When Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) delegates on Friday night dropped Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu as party president in favour of Patrick Oboi Amuriat a.k.a POA, the former Kumi Member of Parliament; the shadow of the party’s founding father, Dr Kizza Besigye, again loomed large over proceedings.
To observers, it was a reaffirmation that Besigye retains an overarching influence on FDC members, just like President Museveni does in the ruling NRM. So, POA won with 641 votes while Muntu managed 463. Moses Byamugisha came third with three votes while Malcom Matsiko got two votes.
What kicked off as a mild competition between Muntu and POA as frontrunners picked pace and rapidly evolved into a referendum on Besigye. The POA group gradually projected itself as the pro-defiance choice, a reference to the post- 2016 election political message Besigye has customised.
Not long after POA declared that Besigye cannot be wished away, the founding father was his man.
“He is the brand of the party that must be utilised to get victory for the party...I will bring him back to the party,” Amuriat said.
Muntu, throughout the campaigns, warned against elevating any individual.
“What has bedevilled this country is not the lack of strongmen but strong institutions. This is what I am interested in,” Muntu said.
It looks like a combination of two main factors sealed the former army commander’s fate. One; some members became impatient with his more sedate style and, two; influence of the affectionately called ‘people's president’.
Marina Okoi, a delegate from Jinja, would later tell The Observer that Muntu had goofed by attacking Besigye in his campaign speech.
“How do you attack the people’s president from here and think we can forgive you? We have shown him that this is our party and we the delegates have spoken; we have made the statement that Besigye can’t be attacked in FDC,” he said.
Okoi’s view is shared by Mubarak Munyagwa, the Kawempe South MP, who said: “People have also shown that you simply can’t attack the people’s president and founder member of FDC and they forgive you. It was wrong for Muntu to turn his heat on Besigye.”
Speaking to the media after casting his vote, Besigye said that he cannot be blamed for moving alongside POA.
“POA was the only person who invited me to his rallies...And he had no problem with my message. Perhaps other people did not invite me because they were uncomfortable with my message,” Besigye said.
In the immediate aftermath of the happenings at Mandela National Stadium in Namboole, some feared that Besigye’s dominance could eventually stand in the way of prospects for internal democracy inside FDC.
“As a member of the party, he enjoys the right to choose any candidate but because of his influence, he can cause polarisation and for the good of the party, he should have kept his choice secret, if in any case he believes in building institutions,” said one senior leader who belongs to the Muntu group.
SENTIMENTAL VOTE OR RATIONALITY
Other delegates disagree that POA’s win was about Besigye’s control. Sulaiman Magumba, the FDC chairman for Iganga district, suggested that Muntu may have been undone by something more insular and notoriously disruptive: tribe.
“I have interacted with some of my colleagues, especially those from Eastern Uganda [where POA hails from], and most of them think that voting Hon Amuriat in any away symbolises power balance within the party.
“Well, that could be a valid argument but it is wrong in the sense that it lowers the qualification of being a party president to which region does one come from, which is wrong,” Magumba said.
In 2012, Magumba supported Nathan Nandala-Mafabi, the FDC secretary general, against Muntu, but this time switched sides.
“There is no doubt that since the formation of FDC, it has been under the leadership of people hailing from the same region. But the most important thing is the quality it of leadership those individuals offer.”
Godfrey Yeheyo, another delegate from Wakiso district, proposes that it’s unfair to hold Besigye wholly responsible for Muntu’s exit.
“Voters are rational. Why did they vote him the other time? I come from Western Uganda but I voted POA. The reason is very simple. For the last five years, [Muntu] has been in charge of the party but he does not show us the structures he keeps talking about. Where are they? We have repeatedly asked him the total membership of FDC but he cannot say it,” Yeheyo says.
To delegates like Yeheyo, Muntu came across as too academic and unsuited for the harsh reality of opposition politics under Museveni.
“Those statements make sense to people in the urban areas or at the top but the people in the village want your presence. That is the only way they will feel the party,” he said.
Karl-Marx W’amugeni, a member from the diaspora, agrees.
“By the time I was at the secretariat, we used to have a data bank and registers for members, which were always renewed annually. This is all non-existent [today]. What happened? Do you want to blame all this on Besigye? We used to fundraise and recruit through selling party cards. Is this still the case?” W’amugeni said.
Muntu told The Observer last week that membership of FDC has exponentially grown over the years, but still his attention has been focused on party structures.
“Numbers are not enough. You need the structures and that was my concern. Since I took over, I made sure that structures are put in place. For instance, at the national, district and constituency level, we are a hundred percent. We are lacking at the sub-county, parish and village level, where our performance is below 60 per cent. We have to be everywhere so that all the support can be galvanised by the structures,” he said.
Muntu argued that when the structures are in place and there are values that would attract people, it would be very easy to recruit and fundraise.
His supporters point out that it is through these structures that Besigye won the 2016 election which his defiance group talks about.
But POA supporters insist that the former party and his mainly elite supporters failed to understand the constituency they were talking to.
Delegates conferences of most political parties in Uganda are largely rural, unlike the National Executive Committee which convenes leaders at the national level. In this respect, POA presented himself as a ‘villagers’ president’ on the advice of Besigye, a man whom a portion of Uganda’s masses acknowledge as the people’s president.
HEALING OR MORE TROUBLE
Now that POA is in the chair, his biggest challenge is reconciling the ideologically opposed factions within the party. In 2012, when Nandala lost to Muntu, the party went through a similar soul-searching, sometimes teetering on the edge of an outright split, when Nandala’s group refused to concede defeat.
Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, the Kira municipality MP, also FDC spokesperson and opposition chief whip in Parliament, says he has seen the same fault lines emerging but prays that they do not widen.
“I hope we don’t experience the same thing. Our collective responsibility will be the thread that will tie us together.”
Amuriat said: “that is a challenge that is why in my campaign I focused on cohesion and unity.”
In his concession speech, Muntu said that he hopes POA does not go through the same kind of environment he operated under.
“I don’t want you to go through that environment I went through... Continue building democracy within our party but if you lose those values that we believe in, you will lose the party. If at any time you find that your words are different from your actions you will become history,” Muntu said.
Throughout his term, the outgoing president has been severely hobbled by internal strife, suspected Besigye apologists undermining his work and an overwhelming mistrust of his opposition bona fides.
And so, he urged POA to find out the forces behind the turbulence within the party. Bugweri MP Abdu Katuntu, a prominent supporter of Muntu, said the main challenge for the new man will be in how he tolerates the differences in opinion.
“As individuals, we can’t agree all the time and in cases where there are differences, we should embrace them in good faith. I think that our biggest challenge has always been the failure on our part to agree that we are different and can’t be the same,” he said.
Katuntu says it is time for the opposed groups to face the stark reality.
“We have always argued about defiance on one side, and the other approach of organisation and institutional building. The latter view that I belong to has lost. So, it is time to let the winners work and not like it was the case before,” he said.
Another challenge is framing the FDC’s ideological identity since it remains shrouded in fall-out from the internal dispute. There is also a lack of coherence on policy matters.
Then the issue of fundraising. Tellingly, Francis Mwijukye, the Buhweju MP and Besigye loyalist, was voted the new deputy treasurer in charge of general fundraising.