Is NUP on a self-preserving mission?

What you need to know:

  • Strategy. With government deciding to do nothing about the galloping prices of essential commodities and fuel, a section of the Opposition has called for protests, but the National Unity Platform (NUP), Uganda’s leading Opposition outfit in Parliament, has shunned the protests, a move some see as a self-preservation tactic.

On May 31, Flavia Nabagabe Kalule, the leader of the National Unity Platform’s (NUP) women’s league, made an appearance at the magistrate’s court known as Law Development Centre (LDC), in Kampala.

In the dock were a group of  Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) activists – Anna Ebaju   Adeke, the Soroti Woman Member of Parliament (MP); Doreen Nyanjura, the Kampala Deputy Lord Mayor; Margaret Wokuli Madanda, Susan Nanyonjo, Mariam Kizito, and Alice Amongi – who were charged with inciting violence after they were arrested for protesting against the increase in prices of essential commodities and the incarceration of founding FDC president Kizza Besigye who, too, was arrested in downtown Kampala while calling for protests against government’s decision to do nothing about inflation.

Although she is a female leader, Ms Kalule, who didn’t participate in the protests which were largely dominated by women, said she was in court to give the arrested female activists moral support.
“This morning I attended court at LDC, standing in solidarity with comrade sisters and others who were arrested for demonstrating over the hiked commodity prices. Unfortunately, they were denied bail and the case was adjourned to June 7, at 10am,” said Ms Kalule, who doubles as the Kassanda Woman MP.

Ms Kalule’s boss, Leader of Opposition in Parliament Mathias Mpuuga, was this week directly pressed by journalists at a press conference on why NUP activists haven’t participated in protests that are championed by Dr Besigye under the ‘Red Card Movement’, and the response was that they had done their part in Parliament.

“We issued the statement in Parliament on behalf of our party relating to the running away of prices on essential goods. But the regime hasn’t considered anything. We asked them to cut on high taxes and to turn down their appetite for expenditure, but nothing has been considered,” said Mr Mpuuga, who is the MP for Nyendo-Mukungwe, further shifting the burden to Ugandans who he said should be triggered to raise up since the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) has ignored their concerns.

“Ugandans should rise up against bad governance and stop questioning what Opposition leaders are doing,” Mr Mpuuga insisted.

“Stop questioning why we have not joined. Don’t wait for [Robert] Kyagulanyi to do anything, do it yourself. Kyagulanyi is a leader, equally, you’re a leader in your own capacity because you head a family that is constrained. We want to invite fellow citizens to be alive. It is a matter of time. If you want to change it tomorrow, you will have it tomorrow. I want to invite you to participate in every activity that will quicken the new Uganda. Citizens we want to invite you to participate. All of us have a duty and that duty must be played by everyone who feels affected, who feels offended by the going-ons in the country.”

Mr Joel Ssenyonyi, NUP’s spokesperson, had a similar view when asked about his party’s decision not to take part in protests.
“We have said before: It’s not about us. Anybody can take part in protests. This should be about Ugandans, not us,” Mr Ssenyonyi, who represents Nakawa West in Parliament, said. “We have participated in protests before and some people refused to participate.”

Though Mpuuga isn’t openly backing protests, when prices rose steeply in 2011 he was named the coordinator of a pressure group labelled Activists for Change (A-4-C) which championed protests which were violently crushed by security agencies, but still Dr Besigye, who had just rejected the outcome of the presidential election, came out as the poster boy.

Stamping authority

NUP stamped its authority over the politics of the Kampala metropolitan area and was expected to take a lead in protests since skyrocketing prices normally affect the poor town-dwellers who voted for them.

“They failed the first test in the first two months after the elections. They had momentum with them after the elections to lead protests that would have put this government in a very tight position but they choose not to lead,” Yusuf Serunkuma, a Makerere University-based political theorist who has done research about NUP, said.

“Remember NUP MPs were not voted for because they know policy, because even those who voted for them didn’t know them. They voted for them because the voters wanted them to confront the government.”

Bobi Wine addresses his supporters in downtown Kampala during protests against social media tax in July 2018. PHOTO/FILE

Before NUP morphed from People Power, they protested against government’s move to introduce over-the-top (OTT) tax.
But it seems the party had to reconsider the idea of protesting when security operatives killed more than 50 people in November 2020 while quelling protests following the arrest of NUP’s principal Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, popularly known as Bobi Wine, who was on the presidential campaign trail in the eastern district of Luuka.

“These illegal arrests and abductions do not only have an impact on us as leaders but also on the population generally. By the time we went to the polls in January 2021, people were subdued.

People voted and their votes were robbed in broad daylight,” David Lewis Rubongoya, NUP’s secretary general, told Observer newspaper last year.

“Bullied by the events of November 2020 in which regime operatives opened fire and killed people in broad daylight, people were scared to come out and protest. It became clear to the people that we are not dealing with a civil person at all.

Remember people were not armed. So, if unarmed people are killed every time they protest, definitely that has an impact on them.” 

