The fall and fall of FDC

Mr Patrick Oboi Amuriat votes during the Forum for Democratic Change national delegates’ conference vote at Lugogo in Kampala on Friday. Mr Amuriat was reelected as president at the event which was dismissed as an illegal gathering by the Katonga faction. PHOTO | ISAAC KASAMANI

What you need to know:

  • Some say FDC was headed to a split once their aim of capturing power didn’t materialise as quickly as they had envisaged.  

As the embattled Najjanankumbi faction of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) convened for its version of a national delegates’ conference on Friday in Lugogo, Kampala, political watchers observed that what was once a promising force of change in Uganda was almost unrecognisable.

Mr Patrick Oboi Amuriat was reelected as president at the event which was dismissed as an illegal gathering by the Katonga faction, who pointed out that it was convened in contravention of the party’s constitution. Unmoved, Mr Amuriat yesterday suggested he is open to dialogue between the factions.

“To our friends in Katonga, we are members of the same family and there should be no Katonga FDC or FDC Najjanankumbi. FDC is one and has an office in Najjanankumbi. I want to tell you that we are not going to tolerate any form of misrepresentation, any kind of forgery that some of our colleagues decided to engage in,” he said.

But split down the middle, with one faction accusing the other of betraying the party’s historical mission to be a voice for change, defence of democracy and the rule of law, the meeting at Lugogo was seen as the final act in the self-destructing drama played out over the last few weeks.

Seventeen years ago, when FDC waded into the 2006 General Election as a novice, the party scooped 36 parliamentary seats spread across the country. There was a blend of youth and experience. Vibrant youthful politicians such as Mr Samuel Odonga Otto and Mr Hussein Akbar Godi joined old hands like Mr Sam Kalega Njuba (Kyadondo East), who between 1986 and 1993, had served as Minister of Constitutional Affairs in the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government.

There were also people who joined from Uganda’s traditional political parties. Prof Morris Ogenga Latigo came in from the Democratic Party (DP) to win the Agago County seat. He would later become the first Leader of the Opposition in Parliament since the return of multi-partyism a year earlier in 2005.

There was also a lot of activism and popular support as FDC sought to dislodge President Museveni from power in very difficult circumstances – confronting state-inspired violence and the narrowing of the country’s democratic space. It would go on to claim that Mr Museveni stole their victory in the 2011 and 2016 presidential elections.

Five years later, in 2021, FDC was replaced by the National Unity Platform (NUP) as the largest Opposition group in Parliament. Fifty of NUP’s 52 parliamentary seats were in Buganda. Bruised, the FDC still argued that its 32 MPs drawn from across the country was proof it still enjoyed national appeal.

In Asinansi Nyakato (Hoima municipality) and Joab Businge (Masindi municipality), FDC became the first Opposition group to win seats in the ruling party’s stronghold of Bunyoro.

“Our party touches all parts of Uganda. We are building a party of national character that we can all be proud of,” Ms Anna Ebaju Adeke, the youthful Soroti Woman MP, maintained then.

Her optimism was misplaced. On September 19, the Katonga faction held a delegates conference of its own, electing Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago as interim president.

The meeting also voted to oust Mr Amuriat, secretary general Nathan Nandala Mafabi, treasurer Geoffrey Ekanya and party elections’ chairman Boniface Toterebuka Bamwenda. Yesterday, Mr Mafabi bounced back unopposed as secretary general of FDC Najjanankumbi. In the Katonga faction, that position is held by Mr Harold Kaija, who used to be Mr Mafabi’s deputy.

Amuriat took over the FDC party presidency having defeated Maj Gen (rtd) Mugisha Muntu during the controversial 2017 delegates conference.

Mr Mafabi has been secretary general since 2015 when he replaced Ms Alice Alaso (FDC’s first secretary general). Both Alaso and Muntu decamped from FDC and formed their own organisation, the Alliance for National Transformation.  

In this tug-of-war, Amuriat and Mafabi have accused Dr Kizza Besigye, FDC’s founding president, of being the force behind the Katonga faction. The irony of it all is that it is believed that Dr Besigye played a big part in ensuring Mafabi and Amuriat were catapulted to the party’s leadership in 2017. 

Dr Besigye’s entry into Opposition politics can be traced to disagreements in the ruling NRM. Accusing his former comrades-in-arms for betraying the democracy cause for which they fought the 1981-1986 Bush War, the retired colonel has been a loud critic since he abandoned ship in 1999.

