What you need to know:
- While some criticise the deal, others believe that the union will better govern the country and offer services to citizens.
Mr Norbert Mao, the president-general of the Opposition Democratic Party (DP), arrived at State House on Wednesday, clutching what looked like a notebook or diary.
Dapper in a black suit and white shirt, the stand-out traces of DP on its leader were a green tie and pocket square, reflecting his faded association with the party’s official hue.
He was in an unfamiliar company too: the secretary general of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), Mr Richard Todwong, and Mr Edwin Karugire, a son-in-law to President Museveni and his personal lawyer, who was holding a file.
The fourth person was DP secretary general Gerald Siranda, the party’s record keeper and administrative head. In short, DP’s two top honchos were in conversation with their counterparts, NRM chairman Museveni and secretary general Todwong.
When the quartet walked out, the news that State House announced in a statement and on the President’s social media handles was a bombshell: the parties had signed a cooperation agreement to work together!
It struck like a thunderbolt in dry skies, immediately sparking animated as well as polarising discourses in political, cyber and intellectual spaces.
But riveting are the details that have since emerged, including about the making of the Museveni-Mao political marriage.
Multiple sources familiar with the processes told this newspaper that the courtship lasted many years, and as an on-and-off affair.
The President deployed different emissaries at different times, but the politician from northern Uganda --- a witty and gifted orator --- played a hard political bride to catch.
His resistance, however, began to soften once in-charge of the DP from 2010, where some insiders not only refused to accept his leadership but openly opposed him, leading to emergence of splinter groups that weakened the party.
The caucusing of party leaders under the aegis of the Inter-Party Organisation for Dialogue (IPOD) was to eclipse the Opposition politician closer to President Museveni.
Rich in ideas but short on cash, the DP found itself in financial turbulence, and struggling to swim in Uganda’s muddied economic waters.
Then out of options, the party leaders reportedly last year broached an idea, through IPOD, of possible cooperation with the NRM, hoping it will open financial inflows for the party and better the welfare of its leaders.
President Museveni referred them to Mr Todwong, the ruling party secretary general, marking start of months of behind-the-scenes negotiations which culminated in the Wednesday signing of the cooperation agreement and, a day later, Mr Mao’s appointment as Uganda’s new Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.
Sources involved in the process, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the Cabinet slot was specifically ring-fenced in the deal for Mr Mao and DP is to nominate an official for appointment for a junior slot.
Mr Siranda walked away with inked promise to be supported by NRM, which has absolute numerical strength in Parliament, for election as a member of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA).
Under the terms of the agreement, the NRM undertook to support designation of a DP member to deputise the chair of one of the standing committees of Uganda’s Parliament while another will be included as member of another committee.
In return, the DP members named ministers, agreed to be bound by confidentiality if consulted on intended legislation and policies or involved in Cabinet meetings.
The parties undertook to cooperate with each other with “mutual respect” on areas set out in the agreement, including making “joint announcements relating to areas of policy cooperation”.
Each side signed to avoid surprises in making disclosures on common positions, or expressing public dissent.
The DP stands to benefit from advance briefing by NRM on planned legislations, budget priorities and allocations alongside consulting on matters related to stated areas of cooperation.
One such specified area of common understanding, long a demand of the Opposition, is legislative and electoral reforms to incorporate recommendations of the Supreme Court to improve the health of Uganda’s democracy.
In his designation as the Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister, Mr Mao will be the de facto initiator of many of the changes he wanted while on the opposite site of the political aisle, but the appointment also means he will be the bearer of government-planned reforms, some likely to be controversial.
DP signing up with Museveni
Mr Mao is not the first of DP leaders to sign up to work with Mr Museveni and neither is he the first high-value Opposition harvest.
Mr Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere served as Internal Affairs minister under the so-called broad-based, in reality no-party, Movement system for a decade until lack of clarity about the future of the cooperation and DP’s role prompted him to bolt out and run for President in 1996, a race he lost.
After him, other DP stalwarts that Mr Museveni signed up into Cabinet include Maria Mutagamba, future Supreme Court judge Joseph Mulenga, John Ssebaana Kizito, Evaristo Nyanzi and the latter arrivals such as Florence Nakiwala Kiyingi.
Despite these precedents, the latest has tongues wagging, partly because, according to some analysts, years of failed cooperation suggest the incumbent is difficult to be trusted on his word.
Nonetheless, DP and NRM agreed to work together in “good faith and cooperate with each other” in respect of executive and parliamentary activities to “advance these shared goals”, including any public statements.
