Wednesday December 5 2012

Muntu’s FDC victory shows Uganda hasn’t changed – and that’s good

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The dust from the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) two weeks ago is beginning to settle, I presume.

The good Maj. Gen. (retired) Mugisha Muntu won the prize. MP Nandala Mafabi, at one point thought of as favourite, came second. Tororo County MP Geoffrey Ekanya, was third. As party elections come and go, not just in Uganda but East Africa, the FDC election was surprisingly modern and open. They threw in a televised debate for us, to boot. A party member told me proudly that they had “set a new standard”.

For me, I have been trying to study the result not so much for what it said about FDC, but about the political mood in Uganda. I met Bukhooli Central MP and FDC information chief, Wafula Oguttu and I put the question to him. I asked him to step back a bit, and give a sense of the ideological forces that were contending. “You could say Mafabi was the candidate of the working class and peasants”, he said, and “Muntu seemed to capture the aspirations of the middle class element of the party”.

Going into the elections, there had been a feeling that because Muntu is from western Uganda, like outgoing party boss Dr Kizza Besigye – and President Yoweri Museveni – it was the turn of someone from another part of the country, preferably the east, to lead FDC.

However, talk of someone from another part of the country leading FDC – or succeeding President Yoweri Museveni – is not just a demand for geographical diversity. It is one way of saying it is the turn of the elite, and their relatives, from another part of the country to “eat”. In other words, the issue is REDISTRIBUTION.

If redistribution were the issue, Mafabi would have beaten Muntu handily, so why didn’t he? Muntu has Museveni to thank for his victory. This is not because, as the mean-spirited in FDC alleged, Museveni did secretly bankroll Muntu.

Rather, because the FDC election happened with all the stories of outrageous corruption filling the Ugandan air, and the Museveni State House set on pushing through an oil Bill that would allow the Executive to capture the revenues from oil, redistribution ceased to be an issue. FDC members voted for a centrist, pragmatic leadership with dependable middle class sensibilities.

For example, a future government that would back transparent rules for the oil industry, and be less corrupt. If the government was not corrupt and greedy, and had a lot of money in the bank, the issue would have been how to share the national wealth. I think Mafabi would have beaten Muntu, because many would have seen that the people who have missed out on the national cake – the workers and peasants – needed someone who would get them a large cut.

FDC, however, should not rush to take credit for having redefined Uganda’s politics. What happened in FDC is an old Ugandan political trait.

Unlike Rwanda or Kenya, when Uganda is in crisis, it doesn’t swing to the extremes. Despite the anger on FM radio call-ins, when the country is in trouble and Ugandans have to choose their leaders with the ballot, not bullets, we usually veer to the centre and towards the moderate leaders.

In 1980, with the post-Amin period having turned into a nightmare, Uganda went to the elections in December. On one hand was Obote and UPC breathing fire (and eventually possibly stealing the election). On the other extreme was Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) leader Yoweri Museveni threatening to go to war if the vote was rigged. The only level-voiced guy was Democratic Party’s Paul Ssemogerere in the middle.

Ugandans voted for moderate Ssemogerere. Even if, as some argue, UPC still won fairly, it can still be said the mild Ssemogerere seemed a safer bet than militant Museveni. In the end, Museveni took up arms and grabbed power.

The first time UPC had a chance to choose a leader freely after Obote, they picked his wife, the mild-mannered Miria. After three electoral defeats under Ssemogerere and his successor Ssebaana Kizito, DP could have picked a more radical and militant leader. It didn’t. In 2010, it elected youthful Norbert Mao, who is as moderate as Ssemogerere and Ssebaana, but perhaps more cerebrally so.

Besigye is an usually bold and brave man, and the pain and torture he endured gave FDC the credibility that established it as the second biggest electoral party in Uganda today. Mafabi is more Besigye than Mao. After three defeats (or after three occasions when victory was stolen from them), FDC did like DP – it has swung to the middle.

This reconfirms something about Ugandan society. At base, we remain mostly averse to extremes. And that is a very good way to be.

* & twitter@cobbo3