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STAGNANT PARTIES: Why DP, UPC and JEEMA have failed every test except survival


When it came into being in 1996 the Justice Forum exhibited an ambition and a drive to seize power that left no reason to doubt its seriousness. It fronted a presidential candidate whose education and professional profile, whose articulacy and assertiveness, whose devotion and selflessness, emphasized the seriousness with which the new party launched its quest for State power.

Even though Muhammad Kibirige Mayanja expectedly lost the election, winning no more than 2.1 percent of the vote, the party he led fascinated the minority Muslim population and proved its grip on the community the like of which every major political party in Uganda has used as a stepping stone. In almost every district he reached during the campaign, Mr. Mayanja was welcomed like a messiah by a people whose imams had passionately warned against letting down their Muslim brother.

In part this Muslim support for Jeema was due to 100 years of state-led marginalization of the community, impelling the faithful believers to distrust everyone except their own. In part this support was rooted in the Islamic tradition of a Muslim is a Muslim’s brother, wish for your brother what you wish for yourself, believing men and women are allies of one another, and the like.

But Jeema did not enjoy this support, and whatever other support it may have had, for long. In the 2001 presidential elections Mr. Mayanja scored just one percent of the vote – down from 2.1 percent five years earlier. Predominantly Muslim areas, such as Bwera in Kasese District, which had voted overwhelmingly for the Muslim candidate in 1996, looked the other way five years later.

The party continued to change for the worse until it won one parliamentary seat in 2006, a whole decade after its formation.

Efforts to increase Jeema’s presence in parliament failed every time they were mounted, with the latest disappointment recorded in 2011. The party’s founding president, Kibirige Mayanja, who had contested for president twice, decided to run at a lower level – at parliamentary level – but finished in third place behind little-known politicians. Jeema’s biggest achievement in the elections, besides retaining its Makindye West Parliamentary seat, came as a surprise when the party won the Bukomansimbi District Chair.

By and large Jeema remains in an embarrassing state, with one MP out of 375; one district chair out of 112; three local council councilors out of thousands. This, for a party that has existed for 15 years, is surely one step forward, two steps back. This stagnation, as I argued elsewhere in What Went Wrong at Jeema, is rooted in three factors: the forgotten terror, the desertion of the mosque, and the absence of leadership.

The forgotten terror
The strength with which the wheel of Jeema started rolling in 1996 alarmed President Museveni. The ease with which Jeema attracted Muslims portrayed the party as a vanguard that had come to mobilize, unite and lead Muslims to State power.

Whereas its appeal to the general public was trivial, the party displayed some potential to develop into a much more organized and formidable political movement in future. Museveni could not fold his hands as a political threat materialized, and, most importantly, as a Muslim political threat materialized. In non-Muslim countries the rise of Muslims – whether in population size, in political influence or in economic clout – is viewed by the bigots as an invasion, by the conservatives as a takeover, and by both as a calamity.

To prevent the ‘calamity’ that would erupt from a much more organized Muslim political movement in future, Museveni saw it fit to ‘disrupt, dismantle and defeat’ Jeema in its embryonic years. In the name of fighting the ADF rebellion Museveni’s government embarked on a slaughtering campaign, summarily executing countless Muslims, especially politicized Muslims, and confining others to secret torture chambers locally know as safe houses.
Rebel became a label to be stuck on Muslims who wore long beards and shortened trousers. This campaign was seen at Jeema as a strategy to weaken the party by eliminating its agents and frightening remnants.

If this is what the campaign of terror sought – to terrify Jeema members – it succeeded. So frightened were the members that they virtually gave up mobilization and decided to spend the rest of their time distancing the organization from its constituency – the Muslims – and from its engine – the mosque.

Desertion of the mosque
But Jeema is not the only party that has suffered such brutality. How comes the FDC party – whose leader has frequented jail on fabricated cases of rape, treason, and, most recently, of inciting violence – has managed to grow relatively stronger? The difference lies in how the two parties responded to the painful torments.

The FDC, far from giving up, intensified its aggressiveness and escalated its confrontation with the government. Jeema, on the other hand, not only withdrew in the face of brutality, it failed to publicly speak out against the atrocities that were being committed against its key supporters – the Muslims. Jeema, in other wards, deserted its supporters when they needed it most; it actually abandoned everything to do with Muslim problems.

Whereas Muslims embraced Jeema, Jeema did not embrace them. The party hardly espoused Muslim causes and, on the contrary, tried hard to distance itself from Islam. Surely some individual Jeema members, especially Dr. Abasi Kiyimba and Imam Kasozi, often voiced Muslim concerns, passionately denouncing all sorts of oppression perpetrated on the believers. But they did so not as Jeema leaders, nor even as Jeema members, but as leaders of the Uganda Muslim Youth Assembly or as patrons of the Makerere University Muslim Students Association.

