President Museveni famously vowed that he would have no Opposition left by the time of the 2021 General Election. He said this two days after he was declared winner of the February 18, 2016 presidential election, and at the time, the President’s statement seemed to ring hollow. Dr Kizza Besigye, his principal opponent in the election that had just been concluded, had claimed victory and was under house arrest.
Guests to Dr Besigye’s home in Kasangati near Kampala were carefully screened by security officials, and majority were turned away. The Opposition leader had drawn huge crowds from across the country during the campaigns and had supporters give him their hard-earned money to support the campaign.
Many doubted that Mr Museveni had garnered the 58 per cent of the vote that the Electoral Commission (EC) had announced, and Dr Besigye claimed he had won the election with 52 per cent of the vote. It appeared like Mr Museveni would find it much harder to get by than his relaxed demeanor as he made the pronouncement suggested.
However, as curtains draw on his current term in office, with plans to get a fresh mandate, there are signs that while part of his vow – to make the ruling NRM stronger – might have been a ruse, his proclamation on the fortunes of the Opposition are bearing fruit to a very large extent.
The President’s vow came in his maiden speech after he was declared winner of the 2016 elections at his country home in Rwakitura, Kiruhura District. He said he would “wipe out the Opposition completely in the next five years”. Earlier, in 2015, he had, during a visit by President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya to Parliament, vowed to wipe out the Opposition after winning the election, which at the time was months away.
Away from the ever-present State coercion and the narrowing political space, what emerges from a critical look at the Opposition since the last general election is disorganisation, infighting, defeats, lack of strategy, defection, lies, blackmail, betrayal, among other evils.
In their paper “Opposition weakness in Africa”, researchers Lise Rakner and Nicolas van de Walle observe that Opposition parties are a key component of any strategy of “democratisation by elections”. They, however, argue that the “third wave” of democratisation in Africa has not yielded much in terms of political competition.
“Regardless of the nature and quality of electoral institutions, Opposition parties have remained numerically weak and fragmented, and unable to carry out their roles of political counterweight to the victorious party and president,” they argue.
They add: “The performance of the Opposition parties indicates that we should question whether Africa’s multiparty systems are really progressing. At the very least, the pace of democratic progress has been exceedingly slow.”
Apart from political parties, Mr Museveni’s rule has traditionally faced opposition on ethnic lines, with Buganda and Rwenzururu kingdoms having at different times come head-to-head with the centre. But the power bases that had galvanised in different regions in opposition to or critical of Mr Museveni’s rule have either been crushed, joined him or gone silent.
In the lead up to the 2016 General Election, the Rwenzori Sub-region, in particular the Rwenzururu Kingdom under King Charles Wesley Mumbere, was beaming with anti-regime sentiments. With the exception of a few cases, the area overwhelmingly voted for leading Opposition party Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Dr Besigye polled 56 per cent of the vote against Mr Museveni’s 41 per cent of the votes in Kasese District in 2016.
Things, however, appear to be changing. The conflict between the Rwenzururu Kingdom and Mr Museveni’s government came to a head in November 2016, when the army and police invaded King Mumbere’s palace, leaving in shambles the royal homestead after more than 100 people were killed and about the same number arrested together with King Mumbere.
Three years later, Kasese is different. Several FDC leaders in the area now openly hobnob with ruling NRM politicians, including President Museveni, with rumours that some could defect to the ruling party when the time is ripe. In January, for instance, the Kasese District FDC party chairman, Mr Saulo Maate, suspended his vice chairperson, Ms Catherine Muhindo, for allegedly attending a meeting with NRM members without authorisation from the party.
Besides the force applied in the region, President Museveni’s younger brother and national coordinator for Operation Wealth Creation (OWC), Gen Salim Saleh, has been on a mission in the region, softening the hearts of both the leaders and the population towards the regime, with both cash and development projects dangled at them.
Attempts by leading members of the Opposition to launch a charm offensive in their stronghold have been welcomed by brute force from State agencies. Rwenzuru King Mumbere remains in ‘exile’ in Kampala, away from his people and kingdom and under virtual house arrest since leaving prison. Treason and murder cases hang over his head.
Many predict that the people of Kasese, weary of conflict with a powerful government that is not shy to throw about its coercive force, will side with the victor. This would bear a resemblance to the process that led to a Museveni dominance in Acholi, Lango and other areas of northern Uganda after a brutal war against Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
For the past decade, President Museveni and his NRM party have enjoyed increased support from northern Uganda, a region that opposed and rejected him the first two decades of his rule.
What happened to Rwenzururu Kingdom in 2016, and northern Uganda earlier, one would say, happened to Buganda Kingdom in 2009, during the Kayunga riots. Brute force was used to quell a civilian uprising against the government’s decision to block Kabaka Ronald Mutebi II from visiting Kayunga, which is part of Buganda Kingdom. At least 27 people lay dead on the streets of Kampala during the three days of intense conflict in September that year, and the kingdom’s stance towards the central government changed after that.
Critical voices that once found a platform and home at Buganda’s seat of power in Mengo have since been silenced, with the kingdom appearing to have entered a truce with the central government.
FDC, which has on three previous occasions sponsored Dr Besigye to challenge Mr Museveni, has during this term split into two, leading to the birth of the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT) led the party’s former leader, Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu.
