Chaos in NRM primaries: Are the thieves taking over the temple?

Wednesday September 09 2020

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

After the violence and chaos of Uganda’s ruling NRM 2015 primaries, its leadership vowed there would be no repeat. Last week, it was shockingly worse, including a losing minister going native, grabbing a rifle from his guard, and allegedly shooting someone.
The violence left a very bad taste, and some dispirited folks even suggested that the pay for Members of Parliament should be reduced to make the position less attractive to political vultures and hyenas, and good only for noble men and women dedicated to public service.
Party primaries, particularly in NRM, have been getting more violent in Uganda with every election cycle. It should be remembered that the NRM primaries of 2010 were also a fiasco, though nothing on the scale of the latest, and it was one of the sources of former prime minister and secretary-general Amama Mbabazi’s woes. After 2010, losers organised and started accusing Mbabazi of orchestrating chaos to rig the primaries to entrench his allies, “hijack” the party, and unseat the Big Man. They succeeded, and in 2014, Amama was bundled out. The problem wasn’t solved. It got worse.
The argument has been made that the NRM and President Yoweri Museveni’s often extremely violent treatment of the Opposition, has inevitably come home to roost. However, if you look at Kenya and Nigeria, and even more civil-minded Ghana, where the Opposition don’t endure the level of violent abuse they do in Uganda, party primaries are hell too. So, regime cruelty can hardly be the main explanation.
In Kenya, we see similar chaos where the ruling Jubilee Party and the main Opposition, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), are strongest, and certain to win over 80 per cent of the vote.
It seems, then, one key predictor of violence is the strength of a party in a constituency. Where a party, NRM or FDC, is almost 100 per cent sure to win, the real election is the primary. Candidates invest more emotion, and spend more money to get nominated. The “enemy,” therefore, is not the Opposition, who will lose, but your fellow party members, who want the job.
There are some constituencies, where the NRM, for historical reasons or because of its record in the area, is sure to win. In some of them, its ability to intimidate or rig without a big pushback, guarantees this victory, and it is here that its violent ways could be argued to play a role in creating carnage in its primaries. Where the NRM and Opposition are running neck and neck, or where the Opposition is dominant, you usually have less chaos. Candidates hedge, and don’t bet the house on the seat, because victory isn’t certain.
The other key development we are seeing in the NRM is a continuing generational change. The Historicals, and ideological cadres from the bush and its first decade, have either aged, died, retired, and several have been swept aside by economic and demographic dynamics that are changing the NRM, leaving only a few holdovers like Museveni, Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, and people like minister of East African Affairs Maj Gen Kahinda Otafiire.
Many of the Historicals and first-generation cadres had a lot of struggle credentials and ideological credibility, so you needed a lot of cojones to go against them. And if you did, you didn’t dare come at them with stones. That kept things reasonably civil. The NRM can rightly argue that it is broader today than, say, in 2000, but that growth has come from some wheat, yes, but also quite some chaff.
It is akin to the old story from the New Testament. The merchants and consumers have all but taken over the Temple, and as Jesus said then, are turning it into “a den of thieves”. Politics has become transactional in many places, including in Uganda, and that is not surprising. Party membership, though, is usually less so. People join parties for less fleeting reasons, and good ones hang in, sometimes, like people stuck in a bad relationship. For the NRM, then, the concern should be how its party membership too has become transactional and fluid.
Barely two days after the primaries’ fiasco, supporters of some losing NRM heavies were out threatening to join the Opposition. Other losers were saying they intend to run as Independents. And there is the sub-text, which is perhaps the most important story. There was a distinct lack of a referee in charge. One could see that, on this one, party members really didn’t fear any authority higher up.
There was something good in that, yes, but also it was a sign of how much the NRM increasingly exists more as a state structure, and not as a party.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”.