Mao pulls DP out of frying pan and throws it straight into the fire

DP president general Norbert Mao addresses journalists at Parliament after being vetted for the post of Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs. PHOTO/ PARLIAMENT

What you need to know:

  • NRM-DP agreement. On the account of spending decades stumbling from one crisis to another, the Democratic Party (DP) had been pejoratively christened ‘Dead Party’, but with the forming of an alliance with the ruling NRM, which was announced this week by DP president general Norbert Mao and NRM supremo Yoweri Museveni, Derrick Kiyonga writes that the party could finally be extinct. 

Whenever a youthful Norbert Mao would look into a mirror, he would see a president not just for the Makerere University students guild – where he was a prominent law student in the 90s – or his political party Democratic Party (DP), but the President of Uganda.
Earlier on, it seemed he was on the right trajectory when in 1990 he beat Noble Mayombo, who had just emerged from the Luweero jungles, to become Makerere’s guild president.
Then 21 years later, albeit under contentious circumstances, Mao became DP’s president general, which he hoped he would use as a springboard to oust President Museveni, who came to power when the former as an idealistic 19 year old.

Nevertheless, in the intervening years, Mao, and by extension DP, has been pushed to the periphery of Uganda’s politics in the process of giving up his dream of leading Uganda, and on July 20, he delivered what could be the final nail in the coffin of his not only his career as an Opposition politician, but also that of the party by penning onto paper an agreement with Mr Museveni.
“I met with Democratic Party president Norbert Mao at State House Entebbe. We signed a cooperation agreement between the NRM and the DP. I salute the DP leadership for this gesture of mature, foresighted, and constructive politics,” said Museveni in a brief tweet.
Though Uganda’s politics is extremely polarised, Mao has lately taken on a statesmanship posture and this is a message he conveyed after signing the deal with Museveni that he called “unprecedented”.
“This is a continuation of the journey which was started before we were born,” Mao, who was sporting a black suit and a green tie - the colour of the DP - told Museveni. 

DP president Norbert Mao (centre) addresses party supporters at the 2015 delegate’s conference in Bwebajja on Entebbe Road.  PHOTOS/ FILE

“You have a historical opportunity to gather patriots that are scattered all over Uganda. You must look for them wherever they are. They are in all political parties. These are things that I believe will be enjoyed most by unborn children. They might thank you when you are not around,” Mao, who spent 10 years in Parliament representing then Gulu Municipality, said.
While Mao’s message was futuristic, Museveni took the opportunity to remind everybody of what has become of the oldest party in Uganda he claims to have been a member of in his youth.  
“You know the history. I keep telling you that DP without Museveni is not a serious group because I was a very active member of the DP,” he said.
Seven years ago, Museveni conveyed a similar message by characterising the party that produced Uganda’s first prime minister in Benedicto Kiwanuka, and claim to have been cheated during the 1980 General Election that prompted Museveni to start a guerrilla war, as stunted by nothing to offer.
“I joined DP in 1960, but I quit in 1970 because I saw it was going nowhere. They are still where I left them,” Museveni took a jibe at the party in 2015.

Museveni‘s words could have been undiplomatic, but for a party that won 50 seats out of the 126 available seats and just came short of upending Milton Obote’s plan to return to power during the 1980 general election, DP was able to get only nine MPs out of the available 529 seats in the 11th Parliament, and yet in the 10th Parliament the party had 15 seats.
Over time, DP’s desire to show political strength has been undermined by infighting over the sensitive position of secretary general, who runs the party.
In 2008, when John Ssebaana Kizito was the party president general, former Bukoto South MP Mathias Nsubuga, who has since passed on, was controversially elected secretary general at a shadowy motel in Rubaga, Kampala, during an impulsive national council meeting that lasted less than one hour with many members left out and those who managed to make it were notified on short notice by text message on phone.

