In an article in the Sunday Monitor of Febuary 2; “50 years on, Gulu UPC Delegates Conference still casts a long shadow”, Amb Harold Acemah starts something he should find time to finish. He reflects on the possible meanings of the Uganda Peoples’ Congress first delegate’s conference, and the extent to which the fall-out from that event is being felt today.
That conference is important. And in its details, we do see the roots of how politics is perceived and practiced in this country, not just inside UPC. This is why it bears repeating. However, whenever a current UPC supporter refers to it, they seem to do so more in an attempt to further mystify what went on. In this way, Amb Acemah quickly resorts to explanations filtered by veteran UPC ideologue Yoga Adhola, the effect of which is to quickly reduce the discussion to internal party ruminations.
As Ugandans have come to learn at their cost, the language of “revolution” is often deployed when justifying unprincipled behaviour, and the sudden descriptions of anti- and pro- “national democratic revolution” camps that then pop up in the article seem like an attempt to cut one conversation short, and divert us to another.
Acemah’s statement that Grace Ibingira “surprisingly” defeated the popular Secretary General John Kakonge actually covers up a multitude of sins. Much as Ibingira did emerge “victorious” from the historic conference, the facts about how he came to be so need to be brought out. “Imperialism and Revolution in Uganda” (Tanzania Publishing House, 1978), the late Professor Nabudere’s seminal analysis of the history of the progressive movement in Uganda may help here.
As he tells it, the charismatic Kakonge’s popularity was a source of discomfort for many party “elders”, including the then Prime Minister Milton Obote, they planned to discredit him. Therefore, some delegates were tasked to denounce him as a communist after his presentation of his Secretary General’s report for discussion. When some other delegates requested that those attacking the SG either show where communism was mentioned in the report, or withdraw their allegations so as to allow a proper discussion of the actual issues raised therein, the attackers got stuck, and the Prime Minister found himself resorting to using state resources on a party problem. It was then suddenly announced that the conference had been suspended and would resume a day later.
On reconvening, many delegates found themselves blocked from re-entering the stadium venue. What is more, the smaller number of delegates who had opted to sleep in the venue where surprised to find themselves now joined by new delegates whose faces they did not recognise from the day before. When voting took place, these fresh faces were instrumental in ensuring that Kakonge “lost” and Ibingira “won”.
What Nabudere tells us is that during the sudden recess, a whole set of manouvres took place to ensure the conference outcomes would be more to the Big Men’s liking. First, a new delegate’s cards –different in colour from the original ones- was printed at the Entebbe government printery. At the same time, numerous UPC members and loyalists –many from eastern Uganda- were mobilised and transported overnight on Uganda’s railway system amongst other means- to Gulu. The cards were quickly flown north –using a light aeroplane belonging to the Uganda police- and distributed to the new delegates. Finally, police officers were stationed at the stadium entrances with orders not to admit anyone bearing a delegates card of the “wrong” (i.e. the original) colour.
In this way, the fake delegates were let in to vote while the original ones were largely locked out. In the following months and years, many were to be also expelled from the party, and the party itself restructured to de-tooth the vocal power blocs.
As an organisation, it was moved from one holding structured mass support, to one holding “blind” mass support, much in the way even the most passionate supporters of a soccer team in practice have absolutely no say in how it is managed.
Amb Acemah at least takes issue with one legacy: how in the UPC of 1980 onwards, the party boss appoints all other top office bearers, as opposed to them being elected by party delegates.
We remain stuck with a strange political culture: can an undemocratic organisation build a democratic country? Can a party leadership that uses state resources to solve internal and electoral problems remain separate from the state? Is this not how it starts seeing a potential loss of power as a “national security” matter leading to charging opponents with “treason”?
The best illustration was the image of a frustrated candidate Gen Kahinda Otafiire holding up two different versions of the delegates’ cards that were in circulation when the NRM tried to elect a Secretary General in 2010.
This should not have surprised anyone. A number of the top leaders of the NRM were once UPC members and activists in their youth, way back in the 1960s.