As presidential and parliamentary elections draw near, the battle to replace the incumbent Soroti County MP, Forum for Democratic Change’s Peter Omolo, who is out of the race due to ill health, remains stiff
Unfortunately, however, tribalism has become a prominent feature of this contest between the Iteso and Kumam, the two main tribes in the constituency.
The candidates are Ms Alice Gertrude Atai (Independent), Mr Jonathan Ebwalu (FDC), Mr Francis Edimu of Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), Mr Kenneth Esiangu-Etunganane (Independent), Mr Tom Julius Ekudo (Independent), MR David Eroku of National Resistance Movement (NRM), Mr Martin Napoleon Oliba (Independent) and Mr Jimmy Oriokot of People’s Progressive Party (PPP).
Tribalism in the campaign could as well see voters choose candidates depending on what language they speak as opposed to their suitability.
Before he fell ill in 2011, Mr Omolo was considered to be the only man who could unify the Kumam and Iteso. The FDC man had held the seat since 2005. He has been bed-ridden almost from the time he won re-election, defeating NRM’s Vincent Innocent Enomu.
The long illness has left the 61-year-old politician paralysed.
Whoever replaces Mr Omolo, who also represented Soroti during the Constituent Assembly (1994), has their work cut for them. The man has left a solid record as the public defender on land rights. When the government proposed to include a provision in the Land Act, which would take customary land away from the people, Mr Omolo was among the MPs from communities where the land tenure system is based on customary ownership. He walked out of Parliament in protest.
But the giant of the county’s politics is out of it.
“I am quitting politics now and wouldn’t wish to show sides by backing any candidate contesting to replace me,” he said at a recent thanksgiving ceremony in his home area.
“But I advise the electorate of Soroti County to vote a strong person who is capable of leading and representing your views in Parliament.”
NRM’s Eroku, once a presenter at Kyoga Veritas Radio (KVR 91.5 FM), who holds a Master degree in Public Administration and Management, plus a Diploma in Law, says: “I am the best candidate [in light of] the tribalism factor”.
He says the people of Asuret, Kamuda and Soroti sub-counties would settle for him since they are all firmly opposed to a person who hails from Gweri.
However, Mr Robert Okwerede, an NRM supporter and a resident of Kamuda, warns that “close to a decade, NRM candidates have failed to garner support in Kamuda and I don’t see enough strength in our man to beat the rest.”
Mr Okwerede noted that in 2011, in all the six sub-counties that formed Soroti County then, NRM lost virtually all the seats to Opposition candidates with all the LC3 chairpersons being drawn from FDC party.
The NRM candidate also suffers the bitterness and stigma from the post-primaries fall-out. This has helped the Opposition dominate in the sub-region.
Many of the losers in the ruling party primaries are said to have joined the Opposition, while others are contesting as Independents.
The issue of cattle compensation, which government has always downplayed, is also seriously affecting the NRM candidate. People have lost trust in the party over this long unfulfilled promise to compensate them. There are even reports that some beneficiaries, because of age, are dying before receiving their benefits.
Similarly, the burning issue of the continued stay in exile of Mr Peter Otai (minister of state for Defence in the Obote II government) and Prof David Anyoti (minister of Information and Broadcasting, also in the same government), is a bone of contention among the Kumam, who now hold it against the Museveni government.
With six days left to the elections, Mr Etunganane seems to be ahead of the pack. He has run a more organised campaign with an office team drawn from both Kumam and Ateso communities. Mr Etunganane worked as fisheries officer in Entebbe until recently when he resigned the post to join politics. His platform is improved standards of education, health centres, roads and marketing of farmers’ produce.
“I am willing to help market farmers produce (oranges) so that the common man benefits. I am also willing to help connect power to health centres that are near the main power line through lobbying from government,” said Etunganane.
For the last few years, Mr Etunganane has developed a reputation as an individual who readily helps the rural poor access health services.
He has captured the imagination of all categories; the young and old because of his investment in health.
He bought an ambulance which is used for taking patients to Soroti Regional Referral Hospital free of charge.
Reliable sources say in December last year when President Museveni traversed the constituency trying to drum up support for NRM, he realised Etunganane’s strength on the ground outweighed that of the NRM flag bearer, Mr Eroku. Mr Museveni is said to have wondered why party officials never tried to convince him to join NRM.
The same cries for Mr Etunganane can also be heard in the FDC, whose presidential flag bearer, Dr Kizza Besigye, is also recently quoted as having told his political leaders in Teso that their candidate here, Mr Ebwalu, formerly a radio presenter at Capt Mike Mukula’s Voice of Teso FM, cannot match Mr Etunganane.
Meanwhile, PPP’s Oriokot rose to some prominence as a member of Etem Iteso, an organisation which protested perceptions of the government’s selective application of anti-graft laws when former junior Health minister Mike Mukula, was taken to jail over GAVI funds.
Mr Oriokot is a member of the Go Forward group.
The 40-year-old Ekudo, presently LC3 chairman for Gweri, decided to run as an Independent after losing FDC primary election to Mr Ebwalu.
“I will be the next MP for Soroti County because the youth have started giving me money for campaigns just like FDC presidential candidate Dr Besigye,” Mr Ekudo said. He explains that Gweri Sub-county, where he comes from, has a population of 48,000 with registered voters numbering 22,000 people and he is sure of getting a block vote there.
Mr Edimu on the other hand is hoping the people can recall what he says was UPC’s outstanding contribution to the development of infrastructure in Uganda.
The UPC-leaning Independent Oliba says: “My people are very poor. For many years, NRM government has completely failed to deliver and my people have no voice speaking and lobbying for them for better things.” If elected, he promises to change this.
However, UPC supporter James Okiria points out that the factional fighting between UPC president Olara Otunnu and Jimmy Akena over party leadership has left them confused and demoralised.
The other post-primary fall out candidate from the FDC, Ms Atai, is the only woman candidate in this race – and in this conservative community, this matters.
Some say Ms Atai should have gone to compete with other fellow women at the district level. But Ms Atai is not bothered by the sexist talk.
“If am elected, my manifesto is the best among the candidates contesting for the seat and being a mother, I really want to bring women out of poverty by forming women’s groups where I will donate money to revolve within the groups so that they will be able to take children to school.”
Mr Ebwalu is counting on FDC’s national popularity to swing it for himself. “I stand by my bright developmental programmes like having quality education, advocating good health services and good representation in Parliament for my people, among others,” said Ebwalu.
However, according to some supporters of both NRM and FDC, their candidates will not win partly because of the fact that they seem to have been handpicked by their party district chairpersons. It is said that the two parties’ flagbearers are being dismissed as ‘boys’ whose only claim to fame is their employment in radio.
About the county
Geography. In Teso, Soroti Constituency is comparable to Wakiso District that surrounds Kampala as it goes right around Soroti Municipality.
Sub-counties. It is composed of four sub-counties, including Soroti, Kamuda, Asuret and Gweri. Two of its other sub-counties; Apapai and Katine were chopped off last year to create the new Dakabela constituency.