Is Uganda ready for change? Besigye, Mbabazi and Museveni to decide

By Odomaro Mubangizi

A political trinity made up of  Dr Kiiza Besigye, Amama Mbabazi and Yoweri Museveni, the top runners in the current battle for Uganda’s State House, has emerged as Uganda goes to the polls on Thursday this week.

Some have talked of a “three horse race” but it is becoming clear by the day that it is going to be a “two horse race” – tight race between the incumbent President Museveni and Besigye, with Mbabazi playing a decisive role as a king maker. Close to one week to the polls one can hazard some scenarios and trajectories. What are the political dynamics at play in Uganda’s most intriguing elections? It is very exciting to see three of the main architects of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) tussling it out with the country split into three camps, even though some are playing the safe “independent” option. It was some time in 1996 when Dr Kiiza Besigye wrote a lengthy critique of the NRM under his boss President Yoweri Museveni, essentially challenging the way things had turned out, and pointing out that the system had diverted from the its original vision. NRM came to power in 1986 under a popular armed revolution that had started in 1981. The catch phrase under which NRM was ruling was the “Ten Point Program” that included, among others, strengthening democracy, promoting a diversified and integrated economy and promoting national unity.

Dr Besigye wanted reform so that the original noble goals of democracy and development could be realized and not mere rhetoric. He then decided he would offer himself as an alternative to lead Uganda towards reform. Some were skeptical of his motive but he still stood for the presidency in 2001, then in 2006 and also in 2011. In all these attempts his support kept increasing but amidst allegations of rigging, with futile legal redress. Gradually the reform agenda evolved into a formidable political party known as Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Reform Agenda and FDC attracted some of the senior NRM top brass like former Army Commander Major General Mugisha Muntu, Jack Sabiiti, Eriya Kategaya (former Deputy Prime Minister), Salamu Musumba, Amanya Mushega, Winnie Byanyima, and many others. This development became the most serious threat to President Museveni’s hold onto power. FDC in using “democratic change” was alluding to Uganda’s dark history of violent political changes.

It has been one of the tragic ironies of Uganda that a political group that came into force under the banner of “democratic change” faced brutal and violent reaction from the state machinery. Dr Besigye faced the wrath of the state—violent arrests on charges that were considered politically motivated and regular sprays with pepper (one time he nearly lost his sight). These did not seem to deter him from the vision of a “democratic change.” As FDC rallied support for democratic change, the incumbent and his supporters coined the philosophy of “no change”. The argument has been: “If things are on the right track why change the driver?” The other argument was that if one wants change, why not change from within the ruling NRM party? But the opponents argued that there was no internal democracy to enable meaningful change. This was demonstrated when a group of radical NRM legislators Wilfred Niwagaba, Barnabas Tinkasimire, Mohamed Nsereko and Theodore Sekikubo earned the reputation of “rebel MPs”, by challenging the lack of internal democracy in NRM. Attempts to expel them from the ruling party hit a snag. Their major crime was to stand for positions on some issues contrary to the party line.

Thanks to the strong grass-root support that the NRM enjoyed across the country, the “no change” mantra took hold. But FDC kept chipping away some support by calling for “democratic change.” The “Yellow Bus” has become the most visible symbol of the ruling NRM and its call for “no change.” The “no change” philosophy has of course raised serious questions about what will happen in due course and especially as the Chairperson of the NRM and incumbent gets older by the day. Whenever some media outlets raise the question of a successor, the president would astutely reply: “The NRM will decide through a democratic process.” He would rightly argue that Uganda is not a monarchy whereby he has to anoint his heir. But some observers of Uganda’s politics have interpreted this refusal to get a successor to mean that the incumbent has some more years at the helm. This is what has made some top NRM leaders uncomfortable. They quote the president as saying that he was standing for the last time (referring to previous elections of 2001, 2006 and 2011).

