Ugandan opposition figures Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine and Dr Kizza Besigye. PHOTO/FILE

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Soroti East by-election: Chance for forces of change to rekindle lost love

What you need to know:

  • By-election. The decision by the National Unity Platform (NUP) to back a Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) candidate in the imminent Soroti East by-election has been welcomed with relief in the Opposition ranks, but things don’t look so rosy for this alliance of convenience. 

On June 28, the National Unity Platform (NUP) issued what it termed as an expression of interest for four upcoming parliamentary by-elections in Gogonya County (Pallisa), Bukumbiri County (Kisoro), Busongora South (Kasese), and Soroti East (Soroti City). 

In the communication, Ms Mercy Walukamba, who heads NUP’s electoral management committee, wrote: “All members are requested to submit written applications to the party secretariat in Kamwokya or send them by email…”

She added: “All candidates are required to attach a copy of the party’s membership card, National ID, curriculum vitae and certified copies of academic qualifications.”

Ten days later, NUP released a statement, saying they won’t front a candidate in Soroti East as they would throw their weight behind Forum for Democratic Change’s (FDC) Moses Attan who the Court of Appeal had thrown out of Parliament on the account that the Electoral Commission (EC) had not properly demarcated boundaries within the constituency, consequently disenfranchising of 5,233 voters from both Aloet and Opiyai precincts.

“We have taken the decision not to field a candidate in the upcoming by-election for Soroti East constituency in Soroti City. As the National Unity Platform, we will back FDC candidate, Hon Moses Attan,” NUP wrote on its social media accounts. 

“Although we had very good potential candidates in Soroti, we are doing this in the broader interest of the unity of the forces of change. We believe that Hon Attan legitimately won the previous election which was interrupted by a court decision,” they added.

Soroti is crucial to FDC because even when its presidential candidate, Patrick Amuriat Oboi, came third in the 2021 presidential election, Soroti is one of the districts he won. But its city maintained its status as an Opposition bastion when it voted for the blue wall with Joshua Edogu being voted the first Soroti City mayor, Joan Alobo Acom becoming the city’s first parliamentary representative and Attan’s victory being the icing on the cake.

Away from the city, Soroti District also gave FDC a chance to reinvigorate itself when the youthful Anna Adeke Ebaju was elected woman MP. Adeke was later handed the position of FDC deputy president for eastern Uganda. 

“Soroti is so important to us because it’s the base of FDC in Teso Sub-region and eastern Uganda as a whole. The people of Soroti deserve clarity in leadership and representation and that’s why they choose FDC. The people of Soroti know FDC and that’s why they vote for it,” said FDC secretary for mobilisation Hassan Kaps Fungaroo. 

“Having a by-election in Soroti has always been a possibility since Attan lost in the High Court. We have been working hard to see that we cement FDC in Soroti,” Ms Adeke, who easily won the Soroti Woman MP seat, said in a recent interview. “In case of any by-election, we shall win it. That’s for sure.” 

When Walukamba released the statement, at that point it wasn’t clear which “good” candidate NUP had in mind but by not presenting candidate, it meant the Opposition would pull in the same direction by rallying around Attan who has against him Herbert Edmund Ariko, who stood as an Independent before fully embracing the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) after the elections. 

“Laudable decision, thanks comrades,” Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, who is FDC deputy president in-charge of the Buganda region, said. “Indeed, we’re stronger together. Synergy building amongst forces changes is the way to go. Aluta continua,” he added. 

On the face, it seemed the two Opposition parties out of goodwill were willing to work together to see that they defeat NRM that has been winning one by-election after the other, but it seems all is not well. 

Sources from FDC point out that NUP only decided to support Attan after they failed to entice Isaac Elakuna, an FDC member, who once served as deputy speaker of Soroti Municipality before it was turned into the city. 

“By the time NUP put up the announcement calling for candidates for Soroti East, they were already talking to Elakuna. He tried to test the ground but he found it very hostile so he chickened out. That’s why they decided to say they support FDC,” a source within FDC who preferred anonymity said.

FDC Party President Patrick Amuriat Oboi. PHOTO/FILE

Following last year’s elections in which NUP turned the Buganda region red in the so-called umbrella wave and won only two parliamentary seats outside (Jinja City Woman and Manjiya County), the party has been trying to change the narrative that it goes beyond Buganda. 

“We have [declaration of results] forms that show we performed well in the north, in Bugisu, in Bukedi, in Teso,” NUP’s secretary general Lewis Rubongoya says. “So, we have already done well in the north and this noise won’t deter us.”

However, in trying to flex its muscle beyond Buganda, NUP has been poaching FDC members and this was the case when they presented Simon Okecha Tolit for the Omoro by-election which was won by NRM’s Andrew Ojok Oulanyah who replaced his fallen father Jacob Oulanyah.

In Soroti East, the results last year saw Attan edge Ariko by a difference of 439 votes, but NUP’s underperformance in areas outside Buganda was exhibited in the race when Arnold Emachu got measly 86 votes.

“We believe that though their candidate was still around they choose to look out for one of our members who has already established himself in Soroti,” an FDC official, who preferred anonymity, says. “It seems instead of grooming their own, they are picking from our members who are disgruntled.” 

