Why Uganda’s political space keeps shrinking, despite having 29 parties

Left to right: Justice Forum president Asuman Basalirwa, UPC leader Jimmy Akena, NRM chairperson Yoweri Museveni, DP president Nobert Mao and NRM secretary general Justine Kasule Lumumba at the IPOD summit last year. File photo

What you need to know:

  • Concerns. During a recent dialogue on political parties and constitutionalism, leaders of Opposition parties cried foul over what they called an increasingly shrinking political space, a situation they attributed to the iron fist approach of the government in power, writes Misairi Thembo Kahungu.

When the referendum of 2005 was held, bringing to an end the Movement system that was confirmed by majority of Ugandans who opted for the symbol of a tree on the ballot paper, many thought it was the beginning of multiparty democracy.

The referendum, held in fulfilment of court’s landmark decision after Mr Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere successfully challenged the 2000 referendum, furnished the Political Parties and Organisations Act, 2005, which actualised multiparty politics going forward.

Like a tree that once had leaves goes through a process of abscission to bear new ones, old political parties that had lost hope after being phased out in the 1980s rose again as a result of the referendum.
Uganda’s oldest parties – the Democratic Party (DP) and Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) – saw light again.

President Museveni, who was enjoying the Movement system that was provided for under Article 70 of the 1995 Constitution and later confirmed to be the governance system through the 2000 referendum, formed the National Resistance Movement (NRM), a brainchild of the National Resistance Army (NRA) that captured power in 1986.

With the Political Parties and Organisations Act coming into force on November 21, 2005, Uganda was to hold the first elections through multiparty system in 2006. This was the first under the 1995 Constitution, though previously polls had been held under a multiparty system in 1961 and 1980 respectively.

At least four political parties presented presidential candidates in the 2006 General Election. NRM’s Yoweri Museveni won the election, defeating his former aide Kizza Besigye, who contested on the flag of new Opposition party Forum for Democratic Change (FDC).
Other parties that competed were DP, represented by the late John Ssebaana Kizito, and UPC which handed the flag to Ms Miria Kalule Obote, the widow of party founder Milton Obote.

Since then, Uganda has held two more general elections (2011 and 2016) under the multiparty system and preparations are on for the political parties to compete again in 2021.
By November next year, when political parties will be on the campaign trail for the 2021 General Election, it will be 15 years of multiparty system under the new set up.

Status of multipartism
Since the return of multiparty politics, the Electoral Commission (EC), which is legally mandated to register political parties, has been busy on the task.
There are currently 29 registered political parties in Uganda, with the latest being the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT) which became legally recognised in April.

ANT founder and current national coordinator, Maj Gen (Rtd) Mugisha Muntu, walked away from the FDC in September 2018, having been part of the formation of the current leading Opposition party.

NRM, FDC, DP, UPC and Justice Forum (Jeema) are the only political parties with representatives in Parliament. These parties also form a loose forum known as the Interparty Organisation for Dialogue (Ipod), a platform under which they are supposed to work together towards growth of the multiparty system.

Despite having many challenges, Ipod sees political parties under it get government funding and also as a body, it has attracted support from donors such as the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD). This is a privilege that is not being enjoyed by other political parties that have not managed to send a single member to Parliament.

According to Mr Richard Kamugisha, EC’s head of operations, there are other political parties in the process of seeking registration.

This, he said early last month during a national dialogue on political parties and constitutionalism. The pre-Independence day dialogue organised by the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) was held under the theme, ‘Harnessing Political Diversity to Enhance Constitutionalism in Uganda’.

It was during this dialogue that leaders of Opposition parties cried foul over what they called an increasingly “shrinking political space”, a situation they attributed to the iron fist of the government in power.
Questioned whether the country can still freely practice multipartism in the wake of several amendments on the Constitution by President Museveni with the aim of clinging onto power, DP leader Norbert Mao pointed that such actions are closing space for other parties to test leadership of the country.

Significant among the constitutional amendments, they said, are the removal of presidential term limits in 2005 and the controversial removal of Article 102b from the Constitution in 2017 that capped the age of presidential candidates to between 35 and 75 years.

FDC president Patrick Oboi Amuriat shares the same feelings, pointing out that Mr Museveni has never favoured multipartism, adding that the restoration of political parties through the 2005 referendum was because of pressure from Western governments that always urged Uganda to open up space for multiparty democracy.
“When the 1995 Constitution was promulgated, we breathed a sigh of relief that politics will be clean. But the old political parties were then meant to operate in abeyance. Now, what we see being manifested today is a result of pressure from the West that Mr Museveni was not willing to take,” Mr Amuriat says.

