What you need to know:
- As has happened many times before, leading Opposition politicians widely admired by the public who cross over to NRM or enter into an agreement with the ruling party sign their own political death sentence, and Mr Norbert Mao will not be different.
On July 20, the president of the Democratic Party (DP), Mr Norbert Mao, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) at State House with the chairman of the National Resistance Movement (NRM), Mr Yoweri Museveni, who is also the President of Uganda.
Museveni and Mao emphasised that the MoU is a working agreement and not a political merger or alliance.
The next day, apparently as part of the MoU, President Museveni appointed Mao the new minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, a Cabinet position that had remained vacant since the 2021 General Election.
The development made news, although most media analysts and politicians said they were not surprised. For many years now, there had been rumours that Mao was secretly working with or for Museveni.
This was the cause of the tension within DP between Mao and several vocal DP Members of Parliament at the time, including Betty Nambooze, Muwanga Kivumbi, and Medard Sseggona, who accused Mao of being a “mole”.
Mao angrily hit back, saying he was the victim of tribalistic DP heavyweights who viewed DP as a party meant to be headed by Baganda and who refused to accept the legitimacy of Mao, an Acholi, as president.
Mao himself spent most of last week fending off criticism and mocking laughter from DP voices and attacks from the general public.
DP, Uganda’s oldest-surviving political party founded in 1954, was once the most dominant party in Uganda and a mainstay in Uganda’s politics.
News flash: Museveni has Mao-ed us all
It won the first general election in 1961 called to lead Uganda toward self-government and for the next 44 years until 2005, would remain the second-largest political party by parliamentary representation.
In 2020, with tensions deepening in the party between Mao and restive MPs from Buganda, most of these vocal MPs defected and joined the newly-formed party, National Unity Platform (NUP).
It was these former DP MPs who gave NUP the credibility and respectability it needed to cast off its image as one of “ghetto” roots and formed around the marginalised, poorly-educated and low-income, mostly Baganda supporters.
NUP, according to the official results of the 2021 election, became the second-largest party in Parliament to NRM and formed the main Opposition.
For various reasons, NUP directly supplanted DP because it drew most of its initial support and parliamentary numbers from DP stronghold of Buganda. In short, NUP relegated DP to political irrelevance and might have been the force that finally finished off the old party. DP currently has only nine MPs, while NUP has 59. That was the scale of the NUP victory, a party formed just five months before the 2021 election.
The question is: why would Museveni take the trouble of co-opting DP at a time it was politically diminished? The answer lies in the impact of NUP on national political life.
For the two decades before Uganda’s independence in 1962, the central region of Buganda had emerged as the political centre of the country.
The earliest expressions of organised political parties were in Buganda and the first-ever formal political party, Uganda National Congress, formed in 1952, was led by a Muganda, Ignatius Musaazi.
This, in addition to the fact that Kampala was the seat of the national government, Uganda’s capital was originally Entebbe and in 1962, became Kampala, and Kampala was also the main commercial centre of Uganda, put Buganda solidly at the heart of national political life.
No government, colonial or post-independence, could claim legitimacy if it was not supported by Buganda or at least did not in some way accommodate Buganda.
Whenever Buganda fell out with the central government, be it in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1980s or 2000s, a political crisis and high sense of uncertainty befell Uganda.
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This is what NUP’s sweeping parliamentary and local council victories in Buganda did in 2021.
It partly explains, for example, why the social media platform Facebook, which government blocked the day before the January 14 General Election, remains nominally blocked more than a year and a half later.
Any Buganda falling out with the central government always leads to a national political crisis.
Given all this, it’s obvious that President Museveni, if he had his way, would much rather have executed a large-scale NUP defection to NRM or negotiated a working agreement with NUP than with DP.
So why DP?
What happened on July 20 was more accurately a crossing over to NRM by Mao as an individual than an accord between NRM and DP as entities.
With DP now a faint shadow of its former self of even a few years ago, there is no strategic gain to be made by NRM in working with DP.
As has happened many times before, leading Opposition politicians widely admired by the public who cross over to NRM or enter into an agreement with NRM sign their own political death sentence, and Mao will not be different.
In any case, he had no choice, saw all the signs and, in a certain sense, did the pragmatic thing.
A few years ago, he declared that he would not be the president who would be remembered by history as the one who presided over DP’s death, but that is what eventually happened.
Mao’s career trajectory mirrors that of the late Brig Noble Mayombo.
Mayombo and Mao were great rivals in student politics at Makerere University in the late 1980s.
Mayombo was a rising star in the army while Mao was a rising star on the political party and human rights scene.
However, they both ended up with the role of metaphorically tying Museveni’s shoe laces. If DP can no longer win its heartland and birthplace of Buganda, where else can it hope to win?
The agreement between NRM and DP, therefore, indirectly reveals the real motive – State House’s effort to break up NUP, which continues to puzzle Museveni by its unexpectedly strong resolve as a party.
According to various sources, the process of wooing Mao to NRM began more than a year ago, with secret negotiations between Mao and Gen Salim Saleh, President Museveni’s brother.
State House has tried everything it knows how to infiltrate or weaken NUP, so far without visible success. An alliance with DP in DP’s current state of weakness shows more desperation than strategic moves by State House.
If Museveni could not break up or weaken NUP, he had to show some results for his effort by attempting to create the impression of NUP as a party of angry extremists and, therefore, isolate them by contrasting them with what he could argue were moderate elements like DP, which put Uganda’s interests ahead of their own.
How has the DP come down to this?
Since 1964, it has gained the unfortunate reputation of being the perennial bridesmaid, the one who accompanies the girl on her wedding day but who herself never seems to get married.
DP’s fate is a stain on Uganda’s politics. This is because the deepest natural roots in Ugandan society are religion and ethnicity.
Most of Uganda’s historic schools, newspapers, hospitals, printing presses and other expressions of national life reflected this allegiance to religion or tribe. DP and Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) are the two political parties most rooted in this natural state of things.
DP was founded by Roman Catholics to advance their voice in a country dominated since colonial times by Protestants. UPC is a mainly Protestant party. Latter parties such as UPM, NRM, FDC, ANT, and NUP were all founded in response to misrule or perceived misrule, not from naturally-occurring social conditions.
In other words, if Uganda had not had dictatorship, rigged elections, rampant corruption, human rights violations, nepotism and all the other ills that have plagued Uganda since 1962, political parties formed to oppose the excesses of the State would never have been formed or become prominent.
What the country would have would be a natural, normal social and cultural state of affairs and the two biggest parties would be UPC and DP.
The fact that these two parties are currently a shadow of their former selves indicates how badly Uganda is currently being ruled, that the population must leave its natural state and support or vote for parties that fight injustice – injustice that should never have existed in the first place.