He had served as junior Minister of Internal Affairs and National Political Commissar – a position which is said to have put him close to the centre of power. Others who wanted Museveni’s hold on power to end by the beginning of the new millennium were Eriya Kategeya, Museveni’s childhood friend who died in 2013; Col (rtd) Nuwe Amanya Mushega (who served as Minister of Education and later Public Service); Jaberi Bidandi Ssali (then Local Government minister) and Augustine Ruzindana (then Inspector General of Government). But this inner core was indecisive, which left Dr Besigye to take matters into his own hands.

He published a damaging dossier in 1999 chronicling how the NRM under Museveni had gone astray and was forced to flee into exile as the President pushed for his arraignment before the army court martial.

In the intervening period, a pressure group that came to be known as the Reform Agenda was making its presence felt. At its helm were Dr Besigye’s wife, Winnie Byanyima, James Garuga Musinguzi, Beti Kamya, Spencer Tirwomwe, Sam Njuba, Alex Onzima, and Anne Mugisha, among others.

The Reform Agenda recruited a lot of young parliamentarians, including Luweero Bush War veteran Maj (rtd) John Kazoora, Mafabi, Amuriat, and Ekanya.

Later, another pressure group within the Parliament called the Parliamentary Advocacy Forum (PAFO) emerged.  The linchpins in PAFO were Maj Kazoora, Bernadette Bigirwa, Lt Guma Gumisiriza, Emmanuel Dombo, Capt Charles Byaruhanga, Proscovia Salaamu Musumba, Beatrice Kiraso, Adolf Mwesige, and Abdu Katuntu. 

Though some of them later returned to the NRM fold, it was PAFO which merged with the Reform Agenda to form the FDC. But political watchers say while Dr Besigye would return from his South African exile in 2005 to run for president in 2006 under the FDC flag, the party did not have a strong ideological centre.

Over time, FDC has become a “catch-all” political party, accommodating any person irrespective, of his or her ideological orientation, as long as he/she is opposed to the NRM government, Dr Sallie Simba Kayunga, a senior lecturer at Makerere University’s department of public administration and political science, observes.

“This means the party may find it difficult to have an ideological focus, apart from a common desire to create regime change,” Dr Simba said.

There were also subterranean cracks early on when after the formation of FDC, Gen Muntu, also a Bush War veteran and former army commander, told Dr Besigye, who was still in exile, that he should expect to be challenged as the party’s flagbearer at one point.

Two camps began to emerge shortly thereafter. The Besigye camp didn’t like the idea that Muntu was challenging him in absentia, while Muntu told his backers that his move was to ensure the party installed a culture of democracy and competition, not one-man rule like in NRM under Museveni.

At the end of 2005, FDC’s first leadership team was selected, not elected. The young party’s National Council agreed that the best way to keep this group together was to avoid elections. The line-up was an impressive of proven and articulate politicians.

Dr Besigye, who had just returned from South Africa was chosen as party president, Sulaiman Kiggundu, who would represent Buganda and the Muslim community was selected as the party’s first national chairman. Besigye’s deputy presidents were Njuba for Buganda, Salaamu Musumba for eastern Uganda; Ogenga Latigo for the north and Mushega in the west.

National vice-chairpersons were John Butime (west), Dr Vincent Kimera (central), and Alex Onzima (north). Deputy secretary generals Kassiano Wadri (administration) and Ruzindana (research and policy). Jack Sabiiti (treasury) and Mafabi (deputy treasurer); Wandera Ogalo (secretary, legal affairs), Reagan Okumu (foreign affairs), Ingrid Turinawe (women affairs) and Wafula Oguttu (publicity).  

The only bone of contention that emerged was on the position of secretary general which was given to Alice Alaso on account that she is a woman and came from Teso. Kamya, who is now the government ombudsman having joined the NRM, protested Alaso’s selection and asked that it be put to a vote.  Alaso, who is believed to have enjoyed Besigye’s backing, won.

Deeply upset, Kamya claimed Baganda had been marginalised. More sectarian trouble remerged when Dr Kiggundu passed on in 2008. Kamya wanted to replace him even before the delegates’ conference was held.  As FDC was preparing the delegates’ conference, Butime was selected as the interim national chairman.   

“There are people who are Baganda haters, it is unfortunate,” said Kamya, who at the time was representing Rubaga North in Parliament. “I get very concerned that the party I have worked for and I have committed myself to does things that made us leave the Movement (NRM).”

