Tracing Democratic Party’s 62-year journey

Tuesday October 18 2016

Democratic Party candidate Norbert Mao campaigning in Mbale two weeks ago

Democratic Party president general Norbert Mao campaigns during the 2011 presidential election. In 2016, the party did not bother to field a presidential candidate. File photo 

By Timothy Kalyegira

Since the British established firm roots in Uganda in the last decade of the 19th Century, the character of the Uganda protectorate was always and inevitably going to be a reflection of London.

Religious turf wars between Catholics and Protestants raged during the 1880s, as Ugandans embraced the two rival denominations and fought amongst each other.
This side to Ugandan history has not been sufficiently written about, but its impact would last another 100 years. It led to bitter divisions in Ugandan society that rivalled the inter-tribe tensions.

The rivalry extended to the creation of the first institutions in the country, be it schools or hospitals.
Apart from Namilyango College in 1902, all the pioneering secondary schools in Uganda were founded by the Anglican Protestants.

As the Uganda Protectorate started to take shape, its institutions of state and its leading local figures reflected ever more the influence of the British home state.

The laws, the government ministries, the British colonial personnel and the Ugandans who first worked with them, were overwhelmingly Anglican Protestant.

The way many Ugandans today feel about westerners and the perception that all good jobs and Cabinet positions are being held by people from western Uganda, is the way the Catholics and others distant from the Protestant colonial elite felt in the 1940s.


After the Second World War and that decade marked by increasing nationalism and a yearning for independence, several Catholics, including Augustine Kamya, Benedicto Kiwanuka and others, got involved in the strike action against the colonial government or Asian traders.

The Bataka Party formed in the mid-1940s was not a political party in the sense in which it is understood, say with a constitution, party branches and a central executive.

It was a loose association by Baganda chiefs and as it was with most things in the Buganda seat of power at Mengo, these Bataka were almost all Protestants.

In 1952, Protestants formed the first-ever formal Ugandan political party, the Uganda National Congress (UNC). It was dominated by former students of King’s College Budo and that added to the feeling among Catholics that Uganda was a Protestant state.

The Namirembe Conference called in 1954 by the governor, Sir Andrew Cohen, to try and find a lasting understanding between the colonial administration and Buganda, was also dominated by Protestants.

Soon Catholics started to come to terms with the fact that if they did not themselves start to work out a future, they would remain at the fringes of an independent Uganda.

A series of meetings were held in Masaka Town starting in mid-1954 to discuss the possibility of starting a political party that represented the Catholic majority.

A woman called Diana Noakes, who was a resident of Masaka, wrote out the minutes of the first meetings and organised the group into a political organisation.

The result of these meetings was a new political party, founded in October 1954, called the Democratic Party (DP) and founded in response to this feeling of marginalisation among the Catholics.

Stanislaus Mugwanya was elected as the first president-general of the DP.

In the annals of DP history, the crucial founding role played by Ms Noakes is virtually omitted, perhaps because the co-founders did not want to appear as men who had been organised into a party by a woman and a British-born woman at that.

However, Uganda’s society being structured the way it is, it was not long before the DP started reproducing the social class of the UNC.

Like the UNC, this was an elite party.
Just as the UNC had been dominated by Protestants and nearly all of whom were old students of the Anglican King’s College Budo, the DP in its founding was dominated by Baganda men from the Catholic faith, most of whom had attended the prominent Catholic boys’ school, St Mary’s College Kisubi.

The DP immediately began to gain support, first in its birthplace of Masaka and later to other heavily Buganda and Catholic towns like Entebbe and Mubende.

In this political climate where religion was the main differentiating factor, it was not long before the DP had spread across the country and entrenched itself in Catholic majority areas like Gulu and Kitgum in northern Uganda and Kigezi in south-western Uganda.

Eventually, a charismatic lawyer and former World War II serviceman, Benedicto Kiwanuka, rose through the ranks of the party on the back of his experience during the war and much-wider horizons gained from traveling outside Uganda.

During the 1960 campaign period, Kiwanuka also gained a certain notoriety for the dismissive way he viewed the Buganda Kingdom establishment at Mengo and by extension, the monarchy.

At the time, the Buganda Kingdom was faced with a crisis. Independence for Uganda was fast approaching and was only about a year or two away. Buganda and monarchists did not know how to deal with this.

Should Buganda break off from the rest of Uganda before it finds itself permanently bound up in a Uganda in which its previously dominant position was reduced to a mere first among equals, or should it embrace the new reality of independence facing it?

