In teenage girl Proscovia Alengot Oromait winning the Usuk county by-elections in Katakwi district on Wednesday, the NRM pulled back one much-needed victory; breaking the string of losses the party has suffered in six straight previous by-elections, including the loss in Butambala county on the same day.
Even then, one would be hard-pressed to say this was a much-deserved victory, considering what NRM had to do to achieve it. Apparently, the NRM's signature violence was written all over the place in blood with several opposition politicians beaten up and their vehicles vandalized by goons organized by ruling party politicians as police 'respectfully' looked on.
The name of Education minister Jessica Alupo, who hails from Katakwi district, has been mentioned among the NRM faces believed to have been behind the violence. Be that as it may, there are several talking points for the opposition in the results of both Usuk and Butambala by-elections if indeed they are in the business of trying to bring about change in Uganda, and not just politicking.
The opposition has had a good ride in the previous by-elections in Bukoto, Jinja, Bushenyi, etc, even countering the state-sponsored violence by a partisan police largely because they were able to marshal all their resources - human and logistical - in the small concentrated constituencies.
It was a different game this time though, because they were spread between two constituencies on the same day and only barely managed to salvage one as the other slipped out of them, not because the NRM candidate was strong, but because the ruling party found little resistance against its violence on the ground.
The opposition must, therefore, quickly wake up from their trance and realise that they are still dealing with the same NRM and the factors that have always worked against them - disunity, militarism, partisan police, inadequate logistics, inadequate manpower to maintain vigilance and presence, poor grassroots mobilisation, poor game reading, to name a few - are still the factors that will hold them from causing change in Uganda.
Unfortunately, it appears many opposition politicians do not seem to see this; their victories in small constituencies and personal ambition have blinded them from the greater picture of harnessing opposition unity, putting their limited resources to common use and reading the game well on the ground so as to resonate with the ordinary voters who are the true power the opposition can call upon and rely on to vote and defend that vote.
Instead, they are sitting in their offices, pubs and restaurants engaging in grand scheming and positioning themselves ahead of each other the way nsenene (grasshoppers) locked up in a bottle jostle to come on top of the other, oblivious of the fact that that's the best they will do and it will get none of them out of the bottle.
The now regular prevarications from many Democratic Party (DP) leaders that seem to suggest that DP would rather be the "biggest" opposition party than be part of an opposition coalition government, the shenanigans in UPC where some of its members have "allied" with the ruling party to fight their own party for crumbs falling off Uganda House, and now the charade in the FDC race for president whereby the new leader may be chosen simply on the basis of feelings, sentiments, looks and personality in total disregard of proven ability and the prevalent mood at the grassroots, shows that the opposition is still only as good as being in opposition.
The NRM, no matter its other weaknesses, sometimes reads the ground well. In Usuk, they understood that they could ride on the sentiments of the people by fronting the daughter of the late MP Oromait, the same way they did in Wakiso with the son of the late minister Kibirige Ssebunya. This, and some kiboko, was able to ensure victory.
On the other hand, the opposition's biggest weapon in elections is grassroots mobilisation to achieve big turnout and vigilance - something that often ruling parties and governments dread. But that appears not to be anywhere in the priorities of the opposition parties.
Outgoing FDC president Kizza Besigye understood that a leader must go down to the people and it is the reason he managed to galvanise many Ugandans at the grassroots who are opposed to the NRM regime behind him even as various opposition party leaders lived their dreams of grandeur and power only to end up with 2% or less of the vote.
He earned the trust of ordinary voters by being with them and for them, even when it sometimes meant rolling in the mud.
So, as the opposition rues their loss in Usuk and celebrates the win in Butambala, they should focus more on unity, connecting to the grassroots and building a solid support base there rather than merely sitting on a chessboard in Kampala and allocating themselves positions in the firm illusion that when they go to the grassroots, their names and faces will galvanise the people to rally behind them. It won't! Museveni and his NRM will simply benefit from increased apathy, and where need be, they will pull out the cane!
After all, NRM is the devil they know!
The author is a political and social critic. He's a former editor of Sunday Monitor and The Independent.