Inside attempts to prevent influential NUP diaspora from disintegrating 

National Unity Platform leader Robert Kyagulanyi. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • A committee instituted by NUP leader Robert Kyagulanyi as an effort to cool down tensions between his administration and the diaspora, which has been bankrolling the party, has instead recommended that the former presidential candidate should continue wielding unchecked powers, something that some party members in the diaspora have rejected, writes Derrick Kiyonga.

The diaspora community has been one of the key pillars of now Uganda’s largest Opposition political party, National Unity Platform (NUP), which until 2020 was a political pressure group, People Power.

The group that’s scattered across the globe has been key in mobilising resources, drumming up support online and also boost to have connected NUP’s president Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, alias Bobi Wine, to powerful liberal media in the West – which has touted the singer-turned-politician as the only Opposition politician who has mounted a serious challenge to President Museveni’s decades’ hold onto power.

It has not been rosy as there have been wars within this diaspora community, with some leaders being accused of committing fraud, lack of accountability, tribalism, sexual harassment, physical assault, inter alia.

With conflict becoming more pronounced in the diaspora community, Mr Kyagulanyi on October 9, 2021, established a diaspora re-organisation committee whose role, according to documents sees by this newspaper, was to study the emerging issues in the diaspora and advise him and his Kamwokya-based outfit on how to address them.

The committee comprised of Butambala Woman Member of Parliament (MP) Aisha Kabanda as chairperson, Makindye East MP Derrick Nyeko, Prof Milton Alimadi, Dr Tony Makayu, Sheikh Ali Ssemambo, and Pastor Godfrey Owori, who replaced Sarah Bakanansa after she excused herself, while Lilian Tracy Tabingwa was the secretary.

Having interacted with the different diaspora chapters and listened to the parties at loggerheads, the committee made an executive report that they furnished to Mr Kyagulanyi in late December.

One of the flashpoints that have caused friction in NUP’s diaspora has been the mode of choosing their leaders. Kyagulanyi has been selecting the leaders, but many had got worried about asking for a change and adopting elections since the party espouses democracy and, therefore, there is a need to practice internal democracy which would, in turn, make the elected leaders be more accountable to the electorate.

But others didn’t share such democratic fantasies. They rejected elections contending that the diaspora leadership, if left to be determined through voting, would easily be infiltrated by the NRM in Kampala.

Another issue they fronted in rejection of a democratic process of electing leaders, was that NUP is still in its infancy and needs to be protected from what they termed as “vultures” that would use anything at their disposal to kill the organisation.

There was also a minority that told the committee that they can combine both elections and appointments; whereby appointments would be informed by nominations made from the various chapters. 

The proponents of this format, according to the report, argued that this would give the opportunity to the secretariat to vet leaders before they assume leadership and the same time give people the opportunity to participate.

With varying views, the issue was put to a vote and the reports say the results were unambiguous: electing the diaspora leadership was not popular.

Some members of the NUP Boston Chapter during a protest in Massachusetts, USA, in August last year. PHOTO | COURTESY

Only three chapters recommended elections; Boston, Florida and the EU chapters, excluding Sweden, were in favour of elections. Six chapters – Washington DC, Seattle, United Kingdom, Turkey, Sweden, and Minnesota – recommended a combination, meaning nominations to be made by the people but final appointments to be made by the president, while six chapters – South Africa, Canada, California, United Arab Emirates, Zambia and the Asian Chapters – recommended appointment.

The committee says while a combination [voting and appointing] would be a better compromise scenario; it was not clear yet how formal nominations would be made and who would nominate.

“In light of this, therefore, the committee recommends that in order to keep the NUP diaspora strong and insulated from infiltration by the dictatorship, the president [Kyagulanyi] continues to appoint the top diaspora leadership, which would in turn recommend to him persons to be appointed to lead the different regions and chapters. This will give the people opportunity to participate, but at the same time the secretariat shall have the opportunity to vet the nominations before the president finally appoints them,” the report says.

In a document seen by this newspaper that he calls a “critique to Kabanda,” Joseph Senyonjo, who coordinates NUP’s New York/ New Jersey chapter, says from the very start Kabanda made it clear that the diaspora’s wish to elect its own leaders was dead on arrival, claiming that it was unpopular.

The recommendation that Mr Kyagulanyi chooses diaspora leaders vetted by the secretariat, according to Senyonjo, is unwise, that it brings the party to full circle.

“The reason why the diaspora is on verge of disintegrating is precisely due to over-centralisation, control, and micro-management of diaspora affairs by the secretariat,” Senyonjo wrote in his dossier to the NUP leadership dated January 9, 2022.

“It is frankly not acceptable for anyone – including the principal – to choose leaders for the diaspora. Kampala choosing leaders for the diaspora shall almost certainly ensure that the most competent and professional Ugandans shun associating with NUP.”

He says the Uganda North America Association (UNAA) was rejected because President Museveni’s regime decided to choose leaders for them and it seems NUP didn’t pick lessons.

“What makes the Kabanda committee’s recommendation particularly offensive is the proposal that the secretariat vets anyone before the principal appoints them,” he wrote. “That is total lunacy. Many in the diaspora no longer trust the secretariat, not only because it has stifled many diaspora initiatives, but also because it put diaspora leaders in potential legal jeopardy during the [blogger Fred] Lumbuye saga through ill-considered directives.”

Accountability of funds

When she was resigning as head of the NUP diaspora in July 2020, Ms Arao Ameny said her biggest point of departure with NUP bosses in Kamwokya was the lack of accountability of the funds Ugandans in the diaspora were banking in a People Power account opened in the Bank of America Corporation.

