Last weekend, a video in which the minister of State for Labour, Mr Mwesigwa Rukutana, was seen brandishing a riffle went viral. Hours later, he was arrested and charged with attempted murder, assault, malicious damage to property and threatening violence.
Mr Rukutana has been portrayed as the poster boy of the violence of the 2020 NRM primaries yet Ntungamo District has neither been the most violent nor the most fatal. There were more violent scenes and deaths in Namutumba and Isingiro districts. Disturbing developments one would say.
Given that this was the third time primaries were being held since the January 12, 2010, decision of the National Executive Committee (NEC) that introduced universal adult suffrage in the NRM party primaries, one would have expected the exercise to pan out better, but no! It turned out more violent than the previous ones. So what went wrong?
Culture of violence?
Former Jinja East MP David Babi Kamusaala, who quit politics in 2011 and is now a teacher of Psychology at Mbarara University of Science and Technology, thinks violence was the means by which NRM rose to power and remains, along with other undemocratic tendencies such as repression and narrowing the political space, the means by which it has retained power.
“The culture of the use of violence seems to be entrenched in its DNA that it is impossible for it to conduct any business without a recourse to violence. One cannot, therefore, expect it (NRM) as a party to ever have violence-free and controversy-free elections whether it is in the primaries or in a national election,” argues Dr Kamusaala.
He says there was, for example, no cause for it to turn violent during the 1996 elections, but violence was still meted out.
Coming 10 years after it took power and a decade of vilification of other parties, which were associated with the atrocities blamed on the Milton Obote II regime, Dr Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, Mr Museveni’s main challenger, never stood any realistic chance of winning.
Dr Ssemogerere had neither the resources nor nationwide network that would have been required to converse support in a 39-day campaign period to beat an opponent who had a few months prior to the election carried out a nationwide campaign under the guise of popularising a poverty eradication programme, the Entandikwa Scheme, through which communities were to be provided with soft loans from what was meant to be some kind of revolving fund.
Mr Museveni also enjoyed the advantage of incumbency and privileges such as the use of a presidential helicopter.
As Mr William Muhumuza pointed in the paper, ‘Money and Power in Uganda’s 1996 elections’ which was published in the African Journal of Political Science, “(the) candidate was disadvantaged right from the start. The electoral law and history were simply not on his side”.
That, however, did not stop the Movement honchos from launching a scare campaign that featured a picture of skulls and bones besides a mass grave in Luweero, and stoning Ssemogerere and beating up his supporters and agents, especially in parts of western Uganda.
More acts of violence were witnessed during the 2001 general election which has since gone down as one of the most violent elections in Uganda’s history. There was more violence in the 2006, 2011 and 2016 general elections.
The leader of the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT), Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, has often times argued that “one cannot give what he/she does not have”. Given such a background of violence, one would be inclined to believe that it would be foolhardy to expect the NRM to give a violence-free election at intraparty or interparty levels because it does not have better than it is offering.
However, Prof Sabiiti Makara, who teaches Political Science at Makerere University, disagrees with Dr Kamusaala’s conclusions.
“NRM as a party does not believe in the use of violence, but some individuals in the NRM believe that use of violence is a legitimate means of getting and retaining power,” Prof Makara says.
The biggest talking point in all the chaos that has bedevilled the NRM primaries since October 2010 has been the party’s register.
During the January 2010 National Executive Council meeting, then party secretary general Amama Mbabazi announced that commissioners of the NRM electoral commission (EC) and district party officials had been trained in election management, and among others, registration of members and management of the register.
The training was meant to have been rolled out to the sub-counties and villages in February that year, but it was never to be.
The party was ultimately compelled to rely on active elected politicians in the party structure to provide registrars – who were mostly their supporters. In other cases, Gombolola Internal Security Officers (GISOs) were used to identify people to carry out the registration of party members, but some GISOs were allied to some political camps in their areas of jurisdiction. The two scenarios drew protests but the complaints were never addressed.
In July 2010, a group of NRM MPs led by Mr Henry Banyenzaki petitioned the President for a special sitting of the NRM parliamentary caucus to discuss matters related to the registration exercise, which they described as lacking in transparency and impartiality.
They claimed the exercise had been marred by lots of discrepancies, including the registration of ghost members, names of strangers and deliberate omission of some of the party’s supporters.
The petitioners also contested the disputed figure of nine million subscribers, saying it was grossly exaggerated. The party’s deputy spokesperson then, Mr Ofwono Opondo, had indicated that nine million included eligible voters and others below the official voting age. The party never addressed itself to the issues that Mr Banyenzaki raised.
There were attempts to clean up the register ahead of the 2015 primaries, but the complaints about an inflated register persisted.
