By press time senior members of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party were roaming the typically small and dusty, newly created Bugiri municipality located in middle-eastern Uganda. They are here to canvass votes for their parliamentary candidate, Eunice Namatende.
At the same time, the popular Kyadondo East MP, Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine), alongside the Democratic Party leadership, is campaigning for Justice Forum (Jeema) president, Asuman Basalirwa. SULAIMAN KAKAIRE writes about how the Bugiri election is developing into another contest between FDC and the 'Kyagulanyi effect'.
Two days to the nomination of candidates, Basalirwa was busy discussing plans for his nomination day rally with his taskforce when he recieved a call.
A key person in the taskforce told The Observer that: "Our constituency being a municipality you have to think cosmopolitan while designing your message. So, we were here thinking of how to do it. Should we have stellar performances or have a cocktail of urban politicians filling up the speech menu. All these options were being weighed in a measured way."
On the line was Bobi Wine, a musician of national renown, and a veritable crowd puller in his own right. The singing politician was requesting a postponement.
"It was to the effect that we should not have our nomination as slated on Monday (June 4). Why? That very day he was going to do his end of semester examinations at law school [International University of East Africa]. Obviously, we had to push our nomination to the following day," a source who participated in the meeting said.
Such is the pulling power Bobi Wine wields - the sort of power whose potency the FDC first tested in the 2017 by-election, which he swept by a landslide in Kyadondo East. Henceforth, the musician-turned-politician has repeatedly cast himself as the future of Uganda's majority youth population, a position which seems to relegate Besigye & Co as relics of a fast-fading era.
The FDC candidate, Eunice Namatende, got wind of this development and, with her team, started to think about how to counter 'the Bobi Wine factor'. Sources say they decided to line-up a bevy of artistes of their own.
However, a few hours to the nomination day on June 5, FDC president, Patrick Oboi Amuriat arrived from Kampala and announced that Dr Kizza Besigye, founding father and party luminary, would be joining them.
Basalirwa has worked with Besigye and other opposition leaders in the most trying of times. His decision to engage in Bugiri has, however, further upset that relationship. The Jeema/FDC/Besigye association was first rocked by Basalirwa's controversial decision to support former premier Amama Mbabazi for president in the 2016 presidential run, disrupting Besigye's profile as the 'opposition candidate'.
With Bobi Wine swinging from his corner, Besigye was leaving nothing to chance for the Jeema boss.
"Dr Besigye's change of plan was because he was due to travel out of the country. We changed our plans and everything that had been conceptualised for the last few days. In fact, we had to bring the nomination forward," Namatende said in an interview.
"Before nomination it [Besigye's support] was not clear based on his past relationship with Asuman... but the moment he mentioned to me that this election is not about Eunice but a fight against FDC. It became clear what kind of fight we are engaged in."
The campaign tone was set... Basalirwa's nomination rally was held at Hindocha primary school while Namatende settled for Bugiri Taxi Park.
Namatende should ordinarily have drawn more people given her rally's location, but Bobi Wine-Basalirwa were received by a massive crowd - defying previous Besigye-Namatende showings in the municipality.
During the 2016 elections, Namatende laid claim to having got around 4,000 votes compared to Basalirwa's claim of 1,044 votes in Bugiri Town Council - now upgraded to the new municipality. Besigye himself got 3,781(45.62%) votes out of 8,288 valid votes cast against President Museveni's 4,281 (51.65%).
Godfrey Mugoya, a voter here, said that the way the events unfolded on nomination day and given how things are shaping up, one can gain an insight into voter behaviour in this area.
"There is no other person who has had a bigger crowd than that of Dr Besigye on most of the occasions he has held rallies in the municipality," Mugoya said.
"In fact, in the last election, Namatende had more votes than Basalirwa at the polling stations that currently make up the new municipality. Perhaps, this is a signal that this election could be decided by factors different from those that decided the previous elections."
In full agreement with Mugoya, Lydia Namayengo, an election observer with Citizen's Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, notes that there are many factors defining this election but the most visible include individual merit, religion, age limit, intra-party fights, especially on the part of the NRM, which has two candidates, the official one and Siraji Lyavala-Samanya," Namayengo said.