Skeptics were proved right when an NRM delegates conference held in 2015 resolved that President Yoweri Museveni would be the sole candidate and flag bearer of the NRM, basically ring-fencing the position. A good number of senior NRM members did not take this decision well. Among them was former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi who later argued that the decision was not definitive and not binding. The FDC camp were vindicated in their claim that the NRM did not have internal democracy and that they had seen the light long back. Then the debate was how the “Super Minister” (as Amama Mbabazi was popularly known) was going to handle the tough issue. Key question for him was: stand against his boss or just remain in the NRM?

Events moved rather fast and the Super Minister was relieved of his post as Prime Minister and Secretary General of the NRM. Political pundits rushed to conclude that he was finished. Opinions were divided. Those in the know felt that the President had blundered by firing his most trusted ally who he himself used to praise for being very disciplined and a workaholic. Then followed a period of suspense, with many observers wondering what cards the Super Minister was holding close to his chest. Calls were made that he was taking too long to declare his motives but he kept saying he would tell the nation and the world his decision at the right time.

Time came and sure enough, the calm and calculating Super Minister declared that he would stand for the presidency and challenge his boss for State House. The announcement came as a storm and many were speechless. The president who was in South Africa for a visit rushed back to quell the storm that Amama Mbabazi’s announcement had caused in the country. Then questions followed as to whether Mbabazi would quit the NRM or just stay put and fight from within. He chose the latter, but the NRM internal electoral process could not allow him to challenge his boss for the party presidency. He opted to stand as an independent but still as a member of the NRM. As an insider for decades he knew what the system was like. He had set up the NRM secretariat and its machinery. Key question: would Mbabazi’s political move cause a storm in the NRM? Would his decision lead to the split of the NRM right in the middle?

As fate would have it, Mbabazi attracted some following from the old parties Democratic Party (DP) and Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) and, not surprisingly, some from FDC. A few from NRM also followed him but the anticipated storm to shake down the NRM did not happen. He clearly still has some secret admirers in the NRM, though. Some in the NRM came out openly to support Mbabazi such as the Kabale NRM Women’s chair Hope Mwesigye. But his greatest boost came from a dynamic group that calls its self “NRM poor youth.” Later a new political formation took shape known as the Democratic Alliance (TDA) comprised of a coalition of opposition parties. Mbabazi then formed his own organization called “Go Forward.” Mbabazi’s Go Forward and FDC share the common aspiration of a peaceful and democratic change in Uganda come this Thursday 18th February 2016 as all along with the system he is now fighting, he quickly makes a rejoinder that he did not have power and authority.

Then he argues: “Try me now and see what I will do for Uganda.” So the incumbent has two fronts to fight: Besigye’s FDC and Mbabazi’s Go Forward. Besigye was bad enough; now add Mbabazi. Early on in the campaigns, it became clear that the race was among three main contenders: the incumbent Museveni of NRM, Besigye of FDC and Mbabazi of Go Forward and TDA. But with time it has emerged that the contest is becoming a two horse race between Museveni and Besigye with Amama Mbabazi as the king maker. There are other scenarios. It can also be a two horse race between Museveni and the two rivals on one side. The other scenario, which cannot be ruled out, is a contest between Besigye and Amama Mbabazi in case Mbabazi comes second to Besigye in a situation of no clear winner during the first round. In the unlikely event that Mbabazi comes second to Museveni then there is a fifth scenario. Algebraically it can look thus:

Scenario 1: YM (for Yoweri Museveni)-AM (Amama Mbabazi’s supporters but who belong to NRM) vs KB (Kiiza Besigye)

Scenario 2: YM vs KB-AM (Amama Mbabazi’s supporters who belong to FDC)

Scenario 3: YM vs KB+AM

Scenario 4: KB vs AM Scenario

5: YM vs AM

Of course politics does not always follow mathematical rules. It is human beings making choices not abstract numbers or figures. For instance, there is no guarantee that if Dr Besigye contests against Museveni, all supporters of Mbabazi will support the former. Likewise, there is no guarantee that if Mbabazi were to be the contestant against Museveni that Besigye’s supporters would support the former. Politics is much more ambiguous and complex than mathematical calculations.

