Less than two years to the 2021 general elections and political parties are waging a war on Independents that could see the latter wiped out completely from Parliament.
The number of Independents, currently 68, has been growing in strength since Uganda returned to multiparty politics in 2005.
There is consensus among political parties under Inter-Party Organisation for Dialogue (IPOD), an umbrella of political parties with representation in Parliament including the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), the Democratic Party (DP), Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) and Justice Forum (JEEMA) which joined recently following the election of Asuman Basalirwa, that they must rein in Independents.
The Independents are a surviving embodiment that the Movement system did not die with legislation in 2005, but remains largely in practice and the parties are worried including, surprisingly, NRM.
During the December 2018 IPOD summit, President Museveni, the chief architect and beneficiary of the one party movement system, argued that taming wayward MPs will strengthen multiparty governance in Uganda. Museveni was also in support of strengthening of political parties to recall MPs who defy them.
Whether to the ruling NRM, which has largely been in power since 1986, or the main Opposition FDC, Independents appear to pose a threat, one the parties can no longer stomach quietly.
In a “tweet chat” on June 20, Speaker Rebecca Kadaga said that the House would, among other crucial legislations, prioritise electoral reforms ahead of the 2021 polls. Legislation to curtail Independents will, according to sources, form part of the electoral reforms.
The proposal by political parties through IPOD calling for individuals seeking to contest as Independents to resign from political parties 12 months before elections is likely to be part of a raft of reforms to be presented before Parliament.
This implies that aspirants who subject themselves to political party primaries but lose will be blocked from contesting as Independents. The proposal, which has attracted bipartisan support with political party leadership is, however, likely to face stiff resistance both in the House and within the memberships of the respective political parties.
Those in support of the proposal say they want to give effect to Article 72(5) of the Constitution that mandates Parliament to regulate the manner of participation in (elections) and financing of elections by individuals seeking political office as Independent candidates.
The demise of the Administration of Parliament Amendment Bill 2018 after it was vigorously fought by both the ruling NRM and the Opposition offers a glimpse on the strings the political parties are willing to pull to contain a growing constituency of Independent legislators.
In an October 1, 2018, circular, FDC party secretary general Nandala Mafabi announced a “membership audit” at all leadership and elective levels of the party.
The move followed the announcement by Gen Mugisha Muntu, the party’s former president, on September 27 that he had formed “New Formation” as a transitory political arrangement which would later culminate into the Alliance for National Transformation party.
The issue did not gain much traction but it is a clear example of the quagmire the political parties find themselves in, one they intend to escape through this move.
By declaring an audit of the party leadership and of members in elective positions, Mr Mafabi sought to push those who no longer believe in FDC to publicly declare their move. This would offer the party an opportunity to fill the void left by the departing members early and also consolidate its position ahead of the next election.
For legislators on the FDC party ticket in Parliament who may have wanted to follow Gen Muntu or any other political outfit, the decision would have serious consequences for their seats including being subjected to the uncertainty of the by-elections.
When it comes to DP, the party has an all different set of problems. For very many years, DP has had popular politicians who identify with the party values but not the prevailing leadership. Under Norbert Mao, this has been more pronounced with a group of politicians openly refusing to tow his leadership line but remaining defiant DP members.
Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago is the de facto leader of this group and has on many occasions insisted that he has a life membership DP card and that no one can kick him out of the party.
In a January interview with the New Vision, Mr Mao announced that the grace period for what he termed as undisciplined members, “who hobnob with the rival political formations has run out in 2019”.
In the same interview, Mr Mao outlined three categories of supporters in DP including the loyal ones; the wavering and hostile. He said they would deal with the “hostile” ones.
DP lost a number of parliamentary seats in the last general election because of the differences arising out of the party’s primaries. In DP strongholds like Entebbe Municipality, Busiiro South etc, the party ended up losing the elections partly because different party members contested as independents and when you look at the votes split then it makes sense for DP to specifically want to deal with question of independents.
Like DP and FDC, UPC is also dealing with factions only that in UPC it is at a much bigger scale with the party literally split into two factions. One is led by Lira Municipality MP Jimmy Akena and the other is led by former UPC vice president Joseph Bbosa. The two groups have been at loggerheads long before the departure of Olara Otunnu from the UPC presidency.
On January 21, the Bbosa led faction petitioned the IPOD executive secretary demanding that Mr Akena and his group should not be financed.
The Bbosa group maintains that Jimmy Akena was never elected as the party president insisting his engagements with IPOD are illegal and should be shunned.
In IPOD where the idea was mooted and agreed upon, Mr Akena’s UPC faction holds the fort and the move on Independents is likely to serve him well, especially reining-in the Bbosa UPC faction members who may want the party endorsement to run in 2021.
Enter the ruling NRM with more to gain if the IPOD proposal on independents sails through.
Violence and allegations of rigging are inevitable in the NRM primaries judging by past exercises. What is more concerning for the party is that many of the people who lose in primaries threaten to leave or to run as Independents and many see their threats through. This partly explains the presence of 68 Independent legislators in the House.
By locking in the candidates, NRM will not only lower the stakes for its ticket but will also avoid strong candidates who lose in the primaries running as Independents and either defeating the party flag bearers or splitting the party votes to a loss. It will also give the party a chance to kick out outspoken legislators who don’t tow the official party position.
FDC deputy secretary general Harold Kaija says the party is open to all ideas that can improve the political system in the country.
“We are yet to discuss it as a party and take an official position but we think our political system needs to be reviewed. We even support proportional representation as a way that can help to reduce the number of MPs without necessarily going to fight with the people,” he says.
Mr Kaija says it is absurd to have a multiparty political system and the Independents become dominant force.
“An Independent is Independent of the other. If you merge them, you are creating a political party that is not registered yet they are not the same. If you want to be independent, straight away be independent. We must get politicians with principles, you say this is where I belong and you remain there. What we must do is develop parties so that their internal democracies grow, but if we are still rigging, then we have a long way to go,” he says.
Mr Fred Ebil Ebil, the secretary general for the Akena-led UPC faction says Ugandans unanimously voted in a referendum to return the multiparty system after paying a heavy price.
“It was paid by blood of Ugandans and it is the best option for Uganda because we all don’t think alike. You have to get a political organisation to join, if you don’t believe in the other organisation. They have given us room to build parties. To say that you are independent means you are a selfish person,” he said.
There is a likelihood that controlling the Independents will stifle democracy and be abused by parties to stifle dissent. We put this question to Mr Ebil.
“The thing is that all of us in IPOD agreed that there must be free and fair primaries. In fact, the chairman of NRM who is the President of the Republic of Uganda said we must ensure free and fair primaries for multiparty to work and that for them they have gone for lining up. We believe there is no rigging in lining up and I fully support him on that, there is no rigging in line up,” he said.
“All the people who believe in multiparty democracy should know that we should nurture this baby called multiparty and I believe with God’s grace we must be able to democractise Uganda through multiparty democracy.
“It is these Independents that are bringing chaos in Parliament. We believe it is a contradiction for us to have such people. If there is a possibility that you are rigged out, there are courts of law to which you can appeal,” he added.
During the December 2018 IPOD summit, President Museveni, the chief architect and beneficiary of the one party movement system, argued that taming wayward MPs will strengthen multi-party governance in Uganda. Museveni was also in support of strengthening of political parties to recall MPs who defy them.