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.
The DP leaders had further targeted what they referred to as “the worst aspects of the Movement system.” Constitutional Petition No. 5 of 2002 argued that political parties had been prohibited from functioning like political parties do in democratic societies and that the Movement had been shielded from any political challenge and had been given monopoly of political space.
The petition sought to nullify sections 18 and 19 of the Political Parties and Other Organisations Act (PPOA) on the grounds that they violated basic constitutional rights and freedoms.
Section 18 prohibited political parties from sponsoring candidates during elections, carrying any party identification symbols, operating party offices below national level and conducting public meetings and seminars outside Kampala.
Section 19 prohibited political parties from carrying out “any activity that may interfere with the operation of the Movement political “system”. Both sections were nullified.
Balikuddembe says of the gains made by this petition: “A precedent was set for the courts to strike down any law on political parties or on political activity if such a law was found to be in violation of rights or freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution. Even if the Movement were to be restored in the future, it would only be a shadow of its past when it was under the secure fortress of its original legal framework,”
Balikuddembe says that the legal battle against what was called the Movement system “pulled the rug from under Museveni’s feet and he had no option but to embrace multiparty politics.”
The legal battle against the entrenchment of the Movement “system”, reckons Balikuddembe, “contributed immensely to the backtracking by President Museveni to eventually allow the multiparty system in 2005.”
The Constitution had been set in such a way that a referendum would be conducted one year to the general elections to decide which political system Ugandans favoured. By the time the 2005 referendum was due, however, Museveni had turned around and campaigned for the restoration of multiparty politics.
In another petition, Ssemogerere, Olum and Kafire successfully challenged the constitutionality of Constitutional (Amendment) Act No. 13 0f 2000.
They argued that the amendments to the Constitution were by implication in violation of human rights provisions in the Constitution, especially the right to a fair hearing and the right to access to information in the possession of the state.
They also argued that the amendment would undermine the independence of the Judiciary. The petition succeeded on appeal to the Supreme Court.
Subsequent legal brains, notably Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago and currently Fred Mukasa Mbidde, have taken over from the older generation the push to make the laws, especially regarding politics and governance, better.
A few years ago, Mbidde filed a successful petition that enabled other opposition parties to send representatives to the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA), which had previously been preserved for the Forum for the Democractic Change, because it is the strongest opposition party in parliament, and the ruling NRM.
Mbidde is now the Ugandan DP representative to EALA, which came after an internal quarrel, with some members contesting the way Mao chose Mbidde as the sole EALA candidate from DP.
This quarrel is not out of the ordinary in a party that has for decades now been characterised by intense jostling for positions. And when DP members squabble over positions and the like, the public seems to forget that this party has played a uniquely important role in Uganda’s politics over the past 52 years.
He took over from 1958 and led DP into the independence politics. Kiwanuka won the pre-independence elections of 1961 and became Uganda’s chief minister.
Basil Bataringaya was in 1960 elected a member of the Legislative Council to represent Ankole on the DP ticket. He later crossed to UPC while he led DP in Parliament.
Ssemogerere became the natural leader of DP after Kiwanuka’s death in 1972 but effectively took over after Amin’s ouster. He led the party until 2005.
Anthony Wagaba Ssekweyama’s death in 2000 is thought to have destabilised DP’s plans for the 2001 polls, for he had been expected to take over from Ssemogerere.
John Ssebaana Kizito became the first Anglican leader of DP, having served as treasurer-general for decades. He did five years between 2005 and 2010.
Mao’s ascendancy to the DP presidency was also a first; the first non-Muganda to take over DP. He took over the oldest party in 2010.