DP’s woes: The challenges of political piggybacking

Tuesday February 18 2020


By Nicholas Sengoba

The Democratic Party (DP,) Uganda’s oldest political party, is in a crisis. Apparently, a section of DP has rebelled against its leadership headed by the president general Norbert Mao.
In DP, disagreement has become the staple diet. Darryl F. Zanuck said: “If two men on the same job agree all the time, then one is useless. If they disagree all the time, both are useless.”

The leaders of DP are definitely not useless, but they tend to disagree most of the time.

The trouble is that in the case of most Ugandan political parties, the point of departure is not about lofty issues like ideology, policy or principle. It is not about DP taking power and moving the country on a socialist or liberal path. It is not a debate about provision of free healthcare or taxing land.

It is a very basic, but serious argument about individual survival for both the voter and those vying for office. It is a story that started way back in 1986 when the NRM landed in Kampala.

The cynical plan was to ultimately dominate the political scene by erasing the source of the viability of other political forces.

Political organisations by their nature and to great extent, politicians, are as sustainable as their bases. DP, for instance, was a very strong party in areas of Buganda, Busoga and in various parts of northern, eastern and western Uganda where you had populations that were dominated by Catholicism.


But Catholicism was not exactly the main driving factor of its popularity even if it may have initially acted as a rallying point. After all, you still have huge Catholic populations in these areas but DP does not fare very well of late. The major driving force that helped this base was mainly that there was a strong and vibrant rural economy based mainly on agriculture.

This agriculture was supported by the cooperative movement from which farmers benefitted from things like buying inputs in bulk at a lower cost, processing and value addition as a group, a ready market in the form of produce buying parastatals, etc. These collapsed.

Also in most towns like Jinja and Mbale you had a level of industrialisation, which ensured a sizable population of a formally employed and salaried workforce.

The main public hospitals provided free healthcare and most of the school fees plus tuition was affordable. Education at Makerere University and most tertiary institutions was free thus lessening the burden on parents in as far as household incomes were concerned.

In this sort of environment, one could easily follow their political conviction in as far as supporting a party of their choice was concerned. Fast forward to this day, the rural economy has all but collapsed with the cooperatives. Most of the young population is jobless and constitutes a sizable percentage of the urban poor. Manufacturing is on a downward trend with pressure from cheap imports from China. It has largely been replaced by cowboys, ‘investors’ and other deal makers.

You no longer have the pre-1986 coffee and matooke farmers who could sponsor and bank roll candidates. Instead you now have people begging for money to vote for a candidate.

Now the candidate from whom they beg is as equally desperate for money for patronage despite their shiny well cut suits.

In order for them to survive in the field of politics they must ensure they go to Parliament and enjoy the perks of an MP by hook or crook. They will borrow and fight not to lose their deposit.

Now for a DP candidate to get this lucrative job of MP without a strong base of their own, they must make calculations which come in the form of ‘alliances.’ This in effect is principled opportunism.

These alliances take advantage of bases formed around other parties and individuals perceived as ‘strong.’ In 2016, there were some in DP who fell for the glorified notion that NRMs Amama Mbabazi who had left the party, was so powerful and loaded with money. They felt that they could benefit from the bases of disgruntled NRM supporters, who it was thought, would exodus from the party.

Today, Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi is the man of the moment. He is thought to have the support of majority of the youth so sections of DP want to ‘sell’ the party to him and benefit with an endorsement from the popular musician in their constituencies. Similarly, a section of DP feels that they can take advantage of FDC’s Kizza Besigye’s popularity and use that as a stepping stone to Parliament. So they want DP to ally with him and FDC.

Still there are those patronisingly described by President Museveni as ‘good DPs.’ These ones are willing to quietly work with NRM or not oppose it. In return they, as a friendly opposition, are granted a safe passage either into Parliament or in the East African Legislative Assembly.

There is also the group that rationally believes that DP as a political party, should stand on its own and contest in their own right. The reality of this is debatable because as we have said, the base that supported DP in the past is no more.

Putting all these divergent quests to borrow a political base is what is creating the dangerous balancing act for the DP leadership. Political piggybacking is very costly.

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues.