The Opposition leaders, after five years of dogged “togetherness”, emerged from the political labour suite not only without a joint flag bearer, but also left prospective voters clueless about common governance issues galvanising them.
Still, protagonists of The Democratic Alliance or TDA, a loose cooperation platform for “democracy-seeking forces”, say they have not lost everything. The alliance officials in their apex gathering, the summit, expected to front a sole candidate to challenge Yoweri Museveni, 71, who is clocking 30 years as President.
They worked hard, often deep into the night and for weeks, on last-lap meetings in air-conditioned hotels in Kampala, the capital, inspired by a unity of purpose: to remove Museveni from power.
The lofty idea was that a consensus Opposition flag bearer would present a more formidable contest to the incumbent, galvanise the international community’s support, enable pooling of campaign resources, fire up anti-regime support and create a momentum to wrest power from Museveni. Flag bearers for parliamentary slots, district chairpersons and lower positions were to be picked on a similar formula.
On September 25, 2015, the day TDA’s was to introduce its consensus presidential flag bearer, a rivalry that had been secreted among officials behind pristine hotel gates played out in public.
Col Kizza Besigye, a summit member and the presidential flag bearer for Uganda’s largest opposition Forum for Democracy Change party, held an impromptu press conference at TDA offices in Naguru, a city suburb, declaring that he was giving a fourth shot at the presidency. He apparently had been tipped off that a section of TDA planned to announce Amama Mbabazi, Uganda’s immediate former prime minister and secretary general of ruling NRM, as the joint candidate.
Democratic Party President-general Norbert Mao, who got only 147, 917 (1.9 per cent) of the 2011 presidential votes, told a rival press conference shortly after Besigye’s that whereas there was no consensus TDA presidential candidate, Mr Mbabazi was the clear favourite of majority summit members.
The pro-Mbabazi groups included Mao’s DP, the Uganda Peoples Congress, Uganda Federal Alliance, People’s Progressive Party, JEEMA, and the ex-premier’s own Go Forward and former Vice President Prof. Gilbert Bukenya’s Pressure for National Unity groups.
According to the 2011 election results, Mao, UPC’s Olara Otunnu, UFA’s Betty Kamya, People’s Progressive Party’s Jaberi Bindadi Ssali and Independent Samuel Lubega combined received less than half a million votes, and roughly comparable to the invalid votes.
Yet during the September 25, 2015 declaration, a rather boisterous Mao, a fine lawyer and orator, in a veiled reference to the Besigye camp, warned: “Those who fail to see the light will face the heat in the field [during campaigns].”
The pro-Mbabazi team has two new and untested pressure groups, while Mr Mao’s claims of electoral strength pales when scrutinised against results of the last ballot. And Besigye whose strength dropped to 2 million votes against President Museveni’s winning 5.4 million votes, argues that he is a more suitable contender because he has proven supporters.
So how did Mbabazi, without established formal structures, become the Opposition political parties’ choice bride even when he openly confesses to still be the ruling NRM party’s member?
It is a paradox which on the one hand highlights the Opposition involuntary admission of inability to dislodge the incumbent, unless with the stewardship of a regime insider. On the other, it shows how Museveni’s brand of leadership has emasculated political outsiders and turned NRM both as the ruling and de facto Opposition.
Besides, evaluation of the TDA candidates was not premised on issues or individual, but primarily the believability to defeat Museveni whichever way.
Such an unusual scenario found a political currency because all that Ugandans want is for Museveni to go, said UPC leader Olara Otunnu, the kingpin of the Opposition’s “togetherness” project.
“The current situation in Uganda is uniquely abnormal; people are despondent and willing to clutch on anything or anybody that presents a realistic chance to remove Museveni from power,” he said.
Such a free ride that peers are offering Mbabazi is not healthy and could, without safeguards, potentially boomerang, according to Sabiti Makara, a political science professor at Makerere University.
“Key players should set ground rules, negotiate and agree with (Mbabazi’s) Go Forward Team,” he said on a mid-week Nile Broadcasting Services (TV) morning political talk show. The safeguards, he said, will ensure Mbabazi does not emerge as an overbearing player; prevent his allies from being swallowed up; and, ensure Go Forward doesn’t emerge to dictate but rather negotiate issues.
