The Democratic Party (DP) yesterday launched celebrations of the 60 years of the party’s existence at the Resort Beach Hotel in Ggaba, Kampala.
The choice of date for the launch of the celebrations was dictated by a lone happening 53 years ago, on March 1, 1961, when the then DP president-general, Ben Kiwanuka, became chief minister of Uganda, having won the first national elections which Buganda Kingdom boycotted.
Kiwanuka, however, lost the April 1962 elections to Milton Obote’s Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), which had allied with Buganda Kingdom’s Kabaka Yekka, missing out on the opportunity to form the first independence government.
Since then, the only real opportunity for DP under Paul Ssemogerere to take over government was after the disputed 1980 elections, which had the Obote-led UPC declared the winner.
Ssemogerere only managed 21 per cent of the votes when he stood again in 1996 as the Inter-Political Forces Cooperation (IPFC) candidate in the first direct presidential election in the country before the party launched into sharp free-fall, to the extent that the vote harvest for the country’s oldest party’s presidential candidate in the last two elections was less than two per cent of the total votes.
To further demonstrate that the party is a shell of its former self, Norbert Mao, its president-general, says DP had no functional bank account when he took over in 2010. The party has also been rocked by infighting and even Mao has since quarrelled with some of the people who previously backed him.
And the worst does not seem to be over yet. Observers predict a fiercer war when the party leadership positions open up for contestation next year.
Many DP members who boycotted the delegates’ conference in which Mao was elected and have kept away from the party in the past three years are expected to try to regain control of the party in the upcoming election cycle.
This is why Mao and his team are eager to seize the moment and do something. It is even more inspiring from Mao’s perspective because Ben Kiwanuka’s name is involved. The legendary DP leader is thought to have been killed on the orders of Idi Amin in 1972 when he served as Chief Justice. Many DP members draw inspiration from him.
Early in his tenure, Mao announced that his administration would embark on a search for Kiwanuka’s remains (it is suspected that he was buried either in a field in Luzira or in Nakasongola).
The search for the remains has not yet borne fruits, but highlighting the highest moment in the party’s history – in which Kiwanuka was the central figure – probably will. It is a gamble Mao is happy to take.
The celebrations launched yesterday will continue through most of the year and reach a climax on October 6 when the party will clock 60 years. In the course of the celebrations, Mao says, the leadership will take the opportunity to “revitalise” the party nationally.
And revitalising is what DP needs. The party currently has 15 MPs out of the 355 members, excluding the army representatives and ex-officio. And more poignantly from the DP perspective, all the 15 come from the central region.
This, according to secretary general Mathias Nsubuga, gives “the wrong impression” that DP is a Buganda party. Nsubuga argues that the fact that DP managed to win in 1961 despite Buganda boycotting the elections “points to the national character of the party from the outset”.
Mao adds that under Ssemogerere and later Ssebaana Kizito – a span of about 40 years from 1972 to 2010 – DP “developed a Ganda-centric culture that was also coupled with indiscipline and lack of accountability on the part of certain members”. He says he took over a party that “had basically dwindled to a Buganda party”.
Cliques also took centre stage and they became influential, says Mao. “During Ssebaana’s time,” Mao gives an example, “decisions made collectively would be undermined by cliques”.
Taking on the leadership of DP, therefore, was viewed by some as a wrong step in Norbert Mao’s political career. Mao agrees with this view to some extent, suggesting that he would probably have done better as a politician if he had done something else instead of fighting for the leadership of DP.
“If sometimes I appear that my political capital is somehow diminished, it is because I have spent it on DP,” Mao says of the sacrifices he has had to make.
But his critics say that he would not have done much better elsewhere since he does not seem to want to work under others.
When he took over a divided DP, Mao promised to reconcile the party but not much has come forth on that front. He may not be the only one to blame, though, given the complexities of the party he took over and the circumstances of his leadership.
The blame game
Mao and Mukono Municipality MP Betty Nambooze relate in an uneasy fashion. Mao knows fully well that his success as DP president depends to a high degree on the support he gets from Buganda, which is the party’s stronghold.
And, he knows too, that people like Nambooze hold some sway in the politics of the region. He does not want to openly antagonise them.