When Nsubuga, whose tenure was marred by fights over the legality of his election, died at the end of 2016, DP’s members were eager to find his replacement as the party’s secretary general, but Mao told them to “shut up” and declared how they couldn’t find a replacement since they would be mourning for a year.
But as he was saying that, his administration went ahead to unveil Gerald Siranda, who is expected now to make it to the East African Legislative Assembly (Eala) following the agreement with the ruling NRM and he accompanied his boss to sign the deal at the State House Entebbe, as secretary general.
Siranda, who at the time was the deputy secretary general, acted in the capacity of his departed boss pending elections after a year, a move that immediately elicited a rejection from across-section of DP intransigents.
“They are not fighting Siranda, they are fighting me. Let them come and say they don’t have confidence in me because it is me who asked Siranda to act for a year. I will offer them the opportunity to fill two vacancies; that of president general and secretary general,” Mao said.

Mao’s grip on the leadership was always weakened by the fashion in which he clinched the party’s top position at the 2010 DP Mbale delegates’ conference.
DP has always been looked at with two stereotypes: That it is dominated by Catholics and Baganda. To solve this, in 2005 the party elected Ssebaana, an Anglican, as its president general, replacing Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, a Catholic.
With the 2011 elections beckoning, Ssebaana, a Muganda, indicated that he wanted to retire from Uganda’s murky politics and the party’s planners hatched a plan to replace him with Mao, an Acholi, which would help in banishing the stereotype that Baganda can’t allow any other ethnic group to lead DP.

The delegates’ conference organised in the eastern city of Mbale ran into trouble with many senior party members saying it was a predetermined process and the divisions have since ripped the party apart.
Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, who has since joined the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party but at the time was DP’s legal adviser; Mukono Municipality MP Betty Nambooze, who joined National Unity Platform (NUP) last year but at the time was the DP’s mouthpiece; and Dr Michael Lulume Bayiga, put up a no show.  
Even historical DP members Ssemogerere, and Prof Fredrick Ssempebwa, warned Ssebaana against proceeding with the Mbale meet without addressing the concerns of party members.

“We once again appeal to you in the interest of our party and of our country to reconsider the unilateral courses of action you are taking under your separate forums, no matter how justified you might feel, and work for a meaningful way out of the prevailing crisis,” they wrote in the letter.
Mao easily beat Nasser Ntege Sebaggala, then Kampala Mayor, to become both DP president general and the party’s candidate for the 2011 presidential elections. Mao rejected the bid to join the Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC) – a loose coalition of Opposition parties that would back FDC’s Kizza Besigye in the elections.
His stance led to another fallout with DP members such as Lukwago, Nambooze, Medard Lubega Sseggona (Busiiro East MP), and Muhammad Muwanga Kivumbi (Butambala County MP) who went on to form a pressure group they dubbed Ssubi 2011 and they backed Besigye, incensing Mao who came third in the elections having polled 147,917 votes. 
Within the four years of being DP’s leader, Mao didn’t carry out reforms that could have allowed the mending of fences with Lukwago and his lieutenants.
As the 2016 elections were nearing, he called a delegates’ conference in Katomi Kingdom Resort for intra-party elections, but many senior party members led by Lukwago snubbed it and instead hosted a parallel meeting in the central district of Luweero.
At the heart of Lukwago’s disagreement with Mao is the manner in which grassroots elections to pick delegates in the Katomi conference was conducted.
In parts of Buganda, for instance, they were marred by allegations of rigging, while in some areas, they did not take place at all, bringing into question the eligibility of some delegates.
Lukwago also wanted an independent committee to organise the delegates’ conference, not the Mao-led national executive committee, which he said was biased since it had no electoral commission. 

Ever obstinate, Mao shrugged off their concerns saying they hate him because he is not a Muganda and he went ahead with a delegates’ conference in which he was returned as DP president, but he couldn’t stand for the 2016 elections as an MP in Gulu as he had planned because he had no national identity card, a key requirement in elections.
At the end of 2016, there were ominous signs that NRM had started to tacitly work with DP when Museveni appointed DP senior member Florence Nakiwala Kiyingi, who had lost her bid to become Kampala Woman MP to then Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) candidate Nabilah Naggayi Sempala, as minister for Youth and Children Affairs in his new Cabinet, but Mao’s executive didn’t move to expel her.


