By nominating Mr Wafula Oguttu as the new Leader of Opposition in Parliament on Friday, Forum for Democratic Change party president Mugisha Muntu is trying to do two things: minimise the effect of a possible fall-out with Nandala Mafabi (the current LoP) and his supporters but also contain future opposition to his (Muntu’s) throne.
In November 2012, Mr Mafabi, who had been named LoP by former FDC president Kizza Besigye in 2011, took on Maj. Gen (rtd) Muntu in an acrimonious contest for the party presidency. When the final count was done, Muntu had felled Mr Mafabi—but just by over 30 votes.
The election was to set the stage for an over year-long power fight which at some moments seemed to paralyse the party. Try as may, Mr Mafabi, who is also Budadiri West MP, refused to recognise Maj Gen Muntu’s victory. Despite attempts by “senior” party members like Mr Garuga Munsinguzi to get the two men to work together, the mood remained tense.
Mr Mafabi’s camp accused FDC secretary general Alice Alaso, who is also Serere Woman MP, of manipulating systems during the election to favour Maj Gen Muntu. They petitioned the party, a commission was instituted led by lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi to review the election but it instead kicked up another storm when they recommended that Muntu’s term would end in 2014—since he was only serving out Dr Besigye’s term. Whereas the Mafabi group thought this the right interpretation, the Muntu camp faulted Rwakafuuzi for “going beyond their mandate”. A new group composed of “elders” Wafula Oguttu, Augustine Ruzindana and others then had to review this particular matter—and came to the conclusion that Muntu would be party president for a full five-year term.
There is no doubt that this became the last straw to break the camel’s back. Despite the later show of “solidarity” and “reconciliation” between Mr Mafabi and Maj Gen Muntu, any keen observer would notice the plastic nature of these acts.
That Maj Gen Muntu was therefore going to drop Mr Mafabi as LoP was no secret. The secret would be in how he would go about this—cognisant of the fact that towards the end of last year—Mr Mafabi’s supporters in eastern Uganda had threatened to decamp if their man was stripped of the title.
The immediate feeling would be that Maj Gen Muntu would pick an LoP from one of the MPs who had supported his candidacy—and these were several. Ms Alaso had taken stick for allegedly influencing the results in Muntu’s favour. Her term as secretary general is also coming to a close and she will not be eligible for re-election. A reward with the LoP post would be a perfect fit.
Dokolo Woman MP Cecilia Ogwal made clear her opposition to Mafabi’s party presidency drive very early. She backed Muntu although some think her opposition to Mafabi lay in the fact that she had been seen as front-runner to take the LoP post in 2011 until Dr Besigye pulled a surprise on everyone by handing the job to Mr Mafabi, whose fame as the tough PAC chair had been solidified with his hard-won re-election in 2011 as Budadiri West MP against a well-oiled NRM machinery that backed then Presidency Minister Beatrice Wabudeya. The images of Mr Mafabi standing atop a pick-up truck in white shorts as he commanded his supporters to battle army men is still vivid in many a memory.
The other options for LoP would have been the Ngora MP, Dr Francis Epetait, who chaired the Maj Gen Muntu taskforce which defeated Mr Mafabi or the Bugweri County MP, Mr Abdu Katuntu, whose oratory skills as Shadow Attorney General, has made him one of the star performers of the Ninth Parliament.
So, why did Gen Muntu ignore all these options and settle for a wild card in Mr Wafula Oguttu, the Bukhooli Central MP? First, one must understand the relationship between Mr Wafula and Mr Mafabi. The two politicians are very close. They have a mutual respect for each other and one could say they both possess a trait of radicalism that someone like Gen Muntu has been accused of lacking. They are also passionate about issues that concern eastern Uganda. Even if Mr Oguttu tried to obey the directive that senior party members keep a neutral position ahead of the 2012 elections, there are no prizes for guessing who he voted for.
In picking him LoP, Maj Gen Muntu has literally “tied” Mr Mafabi’s hands. Had Muntu picked a candidate from the Alaso, Ogwal, Epetait or Katuntu pool, he would easily have armed the Mafabi group to fight back and the motivation would be immense. But with Mr Oguttu as LoP, Mafabi will find it hard to even squirm.
In Mr Oguttu too, Maj Gen Muntu has calmed the “regional” tide that would have swept towards him if he had gone for someone like Ms Ogwal. As the only region that is yet to produce a national president, eastern Uganda is increasingly getting jittery about the treatment of rising politicians from its region. From Mafabi to Speaker Rebecca Kadaga in NRM, eastern Uganda is paying attention to how its own are handled.
But perhaps one must give it to Muntu too in making this choice. When news began filtering from Najjanakumbi that Mr Oguttu was the new LoP, a major question was, “why not Katuntu?” Like said earlier, Mr Katuntu has created a brand as an intelligent, bi-partisan politician who also has years of legislative experience compared to Mr Oguttu, a first-time MP. He is also from eastern Uganda. So, why not Katuntu, the respected shadow Attorney General?
The answer lies in the conundrum that naming Mr Mafabi as LoP created. Elevating Mr Mafabi to LoP gave him the belief that he would not just lead the party but perhaps become its presidential flag-bearer. Like Mr Mafabi, Mr Katuntu is unapologetically ambitious. Any opportunity that arises that gives him a chance to grow his political profile—he will clutch onto it.
There existed the real risk that allowing Mr Katuntu become LoP and offer him a year to shine in Parliament would perhaps give him ideas when the FDC meets either late this year or early 2015 to choose their 2016 presidential flag-bearer. After what Mr Mafabi has taken him through, Maj Gen Muntu would not want such a situation arising again. This is not to say that Mr Oguttu is not ambitious. What you can take to the bank though, is that his level of political ambition cannot be as high and as raw as Mr Katuntu’s.
That said. Is Mr Oguttu the right guy to steer the opposition agenda in the House, especially as it makes the bend towards the 2016 finish line? There seems to be as much divided opinion on this as are views available.
I will take these two views posted by my colleagues on my Facebook wall, where this debate was raging.
Mike Ssegawa, a journalist with Daily Monitor, posted: “Muntu learnt from his former master how to quell and contain rebellion without firing a shot. The east cannot rebel against one of their own. But I also think, Nandala was not a leader from the start and Waf presents the opportunity to opposition to act the LoP who has been missing in the House.”
Mukiibi Eriasa Sserunjogi, another Daily Monitor journalist wrote: “Waf is a safe bet, but only if one looks at it from the point of view of being able to straddle the centre with regard to the two sides. But then, I wonder, does Waf have what it takes to turn around the opposition in Parliament? I can guarantee that he won’t be able to reconcile with the pro-Mao DP MPs and the anti-Otunnu UPC MPs.
Most importantly, however, he will be required to guide the opposition in Parliament to come up with a strategy on how to approach business. Until now, one can be forgiven for thinking that the 9th Parliament has no opposition MPs. The strongest opposition to the government within Parliament was offered by NRM MPs until their backs were broken. Waf has the unenviable task of having to ensure there is impact from the opposition. Does he have the political smarts, patience, skill, connections, etc, required to do this? I doubt very strongly. For this reason, if I were Muntu, I would have risked and left Mafabi to serve out the term.”
To sum it up: How well Mr Wafula serves as LoP is something we shall leave to time.
Mr Wanyama is Daily Monitor’s Managing Editor—Dailies.