssewanyana and Ssegirinya’s freedom, there was some sense of realisation that only negotiations with the government could.
This left Mpuuga as the only possible option for opening rounds of negotiations with the government. This was also after hard charging Mityana Municipality MP Francis Zaake bringing parliament plenary sessions to riotous standoff was not guaranteeing freedom for the MPs.
Mpuuga has denied the negotiations with President Museveni. Some analysts have tried to capture the dilemma Mpuuga, the LOP, finds himself in.
“Mpuuga’s dilemma is Robert Kyagulanyi’s dilemma too. It is the dilemma of opposition politics in Uganda, especially where the Museveni brand of autocracy—a more sophisticated one—has its teeth firmly in the skin,” Yusuf Serunkuma, a columnist wrote in The Observer.
He added “Negotiating with Museveni is the only option left if opposition politicians want to get anything going.”
But with the MPs out of jail and recuperating from the torture and abuse they were subjected to, the two and a half year old party appears to be focusing its attention elsewhere: the future.
“We have in the last six months embarked on a campaign to mobilise and recruit let alone train with a view to deploy eventually well identified and oriented individuals to represent this party at different stages,” Mpuuga said on the day of Kunga Uganda’s launch on the NTV talk show, On The Spot.
Mpuuga in his usual eloquence talked about the need for NUP to have a grasp of its membership.
“At the last election, we had so many Ugandans voting for us…but we were not sure whether we were being voted for by supporters or members,” he said.
The party is aware of the ever shifting voter dynamics in Uganda since it was a beneficiary of those same dynamics in the last election when it returned impressive margins in the Buganda region–felling ruling party MPs and party leader Bobi Wine polling 3.6million votes in the 2021 presidential election; a first for a debutante.
As the party presses on with release of jailed supporters, Kunga Uganda has become a rallying call inside the party trenches. With a performance that saw 59 MPs elected on the NUP ticket two years ago and sweeping division mayor positions and councillorships in Kampala, the party is firmly looking ahead.
“The voters of NUP can vary depending on the issues we are raising so we are trying to put our foothold in every corner of the country,” Mpuuga said.
Buganda Centre of gravity
The Buganda region where Bobi Wine hails from was his trump card in the 2021 election polling 1.9 million votes which was 64% of the votes cast compared to Museveni’s one million votes at 33% in the area. This region has 16 districts which includes the capital Kampala, populated districts like Masaka, Mityana and NRM’s Mecca, Luweero.
According to the Uganda Elections Data Portal (UEDP), a data visualisation tool by the International Republican Institute, which sources its data from the Electoral Commission, Bobi Wine beat Museveni in Luweero; the district where the President centred his five year guerilla war from 1981-1986. Bobi polled a massive 70% where registered voters were 257,115 against Museveni’s 27%.
Museveni had comfortably carried the district for years when he was challenged by Kizza Besigye, a Bush War comrade, who had stints in government before breaking ranks.
Museveni fought off a stiff challenge form the singer-turned-musician to win districts in the outer belt of the Buganda region like Sembabule, Nakaseke, Rakai, Mubende but terribly lost the districts in Buganda’s heartland like Masaka, Mpigi, Gomba, Mukono and Kayunga which are also more populated.
The 2021 election also brought impressive returns in the Eastern region where Bobi Wine scored 34% against Museveni whose margins dropped from 58% to 54% from the last election in 2016. Bobi Wine won in major districts of Mbale, Jinja, Iganga, Busia while Museveni retained districts in the Teso sub region which include Katakwi, Soroti, Bukedea, Pallisa. Bobi Wine made in-roads into the Busoga and Bamasaba sub-regions which were traditionally Museveni strongholds.
According to the portal, 500,000 votes separated the two candidates. Bobi Wine’s performance in these regions is instructive because he was able to attract voters as a new candidate much as there was a lower voter turnout in both regions compared to 2016.
In the Central region, voter turn-out fell from 61% to 54% according to the UEDP. In the Eastern region, it fell from 69%-60%. Many analysts attributed it to the violence that the state meted out on Bobi Wine’s campaign.
It was on the same campaign trail in Luuka district in the east when police pounced on Bobi and arrested him for allegedly flouting Covid19 protocols. The event sparked protests in major towns like Kampala and security shot dead an estimated over 100 people although the actual number of Ugandans who died in the protests remains unclear.
Some NRM ministers attributed their election losses to the brutality the state unleashed to bring Bobi’s campaign to heel.
NUP has been on a steady path winning guild election across universities in the country. In December 2022, Lawrence Alionzi, a NUP candidate won the Makerere University guild race beating seven candidates to become the 88th guild president.
Alionzi’s predecessor, Shamim Nambassa, was on the NUP ticket beating her FDC counterpart by over 4000 votes in November 2021. NUP has also won guild presidential races in Makerere University Business School (MUBS), Kyambogo University and Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST).
Amidst the energy and drive, challenges remain for the party. The latest is how to handle cases like those of Eric Mwesigwa, an NUP supporter, who was badly tortured with burns on his chest. On Feb. 28, he recanted his testimony of being tortured by security agencies and said the pain was inflicted on him by his party, NUP.
Although there are the recordings that indicate how Mwesigwa was coerced into recanting his story by state agents with the promises of money, the party still faces the challenge of mobilising while dealing with the NRM machinery with its infinite power, cash, and ability to arrest and jail NUP supporters at whim.