The launch of the celebrations to mark 60 years of existence of the Democratic Party (DP) two weeks ago looked like a reunion of the old boys of a traditional secondary school.
It brought together many, including members who have not participated in the party’s activities for years, and those who have since left the party.
The leadership under Norbert Mao was most eager to use the occasion to rejuvenate the party and reclaim their position as a potent opposition party. Kawempe North MP Latif Ssebaggala says the realistic target for DP in the 2016 election is to win the most parliamentary seats among the opposition parties in order to be able to name the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament.
Ssebaggala’s ambition is a telling expose of how DP views itself currently, because an opposition party, especially the oldest political party, should aim to form the next government. Ssebaggala, however, is probably aware that his party has been able to play a big role in Uganda’s politics even from the opposition.
This may sound cynical, for it is widely believed that the party in power writes the history and those in opposition are always at the fringes of things. But DP has had something to say in shaping the political culture of Uganda, has acted as a nursery bed for leaders and has contributed fundamentally to the shaping of the judicial system and the laws of Uganda.
Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, who celebrated 82 years of life recently and led DP for over two decades, is a living symbol of what his party has managed to do in shaping the politics of Uganda.
His less fortunate colleague and predecessor as DP president-general, Ben Kiwanuka, was killed in 1972 when he was Chief Justice, presumably on the orders of Idi Amin. Kiwanuka is believed to have been killed due to his commitment to judicial independence.
Ssemogerere took over the baton and, in retirement, he believes that DP “is overly misunderstood.” However, he says history “is always on hand to vindicate those who stand for what is fair and just and what is right.”
Ssemogerere was most castigated for choosing to lead his party’s MPs as the opposition in Parliament after the 1980 elections, which some said his party had won but had been rigged out by Milton Obote’s UPC.
Yoweri Museveni, who had led the newly formed Uganda Patriotic Movement into the 1980 elections and performed dismally, took to rebellion and eventually took over government. Ssemogerere says he was convinced from the start that “nothing good can come out of fighting,” something he thinks many have since realised “going by how the victorious rebel fighters have governed.”
“I suspect that those who castigated us for our preference for peaceful political engagement over war have started to revise their views about us. Once we agree that peaceful political engagement is the basic minimum, we can then start discussions on other governance issues and hope to forge forward. That is the DP way I know,” Ssemogerere says.
Model opposition party?
Ssemogerere’s wish that DP always pursues non-violence politics, however, is not always realised. Wasswa Ziritwawula, a “life-time” DP member who was a former MP and party leader, fears that a form of militancy is creeping into DP.
“The younger people who have now taken over the party have been misled to believe that militancy is the way politics is done,” Ziritwawula says, “I have seen them fighting with the police.”
Ziritwawula is a generation younger than former party leaders Ssemogerere and Sebaana Kizito but a generation older than the current party leadership. Most of the current party leaders, including president-general Mao, are in their 40s. Ziritwawula, who is in his 60s, would still want to hold a leadership position in the party but he did not get the opportunity during the party’s most recent delegates’ conference in 2010.
Ziritwawula argues for “a healthy mix of ages in the party leadership to have the right blend of idealism, experience and institutional memory.” The current leadership of the party, he reckons, is too young to lead the party forward.
Another DP member in Ziritwawula’s generation who probably feels the same way is Kampala-based lawyer JB Kakooza. Kakooza was asked by Mao’s team to contest the Kampala Lord Mayor position in 2011 and he accepted, only to change his mind on the eve of nomination day. He later told this reporter that he “feared to be misunderstood.”
Other members like Joseph Balikuddembe and Prof Frederick Ssempebwa, who in the past played key roles in the legal field for DP, are currently on the fringes, busy with private practice.
Yet a lot more members who have their roots in DP moved on much earlier and found homes in other parties.
Vice president Edward Ssekandi and former vice president Speciosa Wandira Kazibwe, for instance, were groomed by DP, just like a number of other former ministers in the Museveni government.
Other former DP members – Prof Ogenga Latigo, Reagan Okumu, Odonga Otto and Kassiano Wadri – are currently in FDC.
The battle in the courts
The current withdrawal of many of those older members who still subscribe to DP, Ziritwawula says, “points to a disconnect between the different generations within the party.”
In as much as Ziritwawula may want to argue that there is a generational problem within the party, however, it is also true that there is feuding even among the members of the generation currently leading the party.
Lawyers of Ziritwawula’s generation, most notably Balikuddembe and Prof. Ssempebwa, argued a number of court petitions that many say cleared the way for the restoration of multiparty politics and the deepening of basic rights.
In a series of constitutional petitions, Ssemogerere and other top party officials; Zachary Olum and Rainer Kafire, for example, challenged the constitutionality of the referendum of 2000 to decide which system of governance would be adopted between multiparty and what was called the Movement system.
DP argued that it was wrong to subject the rights to associate and to assemble to a vote through the referendum. They said what was called the Movement was actually not a system of government but a political party and that the referendum was aimed at entrenching one party rule in the country.
After the back-and-forth between the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court as the different petitions were heard, the Referendum (Political Systems) Act of 2000 was declared null and void and consequently the referendum carried out under the Act and the Movement “system” which had won were also declared a nullity.
The referendum of 2000, which the Movement had won by a “landslide”, had been boycotted by the main pro-multiparty forces led by DP.