Whose party is the NRM?

Monday January 20 2020

 Moses Khisa

Moses Khisa  

By Moses Khisa

Apparently, a group of Members of Parliament from the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), dubbed ‘rebel MPs’ would be unwelcome to the party’s national conference slated for January 25.
The ‘rebels’ are called as such for often taking positions in Parliament that contradict the party leadership, perhaps the most important being their opposition to the despicable removal of the presidential age-limit in late 2017. At least 30 ruling party MPs voted against the amendment.

According to the NRM party constitution, all party MPs are members of the national conference. So, the party’s chief legal officer has advised its leadership that there is no basis to block the ‘rebels’ from attending the meeting since they are still full and bona fide members of the party.

Not too long ago, the original group that took on the label of ‘rebels,’ the quartet of Muhammed Nsereko, Barnabas Tinkasimire, Wilfred Niwagaba and Theodore Ssekikubo, was expelled from the party. This was at the behest of the then powerful party secretary general Amama Mbabazi. As fate would have it, Mbabazi too was booted when he moved ahead of himself to take over from the Sabalwanyi (the self-declared chief fighter), the ruler – Mr Museveni.

At any rate, only Niwagaba has remained consistently independent-minded, ran for re-election in 2016 as an independent and caucuses with the Opposition. The other three have kept a rather double-faced stance, outspoken against the ruler but keeping closer to the dining table.

The NRM has undergone several phases and faces since 1986. The first, running up to around the promulgation of the 1995 Constitution and the ensuing general elections the following year, the NRM pretended to be an umbrella grouping that brought together a range of voices, views and tendencies. It was a relatively principled attempt at an inclusive and broad-based government of national unity.

Although it was a political organisation dating back to the 1980 elections when it was Uganda People’s Movement, and had built a military wing called the National Resistance Army, the NRM of 1986-1996 insisted it was not a political party but a ‘Movement.’


During this first phase, meant to be transitional, the overarching goal was to dissolve all political groups by first, imposing an indefinite ban on party activities and two, co-opting party leaders and their supporters. Only the leadership of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) obstinately rejected this move, although UPC individual members joined the ‘Movement’ government.

The second phase of the NRM, from 1996 to 2006, was an exercise in political deception. The 1995 Constitution provided for a ‘Movement’ system as an alternative to multiparty and a national referendum was to be held in five years to determine whether to return to party politics or continue with the ‘Movement’ no-party system.

This may have all sounded fine. But there were several problems. The fundamental right to politically associate was to be subjected to a vote. Perhaps more troubling, the so called no-party ‘Movement’ system was in practice a one-party state. Intrepid justices of the Constitutional Court arrived at precisely this conclusion: the NRM was a political party and what we had was not a no-party but one-party system.

During the first and second phases of the NRM, there was a tradition of internal debate and criticism but which increasingly became an irritant to the ruler. During those two phases, what today are called ‘rebels MPs’ were in fact senior NRM ideologues – they spoke candidly to the issues and would face Museveni directly.

With the 2005 dramatic turnaround to embracing party politics simultaneous with the removal of presidential term-limits, which cleared the way for a life-president, we start the third and current phase of the NRM.

An entity that had claimed to be a ‘Movement,’ an ostensible alternative to multiparty, was now presented as a ‘new’ political party, initially called the National Resistance Movement Organisation (NRMO) ostensibly to distinguish it from the old NRM.

But the handlers quickly realised that it would not work to try and build and market a new party, NRMO. It was smart and prudent to carry-on with what they had during the one-party ‘Movement’ phase – a party state. This created confusion.

Since 2006, it is difficult to pinpoint the NRM political party: is it based at Plot 1 Kyadondo Road in Kampala, at State House Entebbe or at the National Leadership Institute in Kyankwanzi?

In practice, the NRM political party that was supposedly created in 2005 does not exist. What we have is the State and the person or persons in charge of the State determines what happens in NRM.

In the political cycles close to the corridors of power, cheap sycophancy took-over the tradition of candid internal criticism in the previous phases. Wearing yellow and claiming to be NRM grants one the cover of the State apparatus, especially in the countryside during election time.

Khisa is an assistant professor at North Carolina State University (USA).