When FDC later organised a delegates’ conference, Njuba, a Muganda, emerged victor as national chairman. Njuba’s election didn’t go down well with Katuntu who was eying the position. It is said that Katuntu interpreted Njuba’s victory as being the underhand work of Dr Besigye.  

“I supported Besigye and had always supported him but when I came to reflect on the behind-the-scenes of the conference I had to reconsider my relations with some individuals in the party,” Katuntu, who has since left FDC and made an alliance with the NRM told The Observer newspaper.   

Katuntu soon shifted allegiances, joining the Muntu camp.

After the 2011 elections, Besigye made it clear that he wouldn’t complete his second term as FDC president as he wanted to concentrate on political activism, operating from office space given to him by Chapaa Karuhanga, one of the founder members of FDC, on Katonga Road in Kampala.

Besigye’s departure opened room for others with the race coming down to Muntu and Mafabi, who was seen as being fronted by the Besigye group. 

FDC founding president Kizza Besigye (right) addresses the media at his offices on Katonga Road recently. Left is Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, who the Katonga faction named interim president. PHOTO | ABUBAKER LUBOWA

Muntu’s supporters claimed that there was a need to move away from Dr Besigye’s abrasive style which Mafabi had copied. In the same environment, the toxic issue of ethnicity found its way into the race. Reagan Okumu, then Aswa MP, insisted that FDC leaders from western Uganda, where Besigye is born, should not be considered for the top job. This was seen as a dig towards Muntu who comes from Ntungamo, western Uganda. 

Another dig which was thrown at Muntu by Mafabi’s camp was that he was an NRM mole, an accusation which drove the former army commander to tears when he visited Kamuli District in 2012.

“I also quit NRM because it had diverted from the cause for which many people died in the bush. How, then, can I be a traitor? How? Surely, how?” Muntu asked as Musumba comforted him.

While Dr Besigye didn’t openly support any of the two, Muntu emerged victorious, edging out Mafabi with a difference of 32 votes.  After losing, Mafabi toyed with the idea of forming his own political party with a section of supporters of FDC in Bukedi and Elgon sub-regions when he addressed a press conference in Mbale.

Though Mafabi traversed the country, saying he was consulting delegates who had voted for him, he didn’t follow through with his threat.

After the elections, a tribunal that had been instituted to investigate the 2012 internal FDC elections concluded that the post-election row between Mafabi and Alaso had turned out to be a big threat to the cohesion of the party.  From then on, the party’s unity remained in doubt, eventually not surviving the fallout of the 2017 delegates’ conference.

In 2017, Amuriat, riding on the back of Dr Besigye, defeated Muntu, who had the backing of Alaso; Leader of Opposition in Parliament Winfred Kiiza, Katuntu, and Kassiano Wadri, among others.   After months of being coy, Muntu and his lieutenants formed their own party, the Alliance for National Transformation.

With Gen Muntu gone, the expectation was that FDC would pull in the same direction. It did not. For all intents and purposes, nothing remains of the original FDC. The old party is dead. Its reincarnations can been in FDC Katonga and FDC Najjanankumbi. On their way out, Amuriat and Mafabi have carried the baggage of the accusation that they received money from State House ahead of the 2021 elections.

“President Museveni is happy to fund elections because he knows the outcomes and will even give you money for campaigns. He [Museveni] gives this money to disorganise the party and fight those who try to use other methods to dislodge him from power other than through elections, but secondly, also fight those who try to unite other change-seeking people,” Dr Besigye said recently. 

Some say FDC was headed to a split once their aim of capturing power didn’t materialise as quickly as they had envisaged. 

“They didn’t have an ideological reason as to why they joined FDC. That’s why divisions emerged years later along the formations in which they joined the party,” said Prof Sabiti Makara, who has studied political formations in post-independence Uganda, observes.       

At Friday’s meeting, the Amuriat-Mafabi Najjanankumbi faction emerged with a new cast of actors. Mr Jack Sabiiti (national chairman) replaced Wasswa Birigwa; Geoffrey Ekanya (treasurer general); Yusuf Nsibambi (deputy president, Buganda) replacing Mr Erias Lukwago; Robert Centenary (vice chairman, western); Jamal Wante (vice chairperson, eastern) replacing Salaam Musumba, among others.

The meeting held at Lugogo was chaired by the outgoing vice chairman for central region, Mr Mukalazi Kibuuka. Ordinarily, FDC’s constitution says national delegates conferences for elected NEC members must be convened and chaired by the national chairman. But these are extraordinary times for what was once Uganda’s most formidable opposition group.

Additional reporting

by Sylivia Katushabe.