Given the amount of bickering among Ugandan political parties in recent years, one can be forgiven for thinking that these parties regularly see splits and breakups.
Actually, it is striking how united they remain in overall purpose, in spite of their ideological and administrative differences.
The idea of a true split within a political party for the sake of this article would have to include a faction separating from the original party, key members leaving the original party and joining or creating a new party, which new party has all the features of a conventional party – a secretariat, party flag, district offices and a party constitution.
Very little of this has happened in Uganda since independence.
In 1964 when the Leader of Opposition in Parliament, Basil Bataringaya, and some fellow members of the Democratic Party (DP) crossed the floor and joined the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), they simply became nouveau UPC members.
They did not create a rival DP faction or new party and the DP would remain united for another 50 years.
The differences in opinion and strategy within the UPC seen at the delegates’ conference in Gulu in 1964 were just that – a difference in approach and not a split of the party into two entities.
If there were going to be any permanent splits within the DP and UPC, the sudden arrival of military rule in 1971 ironically helped preserve the parties.
They were to remain in limbo during the 1970s and the fact of being banned by the Idi Amin government might have given them something larger to focus on than administrative differences.
In 1982, several DP Members of Parliament crossed over to the UPC in a repeat of the 1964 defection.
As with other instances we have already seen, defection of senior party members is not enough to constitute a split and the DP survived well past the 1980-1985 UPC government.
The 1985 military coup and the rise to state power of the NRM in 1986 effectively ended the active phase of the UPC and DP, but this same ban on the parties had a galvanising effect.
It gave them a higher sense of purpose and mission, even though several senior DP officials served in both the Tito Okello military junta and the Yoweri Museveni-led NRM government after 1986.
A ban on political party activity was announced in 1986. Impatient with the lack of political space, an activist movement called the DP Mobilisers’ Group led by Michael Kaggwa formed in the early 1990s and led street protests against the ban on party activity.
The DP Mobilisers’ Group was not a splinter group from the main DP party.
It remained fully DP and only saw itself as created to infuse some urgency into the party, the same way the Truth and Justice pressure group led by figures such as Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago has emerged since 2015 within the DP.
In the late 1990s, there arose tensions within the UPC over whether or not to participate in Ugandan politics under Museveni.
The Presidential Policy Commission headed by the exiled former president Milton Obote insisted that the UPC should not take part in any activities as that would legitimise the NRM’s ban, or what the UPC termed the NRM “dictatorship”.
Some senior UPC members like Cecilia Ogwal disagreed, preferring to accept the reality as it was and try and do the best of what was possible by participating in elective politics.
These disagreements deepened, leading to Ogwal and a few others leaving the UPC.
This was not a split. It was simply a disagreement over policy and those who disagreed with the Presidential Policy Commission left to join other parties.
When former NRM secretary general Amama Mbabazi announced a presidential bid in 2015, he campaigned under the banner of “Go Forward”, which was more a campaign slogan than a stand-alone political party.
Mbabazi insisted all through that he was still a member of the NRM.
Before Mbabazi, young NRM MPs such as Barnabas Tinkasiimire, Muhammad Nsereko, Wilfred Niwagaba and Theodore Ssekikubo had taken a vocal, public stance against many NRM policies and were dubbed “rebel MPs” by the media.
The view became that the NRM was a split party, when in fact none of the rebel MPs ever made an outright denouncement of their party or joined any other.
Tensions within the UPC after 2015 saw rival claims to the party presidency by Jimmy Akena and Olara Otunnu.
Otunnu and Akena laid claim to the party presidency, but none claimed to lead a rival UPC faction. The party remains intact.
This same situation pertains to the DP, which has had its share of bickering over the party presidency.
As it is with the UPC, rival factions in the DP contend over the rightful leader of the party, but they are all in agreement that the party of Benedicto Kiwanuka, Stanislaus Mugwanya and Paulo Ssemogerere is their party and they are loyal to it.
The same could be said of the Conservative Party (CP).
In accurate terms, the formation of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) in 2004 and which went into operation in 2005, was the first true split from a major party.
The FDC became the most serious rival to the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) since the latter’s rise to state power in 1986.
The large number of “historical” NRM officials who filled the ranks of the FDC can justify the view that this was a true split.
The other true split within a political party since independence has been that which recently took place in the FDC.
A significant number of FDC officials, high and lower-ranking, left with the former party president, Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, to create a new formation which has yet to determine a formal name.
Since about 2011, several FDC officials have left the party, several going on to join the NRM or become independent politicians and in the process being accused of having been “moles” all along – Alex Onzima, Beti Kamya, Rubaramira Ruranga, Beatrice Anywar and others.
One of the reasons for the ban on political parties by the NRM in 1986 was that the DP and UPC had fanned the flames of division and religious and ethnic sectarianism during the 1960s. But we now see, from this analysis, that they remained largely united parties.
If anything, the tensions that have proved irreconcilable enough to warrant the creation of new, rival parties have happened under the watch of the NRM, for the formation of the FDC and now the new party announced by Mugisha Muntu.
The question to ask is: What causes these factions to appear in Ugandan parties?
The simple answer is that for as long as there are organisations, institutions and people, there will always be differences in opinion and approach, much more so with politics whose essence is disputes, ideology, argument and contestation.
Some of these divisions in parties have been fomented in recent years by the government. Others have arisen over money.
Most parties receive substantial funding from Europe and the United States and politics today is one of the most lucrative professions.
Tradition is a large part of the tension within the DP. Purists feel that a true DP party president is one who was educated at St Mary’s College Kisubi, is a Muganda, and is a Roman Catholic.
The current president, Norbert Mao, is an Acholi and was educated at Namilyango College, hence the tensions and bitter fallout since his election.
Other tensions within DP arise from the more activist faction preferring street activism to formal party conferences, and this activist wing, Truth and Justice, viewing itself as the more committed to democracy.
In the UPC, the tension has recently been historical.
Many UPC loyalists never forgot the role Olara Otunnu played in the Okello government that overthrew the UPC government in 1985 and fiercely opposed Otunnu’s election in 2010 as akin to Judas Iscariot being named as the head of the Christian Church instead of the apostle Peter.
The tensions within the NRM are partly because of the longevity of Museveni as party chairman and the feeling that he is preventing anyone else from ever heading the NRM.
Other intra-NRM tensions are from the mere fact of holding state power and the fights over influence and state resources, a situation similar to that which developed in the UPC after 1984 and culminated in the 1985 coup.
The latest split, that within the FDC, was similar to the tension in DP between the mainstream and Truth and Justice.
The Muntu wing believed in the building of formal structures while a wing loyal to Kizza Besigye, like DP’s Truth and Justice, feels that to speak of party structures when the overall national political atmosphere is one of dictatorship is a futile exercise; the dictatorship must be fought head-on first.
Muntu’s wing, on the other hand, argued that street activism is fine, but at the end of the day a serious party can’t rely on spontaneous acts of defiance and political drama. It must have a long-term, formal and institutional structure.