Many Protestant Buganda elites and monarchists resisted the drive toward independence and some openly called for independence from Uganda. Kiwanuka and others, coming as they did from the background of being marginalised by Protestant Mengo and Protectorate Uganda, felt irritation at Mengo’s intransigence.

To Catholic Baganda, the only way to rise from underneath the wings of Mengo was to embrace a wider, if possible Republican Uganda that did away with age-old religious and royalist privilege.

This was anathema to Mengo. In 1959, a party called Kabaka Yekka (the king alone) was formed to fortify the monarchy and try and secure Buganda’s interests in the negotiations with the British government ahead of independence.

As the animosity between Kiwanuka and Mengo deepened, a plan was hatched to try and prevent him at all costs from becoming prime minister of Uganda.

A mainly Protestant party called the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) had been formed in March 1960 and led by the eloquent Milton Obote, was rapidly catching up with the DP in nationwide popularity. The UPC was the main offshoot of the UNC.

DP won the general election of 1961 and formed the first government of a self-governing Uganda, much to the dismay of Mengo. A second chance came for Mengo in 1962 when a fresh general election was called to prepare the country for independence.

Taking no chances this time, Mengo entered into an alliance with the UPC, bound together by their common Protestantism through the KY party.

Up to this point, the DP and UPC were evenly balanced in nationwide popularity. The KY helped tip the balance in favour of the UPC, which won the April 1962 general election and formed a new government headed by Obote.

Kiwanuka had not contested the parliamentary election and so could not be the Leader of Opposition in Parliament. That position went to Basil Bataringaya of the DP.

After a year in second place, the Protestants had regained their familiar position at the top of the Ugandan state while the DP now acted as the Opposition. The Kabaka of Buganda, Edward Mutesa II, was named president of Uganda in 1963, a largely ceremonial position but which preserved a semblance of Buganda prestige and preeminence in Uganda.

The alliance between the UPC and KY had been formed around the threat from the DP to Mengo and the immediate need by the UPC for a new source of electoral support.
But other than these and their common Protestant faith, the monarchy had little in common with the UPC.
The UPC, in its nationalistic, pan-African and Republican outlook, actually resembled the DP more than it did the KY.

By 1964, the differences within the UPC/KY alliance had come into the open. Most KY Members of Parliament crossed over to the UPC and that was the effective end of the KY.

Meanwhile, the cunning Obote moved on the DP. In that same year 1964, several DP MPs, including Leader of the Opposition in Parliament Bataringaya, defected from the DP and joined the UPC, achieving an impressive double victory for Obote.

However, the same incompatible goals and philosophy that had broken apart the UPC/KY alliance now saw these same differences grow ever more conspicuous between Obote and president Muteesa.

In early May 1966, the tensions erupted into an open war of words between Mengo and the central government and on May 24, 1966, in a day that shocked the country, government troops attacked the royal palace at Mengo, hours of gunfire raged and by the end of the day, Muteesa had fled Kampala, into Burundi and later into exile in London.

This catastrophic event was a turning point in the political history in Uganda. Suddenly, Buganda was faced with an existential crisis that went far beyond politics and into culture and its very identity.

Suddenly, Baganda became conscious of their ethnic identity more than ever. Suddenly, the foreign religion of Christianity was less important than the blood ties among the Baganda.

What had been a period of tensions between Catholic Baganda and Protestant Baganda faded into the background and it now became a case of Buganda versus Uganda.
The DP, which had been depleted of its leading lights by the 1964 defection to the UPC, now found a new moral voice in Uganda. It became the voice of Buganda resistance to what was viewed as the militaristic UPC government.

The DP was now the main Opposition party in Parliament and the main Opposition voice in the country.
In 1967, the traditional kingdoms were abolished and Uganda now became a full republic. Needless to say, Obote was by this time a hate figure in Buganda and many parts of western Uganda.

In these new circumstances, Kiwanuka’s message changed from his confrontation with Mengo and into one that stressed DP’s motto of truth and justice and denouncing the increasingly autocratic Obote government.

After the assassination attempt on president Obote in October 1969, Kiwanuka and several cabinet ministers and DP activists were jailed at Luzira prison.

Now every major power bloc in Uganda was a mortal foe of the Obote government. Ordinary politics had ceased to matter. This was a moral crusade. Uganda had become a one-party state in 1969, in any case.

Kiwanuka along with his colleagues was set free from jail in January 1971 days after the military coup that brought Maj Gen Idi Amin to power and would go on to be appointed Chief Justice by Amin.