Mao epitomises that dramatic pro-Mbabazi swing. Two years ago, Mao criticised the then prime minister as a man with scant credentials on rule of law, respect of human rights and defender of “human wrongs” for stating then, as now, that there was nothing wrong with the Public Order Management Act. The Opposition maintains the law is repressive, and the DP leader in an August 2013 facebook post suggested that Mbabazi “left Law school without any convictions about human rights” and deserved a refund on his university tuition.
After the TDA stillbirth selection process, Besigye whose candidature as a joint flag bearer only received Conservative Party’s John Ken Lukyamuzi’s endorsement, announced he would vie for president anyway. Reason? Besigye said Mbabazi‘s fall-out with Museveni was never premised over the way the country was “mismanaged”, and that the former premier demonstrated no commitment to basic tenets of democratic and constitutional governance except a hunger to replace Museveni in an ambiguous transition game plan.
Without issue-based interrogation of an aspirant’s suitability for the highest office, Ugandans risk replacing Museveni with a similar or worse leader, according to Besigye. He says he doesn’t want to repeat midwifing another bad leader for the country after fighting in the 1981-86 guerrilla war that brought the incumbent to power.
It is not the same way Mbabazi sees himself. In a video posted on YouTube on June 15, 2015, in which he declared his intention to stand as president, Mbabazi outlined his motivations as: “Reviving Uganda’s democracy and institutions; attracting heavy local and international investment; promoting equitable development; providing jobs fit for the 21st century; accountable leadership; fighting corruption at all levels; enforcing the respect of law while ensuring security for all; providing good quality health care; and, enhancing the quality of education and addressing the skill gap.”
“We must choose between achieving success and true prosperity in the new global economy or nursing a tired nation, yesterday’s story,” Mbabazi said, prompting a swift rebuttal from President Museveni in a YouTube video.
He said: “Rt. Hon. Mbabazi has been at the centre of our systems all these years; he was in the security services, he was in the parliament, he was minister for security for a long time, he was secretary-general of the [ruling NRM] party, and eventually he was the prime minister. If there’s anybody to be questioned about the weaknesses of government, Rt. Hon. Mbabazi is one of them [because] when we get good cadres, we get very excellent results.”
There is another side to the Mbabazi story widely quoted before he left the government to become the Opposition’s darling. Justice Egonda Ntende nullified Mbabazi’s 2001 election to Parliament following a petition by rival James Garuga Musinguzi that the vote had been rigged and his supporters, one of whom lost an eye, were brutalised by soldiers. Mbabazi at the time was the State Minister for Defence, a political overseer of the military then.
And NRM’s 2010 primaries which he superintended as the party secretary-general ended up in a countrywide chaos, with disenchanted aspirants sprinting out to stand as Independents.
Scrutinising him on such a past conduct is unhelpful, Mbabazi has lately said, citing the Bible story of Christians’ persecutor Saul turning evangelist Paul when struck by and filled with the Holy Spirit on his way to Damascus to reference his own political conversion.
Otunnu told Sunday Monitor in an interview on Tuesday that although he personally believes in boycott of the elections unless the method of its management is overhauled, he is not opposing TDA’s participation because he is bound by a commitment under the Opposition’s “togetherness” project he initiated.
“We agreed to act together in everything we do, whether it’s to boycott the election, we do it together, whether it’s to make the elections impossible, we do it together, whether it is to participate in the elections, we do it together,” he said.
Asked on what basis the UPC party supported Mbabazi’s candidature, Otunnu who was one year ahead of the former premier at the Law School at Makerere University, said he was struck by his findings through consultations that the mood, both upcountry and among TDA summit members, had swung in favour of Mbabazi as a former insider with the ability to remove Museveni.
Besigye’s prospects were punched in the TDA discussions because of a divided message from his sponsoring party, the FDC, with its President Muntu Mugisha advocating participation in the 2016 vote while Besigye insisted on no reforms, no election.
Some of those reforms which the Parliament had rejected at the time of the TDA summit, citing lack of time, were dramatically re-introduced in the House and passed this week before Museveni promptly signed them into law.
This change notwithstanding, the trust among opposition actors strenuously nurtured in the post-2011 election has lately dissipated with more frequent across-the-shoulder verbal shots.
