Uganda’s multiparty democracy limps on 11 years later

A woman holds a ballot paper during the February 18 presidential election in Kampala. Only two of Uganda’s major political parties managed to field a presidential candidate: Mr Yoweri Museveni (NRM) and Dr Kizza Besigye (FDC), the rest were either running as Independents or as candidates for parties without a national presence. PHOTO BY ABUBAKER LUBOWA

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Eleventh anniversary. When he was declared winner of the 2016 presidential elections, President Museveni wasted no time in declaring what was coming for the political parties in Opposition. “I will wipe out the Opposition completely in the next five years. NRM is going to be stronger.” UPC is one such example of how this battle is shaping up, writes Stephen Kafeero.

By the time the raid was over, senior and prominent leaders of Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party, including the party’s presidential candidate, had either been arrested or sent reeling by tear gas.
The police raid at the party headquarters in Najjanankumbi, which came hours after the February 18 polls, was, according to police, carried out on suspicion that the party was about to announce results of the 2016 polls.

The act, which was to be repeated in several incidents after, was significant of what observers, politicians and analysts had long termed as an absence of multiparty democracy in Uganda.
Yet, Thursday July 28 will mark 11 years since Ugandans on July 28, 2005, voted in a referendum to return to a multiparty system. The move was seen as a dawn of a new era for the parties whose existence had been limited to history for close to 20 years.
Eleven years later, Uganda’s third multiparty experiment – the first was in the early 1960s and the second early 1980s – seems to be on the road to failure like its predecessors.

In the just concluded presidential elections, only two of Uganda’s major political parties managed to field a presidential candidate: Mr Yoweri Museveni (National Resistance Movement) and Dr Kizza Besigye (Forum for Democratic Change), the rest were either running as Independents or as candidates for parties without a national presence.
President Museveni emerged winner with 60 per cent, according to the final results announced by the Electoral Commission, while Dr Besigye came second with 35 per cent. There are schools of thought that even their victory was defined more by their personal appeal to the electorate than the political party force(s) behind their candidature.
For example, in many parts of the country, Dr Besigye and President Museveni respectively, got more votes than the candidates their parties fielded for the various posts in those same areas.
FDC party spokesperson Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda believes both President Museveni and Dr Besigye need to lead the country and leave the stage if multiparty democracy, especially in the two leading political parties, is to take root.

“We need to overcome politics of individual merit. [President]Museveni is stronger than his party, if you came to the FDC, I think [Dr] Besigye is stronger than the FDC because as a country, we are not used to institutions,” he says.
At parliamentary level, out of the 19 political parties that contested in the 2016 parliamentary elections, only four managed to win a political seat in the House. NRM (294), FDC (36), DP (15), UPC (6). These numbers could either go down or up but not significantly as courts move to dispose of the petitions filed by various candidates across the country.
In fact, with 10 members, Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) currently has a bigger representation in Parliament than UPC, the political force which led Uganda to independence in 1962.

A larger threat to multiparty development, however, lies with the entrenched individual merit, partly as a result of the 20-year Movement system.
With 66 members in the 10th Parliament, Independents have more representation in Parliament than all the other parties combined, including the leading Opposition party FDC.
Many of the Independents subscribe to a certain political party but either opted to stand as Independents because of lack of, or failure to appreciate internal democracy in their respective parties.

Others like Kampala Central MP Muhammad Nsereko simply did not participate in their party primaries because they believed that their personality was bigger than the party force in their constituencies. He was right, all NRM candidates in Kampala lost.
In an article published by The Observer newspaper last year Col Shaban Bantariza, the deputy executive director of the Uganda Media Centre, suggested two options, either going back to the individual merit Movement system or building strong parties that are able to subordinate the individual to the collective will.
“To me, all these political mutations suggest one major lesson: we are still grappling with the core values, principles, and restrictive discipline of multiparty democracy, against those of individual merit previously under the Movement system, where individual motives and expectations were more predictable than it is today,” he wrote.