Museveni’s controversial directive
Then came the decision that voting would be by lining up and that those whose names were not on the register could be registered instantly and allowed to vote.
“All members of NRM whose names appear on the register shall be allowed to vote. Any NRM member whose name is not on the party register shall be immediately added to the register and permitted to vote if the person is 18 years and above and if the branch (village) executive committee has verified that the person is a member of NRM,” Mr Museveni directed.
Prof Godfrey Asiimwe, who teaches Development Studies at Makerere University, believes that the order by the President was responsible for the massive rigging that was characterised by multiple and underage voting.
There has also been talk that supporters of the Opposition were encouraged to take advantage of Mr Museveni’s directive to vote against strong NRM candidates in order to hand the Opposition weak opponents. The State minister for Investment, Ms Evelyn Anite, who lost to Dr Charles Ayume, has been peddling that argument.
“The register has always been a problem. But the abrupt opening up by the party chairman simply did not help. The total number of votes was in so many cases much higher than the total number of residents of a village! That register needs to be cleaned up,” Prof Asiimwe says.
More Independent candidates on the way
The LC5 chairperson of Kamuli District, Mr Thomas Kategere, who contested the Bugabula South primaries in Kamuli, and Mr David Zijan, who contested in Butembe County in Jinja, among others who lost in the primaries around the country, have since declared their intention to contest in the general election as Independent candidates.
This Parliament has 66 Independent MPs, a majority of them NRM-leaning, but Prof Makara expects the number to increase.
“Many NRM members who contested in the 2015 primaries and lost later contested in the general election and won because the exercise was unfair. I anticipate that even now, many of those who were declared losers will contest as Independents because the process was unfair. There was use of money, the army was deployed and then Mr Museveni’s announcement which was contrary to the rules of any party because every party has a register,” Prof Makara argues.
Issues around the register have been around the NRM for more than 10 years now. What is it about that register that has made it impossible for it to be sorted? How much more chaos and death will it take to fix it? Or does the party simply lack the organisational capacity to deal with it?
Mr Mike Mukula, the NRM vice chairman for eastern Uganda, points an accusing finger in the direction of former secretary general Mbabazi and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The party register would not have been a problem. Mr Amama Mbabazi did not hand in the original register when he was leaving, so the party had to compile a new register, which would have been finished had covid-19 not broken out. Many of the programmes, including the training of electoral officials, were suspected as a result of that,” Mr Mukula said.
Capacity of EC
The shambolic primaries have rekindled debate about the integrity and loyalty of officials that are entrusted to run the elections on behalf of the NRM.
The public has in some instances been surprised that a person who they knew had lost, on account of the numbers on their lines, turned out to have been declared winner.
In other cases those who were said to have been disqualified would be reinstated and subsequently be declared winners.
There are also questions about the abilities and capacity of the Tanga Odoi-led NRM EC. Some of the members think it is too ill-equipped and underfunded to run such a gigantic and nationwide exercise. Others actually accuse it of bias.
But Mr Crispin Kaheru, the former coordinator of the Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy (CCEDU), a coalition of more than 800 civil society organisations and individuals advocating for electoral democracy in Uganda, thinks it has done very well under the circumstances.
“In the context of an overbearing chairman, the Odoi commission can only do as much (as it has done),” Mr Kaheru argues.
Lack of clarity
What Mr Museveni sought to achieve in issuing the controversial directive is not yet clear. Mr Mukula thinks he is trying to take the NRM to a higher level of participatory democracy, but others like Mr Daudi Migereko, a former Cabinet minister and MP for Butembe, who quit elective politics after he lost the 2015 primaries, says it is turning out to be too costly.
“Members of the NRM are subjected to two elections in the same year. By the time the general election comes up, the candidate is broke. That would have been a source of trouble if the Opposition had been better organised,” Mr Migereko says.
Mr Kaheru argues that the directive points to a lack of knowledge on the depth and extent of support that the party enjoys at this point in time.
“The party does not seem to be clear on who their members are and indeed who can or cannot vote in the party elections. That is a big loophole that is being exploited by various forces and interests. Technically, the party needs to put in place mechanisms for a clean and accurate voters’ register. It should also lay emphasis on knowing its members,” Mr Kaheru says.
There is no doubt that the image of the party has taken quite a beating from the mayhem that characterised the primaries, but Mr Mukula is optimistic things will turn out for the better.
“We are in an unfortunate and regrettable position, but the NRM will perfect and work better,” Mr Mukula says.
Mr Mukula made a similar statement 10 years ago following the 2010 primaries and things never got better. One hopes that they will this time round do so.