Dr Besigye has been fascinated by the huge crowds that have been overwhelming him at rallies especially in Western Uganda, hitherto Museveni’s stronghold. He has been heard declaring that he will have a clear win and no one should imagine a rerun. Of course he quickly adds that he is worried about voter bribery—a menace in Uganda’s electoral politics. What has also made Besigye to contemplate a clean win first round are the immense donations he is receiving from supporters: goats, cows, chickens, money, and furniture. At one rally he was even given fried chicken to eat. His rallies look like offertory time at a church service as supporters fall over each other with goodies. This is in contrast to the incumbent who is dishing out hoes, motor bikes (known as boda bodas) and facilitation for his campaigners.

Crowds that follow the main contenders are a spectacle to behold. At Museveni’s rallies one sees mammoth crowds of men and women dressed in yellow caps, T-shirts and shirts while Dr Besigye’s rallies are painted “Blue”—FDC ‘s dominant colour. Amama Mbabazi’s orange colour is also catching on but not as the Blue and Yellow of FDC and NRM respectively. Politics in Uganda is full of colour. In terms of actual election results, there are also scenarios. First, a clear win in the first round where the losers concede defeat. Second, a clear win in the first round but contested by the losers, that might end up in either courts of law or street protests whose consequence are hard to predict. Third, a re-run where coalitions will be made.

Ugandans at home and in diaspora are talking politics. But the million-dollar question is: will the February 18 elections bring about peaceful and democratic change? The NRM “no change” philosophy still looms large. Museveni shows no signs of retiring from active politics. In fact, he keeps rebuking those who call on him to retire. He even uses some humor that he has killed his animal and about to begin eating and then people call on him to leave. This metaphor is being interpreted to mean the oil he just explored in South Western Uganda. This posture of not being ready to quit politics is what makes his opponents bolder to rally support for his defeat, arguing that he has had enough and it is time to let others try their luck.

What bothers most observers of the current political contestation is the warning that keeps coming from armed forces and the police to the effect that they will not hand over power to the opposition if they win. These warnings are being contested or denied. But they keep coming up. Police and the army clearly demonstrate some partisanship whenever elections are around the corner. Just as the campaigns reached the crescendo, Ugandan Police armoured vehicles were sited at Mombasa destined for Kampala. This was seen as a form of psychological warfare to instill fear among voters. The Catholic bishops have written a letter warning against police and military involvement in the forthcoming elections. Of particular concern are the “Crime Preventers” supposedly under community policing framework. Opposition politicians, especially Amama Mbabazi, haves already cried foul that the crime preventers are meant to instill fear and help the rigging of elections. Questions are posed about their legal status, financing and the timing.

Elections observers have already pitched camp in Uganda. The Commonwealth observers team is headed by Gen Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria. The East African Community team is headed by Ali Hassan Mwinyi, former president of Tanzania. Civil Society groups have also sent in their observers under the leadership of Kenya’s former anti-corruption Czar John Githongo. The government has done well to allow these observers to come and see Uganda’s political drama being acted out in style. EU observers have also come. The global media is ready to narrate the events as they unfold.

The three leading contenders who helped found the NRM that supposedly ushered in a fundamental change should do the right thing and help Uganda to enjoy a peaceful and democratic change. It is in their power to make this happen. But it will require a great deal of restraint and patriotism to think beyond the coming election and to think of the next generation. They have all invested in the country both metaphorically and literally, and so it is in their best interest to make sure that the February 18 elections are peaceful and democratic, leaving no one complaining about their credibility. This week’s elections should be the culmination of the fundamental change the three strong men ushered in way back in 1986.

Will a peaceful and democratic change happen? It should happen. But it is the duty of all Ugandans, the neighbors and the international community to make it happen. However, the greatest responsibility lies with President Yoweri Museveni who has been leading the country for the last 30 years to ensure a smooth and peaceful transition happens as his legacy to the Pearl of Africa.

Dr Odomaro Mubangizi teaches philosophy and theology and is Dean of Philosophy Department at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa. He is also Editor of Justice, Peace and Environment Bulletin.



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