Jeema’s unforgivable silence came at the height of the forgotten terror, a campaign in the late 1990s in which Museveni’s government summarily executed, detained without trial and tortured countless Muslims for allegedly aiding the ADF rebellion. Certainly some party members did quietly secure the release of some victims, particularly Jeema members. But seldom did they condemn the campaign of terror publicly, fearing, as a senior party official told me, to be labeled the political wing of the ADF.

The campaign to delink Jeema from its undisputed Muslim identity continues. A section of the leadership of the party has constantly attempted to convince members not to use the Islamic greeting of salaam at party gatherings that involve non-Muslim members, and not to open party meetings with overtly Islamic prayers, such as those recited wholly or partly in Arabic, or those in which the name of Allah is mentioned.

Surely beyond having a Muslim president and a Muslim secretary general Jeema failed to prove its relevance to Islam, its usefulness to Muslims, and its concern for both. This is certainly no inducement for Muslims to support the party. They, accordingly, withdrew the support they had offered.

The leadership claims the party can be deregistered for being ‘religious’. This fear is farfetched, for no party can be banned for simply speaking out against atrocities committed on a religious group or for opening its meetings with prayers that involve invoking the name of the Creator, whether it 
is Allah, God, Jehovah or Adonai.

Many an organisation in this part of the world opens its meetings with prayers that end with the declaration, “In Jesus’ name, Amen,” even when some members in the sitting are not Christians. The Christians confidently, and at times aggressively, express their beliefs as loud as they can, at private and public meetings, at formal and informal gatherings, at civil and state functions. The Muslims, on the other hand, feel uneasy about their beliefs and wish to conceal or disguise them, thinking that doing otherwise would displease the followers of other religions. This is but an inferiority complex that plagues minority groups worldwide and that has constrained Ugandan Muslims since the triumph of Christianity in the religious wars of the late 19th Century.

For semiliterate Muslims to feel inferior is excusable. But for highly-educated and widely-respected founders of a political organisation to harbor similar feelings is shocking. By discarding its Muslim identity and by being indifferent to Muslim problems, Jeema was not stating why it deserved Muslim support. And once Muslims, as far as their interests were concerned, found little or no difference between supporting JEEMA and NRM, FDC, UPC, or DP, they went for whichever they thought was more appealing.

As Jeema fought to undress its Muslim garment, it did nothing, and totally nothing, to take its campaign to the general public – to members of all religious denominations. It ignored Muslims and made no effort to woo the rest, and, eventually, lost both. Jeema’s desertion of the mosque is, in other words, a symptom of a wider failure – the failure to carryout mobilization. This could not have befallen the party under the watch of competent leaders.

The absence of leadership
It is surely unfair to accuse the leadership of Jeema of lack of achievement. The impressive presidential campaign mounted by the founding president Muhammad K. Mayanja in 1996 encouraged many Muslims to compete for political offices in subsequent elections, marking the start of the end of the marginalization of Muslims that this country had known since colonial era. And the fact that Jeema, despite its weaknesses, has stood the test of time is a credit to its leadership.

But these leaders also had serious shortcomings that made Jeema the laughing stock it is today. They became party presidents and party secretary-generals without adequate leadership experience in politics or in any other formal setting. This made them susceptible to all the uncertainties of trial and error. Until 2008, twelve years since they formed Jeema, they operated without secretariat, save for makeshift offices that appeared for one or two months during elections and closed shortly after.

Without headquarters and without central command the leaders could not meet to confer and to plot a course for the party. They could not even think. They lost touch with their district representatives, forgot everything about mobilization, and slept until the electoral commission would announce nomination dates for presidential and parliamentary elections. It was then that they would emerge from slumberland, fill nomination forms, hold a few rallies here and there and expect to win in elections.

This, unfortunately, is how most Muslim organizations in Uganda operate: without plan, without discipline, without direction. From schools to mosques and from firms to orphanages, Muslim organizations are managed haphazardly – without formal procedures, without proper record keeping and without proper accountability. Jeema is no exception.

It is this leadership that has failed almost on all accounts that remains in charge of the party.

The Democratic Party (DP) that is now scattered in conflicting cliques was once a promising enterprise. It once mirrored the high level of organisation that defines the Catholic Church.

Like the Justice Forum, DP nourished and flourished from a feeling of marginalisation, this time among the Catholic population. This feeling started as soon as Frederick Lugard’s Maxim gun catapulted Anglicans to State power in the late 19th Century. Since then the Anglicans have predominated and dominated politics and every State-connected enterprise, from ministries to factories and from the military to the judiciary.

