Uganda: NRM Party and the Unappeased Ghosts of Independent Candidates

20 September 2020

The Basoga say, "No one is tall enough to have a peak into the future." They could be wrong. Sometimes a few people do become tall enough to do so.

In that category would be Members of Parliament (MPs) who in March threw out proposals in both the Presidential Elections Amendment Bill, 2019, and the Parliamentary Elections Amendment Bill, 2019, that sought to block candidates who suffered defeat in the primaries from participating in elections as Independent candidates.

Did they have a hunch that the NRM primaries would be as chaotic as they turned out to be? Did they believe that given the ugly incidents that were seen in the 2015 and the 2011 party primaries before them, the NRM was simply incapable of organising controversy- and violence-free primaries?

Previous elections

We may never get answers to those questions, but results from the 2011 and 2016 general elections saw many who had lost the party primaries easily cruise to victory. Many of them actually subjected the party's official flag bearers to humiliating defeats.

Most of the Independent MPs signed memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with the NRM, which paved way for them to serve in Cabinet or to head committees of Parliament.

For example, in 2011 Mr Asuman Kiyingi, who had lost to Mr Maurice Kibalya in the 2010 primaries, defeated the party flag bearer and was appointed to Cabinet. Others like Dr Sam Okuonzi and Mr Fox Odoi respectively chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Committee on Rules and Privileges.

Then following their victories in 2016, Ms Aidah Nantaba who stood as an Independent MP for the Kayunga District Woman seat, and Ms Persis Namuganza, who beat Mr Michael Saire for the Bukono County MP seat, were both appointed to Cabinet in June 2016. Ms Namuganza is still part of Mr Museveni's Cabinet.

The 10th Parliament has 69 Independent MPs, most of whom are aligned to the ruling NRM. Almost all of them chose to run against the NRM flag bearers after suffering defeats in the party primaries.

Party fears

Political leaders in both the National Consultative Forum (NCF), a platform that brings together all registered political parties, and the Inter-Party Organisation for Dialogue (Ipod), which brings together all political parties with representation in Parliament, concerned that the number of Independent MPs was likely to increase in 2021.

It was that fear that led to the insertion in both the Presidential Elections Amendment Bill, 2019, and the Parliamentary Elections Amendment Bill, 2019, clauses that sought to either block or make it extremely difficult for Independent candidates to emerge during election cycles.

It had been proposed that one could only contest as an Independent if he or she was not a member of a registered political party. Where a registered member of a party sought to contest as an Independent candidate, he or she had to have been discharged from the said political party at least 12 months before nomination by the Electoral Commission (EC).

The proposal, in part was meant to be: "The Regulations of Independent Candidates Bill, 2019, sought to actualise Article 72(5) of the Constitution as amended in 2005, which vests in Parliament the powers to by law regulate the manner of participation in (elections) and financing of elections by individuals seeking political office as independent candidates."

Problem creeping into other parties?

President Museveni has always voiced his discomfort with Independents. In December 2005 while speaking in Rakai District, he said it was unacceptable for NRM members to contest as Independent candidates, saying it would split the NRM's votes and hand the Opposition the initiative. He was sterner in September 2010.

"Nobody should talk of independence. Bring facts, show that you were cheated and we shall repeat the elections if need be. But we are not going to tolerate Independents," he said at the close of the party's two-day national conference.

Despite such stern words, the issue persisted, but what had been known to be the source of headache to the party in power has started afflicting the Opposition and it would appear that the protagonists have for the first time found something on which they seem to agree.

The president general of the Democratic Party (DP), Mr Norbert Mao, seemed to think that the legislation would hand the parties more power over their members and MPs. "Some Independents have become extremely disruptive. All they do is fight the party. This is a legitimate concern. And if you have a problem you find a solution," Mr Mao told sections of the media in April last year.

Would they have worked?

Whether the pieces of legislation would have cured the problem is a matter for another day. Some of the Independent MPs and their supporters had already indicated that they would have challenged the provisions in the Constitutional Court as they would amount to an infringement on their fundamental rights and freedoms.

Most important, however, is that it would not have been enough to simply pass those laws without putting in place systems that would ensure that internal elections are free and fair. The NRM, despite having had three primaries since it introduced universal adult suffrage, has not been able to achieve on that front.

Having a free and fair internal election would mean putting in place a transparent process through which members of the party are registered and an equally transparent election exercise. It would also mean equipping and providing adequate funding to the party's EC and putting in place a well-structured mechanism for arbitration and dispute resolution.

