President Museveni managed to coax five ruling party members who wanted to challenge the party’s flag bearer, Rebecca Nalwanga, for the Luweero woman MP seat to pull out of the race.
The five – Elizabeth Lugudde, Lilian Nakate, Jamiya Ssenkanja and Rita Mugalu had raised misgivings against Nalwanga and hoped to push fresh primaries to choose a flag bearer for the by-election.
Whereas this was supposed to be a boost for the ruling party’ candidate, however, fears still remain among NRM members in the district that the May 22 election may arrive too early for a complete mending of fences among NRM members to have happened.
Take the case of Charles Ssebyala, the NRM chairperson for Luweero Town Council who openly backed DP’s Brenda Nabukenya in the last by-election. He says he will this time neither campaign for nor against Nalwanga, his party’s candidate in the by-election.
“They (Nalwanga and Nabukenya) have both been in Parliament and the people have seen their performance. This time I will only turn up to vote but I will let the people decide who they want to vote for,” Mr Ssebyala said in a telephone interview.
Nalwanga would probably rather have her fellow NRM members keeping quiet than openly support her principal opponent, but she would certainly prefer them actively backing her.
After the last by-election, which Nalwanga lost by a margin of just 30 votes, she said in an interview with The Independent magazine that Mr Ssebyala’s actions amounted to indiscipline.
But Mr Ssebyala is not alone. The ruling party’s camp in Luweero District has been dogged by divisions in recent years, and Mr Ssebina Ssekitooleko, the NRM party spokesperson for the district, says this is the main reason DP’s Nabukenya won the last by-election.
Divided NRM, united Opposition
“We were deeply divided with several members of our party supporting our opponents,” Mr Ssekitooleko says.
Hajj Abdul Nadduli, the NRM vice chairman for Buganda region and Luweero District chairman, however, says after the five withdrew from the race, NRM is “now a strong force.”
The withdrawal of the other intending candidates was reached after a series of meetings with NRM leaders, including the President and former Luweero Bush War hero, Gen Salim Saleh. But not all NRM members give the impression that things are now fine.
Mr Samuel Sserunjogi, the LCIII chairperson for Katikamu Sub-county, says after Gen Saleh met with Luweero NRM leaders, more work needed to be done to unite the NRM leaders in the district.
“Our differences were not resolved; we hope to have other meetings to find a common position,” he says.
Mr Sserunjogi warns that just because five party members who had threatened to run as independents had pulled out of the race does not “necessarily translate into them transferring their support to Nalwanga.”
On the contrary, the Opposition agreed to rally behind Nabukenya immediately the Court of Appeal nullified her election. This may be a boost for her, given that in the last by-election the FDC’s Zaidah Gwokyala polled 3,775 votes.
High Court Judge Vincent Zehukirize annulled the election following a complaint by Nalwanga that her request for a recount after Nabukenya had been declared winner had not been implemented. According to the relevant law, the votes must be recounted if the losing candidate complains and the winner has won by less than 50 votes. The recount failed because the ballot box seals had been tampered with by the time they were presented for the recount at Luweero District headquarters.
Nabukenya won with 14,945 votes against Nalwanga’s 14,915, while independent candidates Hannah Kirabo and Elsie Namagembe polled 3,687 and 2,193 respectively. Lugudde, who has now pulled out in favour of Nalwanga, managed 191 votes.
The numbers game
In the interview with The Independent, Nalwanga partly blamed her loss on low voter turnout, which is a growing trend in Uganda’s elections, most notably in by-elections.
In the election which Nalwanga lost to Nabukenya, for instance, just about 21 per cent of the registered voters (less than 40,000 out of a total of 188,257) turned up to vote. The total votes gathered by all the candidates (39,706) were just about the same figure Nalwanga alone had garnered when she won the general election in February 2011.
That time Nalwanga’s victory was successfully challenged by her fellow NRM member, who claimed that she had bribed voters, opening up the opportunity which DP’s Nabukenya snapped up. Nalwanga argued in the said interview that her re-election bid had been hampered by most of her supporters living deep in the villages of Luweero yet the Opposition is supported most by people in the peri-urban areas of Luweero.
“You know this is a rainy season and so many of our people were busy in their gardens. Also, this being a by-election, some people didn’t even know the election was taking place. This therefore led to low voter turnout,” Nalwanga added.
Nalwanga claiming that the Opposition stand a better chance of winning in the peri-urban areas of Luweero may sound like an admission that the Opposition is making inroads into a district which has historically been solidly behind President Museveni and NRM.
This is because the peri-urban areas of Luweero – Bombo, Kalule, Wobulenzi, Katikamu, Kasana-Luweero – have expanded considerably in recent years and so have their populations.
NRM by-election fortunes looking up
Nabukenya, talking to the Sunday Monitor by telephone, says she will “sweep” the votes this time, especially “in my strongholds of the townships.” She claims that the people of Luweero “need a second liberation and they now agree that we were sold hot air. Luweero is no longer the ‘political Mecca’ of NRM.”
Here she was referring to the historical association between Luweero and President Museveni and NRM, since the bush war against Milton Obote II regime was waged in what came to be known as the Luweero Triangle.
In playing up this history, President Museveni has in the past attached importance to Luweero, by, for instance, launching his campaigns for the 1996 general election in Luweero. There is also a ministry in charge of Luweero Triangle and the President has continued to appoint people from Luweero to key positions.
The upcoming by-election is of “added importance,” says Hajj Nadduli, “because we must demonstrate that the other defeat was a mistake and NRM is still by far stronger than the Opposition here in Luweero and in the whole country.”
This is a bold statement of intent, especially coming from a man who has a special responsibility to deliver the victory. Apart from being the district chairperson, Hajj Nadduli is the vice chairperson of the party in Buganda, putting him in charge of mobilising the region to support his party.
The by-election in his backyard may be a good opportunity to convince his party’s national conference, which is expected next year, that he is the right man to continue in the role.
And, going by recent developments, luck may be on his side. The ruling party slipped to a string of defeats in by-elections earlier this term – six in total – in Jinja, Entebbe and Bushenyi municipalities, Luweero and Kasese District Woman MP seats and also in Bukoto South.
The NRM, however, has since returned to winning ways, retaking Butaleja District after the controversial death of former woman MP Cerinah Nebanda and later winning in Usuk and Bubulo West.
In looking to retake Luweero, the ruling party is poised to sweat against a united Opposition, which on the evidence of almost every notable Opposition politician attending Nabukenya’s nomination, is eager to make a mark.
The other candidates are Ms Ramula Kadala (Ind) and Farida Namubiru (Ind).