Bobi Wine yesterday announced that he would be withdrawing a petition he had filed to overturn Yoweri Museveni’s January 14, 2021 re-election.
Under section 61 of the Presidential Elections Act, a presidential election petition can only be withdrawn with leave of court, meaning whereas Bobi’s press conference proclamation yesterday was politically pivotal, it was not legally conclusive.
His lawyers will still have to put together the required paperwork and file a notice before the Supreme Court.
Until that happens, the National Unity Platform (NUP) petition would remain validly standing for decision of court.
And when the withdrawal happens, Bobi, born Robert Kyagulanyi, exposes himself to potentially back-breaking bills.
Whereas the news of the intention to withdraw the election petition may have been received by the public with consternation and disbelief, to insiders in Bobi’s National Unity Platform (NUP) party, it was belated. And for variegated reasons.
The surprise, according to highly-placed officials, was that the petition was filed at all in the first place.
NUP anchors on the shoulders of two camps; the elite and the masses. The former favour high politics, engagement and is the branch that reportedly endorsed filing of the petition much to the chagrin of the latter that, in the words of one senior official, vilify sophisticated rhetoric without action and support street action.
That is how Bobi was caught between a rock and hard place last month when the conversation about whether or not to challenge Mr Museveni’s victory in court gained traction.
The matter was so polarising that Bobi, according to another party official, was reluctant until a top diplomat of one of the key Western countries approached the opposition politician to capitulate.
The envoy argued that pursuing the legal path would elevate Bobi’s profile at home and abroad. In addition, it would guarantee his release from house arrest while street protests would be counter-productive and undermine Uganda’s stability.
Following the behind-the-scenes diplomatic tinkering, Bobi reluctantly accepted to go to court, but left the gate to bolt out at any time open. And the contradictions within Bobi’s party about the petition were alive as he ascended the rostrum for yesterday’s press conference:
“There were two schools of thought. One held the firm belief that going to the Supreme Court to challenge the Museveni [re] election was a waste of time because these were cadre judges [and] that the institution of the Judiciary had been reduced to a mere mockery,” he said.
He added: “But, again, there was also another school of thought, which we agreed with, that much as the Judiciary has been reduced to a mockery, it’s an institution that we believe in while we might not believe in the people that are superintending over it.”
The last argument appeared calculated to project the NUP leader’s respect for institutions, although he said the petition was also intended to expose the “biased judges”.
Looked at this way, it is now the Supreme Court plus its justices that are on trial.
Bobi had demanded that three of the Supreme Court judges, including Justice Alphonse Owiny-Dollo, recuse themselves from hearing the petition on allegations that they were either not impartial or had defended Mr Museveni in previous election petitions.
When the judges spurned the demand, Bobi read mischief. Besides, his request to file additional evidence was declined, leaving his hurriedly filed case hanging. Withdrawing the petition means Mr Museveni and other respondents will burn no more mental energy and other resources to defend impugned actions.
It also suggests the NUP faction that was aggrieved by filing of the case are now relieved that they will not after all sanitise Mr Museveni’s victory that they contest.
More than a month after the votes, none of the 10 opponents has conceded defeat, leaving legitimacy of Museveni’s win open to question and interpretation.
The mass wing of NUP that reportedly includes notable personalities such as Nubian Li (Buken Ali) and party spokesperson Joel Ssenyonyi, feared such a court conclusion would midwife legitimacy of Mr Museveni’s victory.
All sources in the know of inside workings within NUP spoke on condition of anonymity for this article in order to freely discuss a rapidly evolving and internally-divisive issue.
On the other hand, the pro-petition group, among them Masaka Municipality MP Mathias Mpuuga and his Busiro East counterpart Medard Sseggona, reportedly argued that the November 2020 protests in which at least 54 people were killed, showed the state had no limits with its brutality and demonstration could be suicidal.
Despite the electoral grievances, NUP won the biggest opposition seats in Parliament, resurrecting the old ghosts where elected lawmakers embrace the job opportunities and differ from their political superior defeated in the presidential poll.
As designate-members of Parliament, the least they entertain is chaos that could derail their swearing-in expected in May, and with it, the picking of hefty salaries,.
This is why the Bobi proclamation that he is taking his issues to the court of public opinion is unlikely as straight forward and clear as the words may suggest.
The first issue to be resolved is the distilled import of the euphemism: court of public opinion. Does it mean demonstrations, other forms of disobedience or masked insurrection?
Which is why the poignant question remains: What next for Bobi?
That matter has, according to one senior official of NUP, been left for resolution by the party secretary general David Lewis Rubongoya and Bobi.
It was notable at the press conference that some of the party’s heavyweights were a no-show.
One official indicated that the decision to withdraw the petition, which counts as victory for its base supporters, was taken in a meeting of NUP honchos outside Kampala but disappointed some influential members, especially that there was no clarity about a future direction.
If Bobi elects to lead the street demonstrations, he risks alienating some of the influential western allies and supporters at home while risking his life and that of others.
Yet, doing nothing does not also guarantee that the alleged repression by the state will peter out, considering that NUP says many of its members continue to be arrested or held incommunicado.
Insiders say NUP hopes that it will, working with partners, exercise enough clout to secure a negotiated exit of President Museveni from power, although there is no guarantee the incumbent will agree.
It was expected, according to diplomatic sources familiar with the negotiations, that filing of the petition would project Bobi as a statesman and the government in return would soften its hands.
Whereas the state momentarily began trail of some of Bobi’s supporters arrested in Kalangala and other districts, granting a number bail, the continued incarceration of his close associates, among them Nubian Li, has suggested that the goodwill is in short supply.
With the election petition on the cusp of withdrawal, NUP unclear and internally divided over the decision, and government unlikely to soften, the question remains: What next?
Museveni, EC lawyers speak out on Bobi’s withdrawal of petition
“The way to withdraw a case from court is not to withdraw it from a press conference. He has to formally withdraw it in accordance with the law. Court matters are not handled at press conferences. As far as we are concerned, until we see that court document, which we haven’t seen or served on us, we don’t know what Mr Kyagulanyi is talking about,” Elison Karuhanga, Electoral Commission external lawyer.
“Are you shocked? Mr Kyagulanyi went to court without evidence. He later applied to court to be allowed to present more evidence outside the stipulated time and this was not allowed since the timelines in a presidential election petitions are fixed. The filing of the petition was just an afterthought and it was filed half-hazardly but after he woke up to reality of having filed a naked petition, he swallowed a bitter pill and withdrew it,” Jackson Kafuuzi, deputy Attorney General.
“We saw that this case was weak from the beginning because we all witnessed the process of elections and it was fair. Why didn’t he [Kyagulanyi] complain to have lost in the Buganda region? We want our money (legal costs) because we put in our money and time in the case,” Hussein Kashilling, NRM lawyer.
“As lawyers we do what is within the law but at the end of the day, we work for the client. So if a client gives instructions to withdraw, you just have to withdraw. Jurisprudence-wise, it will be quite a precedent but I am hoping it will not set the precedence that people will not believe in the Supreme Court because it is the highest court of the land,” Pheona Wall Nabasa, president of Uganda Law Society.
“It does not set a vote of no confidence on the Judiciary because it goes way beyond one case that court has handled. That one case cannot on its own move a vote of no confidence although it gives a semblance of it,” Kenneth Michael Situma, lawyer.
Compiled by Arthur Wadero & Anthony Wesaka