The rise and fall of FDC

Dr Kizza Besigye

What you need to know:

  • How FDC, a party of experienced political actors, ended up in the same situation as DP and UPC, is something that will be discussed for many years to come.

Few developments in Ugandan politics have been as painful to witness as the split of the Opposition political party Forum For Democratic Change (FDC).

There have been similar splits into bickering factions in recent years in the two oldest parties, the Democratic Party (DP) and the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC).

But something about the FDC split feels particularly tragic.

Over the first 25 years of the National Resistance Movement’s (NRM) rule over Uganda, FDC was the first political organisation to emerge and infuse the population with a genuine sense of hope for a fresh start.

The party had much of the ideological conviction and determination that in many ways resembled the NRM of late 1985, just before it came to power.

From day one, FDC was a fully national organisation in character, drawing leaders and support from all four of Uganda’s regions.

Many of its founders had been eloquent and respected ideologues in the NRM before they departed it to found a new party in 2004.

The political pressure groups from which it originated, Reform Agenda and Parliamentary Advocacy Forum (PAFO), represented the thinking class, patriots, the more reasonable wing of NRM.

Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago

DP, the king-maker party
In all this, the role of DP over decades could be seen.

Since its brief time at the helm of power in 1961, DP was to become a constant force in Ugandan politics.

DP’s status was to become a political donor and source of reinforcement to other parties, a sort of political blood group O – donating to others but receiving none from any.

No Ugandan government or political party has been able to gain full legitimacy in the country without the DP first lending it support.

The defection from DP to UPC of the Leader of Opposition, Basil Bataringaya, along with most DP MPs in 1964, reinforced the UPC’s hold on power.

DP support for the new military government of Idi Amin in 1971 gave it much-needed legitimacy among the general public.

The heavy DP presence in the new UNLF government of Yusuf Lule in 1979 did likewise.

In 1982, several DP MPs from Busoga crossed over to the UPC government, broadening its reach beyond the 1980 General Election results.

DP’s joining the Military Council government of Gen Tito Okello in August 1985 transformed the recent coup makers from disgruntled, intellectually incoherent UNLA generals into a formal government.

DP leadership joining the new NRM government in 1986 likewise gave a stamp of legitimacy to Yoweri Museveni and his rag-tag National Resistance Army (NRA).

Following in this tradition, FDC in 2001 got a major infusion of support when the former Kampala mayor Nasser Sebaggala, a hugely popular DP figure in Kampala, threw his weight behind Kizza Besigye, the charismatic former minister of state, National Political Commissar, and personal doctor to the NRA leader Museveni.

Figures like Morris Ogenga Latigo and Samuel Odonga Otto, who later became leading FDC voices, were originally members of the DP.

With DP support behind it, FDC’s peak popularity came in late 2005.

That was when Besigye returned from exile in South Africa and declared his intention to run for the presidency in the 2006 General Election.

The mistreatment of Besigye by the NRM state, from the multiple re-arrests by the army to the bogus rape charges against him in 2006, attracted nationwide sympathy.

For the next 20 years, the FDC would hold the torch of hope for Ugandans who had grown disillusioned with the well-documented track record of corruption and human rights violations of the NRM government.

This central position, though, brought with it a weakness.

It gave FDC a sense of entitlement and when former prime minister Amama Mbabazi declared his presidential bid in 2015 and an umbrella coalition, The Democratic Alliance (TDA) coalesced around him, hardcore elements of the FDC felt their position challenged and resisted it.

The FDC argument was that Mbabazi was still an NRM supporter, he had made this clear, he had been part of the state machinery that tormented the FDC, and so they would have nothing to do with him.

Their suspicion was borne out when in recent years Mbabazi reconciled with Museveni.

Emergence of NUP
FDC’s biggest challenge came when a new political party called the National Unity Platform (NUP) was formed in late 2020.

FDC had become established and come to view itself as the dean of the Opposition, the custodian of the struggle against the NRM state.

After four unsuccessful attempts at the presidency in 2001, 2006, 2011, and 2016, many viewed Besigye in 2020 as a spent force and FDC’s inability to increase its parliamentary representation from the peak of 37 MPs in 2006 did not help matters.

A section of the population felt that a new group should be given a chance.

Here, DP’s historical role as the donor of political blood to political parties once again came into view.

Although NUP was stirring up the political landscape, it remained a motley of musicians, disgruntled and unemployed youth, and a few media personalities.

When a group of DP MPs, fed up with the tensions in their party, crossed over to NUP, they gave it the stability, experience, and respectability that the original People Power/NUP on its own lacked.

NUP’s rapid rise, starting in the important central region, stirred up both envy and resentment in FDC.

NRM-FDC marriage of convenience
The “wave” that saw NUP win overnight the support of the heavily populated Buganda and Busoga sub-regions presented a challenge both to NRM and FDC.

Both NRM and FDC were established parties keen to defend their influence and turf from encroachment, one as the ruling party and the other as the dominant Opposition party.

Mr Patrick Amuriat

If the rumours and reports of FDC president Patrick Amuriat and party secretary general Nathan Mafabi secretly receiving money from President Museveni are true, it would make sense.

NUP’s emergence forced the same alliance of convenience on FDC and NRM that 60 years earlier the emergence of the Catholic-majority DP forced on the Protestant-majority UPC and the pro-monarchy Buganda establishment at Mengo.

It was in NRM’s interest to see FDC counter NUP and obviously, it was in the FDC’s interest to work toward that end, even if that might mean receiving some funding from their bitter enemy.

Many felt that FDC’s reluctance to throw its weight behind NUP was disingenuous, given how willing DP had been in 2001 to put its interests aside and support Dr Besigye.

FDC’s rejection of TDA was understandable, given Mbabazi’s status as still belonging to the NRM.

It was harder to rationalise their reluctance to team up with NUP, a party with no connection to NRM which clearly represented the voice of the downtrodden people of the central region.

Be that as it may, FDC has now gone the way of UPC and DP before it.

It will now get bogged down in months, if not years, of legal action, with one faction of FDC taking action and another faction challenging it in court.

This back and forth of litigation and counter-litigation will deepen the bitterness in the party, sap its energy, and cause even more public loss of faith in it.

Museveni’s prophecy
How FDC party of experienced political actors ended up in the same situation as DP and UPC, is something that will be discussed for many years to come.

FDC’s plight is especially painful, given the 20 years its founders and leaders had invested in the struggle to challenge NRM.

They had endured imprisonment, trumped-up police charges, arrest of their members, raids on their offices, and much more.

They had heard President Museveni declare publicly that by 2021, there would be no more Opposition political parties left in Uganda.

They knew Museveni’s cunning mind and methods and had enough time to make sure his prophecy about 2021 did not come true.

For FDC -- having been given ample time and forewarning to put in place countermeasures against Museveni’s intrigue -- to still fail to act and eventually fall into the trap and fulfill Museveni’s prophesy, must be one of the greatest instances of collective incompetence in Ugandan history.

The FDC concentrated all its energy and resources on the removal of Museveni from power and neglected to actively work toward maintaining internal cohesion and resolution of conflicts and disagreements.

Most of all, it failed to act on the clear promise by its main adversary to cause its collapse.