The daggers are out as President Museveni fights to retain Sebei sub-region, which the Opposition have laid a strong claim to in the ongoing campaigns, riding on discontent over an array of unfulfilled promises and a simmering quarrel over the plight of internally displaced persons.
When Mr Museveni campaigned in the three Sebei districts of Kapchorwa, Kween and Bukwo, he was joined by Kenya’s deputy president, Mr William Ruto, who has ethnic ties with the people of Sebei, in what appeared like a move to leverage Mr Ruto’s influence and woo the disaffected people of the sub-region. At the rallies Mr Ruto spoke in Kalenjin, which he shares with the Sebei.
Despite this and other efforts, the area continued to appear open to voting for the Opposition, with the Forum for Democratic Change candidate Dr Kizza Besigye enjoying an encouraging campaign foray into the sub-region.
Independent candidate Amama Mbabazi has also laid a strong claim to the sub-region, snapping up for himself ruling party MP Abdi Chemaswet, who lost in the party primaries and is seeking re-election as an independent.
In one dramatic incident, as reported in Daily Monitor on February 2, members of Opposition groups who had been presented before NRM vice chairman Moses Kigongo and Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda as defectors to the ruling party in Kapchorwa Town refused to defect and accused the organisers of tricking them.
The two ruling party bigwigs are among the high profile individuals connected to the ruling party who have frequented the area in recent weeks as the battle for Sebei votes intensifies. They, especially Dr Rugunda, are usually accompanied by the Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura. Uganda National Roads Authority boss Allen Kagina was also recently in Sebei sub-region to say that work on a key road project will commence soon.
A major sticking point in Sebei is the road that connects the three districts of the sub-region, Kapchorwa-Kween-Suam. Being a hilly sub-region which is rocky in many areas, transportation is hard.
When it rains, residents of Bukwo told Dr Besigye when he campaigned there, one can take a day or more to cover the 77kkm stretch from Kapchorwa to Suam, a town at the border with Kenya. Even on dry days, they said, the journey can take up to six hours.
Because of the challenges of transport, the residents of Bukwo and Kween said they deal more with the people from the western side of Kenya than they do with Ugandans.
“If Mr Museveni’s government cannot care for you they should hand you over to Kenya and you wait for us to come to government and bring you back,” Dr Besigye said to wild cheers in Bukwo.
Hopes that the road would be tarmacked were raised in 2006 with promises of money from the East African Compensation Fund, but the money that was released, said to be $35m (about Shs120 billion), was used to tarmac the stretch from Sironko to Kapchorwa, with the government promising to work on the road to Suam later.
Several promises to tarmac the road have been made since, with FDC secretary general Nandala Mafabi, speaking at the rally in Bukwo, singling out specific promises by President Museveni to tarmac the road.
In his State-of-the-Nation address for 2012, Mr Museveni said Kapchorwa-Suam road was in “category A” of the 19 roads UNRA intended to tarmac, saying government was looking for money to work on them.
Speaking at Mr Museveni’s rallies in Kapchorwa, Mr Ruto said the governments of Uganda and Kenya were in “advanced” stages of working on the road, even on the Kenyan side, to boost trade.
But doubts still seemed to linger among the people of the sub-region as to whether they will get a tarmac road this time.
A few weeks ago, Ms Kagina visited the area herself, just to say UNRA was in advanced stages of having the works on the road start in March.
The plight of displaced persons
The road aside, many people in the sub-region complained about having to move long distances to draw water, lack of electricity and at Dr Besigye’s rally in Kapchorwa, residents spoke about a promise by the President to build a high altitude pitch in the district to help train athletes, a promise that has not yet been fulfilled.
Mr Museveni made the promise towards the end of 2012 when Mr Stephen Kiprotich won a gold medal at the Olympic Games in London.
The pitch was supposed to nurture talent in Sebei, which is a haven of long distance runners who tend to cross over to Kenya for better training facilities.
But perhaps the most emotive issue in the battle for Sebei is the plight of the people of the Benet sub-group, who were displaced from the Mt Elgon National Park.
On the day Dr Besigye campaigned in Bukwo District, a group of largely elderly people, inhabitants of the Teriet camp for internally displaced persons, tried to lead him to inspect their homes to see how they live.
The police, commanded by Mr Gerald Twishime, then regional police commander of Sipi, blocked Dr Besigye’s visit, firing teargas, rubber bullets and even live bullets.
At least two people were injured and taken to hospital.
One of the things Gen Kayihura did on one of his recent visits to Sebei was to announce that he had suspended Mr Twishime over the incident involving Dr Besigye and his supporters.
When Dr Besigye returned to campaign in Kween after a day, however, he was unchallenged as he toured Rwanda camp, another place for IDPs. The residents of Rwanda live on about an acre of rocky land located in the middle of a lush planted forest.
In the camp, the toilets were filled up, emitting a foul smell. The housing units were falling apart and congested, and there was no supply of water and power.
When their loved ones die, the residents told Dr Besigye, they smuggle them into the forest under the cover of night and bury them.
Mr Tom Chemistu, an FDC parliamentary aspirant in Bukwo, presented Dr Besigye with a copy of a letter written by President Museveni at the height of the presidential election campaigns in 2011.
In the letter, titled “Benet sub-group of the Sabin” written on February 5, 2011, Mr Museveni directed the Prime Minister to take certain steps to sort out the plight of the Benet people.
The government would degazette a part of the forest, the “London portion”, and permanently resettle some 400 displaced families on it, in addition to giving them iron sheets and other support, including planting materials.
The national park authorities would “examine the request of these families to be allowed to graze their cattle from the grasslands of the national park from a professional conservation point of view”.
The President further directed the Inspector General of Police to investigate allegations that “some two people were killed by the hoodlums of Uganda Wildlife Authority because they were collecting firewood or were grazing their few cattle in the national park”.
The President also directed the Prime Minister’s Office to offer relief supplies to the people. Mr James Kiplangat, a resident of Rwanda camp, said none of the above has been done to date. That was February 2011.
Dr Besigye, addressing the camp dwellers, said: “I am not surprised at all by what is happening here because I know Mr Museveni does not care about Ugandans.” He asked for their votes and promised to sort out the problem immediately after he comes to power.
On January 31, Prime Minister Rugunda issued a statement reacting to the cries of the IDPs, saying that the government had already released Shs9b to take care of their situation and that 254 households (1,960 people) had already been resettled on the 318 hectares in Kapsekek in Bukwo District.
He said another 6,096 people living in the camps of Kisitu, Kwoti, Rwanda, Kisangani, Cheberen, Titim and Teriet had yet to be resettled.
With most of the promises that the ruling party and government have made to assuage the people of Sebei meant to be implemented after the polls, it remains to be seen who between the ruling party and the Opposition the voters will choose.
The battle in perspective
To put the battle in perspective, Sebei sub-region contributed just under one per cent of the total votes nationally in the last election in 2011.
Of the 79,297 votes cast in the three districts of Kapchorwa, Kween and Bukwo, Mr Museveni polled a commanding 80 per cent (63,248 votes) against Dr Besigye’s 14 per cent (11, 359).
The small number of votes from Sebei sub-region, therefore, means that it cannot swing the election on its own.
In the last election, for instance, although Mr Museveni collected 80 per cent of the votes in the sub-region, these votes accounted for only just over one per cent of his national tally of 5,428,369 votes.