Political heirs come on stage but do they fit in the shoes?

Ms Beatrice Asire Mallinga, the widow of recently deceased Disaster Preparedness minister and MP for Butebo County Stephen Mallinga, wants to replace her husband. Ms Proscovia Alengot and Florence Andiru are already in the House after replacing dead father and Usuk County legislator Michael Oromait, and Butaleja Woman MP Cerinah Nebanda (sister to Andiru) respectively. PHOTOS BY ABUBAKER LUBOWA & G. Sseruyange.

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Carrying the leadership mantle. A new generation of political heirs that uses death as the launching pad for contesting elections has come on the stage


Beatrice Asire Mallinga, the widow of recently deceased Disaster Preparedness minister and MP for Butebo County Stephen Mallinga, has thrown the hat in the ring. Ms Beatrice Asire, a retired teacher, announced her intentions soon after her husband was entombed.

She is now one of the five NRM candidates nominated on Thursday to contest for the party primaries ahead of a by-election slated for June 06. Her announcement has undoubtedly reignited the debate on whether the country is headed to hereditary rule.

In the recent past, some family members have “inherited” parliamentary seats once held by their relatives, a development that Prof. Peter Kazenga Tibenderana, a political scientist, says is not peculiar to Uganda and is usually orchestrated by “a group of hangers-on who want to continue to benefit from the system”. “They do not like a member of a different family who may come with different people,” he said.

NRM deputy spokesman Ofwono Opondo reinforces this view – at least in the Ugandan context – saying elective politics is easily the most paying job attracting family members to ride on sympathy vote to access the huge pay cheque. “What is motivating those people is not politics but the attractive pay package. None of them who come on sympathy vote is making a mark,” he said.

Mr Opondo said most family members seeking to replace those who passed on, were doing no known jobs and their calling was not politics but they see a chance to make money. In Uganda’s recent past, it all seemed to have started in Busiro South Constituency in Wakiso District after the death of the area MP, Kiwanuka Musisi in 2005. His son Joseph Balikudembe sought to replace him and won the by-elections and today he still sits in Parliament. But he could have set a trend. Thus, when Rubaga South MP Ken Lukyamuzi conflicted with the law in relation to declaration of wealth and he was forced out of Parliament in 2005, he fielded his daughter Susan Nampijja as “a dangerous substitute”. She won the elections and was “care-taker MP” for five years from 2006 to 2011. In the next parliamentary elections in 2011, Mr Lukyamuzi bounced back to parliament while his daughter settled back to her private life.

The Kyadondo scenario
The trend again manifested in Kyandondo North Constituency when state minister for Agriculture Kibirige Sebunya passed on in 2008. The ruling NRM party picked his son Robert Kasule Sebunya to replace him. And when state minister for planning in the Finance ministry Prof. Omwony Ojwok died in 2007, his wife Florence Adong took over the Labwor County seat in Parliament.

In the eastern district of Busia, hereditary politics unfolded in Samia-Bugwe North Constituency after the area MP Stephen Mugeni lost his parliamentary seat in 2007 following an election petition by veteran politician Aggrey Awori. But in the by-election, Mr Mugeni fielded his wife Sarah Mugeni who kept the seat in the family. Following family squabbles, the wife now represents her home district of Kibuku as Woman MP while Martin Mugara also replaced his father as MP for Ntoroko County in 2011. His father had passed on in 2007.

It was the death of Usuk County MP Michael Oromait last year that generated heated discussion on hereditary politics after a section of NRM leaders in Teso sub-region identified his 19 year-old daughter Proscovia Alengot to replace him. The teenager, who now attends to her parliamentary work, constituency interests and academics at Uganda Christian University, had just completed A’ level education.

Before the Ms Alengot’s debate had died out, Butaleja District Woman MP Cerinah Nebanda died under controversial circumstances, forcing a big section of the public and her family to fault the state. But no sooner had Nebanda been buried than the family selected her elder sister Florence Andiru to inherit the parliamentary seat on NRM ticket.

It is therefore apparent that a new generation of political heirs that uses death as the launching pad for contesting elections has come on the stage. Prof. Tibenderana argues that the trend is on the rise because “our politics is not as democratic as it should be.” He said: “There is influence of money and it’s more common in the third world because of poverty.”

Asked why the ruling party supported family members to succeed, a senior NRM official responded: “People are looking for jobs.” And another political scientist, Dr Juma Okuku agrees. “They don’t join politics out of interest to serve people as it were but to remain on the gravy train of extracting resources from the public,” he said.

Gangster politics
Dr Okuku, a lecturer at Makerere University, told the Sunday Monitor that the focus to maintain freebies arose from what he described as “gangster” politics that seeks to maintain loyalty in places where such loyalty had died. Dr Okuku’s argument fits in with critics who often say political offices in the country were turning into areas for private accumulation of wealth.

“The drive is not to carry on the legacy of the previous leader but accessing free money. It is the urge and greed for money,” he said, adding: “The executive has interest in that kind of politics because that maintains majority following. Our democracy is shallow because in Uganda, there is only one man who decides.” But Prof. Tibenderana said hereditary rule should not be a big problem if such leaders belonged to a political party with a strong ideology, say like the Congress Party of India. “At the moment I am not sure whether we have one [party] with ideological strength,” he said.

The trend is growing though and so is the debate on whether the heirs actually fit in the shoes of their pathfinders. In the opposition Uganda Peoples Congress party, Ms Miria Obote, wife of ex-president Apollo Milton Obote, tried to fit in her husband’s shoes but retired soon after following internal political turbulence in the party that her husband had for decades managed to superintend. The late Obote’s son, Jimmy Akena also a family heir, largely rose to politics on the wave of his father. Now an MP for Lira Municipality, Mr Akena unsuccessfully tried to lead the UPC but lost out to former UN diplomat Olara Otunnu amid whispers that Mr Akena’s feet could be too small to fit in the shoes of the charismatic Obote.

Elsewhere, the rise of hereditary politics is attributed to the economic resources as well as the patronage networks or the social capital accumulated over time because of the position of their family that gives the heirs fairly easy access to prestige, politics and power.

Critics of President Museveni argue that he uses patronage as a power maintenance tool often appearing compassionate to the bereaved families. In cases where a member of the bereaved political family doesn’t show interest in an elective office, Mr Museveni usually appoints them to “eating” positions as is the case with Ms Angelina Wapakhabulo and Ms Elizabeth Ayume, wives to former Speakers of Parliament James Wapakhabulo and Francis Ayume respectively. Ms Wapakhabulo is Uganda’s High Commissioner to Kenya while Ms Ayume is Resident District Commissioner for Koboko.

Sometimes the President personally pledges to pay school fees of children and provide them with jobs. This partially explains the huge State house bursary scheme. Dr Okuku says faulting family members who join politics wouldn’t arise if the purpose of politics was clear “but our democracy is a pretense.” “Democracy is when there is respect of institutions and popular mandate,” he said, adding “the political class has messed up the country with a façade of democracy. So people are seeking political posts simply to remain ‘eating’ positions.”

In spite of the overflowing academic talent in the country, there is a dearth of political talent. Perhaps the lack of a level playing field is why the intellectuals are increasingly staying away from politics and leaving it to journeymen and women. Mr Opondo thinks hereditary approach is diluting politics as it undermines seasoned politicians who lose out due to sympathy votes. “Unfortunately we can’t fight it for now because we hide under one’s constitutional right to run for office,” he said.