State interference
The invasion of FDC party offices by State operatives and the subsequent arrest of the party flag bearer hours to the announcement of the results of the presidential election could have signalled a climax of a long drawn out interference by the State in party activities, but was in itself not a one off.

A 2014 report by the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative titled, The Functioning of Multiparty Democracy in Uganda showed that multiparty democracy was yet to be fully embraced in Uganda. The report cited cases of intimidation and harassment and fear by the public to associate with the Opposition for fear of being equally harassed by the State.
President Museveni has never publicly denounced his view that political parties were partly responsible for Uganda’s pre-1986 troubled history by exploiting ethnic, tribal and religious divisions.
In fact, a slogan Tubejjeko (let us rid ourselves of the uncommitted) was coined during the campaigns to “free” political parties whose existence had been limited to their headquarters but not to organise.

So, when he was declared winner of the 2016 presidential elections. President Museveni wasted no time in declaring what was coming for the political parties in Opposition. “I will wipe out the Opposition completely in the next five years. NRM is going to be stronger,” Mr Museveni said at his Rwakitura country home.
The success of the battle to weaken the parties and effectively wipe out their ability to mount a challenge on him or his appointed successor after 2021 will be crucial for Mr Museveni. As it stands, President Museveni is not allowed by the Constitution to contest again because he will be above 75 years of age.
UPC is one such example of how this battle is shaping up, where Mr Museveni and by extension NRM, have been or seen to be at play.

To date, UPC leadership is contested by two rival factions. One was until July 18 headed by former presidential candidate Olara Otunnu. The other is headed Lira Municipality MP Jimmy Akena, a son of founding UPC leader Milton Obote.
On Monday, July 18, Mr Otunnu who should, by the party constitution and on his volition, stepped down as president last year, was compelled by circumstances to hand over the presidency of UPC.
The venue of the function, a hotel in Ntinda, a Kampala suburb, was telling. Mr Otunnu’s successor Joseph Bbosa says having the function at Uganda House, the UPC headquarters, was not an option his team had. They were ousted from Uganda House on June 6, 2015, before the alliance between Akena’s UPC and Museveni’s NRM became official.

The takeover was backed by police or personnel in police uniforms who to date continue to man security at Uganda House.
When the Otunnu group went to get assistance from police at the nearby station, the commander, according to Mr Bbosa, informed them that the police officers deployed at Uganda House were not under his command.
Mr Akena’s group maintain he was rightly elected to power and his group’s collaboration with NRM is meant to foster development and not “kill” UPC like their opponents have alleged.

Beyond Kampala, the parties don’t have functioning offices or established branches to rally their members.
The absence of these structures has on many occasions been blamed for parties failing to mobilise support when they need it, especially during elections.
Only FDC and NRM have a semblance of running party offices. Besides a venue for press conferences and some work space, DP, Uganda’s oldest party, basically has no headquarters.
Uganda Peoples Congress has the better infrastructure of all the parties in terms of offices but they have been reduced to organising meetings to bash rivals.

Where all parties have so far failed, is having an active and visible grassroots network outside the campaign and election period. In many districts, one struggles to find functional party offices.
In a paper titled The Challenge and Prospect of Multiparty Democracy in Uganda, Makerere University political science don Sabiti Makara opines that: “it will be difficult for multiparty politics to deepen democracy in Uganda unless there is a new commitment to the rules of the game, institutions of the State are separated from those of the ruling party, and all parties are perceived as equal not only before the law but also the State.”

A referendum on restoring multiparty politics was held in Uganda on July 28, 2005. Political parties had been banned from competing in elections for nearly 20 years in order to curb sectarian tensions. President Museveni instituted the Movement system of government when he came to power in 1986. A referendum was held in 2000, but the proposal was rejected by a majority of the voters. This time it was approved by more than 90 per cent of the voters. Parliament voted to conduct the referendum on 4 May 2005.