In 2017, former Jinja mayor Muhammad Baswale Kezaala resigned from DP position as national chairman following his appointment as an ambassador by Museveni, but still his membership never came under question. Nakiwala later officially joined NRM but lost her bid to become Bukomansimbi Woman MP.
But with hindsight, DP’s covert and overt dealings with NRM can be traced to 2012 when there were rumblings over Eala seats within the Opposition.
FDC, which was the biggest Opposition party in Parliament at the time, urged DP and Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) to boycott the elections, citing NRM’s breach of Article 50 of the East African treaty.

But the unity FDC was calling for was never achieved after NRM dispatched emissaries to talk to Mbidde, at the time DP’s chief legal advisor, and he was he voted to EALA. 
When Mbidde met up with NRM’s emissaries, they convinced him that his Eala seat would be assured if he ignored FDC’s call for a boycott. With an assurance of support from the ruling party, Mao asked Nsubuga to dispatch a letter to the Clerk to Parliament, endorsing Mbidde as DP’s candidate for Eala.
The thrust of DP’s argument was that it was better to work with NRM which has the majority in Parliament, than to side with FDC which is pushing for a boycott that was apparently likely to fail.   
While the 2012 operation was covert, in 2017, Mbidde overtly joined Museveni who was presiding over the NRM’s Liberation Day celebrations in the western district of Masindi in a charm offensive aimed at getting blessings for a second term in the East African parliament.   
Museveni exploited the opportunity to divide DP into two clusters: good DP, which he said works with his NRM, and the bad DP which he said was disobliging. 

Former DP leaders Mathias Nsubuga (L), Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere (R) with current president Norbert Mao (2nd R).

“There are the Mbidde’s who are good because they work with Mr Museveni, but there are also the bad ones like me who don’t work with him,” MP Nambooze, who at the time was a DP member, said. 
The emergency of NUP led by singer-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi in 2020, which Mao had dismissed as a reincarnation of Kabaka Yekka –  a Ganda pro-monarchist party which formed an alliance of convenience with UPC then headed by Milton Obote in 1962 – dealt DP final blow and perhaps accelerated Mao’s move to join Museveni’s government.
Over the years, DP’s base had been limited to Buganda region but when NUP merged, most of the incumbent MPs in the central region moved and joined the newly formed party, but Mao was still defiant, saying DP will surprise its critics by either increasing or maintaining the 15 MPs it had in Parliament and, most interestingly, he said if it doesn’t happen he would resign.

NUP swept Buganda by putting 50 parliamentary seats in the region in the red column, while DP got seven seats from the region, but Mao went back on his word and refused to step down.  
“Everyone is eager to see me resigning,” Mao, who got less than one per cent in the 2021 elections, said at a press conference last year. 
“But that will never happen because I abandoned that promise long before the 2021 elections; the moment I made that pronouncement, I was approached by those who genuinely love DP and I was told not to repeat such a statement.”   
Though he is now Museveni’s aide, while sometimes maintaining that his still part of the opposition, for the last few months Mao has ironically been obsessed with attacking NUP accusing the party of being the creation of the NRM. 
“We thought we would work together but we didn’t know these people were working with elements within NRM,” Mao told NTV earlier this year. “That’s why I have called out NUP for being an NRM project. If NRM is honest NUP shouldn’t be on the register of political parties because they have a fake constitution. They didn’t have a delegates’ conference: all the people who were elected on NUP should become independents.” 
Though Mao claimed that the deal he signed with Museveni is unprecedented, UPC the second oldest party in Uganda, signed the same deal before the 2016 general election.

Just like Mao who has got a docket in the Cabinet, Museveni was generous to UPC when he awarded Betty Amongi, who is the wife of UPC faction president Jimmy Akena, to the Ministry for Lands, Housing, and Urban Development and during this term she was transferred to Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development.  
It’s said Mao kept his negotiation with Museveni a top secret and it has left DP MPs in limbo and their next move would be interesting.
“We are not told about anything,” Bayiga, the Buikwe South MP, said. “We didn’t know about those meetings.”  
Lukwago, now FDC vice president, in his apparent obituary to his former political party, twitted:  “Kitalo nnyo (so sad)!! Born in 1954 and...”