Whenever occasion allows it, therefore, Mao seeks to be associated with Nambooze and group, who on the other hand seem to be careful not to appear to endorse Mao.
About Nambooze, Mao speaks with a deep-seated disappointment. But he also leaves allowance for reconciliation. “She has never stepped at the party headquarters (since Mao became president),” Mao says, “She does not contribute (money) to the running of the party (despite being in Parliament on DP ticket.)”
He then quickly blames the ruling party and FDC for the misunderstanding. “Many people have been victims of the current politics of short-termism,” he says.
Nambooze, on her part, speaks of a “lack of commitment” on the part of the party leadership to reconcile the party.
“The recent leadership of the party,” she says, “has been built along the lines of victory and humiliation of others.”
Nambooze says Mao’s biggest problem with her is the fact that in the last elections she backed FDC’s Kizza Besigye despite the fact that she was running for Parliament on the DP ticket, which party was fronting Mao for president.
“But he (Mao) also spent most time running around with Besigye in 2006 despite the fact that he was supposed to manage Ssebaana’s campaign,” Nambooze shoots back.
Mao denies the charge of having abandoned Ssebaana to back Besigye, however, saying the only reason he was sometimes missing from Ssebaana’s campaign was because he was himself a candidate campaigning concurrently, running for the Gulu District chair.
Nambooze is just one among a number of DP luminaries who do not break bread with Mao. Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago is another.
Granted, Lukwago has been kept busy by battles surrounding the office of the Lord Mayor for the past three years or so. But it is also true that there has been clear deliberateness about his silence on matters DP. He would shrug off invitations to comment on issues in DP, saying he needed time to concentrate on fixing Kampala.
At other times, Lukwago seemed to lose interest in the whole idea of strengthening parties, arguing that concentrating on building political parties increased the possibilities of friction among “potential allies”.
But the speculation still remained. Observers reckon that Lukwago could be sizing up a challenge against Mao for the DP presidency as a first step to a possible national presidential bid.
As President Museveni and his agents tightened the noose around Lukwago’s neck at Kampala Capital City Authority, speculation mounted that Lukwago would consider taking on Museveni, something Lukwago has not ruled out. He may want to use DP as a vehicle.
When we spoke to him for this article, Lukwago chose his words deliberately and spoke carefully, as if keen not to give anything away. He declined to comment on whether he would go to Ggaba for the launch of the 60 years celebrations, only showing enthusiasm in talking about the way forward for the party.
Lukwago made a suggestion similar to what Nambooze had put across in a separate interview, calling for “an informal meeting aimed at thrashing out the contentious issues in the party before we go into the formal delegates’ conference”.
The rare happening is that this time round Mao’s idea seems to coincide with what the duo suggests. Mao talks about plans to make “a radical suggestion” to the party’s governing organs to “invite every interested party member to participate in charting the way forward in preparation for the next delegates’ conference”.
It is probably a lesson learnt on Mao’s part, for in the lead up to the February 2010 Mbale delegates’ conference, similar calls for first resolving the sticky issues in the party were ignored, leading to further splintering of the party.
As the infighting deepens and the party splinters, the membership is demoralised and many find their way out of DP.
In the early 2000s, for instance, a number of politicians from northern Uganda – notably Prof Ogenga Latigo, Reagan Okumu, Odonga Otto and Kassiano Wadri – left DP and eventually found a home in FDC.
In the earlier years, a good number had left for the ruling NRM and the exodus has continued, with the latest convert from DP to NRM, being former spokesperson Emmanuel Mwaka Lutukumoi, having been recently named deputy Resident District Commissioner.
Mao knows that many more can leave the party. He also knows that there are many more who can return to the party, especially if he is no longer the leader. The more important point he points at, however, is that democracy is “the most dependable arbiter in all this”.
And this means setting in motion a process of leadership renewal within the party that will be seen by all as free and fair. If Mao does it, as he has pledged, he may by that one act become the most celebrated DP president since Ben Kiwanuka, even if he loses in the process. And the celebration of DP’s 60 years may become that much needed future reference point when the party was put back on its founding ethos of truth and justice.