There is no question the Catholics were not as severely marginalized as their Muslim counterparts whose status Samwiri Karugire summarises in three words: third class citizens. But the followers of the largest religious communion in the country, aware of their numerical supremacy, have never been comfortable as second-class citizens.

This discontent peaked in 1954 when the Catholics, represented by their elite, decided to compete for power as an organized entity, in an organized fashion. They formed the Democratic Party and quickly registered some successes, winning the 1961 election in a landslide and performing quite well in the 1962 election.

In 1980, after a decade of military dictatorship, the Democratic Party returned to demonstrate its persistent vitality. It won the general election though it was declared the loser. For the next five years the party appeared as a possible replacement for Milton Obote’s UPC government.

In 1986 President Museveni suspended multi-party politics for two decades, preventing parties, including the DP, from developing grassroots structures, carrying out mobilization and obtaining foreign assistance.

The Democratic Party weakened itself further by joining Museveni’s government. By the time it rejoined the opposition in 1996, the DP had lost a great deal of its members and supporters to the ruling movement. DP’s appeal to the peasants of Buganda, who formed the crux of the party’s support, equally dispersed as soon as President Museveni restored the Kingdom of Buganda in the early 1990s and won over their hearts and minds.

In 2001 the Democratic Party made another mistake, a fatal mistake this time. It allied with the Reform Agenda, which later metamorphosed into the FDC party, and called on its supporters to vote for the group’s presidential candidate, Kizza Besigye. They voted for Dr. Besigye overwhelmingly; but they also – contrary to DP’s calculations – permanently shifted their allegiance to the new kids on the opposition block.

The most popular slogan of the 2001 elections reflects the depth of DP’s contribution to the popularity of Kizza Besigye and his organisation: “Hajj [Nasser Ssebaggala] alagidde tuwe Besigye akalulu,” went the rallying cry, which meant, “The hajj (Nasser Ssebaggala – an exceptionally popular DP official by then) has asked us to vote for Kizza Besigye.”

The then powerful DP mobilization machinery, including the vocal, though now hollow, Uganda Young Democrats, deployed to strengthen a cluster of little-known politicians which had broken away from the ruling party and had hardly established nationwide structures to facilitate any robust mobilization. This backing laid the foundation on which FDC’s popularity nurtured and blossomed. And, in no time, FDC replaced DP as the undisputed leader of the opposition.

Even without the backing of the Democratic Party the Forum for Democratic Change would definitely have won the support of many Ugandans. But it is difficult to explain the speed at which the FDC became popular throughout the country without emphasizing the role of the unsuspecting Democratic Party.

As the FDC consolidated its dominance in the opposition camp the Democratic Party increasingly lost ground. By 2006 the DP could not score two percent of the vote in the presidential election and would struggle to raise a dozen Members of Parliament. With only two district chairs today, what was once a ruling party-in-waiting has surely fallen so low.

The most devastating blow hit the DP in 2010 when it chose to be led by a Northerner. Norbert Mao, there is no question, is a bright politician with exceptional oratory skills. But he wasn’t the best choice for a party that is founded on tribalism and chauvinism.

In its maiden years the DP was not as tribalist as Kabaka Yekka, an ultra-conservative political party that looked at Buganda as a state within a state and, at worst, called for the secession of the kingdom in the 1960s. The DP did not identify itself with the chauvinism that defined pre and post-independence Buganda. But it is highly likely that the DP’s initial reluctance to worship its tribe was driven less by nationalism – the need for a unified Uganda – than by Catholicism.

Catholic DP opposed the ultra-conservatives in the kingdom largely because they were Anglicans who had marginalized Catholics for fifty years and were bent on preserving their privileges to perpetuity. To support an arrangement seeking veto powers, if not total independence, for an Anglican royal establishment that treats Catholics as inferiors would be to betray the DP’s raison d'être.

The ultra-conservatives were similarly suspicious of Catholic DP, choosing to ally with their fellow Protestants even though they were not Baganda. But as soon Milton Obote turned against his Baganda allies, exiling the Kabaka in 1966 and abolishing his kingdom shortly after, the Baganda came to their senses and shelved their religious differences to confront a common enemy and saw in the DP, the strongest Baganda-dominated national political movement ever, a vehicle to advance their cause and restore their glory. At this point the Democratic Party, which had hitherto been accused of undermining the Kabaka, became the de facto mouthpiece of Buganda and effectively added to its Catholic mission a tribalist agenda.

