Succession politics: What is in a name?

NRM party candidate and late Speaker Jacob Oulanyah’s son Andrew Ojok addresses a campaign rally at Tegot Village in Akidi Sub-county, Omoro District, on May 17. He won the Omoro County MP by-election. PHOTO / FILE

What you need to know:

  • The trend of offspring or relatives replacing deceased family members in elective positions has elicited debate among Ugandans.

In the wake of the death of Col (rtd) Charles Engola Macodwogo, the former junior Labour minister, his son—Samuel Junior Engola—has been fronted for the Oyam North County seat.

Mr Engola Junior is among seven hopefuls hoping to land the National Resistance Movement (NRM) flag ahead of the July 6 by-election following his father’s death at the hand of his bodyguard on May 2.

This is the latest occurrence in a growing trend of offspring or relatives replacing deceased family members in elective positions. 

The trend has elicited debate among Ugandans, with political commentators and pundits raising the red flag on account of an undoing of democracy that could lock out nontraditional families from politics. 

Other observers, however, insist there is no illegality if one rides on the coat-tails of their deceased kin to be duly elected.  

Examples show that a number of those who have taken after their parents had no prior public interest in politics. They largely ride on their parents’ political capital, and the backing of political bigwigs.

Following the death of Jacob Oulanyah, the former Parliament Speaker, his son, Mr Andrew Ojok, resigned his position at the National Information Technology Authority – Uganda (NITA-U). Then, with the heavy backing of the NRM party, threw his hat in the ring for the Omoro County seat. He beat four others to emerge victor.

Reports have indicated that President Museveni advised that Mr Ojok carry the NRM party flag to complete his father’s term.

In a 2022 interview with this newspaper, Mr Ojok said although he was new to politics “… only I, as his own, understands his vision better.”

Already this year—two months ago to be precise—Mr Emmanuel Omoding was declared the winner of the Serere County parliamentary by-election. The position had been held by his father, Patrick Okabe. At the time of his father’s death, Mr Omoding had been living in Australia.

Regardless, the newcomer beat seasoned politician Alice Alaso and two others.
Mr Omoding was first backed by deputy House Speaker Thomas Tayebwa to replace his father. The support of such leaders played a telling role in his victory as an independent against the ruling party machinery.

In December last year, Vice President Jessica Alupo, and the Association of Teso Sub-region chairpersons endorsed Ms Loyce Akiror to replace her father for the Bukedea District chairperson seat.

While her deceased father’s party, NRM, eventually denied her the flag, Mr Stephen Ochola—the Serere District chairperson—had opined thus: “The other day, Members of Parliament (MPs) fronted the son to Patrick Okabe, who was my MP, to replace the father. We as LC5 chairpersons … are also going to back the daughter Loyce Akiror as replacement to the father, who was so dear to us.”

Constitutional monarchy?
Ms Sarah Bireete, the executive director at the Centre for Constitutional Governance, termed such takes as “unfortunate”, and a shift from the tenets of democracy. She is quick to apportion the blame to both the power holders and the electorate who vote based on emotions.   

“We have a faulty setting at the presidential level and it has extended to other positions. It is like a constitutional monarchy, which is a distortion of our democracy,” she said.

Citing the example of Ms Scovia Alonget, who—at the age of 19 back in 2012—was elected to replace her deceased father as MP for Usuk County, Ms Bireete said some of the propped replacements are thrown into the arena with no preparation. This, she further noted, affects their performance.

Mr Gerald Karyeija, an associate professor of public administration and dean of the School of Management Sciences at Uganda Management Institute, said while as citizens they have a right to hold political offices, progenies assume the political infrastructure of the deceased and less their own convictions and values on leadership.

“They also have a challenge of overcoming the political shadow of their parents and becoming policy influences and not just party foot soldiers and mobilisers. The challenge they pose is that they are constrained and bound to a large extent to the vested interests their parents stood for,” he said.

While Alonget served only for one term, Ms Florence Nebanda, who replaced her younger sister, the late Cerinah Nebanda in 2012, has gone on to represent Butaleja to date.

No surprises
Mr Yusuf Sserunkuma, a political analyst, said this is to be expected given the nature of our politics that is more about rewards than competence.

“It is normal because that is the politics we are in. There are things you learn to expect when you live under a particular model of governance,” he said, adding, “If you live under a president who has been in power for the last 37 years and where being MP is not necessarily a matter of qualification and legislation but a token of accessing the national cake, what do you expect? Power wants politics to be played in a particular way.”

Mr Sserunkuma opined that holding an elective position is one of the most lucrative ways of making money, and thus any family will fight to retain such a position.
While the politics of inheritance has become more pronounced under the NRM, it has also been perpetuated by other leading Opposition parties.

Upon return from exile, Ms Miria Obote took over leadership of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) party founded by her husband and former President Milton Obote. She would later become party flag bearer in the 2006 presidential election, running largely on the legacy of the former two-time president.

Mr Jimmy Akena, son of Milton and Miria Obote, would later take over the party leadership, and contested the presidency in 2016.

In 2020, the Democratic Party, fronted Ms Rose Fortunate Nantongo to replace her deceased mother, Robinah Nakasirye Ssentongo as Kyotera District Woman MP.
Mr Karyeija further opined that the trend diminishes the space for non-traditional political families from getting into political positions.

In response to critics of the relatives taking over from deceased family members, Mr Ojok told this publication that the electorate wields the power to vote them out if they do not perform.

The national question
Ms Bireete, like a section of Ugandans on social media, reckons that the trend could escalate to the national level.

“This is a horrible precedent set by this regime. Won’t be too shocked if (God forbid) something happens to the President and NRM people demand that the position be gazette[ed] for his son,” one Twitter user wrote.

A decade ago, the country added to its vocabulary the infamous “Muhoozi project” term. Then coordinator of intelligence services, Gen David Sejusa, in a letter, alleged a plot to groom Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, to succeed his father to the presidency.

Two elections cycles have gone by, and the once hushed topic is now in the open, with Gen Kainerugaba declaring his intentions to take on the mantle from his father.

“The only way I can repay my great mother is by being President of Uganda. And I shall definitely do it,” he tweeted in October 2022.  

His so-called MK team, on May 3, met with President Museveni. Unsurprisingly, the move has been interpreted by some as an endorsement of the son’s activities by the father, and invariably, the powers that be. 

Mr Sserunkuma said while it may be sentimentally dissatisfying for some, children of leaders, even presidents, have a right to assume elective positions.

“Being president is not a moral question, it is not about fairness, and it’s not a smartness question. It is a chance. When people say Muhoozi is not qualified, I don’t know what that means. I don’t know who is qualified. Muhoozi can be president, if the opportunities align,” Mr Sserunkuma said.

Globally, children of presidents have gone on to become president in different countries, notably in the United States where this happened twice: the Adamses—John Adams (1797-1801) and John Quincy Adams (1825-1829); and the Bushes—George HW Bush (1989-1993) and George W Bush (2001-2009).