As delegates of the Forum for Democratic Change convene today to decide who of the two front-runners; Maj Gen (rtd) Mugisha Muntu and Patrick Oboi Amuriat, will be their next president, the choice appears to be between internal institutional building and transition to a new direction.
The incumbent is a former army commander and bush war veteran who walked away from Uganda’s ruling establishment when it became clear that it no longer stood for the core values of democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights and good governance.
Gen Muntu’s campaign for a second and last term has been crafted around his strongly-held view that FDC’s survival and progress lies in reinforcing party organs, right from the grassroots, so as to position machinery robust enough to challenge an entrenched, some say; belligerent President Museveni and his NRM party.
His main opponent Amuriat (former three-term MP for Kumi), on the other hand, is the face of a factional difference of opinion on strategy for taking power. In some ways, he represents the old school ‘radicalism’ which described FDC’s foundation politics.
Speaking to The Observer yesterday, Muntu said that he is ready for the election and will respect the outcome of today’s process.
“I believe that institutions are bigger than us and I urge my colleagues to get it that if you do not have strong institutions or values to anchor them, even if you get power you turn out to be the same people you have removed. This is what we are fighting for,” Muntu said.
Prof Sabiti Makara, a lecturer of public administration and political science at Makerere University, says this dilemma complicates the party’s outlook in a profound way.
“It is a complex situation for the delegates. If you choose Amuriat, you will be transiting the party from its founder members. Whereas it is true that he has been around for some time, in terms of leadership he has not been at the front.
“For the last 12 years, it has been the Muntus and group. The party needs that new face since this not only leads a transition within FDC, but it is transition in Uganda’s politics since the leadership of Uganda’s leading opposition party would be a person whose political narrative is not traced from the NRM/A bush war and is a civilian,” Makara said.
Harold Kaija, deputy secretary general at FDC, has campaigned for the challenger. He agrees with Makara’s analysis, but also adds that a new face, especially Amuriat, who is from Eastern Uganda, would establish the party as a little more different from NRM.
“Everyone must understand us as a party that embraces everyone; [that we are] not for only Westerners,” Kaija said.
Although insiders would agree that Muntu has stood up against sectarian politics, Dr Busingye Kabumba, a lecturer of constitutional law at Makerere University, has also made the case for fresh faces in the leadership to avoid being perceived as a westerners’ enclave.
“This is a reality that has to be addressed,” Kabumba said when he spoke at FDC’s last delegates conference.
Makara says that there would be high opportunity cost in losing Muntu given his proven credentials in institutional building.
“His leadership espouses the ideals that project FDC as a better alternative government to the NRM, which has been characterised by intolerance and lack of internal democracy,” Makara said.
Makara adds that Muntu has been influential in cultivating values of tolerance, building structures and organs of the party that seek to make FDC efficient and transparent.
“His leadership has offered us the chance to see that an incumbent can organise an election and lose it but still stand behind the person who defeated him.”
“He is one person, who can still persuade you to work with him. Not everyone can do that; people are vindictive in politics, but Gen Muntu is not,” he said.
In 2012, when Muntu defeated Nathan Nandala Mafabi in the race for party president a deep rift emerged within the party, particularly the parliamentary caucus.
Mafabi, the then leader of opposition in parliament (LoP), isolated himself and reportedly stopped briefing Muntu about what was taking place in the House. So, when the time came for Muntu to reshuffle leadership in parliament, he was faced with a challenge of reappointing his political nemesis or his closest allies.
To avoid an impasse, Wafula Oguttu, who belonged to the Mafabi faction, was appointed as a way of reconciliation (LoP).
Muntu’s reaching out to the Mafabi group (those members of the party who are perceived to be radicals), persisted up to the delegates conference which convened at Uganda Manufacturers Association showground in 2015.
For instance, Oguttu, who was interested in the position of deputy president for eastern Uganda, stepped down for Alice Alaso.
On a similar note, Bulega Nkalubo stepped down for Joyce Ssebugwawo in respect of the position of deputy president central Uganda, while MP Angeline Osegge also stepped down for Geoffrey Ekanya for party treasurer as a compromise. Ekanya then withdrew from competing for the secretary general job.
Similarly, in 2015 after being defeated by founding leader and party kingpin, Dr Kizza Besigye, in one of the toughest internal campaigns for presidential flag-bearer, Muntu stood tall in the face of a divided party.
He went against the wishes of his supporters who had decided to back former prime minister Amama Mbabazi and vociferously defended Besigye’s candidature during The Democratic Alliance (TDA) process, which tried to come up with a joint opposition presidential candidate.
Muntu’s argument was: “Dr Besigye was the candidate agreed to by the party and we must respect that. If we disagree with it, it still has to be expressed through the internal processes and mechanisms provided by the party and not when we come to TDA.”
Muntu also appointed Kira municipality MP Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda as chairperson of the influential parliamentary committee on commissions, statutory authorities and state enterprises (COSASE), as well as chief whip. This was irrespective of the fact that Ssemujju had been a Nandala supporter.
Today, Ssemujju is steadfastly behind Muntu.
In his weekly column in this newspaper on Wednesday, Ssemujju said Muntu should be re-elected because: “… It is this modesty and humility that Muntu has deployed to manage the FDC in the last five years. Some of our colleagues, including those in senior positions, have menacingly squeezed and undermined the man, but he has remained steadfast.
FDC owes its unity and togetherness to this man. His patience has been stretched to the limit. With no privileges or salary paid, very few can brave the Najjanankumbi insults. Yet each time he was confronted with such experience, he remained calm and asked the rest of us working with him to keep learning how to manage people and to build institutions.
His emphasis on building institutions through transparent processes as opposed to building personalities and relying on them will remain his biggest contribution to the FDC.”
If Amuriat wins, one senior insider told us, “… it could be true that he is a new face, but he will be a mere dummy and the real party president will be Dr Besigye…and when the latter comes the institutional organs of the party will be no more. Decisions are going to be taken at Kasangati. Amuriat will be a mere conveyor belt.
Secondly, defiance will take over, something that has implications of leading to the deregistration of the party. We have also learnt that they have hatched a plan to make Mafabi new leader of opposition and Mubarak Munyagwa the new chief whip. That is all vindictive.”
Throughout this campaign, Amuriat has come across as a Besigye surrogate. Indeed, Besigye has joined him on the trail, promoting his brand of defiance politics.
The FDC maintains that Besigye should be president of Uganda today, having been cheated out of victory in 2016 by Museveni, but so-called moderates disagree with his ‘confrontational’ politics.
This probably explains why even though Kaija acknowledges the institutional building credentials of Muntu, he criticises him for failure to make his position clear as to political change.
“POA (Patrick Oboi Amuriat) is clear as to his approach of defiance. Muntu tells us ‘either, or’; that is not being clear. It makes us fail to design a coherent implementation strategy. POA has promised to invest all his energies in organising the party for defiance. There we know what we are going for,” said Kaija, a member of the challenger’s campaign task force.