Established history has it that in September 1972 president Amin, afraid of Kiwanuka’s popular appeal among Baganda and in Uganda, ordered Kiwanuka’s abduction and murder. However, some like this writer and other researchers who have learnt to think beyond Uganda’s generic 1970s history disbelieve this account of Kiwanuka’s death.

The more accurate version is that some elements of the exiled Ugandan community in Tanzania staged the abduction of Kiwanuka in order to have it blamed on Amin and discredit Amin further.

Whichever version is true, the DP along with the UPC went into oblivion during the years of Amin’s military rule.
The DP and UPC, now joined by two new parties, the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) and Conservative Party (CP), started preparing to contest the 1980 general election when it was announced in May.

The former publicity secretary of the DP and right hand man of the late Kiwanuka, Paulo Kawanga Ssemogerere, was now the DP’s president-general and presidential candidate for 1980.

He addressed large rallies wherever he went, as did UPC’s Obote, recently returned from a nine-year exile in Tanzania.

These two were still the leading parties as they had been 18 years earlier in 1962.

Research gained over the last decade by this writer and previously published indicates that the DP started secretly preparing for a guerrilla war as early as August 1980.

Since the fall of Amin’s government in 1979 and the falls of his successors Yusuf Lule and Godfrey Binaisa, many political and media analysts were more or less resigned to the notion, true or false, that the Nyerere government in Tanzania was discreetly directing events in Uganda toward the return to power of Nyerere’s friend Obote.

The 1980 general election
The general view over the last 36 years is that the DP won the 1980 general election that was rigged by the UPC or by pro-UPC elements in the interim Military Commission government headed by Paulo Muwanga.

It will not be easy to arrive at a consensus on that controversial election. Suffice it to say the UPC returned to power and once again the DP led the parliamentary Opposition.

The DP-affiliated Munansi newsletter became a voice of human rights reporting through the early to mid-1980s.

As the NRA led by the former Defence minister Yoweri Museveni waged war against the UPC government, the DP secretly and sometimes almost openly engaged in a parallel guerrilla war through proxies like FEDEMU led by Dr David Lwanga and UFM led by Dr Andrew Kayira.

The NRA eventually gained the military upper hand, stormed to power in Kampala in January 1986 and by that dictated the terms of the new political order. Political party activities were suspended in March 1986 with Legal Notice No. 1.

Several DP leaders, including Ssemogerere were co-opted into the new “broad-based” NRM government with senior ministerial positions.

The DP and other parties like the UPC went into stagnation. The DP’s main public role now became a moral and political commentator through its affiliated newspapers The Citizen and Ngabo as it had done in the early 1980s through Munansi and activists like Anthony Ssekweyama.

In 1990, an activist movement within the DP called the DP Mobilisers’ Group, led by Michael Kaggwa, emerged as a vocal critic of the ban on political party activities.

Student activities at Makerere University and other higher institutions of learning under the banner of the Nkoba Zambogo became indirect avenues for discreet political activity.

The DP’s youth wing, the Uganda Young Democrats, was also a notable voice in the 1990s.

The 1996 general election
In 1996, Uganda held its first general election under the NRM’s movement system. Political parties regained some of their freedom to operate but by now they had been crippled by a decade on suspended activity and the NRM’s tightening grip on power.

The historic rivals, DP and UPC, reached an understanding to field DP’s Ssemogerere as the joint presidential candidate for the Inter-Party Forces Coalition (IPFC).

Ssemogerere once again, as in 1980, contested an election in which Museveni was a candidate although this time Museveni was the imposing front runner. Museveni was announced the winner.

This was the final time the DP would be a first or second national party in terms of electoral performance.
In 2001, a former army colonel called Kizza Besigye emerged from within the NRM to mount a challenge to Museveni. Besigye came second to Museveni but the momentum he gathered signalled that a new era was starting.

Besigye, exiled in South Africa from 2001 to 2005, would return to contest the presidency again and attract even larger crowds that in 2001.

A new political party called the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), with Besigye as its leader, was formed in October 2005. In the 2006 general election Besigye once again finished second and the FDC won enough seats to become the main Opposition party in Parliament after the NRM.

The DP, meanwhile, could only manage a single digit score in the presidential election under its candidate, the former Kampala mayor John Ssebaana Kizito. In Parliament, DP was also reduced to a dozen or so MPs, nearly all of whom came from Buganda. (By this time, Uganda had returned to a multiparty system.)