For Mr Mao, a onetime presidential candidate, the situation in Uganda, where powers are vested in the hands of whoever wins an election must change so that Ugandans, through political parties in opposition, can freely hold the government accountable.

“Political parties are indispensable in a democracy because here in Uganda the rules of the game are that the winner takes it all. This must be revised. NRM is not a real political party. It is like a wedding tent and cannot exist beyond the power,” Mr Mao says.

For UPC’s Jimmy Akena, Uganda will only enjoy multipartism if there is change in the system. He suggests a shift from presidential to parliamentary democracy, whereby the formation of government would be guided by the strength a party has in Parliament.
He insists that the current system where the president is elected by the masses creates a situation of having “super individuals” whose interests everyone one must play to.

Currently, with the political parties facing challenges in assuring members on internal democracy, the number of independent MPs has increased. Most of them opt to run on individual merit after getting dissatisfied with the party primaries, which is a process of identifying candidates sponsored by particular parties.

Rise of pressure groups
Some analysts argue that the lack of an assured future of multiparty democracy has furnished pressure groups that seek to take control of the political landscape in the country.

In 2011 and 2016, the Ssubi platform became active around Kampala metropolitan areas whereas the raise of pop star-turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine (Kyadondo East MP, Independent) has come with another paradigm shift in the rating of multiparty system.

His People Power movement has occupied a significant amount of political space to the extent of being looked at as a threat by some circles within the NRM. Some Opposition parties have aligned themselves with People Power, something that points at them being ready to rally behind Mr Kyagulanyi’s political bid.
Mr Crispin Kaheru, the outgoing national coordinator of the Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU), says multiparty politics in Uganda has been “chequered and twisted” because one of the ideals of such a system is supposed to be freedom of association and expression.

“However, this has not completely been the case in Uganda since 2005. Quite often, challenging political views have been understood as expression of disloyalty and subversion towards a sitting government,” Mr Kaheru notes, adding that there cannot be multiparty democracy when key players, especially on the side of the Opposition, are treated by the regime with suspicion and arbitrary arrests of actors.

Mr Kaheru says political parties have not only been starved of funding by government, but are also competing in elections whose credentials are questioned, and calls on the parties to continue fighting for their space.
Through enforcement of the Public Order Management Act (POMA), 2013, security agencies have closed down on the only space Opposition parties have to mobilise support countrywide.

To conduct a rally or a meeting, a party must ideally as provided for by POMA inform in writing the Inspector General of Police, but it has turned out to be that permission must be granted in reply.
Countless political rallies and meetings by key Opposition figures, including four-time presidential candidate Kizza Besigye, have been blocked. Dr Besigye has been pulled out of radio talk shows and several stations switched off allegedly on the orders of Resident District Commissioners (RDCs).

Makerere University political science don Mwambutsya Ndebesa suggests that there is need for citizens’ participation outside the multiparty system to ensure that the organs of government which are supposed to guard multiparty democracy are separated from the State.
“How do you have free and fair elections in a country where the EC is partisan? A country where the court system is led by carders of the ruling government? The Chief Justice (Bart Katureebe), Deputy Chief Justice (Owiny-Dollo) were all ministers and the Director Public Prosecution (DPP) Mike Chibita was a director at the NRM secretariat,” he says.

“President Museveni does not believe in multiparty system and cannot allow it. The way forward is that the citizens must disentangle from Executive capture the organs of government. How they will do it, I don’t know.”

Government response
However, Mr Ofwono Opondo, the executive director of the Uganda Media Centre, laughs at the claims by Opposition that they have not enjoyed multiparty democracy.
He says multiparty democracy is evident in Uganda because the Opposition has had a chance to form its leadership in Parliament, dialogue with the ruling party through the National Consultative Forum under the guidance of the EC.

“The laws of Uganda have favoured the Opposition parties because they are recognised by having the liberty to compose their leadership in Parliament. There was also the surrendering of the chairpersons of all accountability committees to the Opposition. They are also given the human resource to help them execute their duties,” Mr Ofwono says.

“The Political Parties and Organisations Act, 2005, creates a forum which brings together all the political parties. There is also Ipod where all parties represented in Parliament sit and debate issues of multiparty democracy.”

Mr Ofwono asks Opposition leaders to go to the courts of law and challenge the Public Order Management Act which police has been using to block them from having meetings and rallies.

Pressure groups

Some analysts argue that the lack of an assured future of multiparty democracy has furnished pressure groups that seek to take control of the political landscape in the country. In 2011 and 2016, the Ssubi platform became active around Kampala metropolitan areas whereas the raise of pop star-turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi has come with another paradigm shift.