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.