Gen Muntu is known to be working with a number of FDC leaders, including former Leader of the Opposition in Parliament (LoP), also Kasese Woman MP Winne Kiiza. There is a thinking that some FDC legislators could defect to ANT when the opportunity presents itself when Parliament enters its final year.
When it comes to this subject, Mr Moses Byaruhanga, a senior political assistant to the President, speaks with glee.
Mr Byaruhanga says: “I am sure the core group of the Muntu party are FDC. The Constitution was amended to allow MPs change parties in the last year. I am waiting from May next year when they start the fifth year of Parliament. You are likely to get some FDC MPs joining ANT, and ANT is likely to break the record of a party with many MPs without an election. FDC is losing people and that basically leaves FDC weaker,” Mr Byaruhanga says.
Throughout its life, FDC has had Dr Besigye as its kingpin, and the trend seems set to continue with those in charge at Najjanankumbi, its headquarters, firmly behind their founding president and evidently poised to front him for another shot at the presidency.
But Dr Besigye has been a man under siege for years now, with a number of forces within the Opposition but especially outside FDC, looking to ensure that he is replaced as the leader of the charge against Mr Museveni.
In the lead-up to the 2016 election, most members of a team comprising other Opposition forces and civil society backed former prime minister Amama Mbabazi to represent the Opposition in the election ahead of Dr Besigye, a decision FDC vetoed. Dr Besigye proceeded to provide the stiffest challenge to Mr Museveni, with Mr Mbabazi turning out to be an also-run.
A similar wave is underway as the tempo to 2021 builds.
For a new force against President Museveni’s rule to rise, Dr Besigye must fall, or so the strategy by a section in the Opposition seems to read. Since 2017, a sustained campaign against President Museveni’s principal rival has been on, especially on social media.
The Bobi Wine factor
The Besigye-must-fall sentiments were on display in April at a Democratic Party (DP) Bloc ceremony, with several Opposition politicians, including Kyadondo East MP and leader of the People Power Movement Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine, pouring their hearts out on the ‘Dr Besigye must leave’ the stage.
Mr Kyagulanyi’s emergence as a challenger in the power game at the pinnacle has been seen by some as a potential game changer both for Mr Museveni and Dr Besigye, basically because Mr Kyagulanyi – a youthful figure powered by stardom in the music industry – is a different proposition.
Among those who oppose Mr Museveni, Mr Kyagulanyi has attracted as much loyalty as he has disdain, both to extremes. Those who favour him say he is a breath of fresh air, while those who reject him within the Opposition say he is unqualified to run for president.
But the one thing that is bound to profit Mr Museveni and weaken the Opposition is the seemingly very likely possibility of a brutal fallout between the backers of the new kid on the block and Dr Besigye, which would give Mr Museveni an opportunity to pick the ruins and sprint to victory.
Mr Byaruhanga likes what he sees on this front. He says: “The struggle is now among them. On one hand Besigye wants to retain people so that [Maj Gen Mugisha] Muntu doesn’t take them, and on the other hand he wants to retain people so they don’t turn to Bobi Wine. His major focus is self-preservation within FDC, but definitely FDC is weaker today than it was in the last general election,” Mr Byaruhanga says.
FDC spokesperson Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, on the thinking that FDC is weaker now, says: “At every corner you want to announce FDC dead, at every corner. In the last election, there was a story in one or two newspapers every day to say FDC MPs have joined Mbabazi and I used to complain. Eventually, when FDC started campaigns, there wasn’t a single FDC MP who joined Mbabazi. What is the measure that FDC has been weakened? Tell me a single candidate that ANT or People Power has sponsored in a by-election; just tell me one. We have had elections and it is FDC sponsoring candidates and that is going to be the same. I don’t agree either with the views of the people who think the Opposition and FDC in particular, is weak. The FDC has not become weak and I can tell you at the next general election, if the FDC does not field candidates like it was the case in the last general election, NRM people will go unopposed.”
The conversation about the death of the Opposition, Godber Tumushabe, the associate director of the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS) says, starts from whether there is a ruling party in Uganda, which he says does not exist in practice.
“You have a group that calls itself NRM but basically has mutated and become the State. There is no political party called NRM. NRM, in my view, is Museveni’s special purpose vehicle for his retention of power and in practice, he uses it when he needs to,” he explains.
He says the NRM structures have been reduced to serving President Museveni’s interests and that he deploys them at will.
“You have a problem, where you have the State of Uganda being the ruling party and then everybody else must contest against the State and that is a fundamental problem because ordinarily, the State institutions are supposed to be nonpartisan, generally neutral. They are supposed to be arbiters in this political contest,” Mr Tumushabe says.
He says the Judiciary, intelligence agencies, the Electoral Commission and other organs of the State that are supposed to arbitrate the political process in the country are abused as NRM structures.
For example, he says, intelligence infrastructure of the country works for the NRM group instead of dealing with threats to national security.
“When Museveni says ‘I will destroy the Opposition by 2020-21’, it is only inevitable if you have the State trying to kill all other institutions, of course it will kill them because first of all, it has killed itself. Where are the institutions of the State? The Judiciary is dead. We have a Judiciary where every judge and magistrate has been appointed by one president after 30 years, probably every Permanent Secretary. These are people who really work for this guy.”