Poll boycott debate
Otunnu said they under the Inter-Party Cooperation agreed to boycott the 2011 election if no substantial changes occurred to management of the polls, but Besigye opted to stand. Following the development, the UPC leadership nudged him to stand, fearing a boycott would sink the party that under Milton Obote twice led Uganda into oblivion.
“Mr Museveni was already internationally besieged, he was domestically vulnerable,” said Otunnu who never voted, and largely used the campaign trail to collect about 4 million signatures in a Blue Book to petition for electoral reforms. The book would later be stolen following factional fighting that has dogged Uganda House to-date.
It is Otunnu’s preference to even do things at odds with his own beliefs that Besigye, who denies any consensus to boycott the 2011 elections, singled out to critique in an interview (see page 22-23).
“In fact, even now Olara Otunnu holds the same view of boycott but the only problem is that he keeps participating…he is already backing a candidate (Mbabazi). So, I think his case is slightly worse; he does what he doesn’t believe in,” Besigye said.
Prof Ogenga Latigo, the former Leader of Opposition in Parliament, has weighed in on the belligerent debate among Opposition leaders, warning they risked alienating voters, particularly northern and eastern Uganda, already fatigued by Opposition presidential candidate failure to win in their home regions. In an Opinion article for this newspaper (see page 24), Latigo said disenchanted rural voters might either boycott the polls or vote for Museveni so that they continue to rebuild their lives now that the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency is no more.
“Of importance shall be a new message and approach from Besigye that reassures and attracts [new voters]; an Amama promise of leading progressive NRMs away from the Museveni camp to the opposition that will assure change; or a reassurance to beneficiaries of this regime and Ugandans generally that change will not undermine peace but ensure mutual respect, reconciliation, unity, freedom, continued progress and real equity in the sharing of benefits,” write Prof Latigo.
He adds: “For a candidate at the presidential or parliamentary level, any discordance with the above is a recipe for failure, regardless of which party or cause one belongs to.”
Previous voting patterns show Ugandan voters still choose candidates based on individual merit, and much the party or issues they stand on, resulting in cases where the President and an Opposition flag bearer win in same constituency.
According to insiders at TDA, the choice of the former premier as a flag bearer had little to do with issues except a belief, based on perception he is wealthy, has tap roots in security and intelligence agencies and presents a formidable opportunity to topple Museveni. It’s the kind of goodwill Besigye rode on in campaigns for the 2001 vote. Then, voters believed that as a former Movement political commissar or chief ideologue and personal physician to President, a point Besigye underlined on the campaign trail by emphasising that he knew “Museveni inside and out”, the retired Colonel was most suited to eject him.
The citizens and media’s obsession with out-of-favour former Museveni confidants was manifested in 2013 when then Coordinator of Intelligence Agencies, Gen. David Sejusa, bolted out of Uganda, citing government plans to eliminate him, Mbabazi and then Internal Affairs Minister Aronda Nyakairima, who last month died abruptly onboard an Emirate plane. Opposition actors, uncritical of the general’s own flip-flop record, embraced and flirted with him in London, only for Sejusa to return and be received at Entebbe International Airport by Uganda’s domestic intelligence chief.
For now, Mbabazi says he is a changed man with a potential to cause mass defections of NRM colleagues, especially what is anticipated will be chaotic primaries, pleading with impatient and questioning Ugandans that “patience is a virtue”. His calm and collected demeanour brings sophistication to the Opposition that has traditionally practiced confrontational politicking.
TDA members supporting Mbabazi are unsure how Uganda under him would be governed differently, or even better, but still rally behind him as long as he can deliver on his promise to remove Museveni. It is words, not principles that count for now because, in Mao’s phrasing, those with potential to win the presidency can only be those from “the belly of the beast”.
What they said
Norbert Mao. Told a press conference that whereas there was no consensus TDA presidential candidate, Mr Mbabazi was the clear favourite of majority summit members.
Olara Otunnu.Said he was struck by his findings through consultations that the mood, both upcountry and among TDA summit members, had swung in favour of Mbabazi as a former insider with the ability to remove Museveni.
Besigye. “We knew he (Mbabazi) was coming from NRM, I have been in NRM myself. I have been the National Political Commissar of NRM, a position akin to the secretary general he held. So our issue could not be that he was coming from NRM.”