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Uprooting NRM’s ‘Mustard tree’

By Ian Katusiime

As NRM celebrates its 29th victory anniversary Museveni has weakened all his opponents; why then is his party so weakened?

Every Jan.26, when the NRM marks the anniversary of its victory in 1986; it seeks to present itself as a popular government by holding the celebrations in different parts of the country. This time the celebrations are in Soroti. But the excitement is waning.

Looking back at the time NRM came to power in 1986, there have been a number of changes within the party and the way it is organised.

In the Movement system as it was known back then, there were very few contestations to authority especially to its chairman, President Yoweri Museveni.

In the first 10 years between 1986 and 1996, Museveni and the Movement system enjoyed immense popularity across the nation. The nation was widely receptive to government policy and crowds always gathered to listen to Museveni speeches both in the capital and the countryside. A lot has changed.

NRM has previously been looked at as a cohesive party with established structures across the country but that has been swept aside since 2013 when two of its most senior and influential leaders, Museveni and Mbabazi, got locked in a struggle for the presidency.

In the last three years, the NRM has lost about six by-elections even where President Yoweri Museveni has hit the stump to campaign for the NRM candidate.

Dr Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a political historian at Makerere University in Kampala says Ugandans do not look forward to celebrating NRM Day and it shows it has lost relevance.

“There’s no excitement around the country. Look at how journalists are being battered. They say they had gone to fight for freedom now they are fighting freedom,” he says.

He says part of the problem is that the day has changed from being a national liberation day to be more about an NRM anniversary.

The NRM, which was the political arm of National Resistance Army has, over its 29-year long hold onto power, seen key historical members fall by the way side.

The former powerful Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi, is the latest to be dropped. Gen. David Sejusa aka Tinyefuza, who was a powerful member of the NRA Military High Command, has also fallen out. He fled Uganda after going rogue as a member of the UPDF and has just returned huffing and puffing about wanting to challenge Museveni for the presidency. As other key players and figures in the NRM government and original NRA structure keep changing and shifting positions, only Museveni’s position; as party chairman and president, remains sacrosanct. It is as if the tree of patriotism that sprouted from the mustard seed that Museveni planted is being uprooted.

New leaves on NRM tree

Major Gen. Jim Muhwezi, an NRM historical and Rujumubura County MP, does not like that analogy but he too likens the NRM to a tree.

“NRM is a like a tree with sheds of leaves and several branches. Others fall off and others grow,” he told The Independent, “for example, some people disagreed on term limits and they left”.

Muhwezi also disagrees with claims that NRM is no longer a mass party. Miria Matembe, who was once Museveni’s favourite cadre but fell out, is among those who say people make a mistake when they confuse the NRM with the Movement.

“There’s a difference between Movement and NRM party. People often mix them. We were a mass party; it was a Movement which was supposed to go into abeyance after 2005 (when multiparty politics was introduced),” Matembe says.

She says instead, Museveni hijacked the Movement and turned it into a party although the original organisation stood for service delivery and honest leadership which is not what NRM is about.

“The Movement was about liberating Uganda; it got us from a ditch and took us somewhere. We embraced it as one people and we were committed on implementing the ten point programme. Once we got off the Movement, it became a government political party and our effort and work were all wasted.  Now it is a bunch of self-seekers who are driven by their selfishness, power and not about service.”

Matembe represents part of the group that left the Movement and formed the core of Forum of Democratic Change (FDC) although she did not join the party.

Ideologically, the NRM says it stands for nationalism, Pan-Africanism, socio-economic transformation and democracy. But even here, the convergence of NRM cadres which once ensured ideological consensus among party honchos appears to have evaporated.

It started when the man who was to become Museveni’s biggest challenger, Col. Dr Kizza Besigye authored a stinging critique of the NRM in 1999. A major fallout within the Movement establishment followed. There followed an exodus of former cadres joining opposition ranks or abandoning the Movement bus; Jaberi Bidandi Ssali, Augustine Ruzindana, Jack Sabiiti, Salaam Musumba, Chaapa Karuhanga, Miria Matembe, Sarah Kiyingi, Eriya Kategaya aka `the shifter’, Mugisha Muntu and others jumped ship over time.

Following the purging of Mbabazi at the NRM Delegates’ Conference on December 15 2014, all powers of the Secretary General were whittled away and NRM is now a party firmly in the claws of President Museveni who appoints officials. According to constitutional amendments made, the other key positions of Deputy Secretary General, Treasurer and his assistant are also appointed by the party chairman.

Matembe says the current young Turks in the NRM are being used and have refused to stand up for their rights.

“They are only motivated by money,” she says.

Ndebesa says these changes at the NRM secretariat indicate a stifling of institutional development.

“A secretariat is supposed to provide both ideological leadership and value leadership. It is supposed to review the values of the party and give direction on several issues. There should be both intellectual and analytical input from a secretary general,” he says.

According to him, a secretary general cannot only concentrate on administrative work if the party is to develop all-round. “A Secretary General is both a Secretary and General. The person must be both an administrator and a chief ideologue of the party. Judging from the public narrative, I am not sure (Justine) Lumumba will be a chief ideologue,” Ndebesa concludes.

The battle between Museveni and Mbabazi in the NRM was a reminder of the first fallout between Museveni and his former physician Kizza Besigye in the run up to the 2001 elections.

Just as in the Besigye case, some sections of the public have accused NRM of growing intolerance in regard to the way Mbabazi has been treated. Mbabazi’s wife, Jacqueline, has been especially critical of Museveni. She labelled the actions of the NRM “fascist” for the manner in which Museveni’s sole candidature resolution was hammered through, including the manner in which NRM MPs disbursed tonnes of cash across the country to excited peasants in a bid to popularise the so-called Kyankwanzi resolution.

Therefore on January 26, some observers say as NRM celebrates 29 years after capturing state power, it will be more of a personal milestone for Museveni as opposed to the party growing stronger in stature and longevity.

In the year before general elections, the race for party positions and flag bearer heats up. In 2005, Mbabazi warded off competition from Kahinda Otafiire to become the party’s first SG and Museveni easily sailed through as flag bearer.

In 2010, the battle for that position became more fierce as Mbabazi had to face off with Otafiire again and a resurgent Gilbert Bukenya then as Vice President. Mbabazi carried the day although the election was marred with irregularities as claims of Mbabazi confiscating the voter register dogged the exercise. Mbabazi enjoyed Museveni’s backing at the event though Bukenya and Otafiire were aggrieved by the entire process.

This year looks like there will hardly be a spectacle as NRM holds a delegates conference. The party already has an appointed Secretary General and Museveni is already affirmed as the sole candidate. Since 2015 is a campaign year, Museveni looks like he has got it all sorted as far as far as NRM is concerned. The shredding of the powers of the Secretary General also re-affirms the widely held belief that NRM is Museveni and he is NRM.  So NRM Day 2015 may pan out to be a celebration of becoming stronger to be weaker for Museveni and NRM. As the country marks the 29th anniversary on NRM’s victory, it will be entering a new phase where Museveni has purged and silenced almost all probable malcontents.

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