More than ever the unwritten rule restricting the presidency of the Democratic Party to Baganda Catholics became inviolable. The rise of Norbert Mao to the topmost office was therefore treated as aberrant and deviant. To be led by a non-Muganda is bad enough; to be led by an Acholi whose fellow Northerners expelled the Kabaka and desecrated the kingdom is too much to stomach. It thus came as no surprise when a group of influential party members refused to recognize Mr. Mao as DP President and openly campaigned for a rival candidate, Kizza Besigye, in the 2011 presidential elections. This bunch of fanatical tribalists found it wiser to tear the party apart than to ‘hand it over’ to an Acholi.

Another Baganda group that equally refused to recognize the leadership of Mao fielded their own presidential candidate, Samuel Lubega. Things have been worsened by Mao’s questionable integrity – he is said to have been touched by President Museveni’s long arm of bribery. This accusation might be yet another ploy by his foes to discredit him. But it works to some extent to build up opposition against him and to deny him the sympathy he would otherwise deserve.

So bogged down in such stupid sectarianism is the DP that every reconciliation effort it mounts ends up in tatters. And there is little it can achieve.

The Uganda Peoples Congress that ruled Uganda twice is now confined to a single sub-region – Lango – where it draws all its nine Members of Parliament and its four district chairpersons. The insignificance of UPC today is further proved by the number of votes the party presidential candidate, Olara Otunnu, scored in the 2011 general election –1.58 percent.

The sad state of the half-century-old party is partly rooted in its history. Milton Obote’s 1967 abolition of the monarchies was surely necessary to end an unnecessary power struggle between the central government and an arrogant kingdom. But the move earned him, along with his party, the perpetual wrath of Uganda’s largest ethnic group – the Baganda. It is a wrath that continues to wreck the UPC, solely accounting for the party’s absence in central Uganda.

In 1980, after blatantly stealing the election, the UPC returned to power and committed some of the worst human rights violations the country has ever seen. Though the UPC, with some reasonable grounds, blames the then rebel leader Yoweri Museveni and his rag-tag guerillas for most of the atrocities, especially the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians during the NRA rebellion, the fact that the governing party failed to protect the people and their properties is enough to discredit it.

For what it did UPC is widely resented. But it is also resented simply for what it is – a northern-dominated organisation. The southerners loathed their northern counterparts not only for their ethnic identity, but also for dominating the military and politics for decades after independence.
The bitterness between the Bantu people of the south and their Nilotic northern counterparts is real, stemming from the colonial policy of divide and rule. The British administration confined most of the development – schools, hospitals, roads, industries, offices – to the south, leaving the people of the north to provide semi-killed and despised labour in the armed forces, factories and storehouses.

Taking advantage of their dominance in the military the northerners seized State power and mounted a decade-long campaign of terror, reinforcing the Bantu perception of the northerners as brutal and backward. This is the lens through which the northerners, including the UPC and its leaders, are still viewed in much of the south. And it is unlikely that the people of the south would want to see another round of such ‘savages’ in power.

The only support the UPC enjoyed in the south came from the Anglicans who feared to lose what they had inherited from the British – State power – to Catholic DP. But the Anglicans have since found new homes in the ruling NRM and the leading opposition FDC parties. In these leading organizations the Protestants set the rules. They see no sense in reverting to a party whose past is tainted, whose present is embarrassing and whose future is bleak.

Fed up with the hopelessness of their party, a group of senior UPC officials, including former national chairpersons Yona Kanyomozi and Badru Wegulo, crossed to the FDC and NRM, respectively, months to the 2011 general election.

Other senior defectors included the party’s once-celebrated iron lady Cecilia Ogwal and former Buganda Region chairperson Henry Mayega. Such high-level defections in such rapid succession are comparable to the defection of Kizza Besigye and his group from the NRM. The NRM, being the ruling party with abundant resources, absorbed the shock, but the same cannot be said of a poverty-stricken opposition party.

The UPC is poverty-stricken? This may seem odd to many, particularly those who know the worth of the foundation that Milton Obote laid to sustain the operation of the party. Indeed the Milton Obote Foundation generates from Uganda House and other investments millions of dollars that would make the UPC the richest party in the country.
But the 48-year-old foundation was hijacked by a handful of self-interested so-called governors who divert almost all the revenues to serve their personal needs. They say the money pays for the education of orphans, a claim that is simply a claim. What remains of the peanuts is all that goes to the UPC, often after the party president has begged, and begged and begged.

The UPC is winding up, said Mr. Mayega as he announced his defection to the NRM late last year. No words could better summarise the hopelessness of Uganda’s second oldest party.

This story first appeared in the print version of The Campus Journal (Sept—Oct 2011).