What was once a nationwide party had shrunk back to its roots in mainly Catholic Buganda. However, the election of Sebaana-Kizito, an Anglican Protestant, to the party president post was a significant departure from DP tradition.

Election of Mao as DP president
When the 2010 general election campaign came around, the foundations of the DP among old students of St Mary’s College Kisubi now came back to haunt the party.

Norbert Mao had been a headboy at Namilyango College, a student activist at Makerere University and later guild president at the university.

He emerged as one of the most visible and most vocal youth leaders in Uganda in the late 1990s, later also a Member of Parliament for Gulu Municipality.

Mao declared his interest in the DP presidency in 2010 and immediately the party was thrown into turmoil.
The problem, as seen by DP purists, was that Mao lacked the two crucial credentials that define DP leadership: Muganda and old student of St Mary’s College Kisubi.

However, in 2005 DP had elected an Anglican Sebaana-Kizito as its presidential general and there was not much resistance to that.

The resistance to Mao, then, could only suggest one thing: the fact that he was an Acholi was one exception too far.

But win he still did and contested the 2011 general election as DP’s presidential candidate.

Yet again, as was the case in 2001 and 2006, the presidential election was a contest between Museveni and Besigye and in Parliament between the NRM and the FDC.

The DP was by now clearly a party whose peak years behind it and which had not yet found the formula for attaining political relevancy in the 21st Century.

Several DP MPs such as Betty Nambooze and Muwanga Kivumbi were vocal in Parliament, the only place where the DP could speak on the national stage, but elsewhere the FDC had since usurped the DP’s former position.

In the 2016 general election, the party did not even bother to field a presidential candidate and remained at most a voice in Parliament. In between 2006 and 2016, the DP would on occasion win popular parliamentary by-elections.

The DP-backed Tito Okello coup

The story of the resentment and bitterness that followed the 1980 general elections and culminated in the July 1985 Tito Okello military coup is too long to elaborate on here.

In brief, though, the assassination in 1970 of Brig Perino Okoya, commanding officer of the Second Infantry Brigade in Masaka, deeply angered many of his fellow Acholi.

Okoya had tried to stage a military coup, taking advantage of the assassination attempt on president Obote in October 1969.

The government tried to hide its hand in Okoya’s assassination by shifting the blame on the army commander, Maj Gen Idi Amin, but the Acholi knew it was not Amin who was responsible.

That was one reason why at the time of the 1971 coup, the Catholic Acholi either sided with Amin or remained neutral.

When Obote returned to power in 1980, anger returned to the surface.

Lt Col Peter Oboma, a brother to Brig Okoya and chief of engineering in the UNLA, attempted a coup against the new UPC government and was killed, angering the Catholic Acholi even more.

This tension spiralled out of control when on the death in a helicopter accident of the army chief of staff, Maj Gen David Oyite-Ojok, in December 1983, A Lango, Col Smith Opon-Acak, was appointed his successor, passing over many Acholi.

Eventually this led to the July 1985 coup staged by Brig Bazillio Okello. Tito Okello, the UNLA commander, was named the new military head of state.

His cabinet was dominated by DP supporters or sympathisers, among whom were the minister of Internal Affairs Paulo Ssemogerere and the Attorney General Sam Kuteesa. Many senior DP figures had backed the coup.
It was essentially a DP government and in the brief six months of Okello’s rule, the DP for the second time occupied the centre of state power.

Democratic Party at 62

As DP marks its 62nd anniversary – a feat in and of itself, given the short shelf-life of most Ugandan and African political parties – there is much to learn of its long history.

The one lesson is that the DP was formed to advance genuine concerns about representation. Its early affiliation with the Catholic Church and other church-related institutions, reflected the core realities of Uganda.

As such, this was a party that was never going to die out entirely.

The second lesson, though, is that legacy political parties, like legacy companies and brands, must periodically undergo renewal of purpose and re-invent themselves.

The DP was the leading moral voice of the country in the late 1960s, the early to mid-1980s, the late 1980s to the early to mid-1990s but the FDC emerged in 2005 to displace the DP in that role.

It is difficult to see what DP or even UPC could have done in response to the rise on the national stage of Kizza Besigye.

But at a strategic level, it could and should have made an effort to broaden its appeal beyond Kampala and such towns as Entebbe, Mukono and Masaka. This is something it failed to do.

The moral and human rights issues it once bravely addressed are still with Uganda, but sometimes a party must devise ways of amplifying their message and use the technologies of the time, something in which the DP also proved less than capable.