By Andrew Mwenda
Last week, The National Unity Platform of Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine launched itself with two defections of NRM MPs and other two independent legislators. This was presented as a big event.
The MPs from NRM are nonentities whose names no one I have met can remember. Only Latif Sebagala from DP has some gravitas. It has since received a couple of other nonentities joining the new party. Yet for all the hype, NUP seems to me to be a stillbirth. This is especially so if we compare it to the birth of forum for democratic party FDC in 2005. FDC was formed with many MPs, elected local leaders and other leading figures on Uganda’s political scene from across the entire country.
Let’s do a quick roll call of the key founders. From Western, it had Kizza Besgye, John Kazoora MP, Augustine Ruzindana MP, Miria Matembe MP, Jack Sabiti, James Garauga Musinguzi, Amanya Mushega, Eriya Kategaya, Winne Byanyima, John Butime, Mugisha Muntu, Mathew Rukikaire, Ingrid Turinawe (District Speaker Rukungiri), Yona Kanyomozi, Richard Kaijuka, winne Babaihunga MP, Anthanathius Rutaro (LCV Chairman Rukungiri), Dr. Runumu (LC Chairman Kabale), Odo Tayebwa (LVC Chairman Bushenyi later FDC), Makuru Mayor Rukungiri, Pius Rwemurana (Mayor Kabale), Asaba Ruyonga (Mayor Fort Portal).
For Eastern, there was Abudu Katuntu MP, Salamu Musumba MP, Frank Nabwiswo MP, Nandala Mafabi MP, Wafula Ogutu, Geoffrey Ekanya MP, Emmenuel Dombo later defected, Patrick Amuriat MP, Wandera Ogola MP, Wamaganga MP Mbale Municipality, Epetite MP,
From Northern Region there was Regan Okumu, Morris Ogenga Latigo MP, Kasiano Wadiri MP, Odongo Otto MP, Christine Abiya MP, Elija Okupa MP, Alice Alaso MP, Akello frank MP, Anita Among MP, Florence Ibbi MP, David Pulkol, Adome MP, Beatrice Anywar MP and many other local government leaders, businessmen, prominent intellectuals, etc.
In Central Region, there was Beti Kamya, Sulleiman Kigundu, Sam Njuba , Ibrahim Kasozi, Senteza Kajubi, Prof Kanyerezi, Prince Kimera MP, Joyce Sebugwayo (The current Mayor of Rubaga). There were like Cecelia Ogwala, Ben Wacha, and Okullo Epak who supported Besigye for presidential canditure. This list is by no means exhaustive but it gives a good picture of how prominent and widely spread FDC began. These people had experience and skills of running elections and enjoyed wide spread respect in the country and the communities from which they came.
Thus by the time Besigye returned from exile, there branches of FDC across the entire country in almost every district.! That’s why the party was able to field strong candidates for parliament and lc because of the strength of its leaders even though some retreated from NRM. The party’ s strength was built on the back of these MPs, LC Councillors and powerful political and business figures. This is especially important in a country were political parties lack organisation depth. NUP is born without this strategic advantage.
Political parties in poor peasant societies lack effective means such as organised social groups labour unions, professional and trade associations etc. and independent sources of finance, to build broad organisational infrastructure across the country. To compensate for this shortfall, they rely on social heavy weights people with strong standing in their ethnic or religious communities to provide a bridge between the party and their co ethics.in fact this is why once in government, patronage and corruption become critical. To be effective, political parties in peasant societies are forced to lean on existing social institutions like churches (historically UPC and DP for example) and tribes (KY is a good example in the 1960s) to reach the masses.
In the specific cases of Uganda, Museveni has co-opted churches, mosques, tribal groupings and their leaders into his bread coalition. And this explains why political patronage is massive and corruption widespread in Uganda.
It explains why our opposition political are miscalculated. The NRM lacks effective organisational structure as well but heavy leans on the state to penetrate society- local councils, RDCs, Police. ISO, etc. NUP has strong emotional support, great bran appeal but has no organisational depth. That means they can’t convert their brand appeal into votes.
Secondly, the support for FDC was not just emotional, as one finds with NUP. There was a strong principal around which to organise a strong opposition movement against Museveni- the growth of intolerance within NRM. In fact, NRM, like FDC today has failed to manage it internal contradictions. It has thus chased key politicians from its ranks that had organised around PAFO. There are the leaders who went to form FDC in alliance with Reform Agenda and Karuhanga Chaapa’s party Museveni realised this later began with some success to woe them back.
Yet FDC did not learn this lesson. It has instead always sought internal conformity with wishes of Besigye, which led it to purge anyone who held some independent thinking. One by one, the major leaders who gave it organisational depth began leaving the party. Over the last 15 years, its share of parliament and local councils has fallen from 15% to 5 %. So FDC today finds itself in crisis. Its strongest base was North but today it has a “Northern problem” its leading pillars in that region have quit it either joined NRM anyway among or are now running as independents Latigo, Okumu, Otto, Wadri joined ANT, etc.
With FDC fracturing, one would have imagined that the emerging vacuum would be filled NAP. But NAP has accelerated thus vacuum because it has raised great emotional expectations which can’t meet because it is incapable of building organisational infrastructure to support its strong brand appeal. Its failure to attract big names from different ethnic and religious communities of Uganda means it has large body (followership) with a weak head leadership, thereby making it difficult to turn talent/ potential support into actual votes.
Bobi Wine’s background as a musician compounds this problem. How you build a fan base as musician is totally different from how you build a voter base in politics. Fans flock to you without you having to build an organisation to bring them over. Your music does it. A musician’s music fans are not necessarily his voters. Even Bad Black if she went to Jinja she can excite people to come to her rally but they would not necessarily be people who can vote her for President or MP.
Secondly, the people Bobi Wine has surrounds himself with a few voices with little standing and prestige in their ethnic or religious communities to provide organisational infrastructure.
They may not be a hand cap in urban areas where tribal or religious loyalties are strong. But people of standing are vital in rural communities because peasants follow their lead. And this is the weakness of NUP because 68% of Ugandans live as peasants in rural areas respecting elders. in fact, Bobi Wine needs to think seriously about whether such Ugandans see him as a viable presidential candidate, even though they may love him as a person.
For many years, the opposition has failed to marshal a majority in elections- not because of lack of popular support- but because of lack of effective organisational structure to turn out people to vote. This is also the reason our political parties fail to raise money NRMs organisational strength is rooted in its control of the state. it is leveraged the infrastructure of the state- including LCs- to penetrate society. This is what makes it successful. UPC and DP were strong because they were rooted in the Anglican and catholic church respectively. This gave them a ready-made organisational infrastructure backed by a large cadre-ship of priests to spread their message down to the villages. Today opposition support is strongest among urban populations. However, Uganda is a very rural economy with small size trading posts for urban areas- Mbarara, Arua, lira Mbale, Masaka, Jinja- too small to provide an urban based opposition movement like we saw in Cairo or Khartoum. Therefore, a strategy of popular uprising that Besigye prefers has little chances of success against an entranced system like they are in NRM because it can only be based in Kampala and Wakiso- too small and narrow a base.
NUP like FDC before it, will ignore this reality at its own peril. Like Besigye, it will always wonder why huge emotional support at public rallies did not transfer into victory. As a consolation, it will retreat to claims that Museveni stole their votes and they will be plenty of evidence- both real and imagined – to convince them. Yet even where Museveni steals votes, it’s because he is strong. Where he is weak, he has always been beaten.
But can NUP learn from FDC?
It is still too early to tell.
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