Why NRM lost Kasese District vote

Soldiers disperse a crowd demanding the release of parliamentary election results last month in Kasese District. A 13-year-old boy was killed during the scuffle between security personnel and residents. Photo by Moris Mumbere

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Changing guard. They tightly guarded their votes, hang on amid harassment by security personnel until their victory over the ruling party was announced. Why could Kasese have massively voted the Opposition?

Of all districts in the western Uganda, Kasese has remained a cog in the regional politics in an area predominated by the ruling NRM party. But the cog is now beginning to turn in the opposite direction.
In the 1996 elections, President Museveni won 97 per cent of the vote in Kasese and scooped 87 per cent in the 2001 election.
On August 17, 2015, Daily Monitor in an article Kings will hold sway as NRM stumbles in Rwenzori predicted the fall of NRM in the district due to unresolved long-standing local cultural grievances.

In that article, we reported that unresolved cultural issues, ethnic conflicts in the Rwenzori sub-region, land issues, unfulfilled promises by the government, would play a significant role in influencing the outcome of the 2016 elections in the region and mainly Kasese. Indeed it did.
For the first time in 30 years, the Opposition snatched Kasese District chairman’s seat from the NRM. They also got the Bukonzo West parliamentary seat, which had for long been under the grip of NRM historical and Defence Minister, Dr Crispus Kiyonga, since the NRM captured power in 1986.
In last month’s general elections, the Opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party swept the votes for the president, parliamentary and district top seats except the town mayor slot. Last week, the Opposition humbled the ruling party further during the local council elections by getting the majority number of councillors and chairmen at division and sub-county levels in Kasese. The district has 29 sub-counties and 17 of them went to FDC leaving the NRM with only 12.

Kiyonga is one of the strong pillars of the NRM government and party in the region who even represented the constituency in Parliament in Obote II regime in 1980 as the only MP from Uganda Patriotic Movement, the predecessor of NRM.
FDC support has been growing in the area since 2001. By then, the country was still under the monolithic governance of the Movement where leaders were only elected on “individual merit” as opposed to party basis. Dr Kizza Besigye, Museveni’s former personal physician and 1980-1985 Bush War comrade, who had just retired from the army, made a surprise challenge to his former commander in chief. Dr Besigye raided Museveni’s political space to challenge him for the presidency under his Reform Agenda pressure group. The balance of power tilted, the status quo could no longer hold and things started falling apart for the NRM in Kasese.

Christopher Kibanzanga, the chief prince in the Rwenzururu Kingdom introduced and popularised Besigye in Kasese and as a result, out of the five parliamentary seats in the district, the Opposition won one of Busongora South, which went to Kibanzanga.
By 2006, the country had reverted to the multiparty political system and the FDC, a byproduct of Reform Agenda, won three out of the five parliamentary seats in Kasese through Winnie Kiiza (District Woman MP), her husband Yokasi Bihande (Bukonzo East) and Kibanzanga (Busongora South).

The FDC and the NRM in Kasese were now moving in opposite directions of the political gradient and had gone past the meeting point.
In 2009, the Resident District Commissioner James Mwesigye convinced Museveni at a church fundraising in Kasese that the only contention against NRM in the area was failure by government to recognise the cultural institution (Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu). People at the function made wild ululations in approval of his assertion and the President pledged to endorse the monarchy.

In the same year, on October 19, King Charles Mumbere was recognised by government at a function attended by both Museveni and Besigye at Kasese Golf Course.
Besigye arrived late and attracted wild ululations from hundreds of people who waived to him with his party’s V-sign and he nearly stole the show. The then Kasese district chairman, Rev Canon Julius Kithahenda, was forced to cut his speech short and resumed it after Besigye had sat down in a tent next to the President.

After the function, as Museveni, Mumbere and other guests left the venue, Besigye stayed behind.
NRM cadres in the Rwenzori sub-region kept wondering if the recognition of the cultural institution would push Kasese people back to theparty fold.
During the 2010 campaigns, Besigye took credit for the recognition of the Rwenzururu kingship. He told people of Kasese that their kingship had been recognised only because of pressure the Opposition had exerted on government. Indeed in the elections in the subsequent year 2011, FDC and NRM shared the six parliamentary seats in Kasese. By that time, Kasese Town had been elevated to a municipality and became a new parliamentary constituency.

The cultural conflicts
After recognising Obusinga (Bakonzo cultural institution), the government seemed to have rested thinking the problem had been resolved and the Rwenzori sub-region, especially Kasese was theirs to take.
However underlying cultural issues and ethnic conflicts remained unresolved and seething and continued to impact on the security, development and local elections.
The Kasese ethnic clashes are not much different from the Buganda 2009 riots that broke out after the government installed a non-traditional cultural leader within the Buganda Kingdom. The Basongora and Banyabindi chiefdoms that were created in 2012 sparked a series of ethnic conflicts between them and the Bakonzo. The latter blame the government for Article 246 in the Constitution that allows any community with the same culture to form a chiefdom.