The campaigns which start next week will be brief as they do not last for more than six days, but NUP didn’t declare what its contribution will be in this race. 

“They have not written to us to show how they will support us,” Nathan Nandala Mafabi, FDC secretary general, says. “But you know this is a struggle and we are ready to work with anyone who is willing to work with us, but we shall not entertain people who are interested in media shows.” 

Historically, there’s a body of evidence that shows collaboration among Opposition parties has at times delivered results with many Opposition MPs, now household names, owing their first victories to Opposition unity. 

“When we genuinely work together in by-elections we can overcome challenges like imprisoning some of our agents, thwarting ballot paper stuffing, and the like,” Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda, the FDC spokesperson, says. “But working together for a common goal isn’t easy because human beings tend to have different motives.” 

In 2010, backed by all Opposition parties, Betty Nambooze Bakireke, then of Democratic Party (DP), was able to defeat arch-rival Rev Peter Bakuluba Mukasa for the Mukono North seat. Nambooze, who now represents Mukono Municipality which was carved out Mukono North, is now in her third full term in Parliament. 

DP’s Muhammad Muwanga Kivumbi (now NUP) in 2012, through a by-election, was able to beat NRM’s Faisal Kikulukunyu by a difference of 1,962 votes. 

Kivumbi, who is now shadow minister of finance, then was close to Dr Kizza Besigye, the founding FDC president who he considered one of his role models, but he lost to Kikulukunyu in the Youth MP (central region) race of 1998 and also the same person in the Butambala County race of 2011 which was cancelled by High Court and Court of appeal on grounds of bribery. 

Undermined

The spirit of working together, according to FDC officials interviewed, was undermined when People Power, which later morphed into NUP, emerged after the 2016 General Election.

The seeds of discord were sowed during the 2017 by-election in Jinja when then FDC member Paul Mwiru was battling NRM’s Nathan Igeme Nabeta. NUP activists were at the time accused of trying to hijack the campaign programme put in place by FDC honchos. 

“Mwiru was an FDC candidate, but NUP guys came and asked to run the affairs of the campaign,” an FDC official who preferred anonymity because he isn’t allowed to speak to the press said. 

Mwiru won the by-election, but he left with Mugisha Muntu and formed Alliance for National Transformation (ANT), but he couldn’t retain his seat in Parliament in the last elections. 

The relationship between People Power, or NUP, and FDC was dealt a final blow in the 2019 Hoima District Woman by-election. 

The seat fell vacant after Tophas Kaahwa Byagira resigned her post early in the year and opted to represent Kikuube District, which was carved out of Hoima District. FDC fronted Asinansi Nyakato who attracted support from ANT, DP and People Power, but still Opposition campaigns were marred by disorganisation, which FDC squarely blamed on the youthful outfit.

“They forced her [Nyakato] to put on a red beret. They advised her to campaign more in towns than in the villages. They told her to rely on big rallies than doing small rallies in village precincts. So other people in the villages didn’t know her,” an FDC official said.
With such confusion, Nyakato lost to NRM’s Harriet Businge by a difference of 4,512 votes. 

“They came from other regions to peddle lies but the people have said no. This is a confidence vote in NRM and our beloved President who has transformed Uganda,” Businge said. 

For the 2021 elections, Nyakato stood in Hoima City, still on the FDC ticket, and won despite NUP presenting its own candidate. 
“We think when we don’t have a lot of confusion and we are organised we get results.

So, working together is good, but they shouldn’t be coming with the spirit of showing superiority,” Walid Lubega Mulindwa, who leads FDC’s youth wing, says. “For us we are a grounded party. We are all over the country and we mentored leaders over time and we will continue to producing leaders who understand the party well.” 
While NUP has given up on the Soroti East race, they have dug in for the Busongora South race.

“I think they ceded Soroti East such that they can say why can’t FDC throw its weight behind us in Busongora,” a cynical FDC official said. “But as you know, Kasese is our backyard and we can’t just give it up easily just like that.”

In Busongora South, NUP went according to its playbook outside Buganda by poaching Jackson Mbaju, a former FDC Member.

In 2016, Mbaju was among the MPs that painted Kasese blue as the FDC swept Kasese not only at the parliamentary level but also local government. 

Yet by the time the five years elapsed Mbaju, who had fallen out with FDC leadership, lost in the FDC primaries to Alozious Baguma Kighima but he rejected the results and choose to stand as an Independent. 

Mbaju and Baguma lost to NRM’s Gideon Thembo Mujungu, but Court of Appeal has given them a second chance, with FDC eager to reclaim lost ground. But also NUP is being pushed by the need to show it can secure a victory outside Buganda. 

“NUP thank you for declaring support for Hon Attan in Soroti. But be prepared to do the same in Busongora South. Both areas are known to be FDC strongholds,” says Phillip Wafula Oguttu, an FDC official who formerly represented Bukooli Central in Bugiri District. 

Before Busongora South, FDC has to find ways of brushing off Ariko with Mike Mukula, NRM’s vice chairperson for eastern Uganda, who represented Soroti Municipality a few years ago, bragging about how he is going to propel NRM to victory. 

NRM’s juggernaut in the Teso Sub-region has been enhanced, with Speaker of Parliament Anita Among and Vice President Jessica Alupo leading the way.

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