Largest opposition party closes year struggling to hold together

Thursday January 3 2013

Supporters of Gen Muntu celebrate after their candidate was declared winner of the FDC presidential race last year. The election left the party  members divided following reports of malpractices.

Supporters of Gen Muntu celebrate after their candidate was declared winner of the FDC presidential race last year. The election left the party members divided following reports of malpractices. FILE PHOTO 

By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi

That Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), Uganda’s largest opposition party in Parliament, ended 2012 in a somewhat chaotic mood was, to some, expected, particularly since founding president Kizza Besigye handed over the baton.

Dr Besigye had built a support base among which he enjoyed a near-cult following and fears of the party disintegrating with his departure were widespread.

The party now has a new leader, Dr Besigye’s former bush war comrade, Maj. Gen. (rtd) Mugisha Muntu, and true to form, there is an apparent fallout resulting from Dr Besigye’s departure that has to be managed.

On the spot is the party chairman, Mr Sam Njuba, 71, who seems keenly aware of the enormous responsibility that rests on his shoulders. “We are working hard to keep the party together,” Mr Njuba says “But it will ultimately depend on the willingness and readiness of the two sides to engage and work around their differences.”

The petition
Mr Njuba is handling a petition filed by Mr Nandala Mafabi, who lost the tightly contested November 22 FDC presidential poll to Gen Muntu. But whether Team Nandala’s nine-point petition will be heard at all, says one of its architects, Mr John Kikonyogo, will depend on whether secretary general Alice Alaso steps aside, in the first place.

Mr Mafabi affirmed this in a wide-ranging interview in which he placed the blame for his defeat at Ms Alaso’s feet. He accused her of “manipulating” the party structures in Gen Muntu’s favour and for voting “more than twice”. As a condition for solving the differences within the FDC, Mr Mafabi said: “We must address the issue of bad actors within the party.” They want party electoral commission chairman Dan Mugarura to also step aside.

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Genesis of ‘hate’
When Mr Mafabi declared his intention to vie for the party presidency, Ms Alaso, in her capacity as secretary general, demanded that he first steps aside as Leader of Opposition in Parliament to avoid conflict of interest. Mr Mafabi declined to step aside, but the stage for a bitter fight with Ms Alaso, it seems, had been set.

The Budadiri West MP says the “real” cause of problems between him and some MPs, including Ms Alaso, could be his appointment as Leader of Opposition in Parliament, which Ms Alaso also allegedly wanted. This, party insiders say, could explain Ms Alaso’s fallout with some of the people in Dr Besigye’s inner circle.

Some senior FDC members, including deputy president Salamu Musumba, urged Dr Besigye to appoint the Leader of Opposition in Parliament while other members preferred a vote by the party’s National Executive Committee. Dr Besigye’s eventual selection of Mr Mafabi, party insiders say, could have heralded an end to a long term alliance with Ms Alaso.

Ms Musumba would be the first casualty among Dr Besigye’s loyalists when she lost the party primaries for the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) to a Ms Alaso-backed, but relatively little known Ms Anita Amongi.

Ms Musumba’s loss was only less painful because eventually FDC was outfoxed in the national Parliament and for the first time, did not send a representative to the EALA. On the previous two occasions, its two representatives had joined the NRM’s five to complete Uganda’s quota, locking out other opposition parties.
Mr Mafabi’s tough stance against Ms Alaso is based on the belief that whoever she backs wins. When Gen Muntu stood against Dr Besigye in 2009 and in 2010, the former army commander grumbled to the delegates that the secretary general’s reports had favoured his opponent.

Mr Mafabi is now voicing similar complaints, only that he is making his point much more strongly and publicly. Insiders say Mr Mafabi considers his success in a future FDC presidential poll to depend in a big measure on whether Ms Alaso will still be the secretary general. Ms Alaso could not be reached for comment as her known phone number remained switched off.

To negotiate this complexity and prevent the possibility of split within the FDC or even some members quitting, Mr Njuba says he is “carefully” putting together a team which is acceptable to both camps to study the petition, something he had hoped to have done by Christmas Eve.

But just how successful could Mr Njuba be in uniting the two sides? Mr Njuba was himself not very active in the campaigns, but Gen Muntu’s supporters think he backed Mr Mafabi. There is a possibility, therefore, that when it comes to handling controversial matters Gen Muntu’s supporters could disagree with him.

Term of office
One touchy issue is whether the new FDC party president will only complete Dr Besigye’s term and , therefore, face another election in 2014 or will serve out the five years spelt out in the FDC constitution.

“It is certainly two years,” says Mr Mafabi, while Gen Muntu says the decision will be taken by the party’s legal team. Two of Gen Muntu’s prominent backers, former Minister Richard Kaijuka and Augustine Ruzindana, an assistant secretary general in FDC, say it should be five years. But Mr Njuba says Gen Muntu should serve out the remainder of Dr Besigye’s term and face another election in 2014 because “If you adopt a five-year scenario, it means that the president will remain in office alone when all other office-bearers’ terms expire in 2014.”

Taking Mr Njuba’s position will mean that the FDC will have to undergo two potentially divisive elections – in 2014 and then the election of a presidential flag-bearer a year later – before the 2016 general election.

The potential for squabbling aside, this means the party will have to work harder at raising money. Last year, the FDC suffered some financial troubles. Even as the party elections drew closer, the officials indicated that their financial muscle was weak.

Gen Muntu says his team will soon embark on “intense” fundraising, but his efforts can only succeed if the party sticks together in the first place. And luckily for him, even his opponents think their interests are best served by staying in FDC.

Mr John Kikonyogo, a party official, says he sees no other “attractive” party to join and, therefore, will stay put in FDC. However, he says, the ball is in Gen Muntu’s court. “It is up to him to reach out to his hurt opponents,” Mr Kikonyogo says.

Whether Gen Muntu will reach out to his opponents and whether that will make them embrace his leadership will come to pass next year. The alternative, which a number of FDC members fear will happen, is that Mr Mafabi’s team could sit out Mr Muntu’s presidency and wait in the hope of grabbing power from him at the next election.

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