There is also an unresolved land conflict between the Bakonzo and Basongora. During the 2007 resettlement of Basongora pastoralists by government, both parties were allocated land from Mubuku prison with a ratio of three to one. The Basongora cattle keepers took the bigger rations than the Bakonzo cultivators, which became a bone of contention between the two. Since then, the cultivators have accused the Basongora of encroaching on their land to the extent of forcing some to vacate. Few years after this, the Bakonzo would cut the Basongora cows and the Basongora would retaliate by cutting the Bakonzo’s maize. In these fights, more than seven people died.

In 1993, the government restored traditional institutions, which have been used by the NRM to gain political capital. In some areas, it has delivered the political dividends, but in others it has not. In Kasese, the cultural institution despite being in place for more than 30 years, waited until October 2009 to be recognised by the government after a lot of pushing and pulling. Prior to this, the Obusinga was a big issue which influenced how the elections played out in 2001 and 2006 with the Opposition taking advantage. Opposition politicians made the issue a key plank of their campaign, winning the hearts of many Bakonjo. Elders in Kasese over 30 years wanted to revive the cultural institution but some local politicians, especially of the ruling NRM party, resisted the move. Due to this objection, two contending groups emerged; those opposed to and in support of Obusinga.
“There are certain issues that the NRM has not handled well like the Rwenzori attacks (of July 5, 2014), which the Opposition may jump on and take the day,” Kibanzanga told this paper last year.

Rehema Muhindo, an NRM cadre in Kasese and twice former District Woman MP aspirant, thinks differently. She says the NRM woes were caused by other factors other than just cultural issues. She says NRM had a poor mobilisation strategy in Kasese in 2016 elections than in the previous elections.
“There was greed to go grab the flags by many aspirants, failure to agree on who to carry the flag and lack of loyalty to the party failed us in Kasese,” she contended.
“This does not mean that the NRM has no numbers here but the confusion in primaries affected the elections wholly. When you add up the NRM votes for Bukonzo East and West, they are higher than the Opposition’s but our votes were divided among the flag bearers and our breakaway independent candidates. This is what failed Kiyonga,” Ms Muhindo says.
Her view is replicated by minister Kiyonga.

Division in NRM
“My supporters have been saying I was busy in government security programmes but the cause of my defeat was Sausi Justus Capson who joined the race as an independent and diverted the votes that would make my victory,” Kiyonga told this paper last month as he conceded defeat in the parliamentary elections.
“My support which has all along been solid was split by Capson because he took away 4,000 votes and this man Katusabe (FDC) won by 2,000 votes. It’s this Capson who disorganised our support,” Kiyonga reasoned.
Muhindo says the same problem affected NRM in other constituencies such as Busongora South and Kasese Municipality where aggrieved NRM cadres who lost the primaries supported the opposition candidates.
Lukus Buhaka, a local elder, says there was confusion in the NRM from the start.

“Confusion started with vetting where the party involved many people in the process and yet the vetting would have been for only a few selected members,” he observed. After vetting, those who failed went with their supporters, which increased the number of independents because they were disgruntled.”
Buhaka says NRM lacks a spokesperson in the district to respond to political issues in time before they explode.
Didas Baluku, a resident, observed that the unresolved land issues in the district increased the odds against the NRM in Kasese.
“For many years, residents have been complaining of poor land distribution, which even caused the July 5, 2014 attacks in Kasese District. As a result, people vote the Opposition to show their anger to government,” Baluku said.

FDC infiltrates Yellow Book
Rehema Muhindo claims that in Busongora North NRM got a beating because the Opposition infiltrated the NRM Yellow Book, the party’s voter register.
“They did it purposely to vote weak aspirants who finally failed in the general elections,” Muhindo claims.
This claim is replicated by elder Buhaka who alleged that the Opposition even attended NRM meetings to decide on important party issues. However, none of them gave specific examples of opposition infiltration to support the claims.

Besigye factor
Muhindo also believes that Besigye visiting King Mumbere during the campaigns swayed the votes towards the opposition.
She speculated that after Besigye’s visit to the palace, it appears some clan leaders went down to the local people to mobilise them and this affected the NRM vote. But Muhindo also hinted on poor facilitation by the NRM during the campaigns.
“Campaign structures were not facilitated as before, we used our own resources. This affected us,” she adds.

At an FDC regional conference in Fort Portal in 2015, Kasese District FDC chairman Saulo Mate said: “We made some mistakes in 2011 elections, which we shall correct in 2016 by sweeping all MP seats.”
Many delegates did not believe his word until last month’s election results vindicated him. After the February 18 polls, Mate asked FDC supporters in Kasese to sweep the remaining lower council seats in the district. They did not disappoint him.