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Which way for national dialogue?

Organisers insist December 12 meet is on but party leaders bicker over hostile political environment

Kampala, Uganda | IAN KATUSIIME | Justice James Ogoola is determined to have the national dialogue take place. He is the chairperson of The Elders Forum; a group that advocates for healthy politics. It was behind the first ever presidential debate in Uganda in 2016.

The former Principal Judge has traversed the country preaching the essence of a national dialogue and he is set on a major meeting of party presidents taking place on Dec. 12.  However Ogoola and colleagues in the Inter Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU), another group pushing for the dialogue, face invincible odds because of controversy sparked by the unprecedented proposition.

Ogoola has found himself in a position where one day, he is announcing how many politicians they have on board for talks or the number of Ugandans they have so far consulted and the next day he has to deal with another episode of violent arrest or torture and its implications for the dialogue.

The Inter Party Organisation on Dialogue (IPOD); a grouping of five parties in parliament; NRM, FDC, DP, UPC and JEEMMA has also been conducting several meetings; including one at State House Entebbe with President Museveni, on the same issue.

The Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD), an NGO with offices in Ntinda, Kampala that works to promote peaceful and inclusive politics worldwide gives IPOD a secretariat. Frank Rusa, the NIMD Country Representative, is the Executive Secretary of IPOD and is immersed in the process of the dialogue.

Rusa acknowledges that Ugandans are always doubtful of the dialogue process because of the ruling party. He says they should not be this time. He says this time the situation is different and all players recognize that the proposed dialogue between the topmost leaders of political parties is important.

“This time it will be different because there has never been demonstration of a political will like now; the Head of State has confirmed attendance,” he told The Independent in an interview.

Rusa says there is momentum after a lull of two years since the 2016 presidential election. He adds that the NRM has committed that their secretary general Kasule Lumumba, Director of Legal Affairs, the Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda,; an NRM historical, will also attend the meeting to be held at Commonwealth Resort Munyonyo on Dec. 12.

Rusa says the Munyonyo meeting will adopt an agenda for engagement between the various party leaders.

“In any healthy multiparty system, we need to have room to cooperate. We want this to be a constant feature of our political space where we routinely engage each other,” he says.

He says the dialogue process started after the contentious 2016 presidential election although it is just picking up now. Meetings were held between cultural institutions, civil society, academia but along the way, momentum was lost. It got worse in 2017 when no activity took place as the highly divisive campaign to amend the constitution to enable President Museveni run again neutralised any room for the dialogue.

But despite his optimism as a facilitator, Rusa is aware of the political terrain he is operating in. The torture cases that have been highlighted this year, against opposition MPs and other political activists are not lost on him.

“Of course the spirit of the dialogue is undermined when such things happen because dialogue is built on ongoing trust, he explains, “We cannot dialogue in the room, when outside the room you are kicking me. We are working with all state agents.”

Party leaders speak

James Akena, the president of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), and the current chairman of IPOD is optimistic and he believes dialogue is best for Uganda’s politics going forward.

He says that any political actor who is not interested in the talks either has to come up with a Plan B or a formula to alter the status quo outside of the processes offered by dialogue.

“Sitting and waiting for a changed situation is the least interactive route but may be construed as simply burying your head in the sand,” he states in an email to The Independent.

Akena agrees with some of his colleagues in politics and observers on the many valid and justifiable reasons why there should not be talks but he is more concerned about the uncertainty of the future.

“Viable and functional political parties which are able to hold a principled dialogue across political lines provide an institutional mechanism to overcome and mitigate unplanned transitions, even if the desired well managed transition proves unassailable.”

FDC as the largest political party in the opposition has been open about its discomfort with some aspects of the dialogue although sources in the party say President Patrick Amuriat will join his counterparts.

Party spokesperson, Semujju Nganda, who doubles as the Opposition chief whip in parliament issued a statement saying the party does not regard Museveni as the legitimately elected President of Uganda. “If that issue is part of what will be discussed in December, then FDC management will sit and take a decision,” he said.

Norbert Mao, the president-general of the Democratic Party (DP), initially was enthusiastic about the dialogue but switched to say his party was pulling out of the process. Recently, however, DP’s Secretary General Gerald Siranda, told The Independent that the DP leader will attend the upcoming meeting although a number of issues remain unresolved.

“We gave conditions so that the dialogue does not turn out like the Nairobi Peace Talks or those in Moshi, Siranda explains, “We want a dialogue where there is an agreeable agenda.”

Siranda says the way parties were consulted by the conveners leaves a lot to be desired. He is critical of the way the conveners acted after they secured the attendance of President Museveni.

“They started waving to all how NRM was part of the talks. Even the NRM Secretary asked them; have you consulted us as a party? That is why you saw the deputy attorney general saying contradictory things about the dialogue? I don’t want my party whip to say something different from me.”

He says in the meeting of Dec. 12, the position of Museveni should remain as party chairman strictly. “The overall goal is multiparty growth,” he says.

Siranda adds that beyond constitutional and electoral reforms, the goal should be how to build capacity of political parties. In his view, youth participation should be a central theme of the talks.

He says the same about individuals behind the dialogue. “Some of them are supporters of Museveni. In IRCU, we have [Mufti] Mubajje and we also have Ndilangwa of the Kibuli faction,” he tells The Independent.

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