"However, all these factors have been overshadowed by the Besigye-Bobi Wine competition. You cannot ignore the Kyagulanyi effect in this election. There are many youthful voters in this municipality, who are influenced and moved by his political messaging since it appeals to their age and aspirations. Those are the things they are sharing with us," she said.
And so, the Bugiri campaign is more than just a local election. Quite tellingly, Besigye, Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, Betty Nambooze (Mukono municipality MP) and former Jeema leader, Hajji Hussein Kyanjo had tried to 'pretend' otherwise when they addressed a recent press conference at Fairway Hotel in Kampala, but the cat is out and about.
"I don't know how they pushed the honourable Kyanjo [former Makindye West MP] to that press conference. It was in a way helping them manage the humiliation they faced at the nomination day," Basalirwa says.
"It is quietly becoming clear to everyone that some people have been threatened by the Kyagulanyi effect and in trying to manage it are baying for our blood."
Other opposition sources say that this rivalry was on public display during the Jinja East by-election.
"... Besigye's group was concerned about Bobi Wine's role in the campaign. Whereas at first Paul Mwiru's taskforce had chosen Bobi Wine to head his campaigns, at the intervention of the FDC party headquarters, he was dropped and replaced by Kira municipality MP, Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda," the insider reveals.
The story goes that in one incident some people were unhappy that Bobi Wine spoke at one of the rallies after Besigye had said his piece - granting him some form of special status. Namatende, like Paul Mwiru, is known to support Besigye's nemesis in the FDC, Maj. Gen Mugisha Muntu.
Divided we fall
Speaking to The Observer at the weekend, FDC's Abdu Katuntu, who represents the neighbouring Bugweri county in parliament, said that it is unfortunate they failed to agree on a joint candidate.
"The way events are unfolding in Bugiri municipality the opposition vote is going to be split, which ultimately could work in favour of our common enemy [NRM]."
Perhaps, Katuntu's fears are not unfounded. Despite the Bobi Wine magic, Jeema seems thin around the constituency. Basalirwa is actually relying partly on local FDC networks.
Wilson Wagwabi, the FDC chairperson in the municipality and other leaders like Dick Mukuve (chair women's league); Karim Muyindi (chairperson of Western Division); Aswin-Bin-Amir Tifugwamukazi (chairperson for PWD); Fred Kyozira (Naluwerere) and Habib Mwase (Butambula Central) are working with the Jeema man.
But Namatende says she is unmoved.
"They told us that they are looking for money from Basalirwa's camp but they will vote for me. I am okay with the way things are. For people like Mukuve [who competed against Namatende in the previous election] we talked to her and she was diffused," she said.
Under normal circumstances, the ruling National Resistance Movement's John Francis Oketcho should have benefited from a divided opposition. However, he is facing his own demons.
Hajji Siraji Lyavala, who lost in the NRM primaries, disputed the result and went rogue. He got nominated as an independent, and his supporters say that if the situation demands, they will back the strongest opposition candidate.
"Depending on how things go we shall support Namatende or Basalirwa, we cannot allow a person who [cheated] us to represent us," said one of Lyavala's campaign coordinators.
It is said that NRM secretary general Justine Lumumba preferred Lyavala, yet the party's electoral commission boss, Dr Tanga Odoi, was always for Oketcho. Odoi and Lumumba have a particular dislike for each other.
In previous elections, the ruling party contained its internal strife. For instance, in 2016, despite the NRM vote being split between flag bearer, Gaster Kyawa Mugoya (current MP for Bukooli North) and Stephen Bakka Mugabi, Mugoya still won with 19,877 votes. Mugabi got 16,568 votes. Basalirwa got 2,942 votes and FDC's Charles Masinde 1,001.
But Namayengo also says that this election, like other recent ones, will be about national politics; the divisive politics of the presidential age limit constitutional amendment and the place of 'third way politics' represented by Bobi Wine and his appeal to young voters.
"This place was opposed to it [age-limit bill] but their MP voted to the contrary. So, they are likely to penalise the ruling party for that. Then things like social service delivery in this place... ," she said.
"This election is beyond parties and that has been reflected in the previous result. You have also to understand that this is a Muslim dominant municipality and voters have started to get divided between Muslim candidates [Basalirwa or Lyavala] and Catholic candidate [Namatende]."