The move to slap murder charges on MPs Muhammad Ssegirinya and Allan Ssewanyana, who have spent months in jail, also seemed to have played a role in breaking the backs of NUP leaders.

“You have to think about your family because you have seen what has happened to your colleagues. They have been in jail over trumped-up charges,” a NUP MP who represents one of the nine constituencies that make up Kampala District said on condition of anonymity.

Police re-arrested Ssegirinya and Ssewanyana on September 7, 2021, in Masaka District shortly after they secured bail from the chief magistrate’s court. They were slapped with additional charges of terrorism, aiding and abetting terrorism, murder, and attempted murder, and remanded to Kigo Prison.

The charges stem from their alleged involvement in the Greater Masaka Region machete killings, which claimed the lives of more than 20 people between July and September 2021.

Change of strategy

With protests not looked at as an alternative to bringing about change, NUP has instead focused purely on activities that are less confrontational like participating in by-elections as they lay the groundwork for the 2026 General Election.

“The only part of Uganda that I have not gone to is western Uganda. We have been to the rest of the country building our structures. We have been to the east, north and here in central reorganising ourselves because the regime had bribed some of our mobilisers,” said Jeremiah Keeya Mwanje, a NUP councillor at Kampala City Hall who is charged with training the party’s cadres.

“I have been telling them what NUP is all about. For instance, our ideology and how they can recruit other people into the party.” 

NUP’s strategy of not engaging the State as they prepare for the next election sounds problematic to some people within Opposition.

Mr Samuel Walter Lubega Mukaaku, who has been Dr Besigye’s right-hand man in the protests, insists that looking at the next elections has always been a mistake Opposition commits without learning lessons.

“It’s not the first time you heard of that. You remember when FDC was leading Opposition and some within that party were saying the focus should be on building party structures and self-preserve rather than engaging in protests?” Mr Mukaaku, who was one of the early backers of Mr Kyagulanyi’s political career, explained. “You recall the [Jimmy Akena-led UPC faction] Akenas were saying that what the [former UPC president Olara] Otunnus were doing was wrong. Has it worked? And where have they finally ended up?” 

Mr Mukaaku believes that with NUP not engaging in street activism they have abandoned the People Power ideology. 
“You know we used to say even if the man [President Museveni] remains in power we shall continue to harass him because we knew that Bobi had the x-factor. Even if you want to challenge for the election you have to look at other socio-economic phenomena,” Mr Mukaaku says.  

“You are saying you are self-preserving, what if you create a void that should be filled by someone. You can’t leave government to do as it pleases because you are the Opposition. You must challenge it in all angles, including on the streets.”  
Another narrative that perhaps NUP leaders could be fine with is that they don’t have to copy and paste what Dr Besigye is doing. 
“They should engage the State. They don’t have to do what Dr Besigye does because there are many ways through which a political party can engage. So the question is, are they really engaging?” Mr Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a political historian at Makerere University, asks.

Mr Mpuuga’s narrative that NUP has done its role through Parliament, according to Mr Ndebesa, is insufficient.  
“Parliament can’t be enough. As a party you can come up with many ways, whether it’s writing in papers, whether it’s through press conferences, whether it’s through public interest litigation,” Mr Ndebesa says. “You can’t say Parliament is effective enough because it’s dominated by the ruling party. They need to devise means of engaging even if it’s not participating in protests like Besigye.”

Military Police puts out a fire on a Kampala street during protests against the arrest of Bobi Wine in 2020. At least 54 people were killed during the November protests. PHOTO/FILE

Though Mwambustya insists that NUP has options outside protests, Serunkuma doesn’t agree. 

“There are two kinds of Opposition politicians: There are those who are ordinary, they do normal things like chairing accountability committees. They speak well in Parliament and that is it,” Serunkuma says. 

“There are those like Dr Besigye who do extraordinary things like pushing government to the edge. They are ever on the streets and engaging in civic protests to see that government changes or attends to the needs of the people. At the moment, people need more of the Besigyes than the other group.”

It seems NUP has been caught between a rock and hard place since deciding to join Besigye-led protests would mean they have ceded Opposition leadership as he is trying to reinvent himself.    
“Nature hates vacuums. If NUP’s interest is self-preservation then they are creating a vacuum which will be filled by another person,” Mr Mukaaku explains, a narrative Serunkuma agrees with. 

“If Dr Besigye gets out of jail and protests again. Then he is arrested and then he rejects expensive bail. He is released on his terms and he protests again, people will forget about Bobi Wine. The problem is that NUP has preferred to do simple things as they wait for the 2026 elections which we all know will be rigged.”
The notion that Opposition will restrict itself to Parliament has been dismissed by Dr Besigye’s allies who want more street battles as a way of bringing about change. 

“Parliament for some time had a conversation on rising prices. A ministerial statement was issued, nothing more than that. When Dr Kizza Besigye and the Red Card Movement took the issue to the public, a presidential address was prepared. Folks, they have the guns but you have the power,” Ms Adeke said before she started protesting on the streets en route to jail.