The signatories to the said account were Ms Ameny herself and Kharim Ntambi, who was then the head of People Power US chapter.

Sources familiar with Ms Ameny’s thinking say she had misgivings about the individuals who constituted what was known as the NUP’s finance committee.

One of the members, a source said, was campaigning for a parliamentary seat and Ms Ameny wondered whether he wouldn’t be drawn into diverting the funds to his personal campaign.

Ms Ameny, the source said, crossed the red line when she demanded that Kamwokya gives the diaspora team a breakdown of their expenses.

“She wanted to know how much is spent on masks, salaries, secretarial work, litigation, and getting People Power youth wingers out of jail. How much was spent on the beans and posh bought for starving Ugandans during the Covid-19 induced lockdown. They were not giving any answers or receipts to Ameny,” the source said.

Now in the report the committee says complaints about the accountability of funds are still alive with some chapter members, just like Ms Ameny, raising questions about the accountability of funds both within the diaspora leadership and once funds are sent to Kamwokya.

The reports, nevertheless, recommend that they can’t be open because of what they term as “challenges we are likely to encounter if we are likely to make certain details public.”

“It was observed that the environment in which we operate, coupled with the nature of activities a party like ours engages in, makes it difficult to make the accounts and activities engaged in public,” the report says.

Fear of being infiltrated notwithstanding, the committee says there can be some kind of accountability and transparency, but to a privileged few.

“It is recommended that the leadership of the diaspora, once constituted, appoints three individuals from among their number, who would have access to all information relating to what funds raised by the diaspora has done. They would, in turn, make regular reports to the diaspora leaders without divulging any confidential information,” the report says.

Reacting to the accountability segment, Senyonjo says questions about accountability arose during last year’s general election when all funds were being channelled directly through the secretariat.

The diaspora team leader, Mr Herman Ainebyoona, and the secretariat, Senyonjo says, refused to account to the diaspora treasurer about how the more than Shs1.5 billion that the diaspora raised was being disbursed.

With that, Senyonjo says, there is zero trust in the secretariat properly accounting for diaspora funds.

NUP’s diaspora has been contributing to a fund known as Welfare Management. The money, it’s understood, is meant to help party supporters that have been incarcerated in the course of wanting to push out the regime. The money has been another source of discord and the Kabanda committee insisted funds should remain under NUP secretary general David Lewis Rubongoya.

Having parallel welfare efforts, one run by the diaspora and another by the secretariat, the report says, is counter-productive to party building and must be discouraged.

“It is, therefore, recommended that the party’s welfare office be strengthened so that it is able to coordinate this activity. We strongly recommend that welfare of foot-soldiers be coordinated by an officer at the secretariat and any fundraising for welfare should be directly remitted to the party secretariat for management,” the report says.

Senyonjo, however, has a different take. He says welfare was a diaspora initiative started by NUP’s Boston Chapter. After the elections that ensured that Mr Museveni continues in power since 1986, he says, Kamwokya was manifestly uninterested in the diaspora continuing to mobilise funds to impact change in Uganda.

“Specifically, they told us -- via the team leader -- that it was not necessary to raise funds to support the legal team at a time when hundreds of National Unity Platform supporters were being abducted, maimed, and disappeared by the regime,” he says, adding that NUP’s Boston Chapter, nevertheless, decided not to abandon the victims.

“It mobilised funds to help the comrades and their families. When the secretary general [Rubongoya] learned of the Boston Chapter’s work, he requested that welfare be channelled through a designated person at the secretariat,” he says.

Leadership within NUP’s diaspora has been questioned, with Mr Ainebyoona, who replaced Ms Ameny, attracting most criticism. 

When Ainebyoona took over leadership, it is said he tried to be vindictive by sidelining Ameny from NUP activities, including ousting her from two WhatsApp groups that she had created for the “diaspora to connect, engage, strategise, plan, and collaborate”.

The committee, in its report, says  it did not find the weaknesses in the diaspora leadership to be attributed to Mr Ainebyoona as an individual, rather they say, there were structural weaknesses that were not empowering enough to any leader to be effective enough.

“The committee discovered that most of the current leaders were actually recruited and placed by Herman, a matter that is commendable. However, there was no formalisation of the appointments, which affected performance and, in some cases, the leader could disregard colleagues at leisure because there were no clear terms of reference,” the report says.

When the committee interfaced with Ainebyoona, the committee says, he indicated that he wanted to step down citing fatigue. He wanted to step down so that another person can take over from him.

“We recommend to the president [Mr Kyagulanyi] to honour Herman’s request to step down but maintain him in a leadership role that could be less demanding,” they wrote. “The committee recommends that he could be appointed as either president’s special envoy to the diaspora or an ambassador.”

How diaspora chapters voted 

Only three chapters recommended elections; Boston, Florida and the EU chapters, excluding Sweden, were in favour of elections.

Six chapters – Washington DC, Seattle, United Kingdom, Turkey, Sweden, and Minnesota – recommended a combination, meaning nominations to be made by the people but final appointments to be made by the president, while six chapters – South Africa, Canada, California, United Arab Emirates, Zambia and the Asian Chapters – recommended appointment.

Proposals

It was observed that the environment in which we operate, coupled with the nature of activities a party like ours engages in, makes it difficult to make the accounts and activities engaged in public. It is recommended that the leadership of the diaspora, once constituted, appoints three individuals from among their number, who would have access to all information relating to what funds raised by the diaspora has done. They would, in turn, make regular reports to the diaspora leaders without divulging any confidential information.

Welcome!

You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.