Weak committees

Over the years, the NRM has had disciplinary and arbitration committees. In 2010, those committees were headed by Mr Moses Kigongo and former premier Kintu Musoke, but were deemed lame ducks because of interferences in their work by the party chairperson who was always quick to receive complaints and mediate in conflicts that should have ordinarily been handled by the committees.

Matters have always been made worse by the fact that the committees have always been poorly facilitated and incapable of dangling money or jobs around, something that has always come easy for the party chairman.

The 2010 primaries were marred by chaos, violence and massive rigging. Local media was awash with reports that ballot papers had been stolen and taken to private printers who reproduced them and ballot papers were often sent to the wrong place.

Ballot papers meant for Sembabule turned up in Butaleja where they were used to stuff votes into ballot boxes, while ballots meant for Usuk County were first dispatched to Soroti Municipality before being sent to the right destination later in the day.

That mess was blamed on a decision by one of the EC commissioner's decision to hire relatives and tribesmen, mostly university students to handle the dispatch process. The students were reportedly manipulated. This time there were no students to manipulate, but there were election officials to be manipulated.

Lack of training

During the January 12 to 14, 2010, meeting of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the NRM, then secretary general John Patrick Amama Mbabazi reported that the party's EC was working to "build capacity and work towards a clean, transparent, credible and efficient internal electoral process".

Mr Mbabazi said EC commissioners and district party officials had been trained in election management and related work, adding that the training would be rolled out to the sub-counties and villages, but the training never took place.

Capt Mike Mukula, who is also the vice chairperson of the party in eastern Uganda, says the party has as a result been making do with handpicked, often unethical people, to handle the elections.

"The problem is premised on the character and integrity of the returning officers who we chose to handle the elections. Where they are not upright the election is often botched and the image of the party suffers," Capt Mukula argues.

Fast forward to 2020 and the ghosts from that unfulfilled promise to train party officials in handling elections has returned to haunt the NRM.

More Independents

Rejection of the proposed pieces of legislation meant that the parties had failed to avert situations where losers in the party primaries could contest as Independent candidates.

Prof Sabiiti Makara, who teaches Political Science at Makerere University, told Sunday Monitor in a previous interview that in light of the chaotic scenes that came with the election two weeks ago of flag bearers for the directly elected MPs and women legislators, many of those who were declared losers will certainly be contesting as Independent candidates.

"Many NRM members who contested the 2015 primaries and lost later contested the general election and won because the exercise was unfair. I anticipate that even now many of those who were declared losers will contest as Independent because the process was unfair. There was use of money, the army was deployed and then Mr Museveni's announcement which was contrary to the rules of any party because every party has a register," Prof Makara argues.

Sunday Monitor had as of last week established from official results that 105 incumbent MPs, including 14 government ministers had suffered defeat in the race to become NRM party flag bearers.

Whereas some like State minister for Investment Evelyn Anite, who suffered defeat in Koboko Municipality, have announced that they will not contest as Independent candidates, many of the losers, among them Mr Kenneth Lubogo, Monica Amoding (Kumi Woman), James Kakooza (Kabula), Ms Jalia Bintu Lukumu (Masindi Woman), have since declared that they will contest as Independent MPs on grounds that the primaries were so badly mismanaged that they could not produce any credible results.

Some of those who have declared the intention to contest as Independent candidates are driven by the desire to see justice given the unfairness that they saw during the primaries, but Prof Godfrey Asiimwe, who teaches Development Studies at Makerere University, believes that so many of the people in Parliament have no position to fall back to when they cease being MPs.

"There are so many politicians who think that politics is now a career - those who think that it is due to politics that they have obtained wealth and the personal advancement has been as a result of politics - for them this is a do or die situation so they will always come back to contest and even try to impose themselves where possible," Prof Asiimwe argues.

The director for Mass Mobilisation at the NRM Secretariat, Mr Mathias Kasamba, told Sunday Monitor last week that the party intends to engage losers who intend to contest as Independent MPs with a view of talking them out of the race.

"We are going to put in place a remedial mechanism to reconcile them (losers and winners)," he said.

This is not the first time that someone at the secretariat is talking about engaging the losers. President Museveni has on nth occasions appealed to losers not to contest as Independent MPs, but few, if any, ever heeded his call. The party constitution too bars members who lose elections from contesting as Independent MPs.

If they have been defying the party constitution and the all-powerful party chairman, how much of a chance is there that they will listen to Mr Kasamba? Chances are that they will not and that the number of elected Independent MPs in the House will be much bigger in March 2021 than they were in March 2016.

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