The ruling party, if in agreement, offers to adopt some policy proposals by DP, providing a backend for one of the oldest parties to find its programmes on government agenda without taking state power.
A soft copy of what was retailed as version of the cooperation agreement was shared on social media yesterday, indicating NRM’s commitment to appoint DP members to Cabinet and public service jobs where their “expertise provides a valuable contribution to the government”. Mr Mao, in response to our authentication inquiry, described it as a “leaked early draft [but] the final [version] doesn’t alter much”.
In the document, DP underlined its aspiration for a peaceful democratic presidential transition, which prompted other commentators to speculate on social media that Mr Mao’s appointment may, more than the “meal coupon” politics he baptised in referenced to opponents, fit in broader succession jigsaw.
Some of the proponents cited a tweet in the past in which the First Son and Commander of Land Forces, Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, praised Mr Mao as his big brother who has “presidential skills”.
Details in the latest cooperation agreement show that the parties agreed to work closely in and outside Parliament, but consult on needs-basis, if at all, on matters not directly covered by the cooperation agreement.
A senior government official, who spoke to this newspaper to give a background briefing on the agreement, said the signing showed “political maturity” because the Constitution enjoins Opposition parties in a multiparty dispensation, once elections are concluded, to work with the government in power to better govern the country and offer services to citizens.
But some analysts branded the deal as opportunistic, christening Mao, long accused by opponents of being a Museveni mole in Opposition ranks, a sell-out. And his own lit or spread the fire. Some of the carefully weighed criticism echoed from his political contemporaries.
“Hmmm! Kale, bye,” four-time presidential candidate Kizza Besigye tweeted at 7:03pm on Wednesday, before adding yesterday:
“I think that Hon Mao needs to be ‘congratulated’ for ARRIVING after ‘a long journey’ and for the ‘unprecedented step’ taken – using his own words. [Information Minister] Hon [Chris] Baryomunsi now has good company. The struggle to end Junta (gun) rule continues & will intensify as the arena becomes clearer.”
At Parliament, members elected on DP ticket hastily convened a press conference in which they denounced the agreement, announced plans to stop contributions to the party and asked Mr Mao to summon a Delegates’ Conference to choose his successor.
Dr Besigye’s first post on the micro-blogging site went up after a video clip in which Mr Mao showered praises on President Museveni as they signed the deal, surfaced. The second tweet yesterday followed announcement by State House that the President, who flew out to Tanzania yesterday, had before departure named Mr Mao, Uganda’s Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.
Mr Museveni left the Cabinet slot vacant since his re-election until recently when he tapped Public Service minister Muruli Mukasa to simultaneously hold it but in acting capacity.
To many, the appointing authority left the position vacant --- in some way dangled it --- to keep supporters and opponents hopeful and their dissent in check.
In yesterday’s announcement, President Museveni elevated junior Sports minister, Mr Hamson Obua, to a Government Chief Whip, a full Cabinet slot, to replace Mr Thomas Tayebwa elected Deputy Speaker in March, this year.
He tapped Agago District Woman MP Beatrice Akello as the new State Minister for Economic Monitoring to substitute Mr Peter Ogwang who is taking over from Mr Obua.
Looked at through regional lenses, the appointments, except for Mr Ogwang, benefit Acholi and Lango sub-regions where Mr Museveni, long loathed in the area, made significant electoral gains in the 2021.
But it was the presence of the name of Mr Mao, who partly shot to national political stardom by criticising Mr Museveni and failures of government, that had tongues wagging.
Whether then as Guild President of Makerere University, where he defeated establishment candidate Noble Mayombo, or a young lawmaker representing Gulu Municipality, or chairing the district’s local government, or running for president, Mr Mao’s characterisations of President Museveni were always non-charitable.
For instance, he said the DP tackles politics of ideas, while the incumbent engages in politics of “komanyoko”.
At another moment, he said “many people joined the NRM with the interest of getting something, but to their dismay, they are losing the greatest thing in life, which is time”.
And time has not been on his side, which some speculate may have informed his decision to jump onto the yellow bus from the scorched opposition grounds.
At 55, the wax gluing the Opposition wings to fly Mao to State House have melted. The party he leads is skeletal and divided.
Many of its prominent members during the last election fled to stand on the ticket of the National Unity Platform party led by Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine. This has emasculated DP in Buganda, its historical cradle.
Internally, he superintends an unending fights where his judgment and leadership credentials are questioned even by supporters.
Mr Mao’s entry into Cabinet clarifies his political colour, but concurrently births new conundrums: the fate and future of the party he has led for a dozen years, and what awaits him in the new ministerial position.