On Thursday last week, FDC’s Paul Mwiru was declared winner of the Jinja Municipality East by-election having defeated Nathan Igeme Nabeta, the NRM candidate, with 6,654 against 5,043 votes in a closely fought poll that attracted six other candidates.
This was the fourth time the two were facing off. And if NRM, which has decided to challenge the result in court gets its way, there might be a fifth face-off ahead. Sulaiman Kakaire & Baker Batte Lule examine the factors behind this result and why the ruling party won’t concede defeat.
There have been by-elections in the past where the ruling political party congratulated the winning opposition candidate and got on with it. But that’s not the case for the closely-fought Jinja Municipality East by-election, won by FDC’s Paul Mwiru, who edged NRM’s Nathan Igeme Nabeta by 1,611 votes.
NRM Secretary General Justine Kasule Lumumba wasted no time dismissing the outcome, citing malpractices. In a statement issued one day after the election, Lumumba said the by-election was “riddled with various electoral malpractices.”
Lumumba said NRM had evidence of multiple voting, voter bribery, intimidation of voters and acts of violence.
“We are in possession of evidence of multiple voting of known members of the opposition at various polling stations,” Lumumba told journalists. “We have evidence of opposition teams dishing out money in the vicinity of polling stations.”
Lumumba added: “Known NRM supporters were warned of dire consequences should NRM emerge victorious; goons were stationed at residences of many NRM supporters to scare them away from polling stations.”
NRM further charged that the chairman of its election taskforce had been roughed up and windscreens of their buses smashed by opposition supporters. During a briefing on cabinet decisions at the Uganda Media Centre on Tuesday, information minister Frank Tumwebaze said Lumumba had briefed ministers on the legal action the party intends to take.
However, victorious Mwiru’s supporters insist their NRM opponents have no case. Campaign manager Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda, the Kira Municipality MP, says in an article published by this newspaper, that the election was framed as an opinion poll on President Museveni’s popularity in the aftermath of the constitutional amendment that removed presidential age limits.
“Dethroning one of the 317 MPs [who voted for the amendment] would mean that the big man has no capacity to offer political protection,” Ssemujju writes.
“Those who ‘ate’ his money must now account for it. Court, therefore, becomes the perfect excuse.”
Notwithstanding Ssemujju’s take, a journalist who covered the election and spoke on condition of anonymity said some of Lumumba’s claims hold water. The journalist said he had witnessed incidents at Main Street primary school polling station, where opposition youths attempted to prevent those perceived to be NRM supporters from proceeding to vote.
Nevertheless, Mwiru’s camp has even greater grievances of its own, despite emerging victorious. For instance, their campaign offices were raided by soldiers and many of their supporters arrested two days before the election.
“The invaders wore the NRM candidate’s black T-shirts. It is these NRM youths who read out names of those meant to be arrested. In fact, when nearly everybody had been picked and loaded on a police truck, they demanded that one Med who was in charge of our vote protection team, be produced. When he emerged from our party office and was loaded on the truck, they jubilated and drove away,” Ssemujju says.
Reacting to the arrests, Mwiru said on television soon after he was declared winner, that if the election had been too close as the last previous one, his camp might have rued the many votes from his detained supporters.
Bugweri county MP Abdu Katuntu, who was the only opposition MP in Busoga before Mwiru’s election, has laughed off Lumumba’s threat of legal action.
“It is funny for the NRM to accuse us of voter bribery. Why can’t people for once accept that passing the constitutional amendment was an unpopular act? Or President Museveni appearing at a rally and stating that send me a sleeping MP [worked against them]? Why does he want Busoga to send the worst yet he wants quality for other areas? Well, they responded to them and now they are engaging in blame games,” Katuntu said.
Lamenting that close to Shs 5 billion might have been consumed in this election, the MP added that in the first place, it had come about because of the NRM government’s failure to organise the earlier one in accordance with the law.
Putting the race into context, Crispy Kaheru, the coordinator of Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, said it was one of the most hotly contested elections in recent years.
“This election reflected the national mood. Candidates were talking about the proposed referendum, the age limit debate, and the critical national issues rather than the local issues affecting Jinja East as a constituency,” he said.
Kaheru added that the level of policing went beyond what had been witnessed elsewhere.
“The law stipulates that a polling station shouldn’t have more than one security officer but we saw up to even 30 security agents manning just one polling station,” he said.
Notwithstanding NRM’s grievances, Mwiru’s victory has been acknowledged as triumph for a united opposition front. The MP-elect had a task on his hands to unite FDC voters, some of whom accuse him of refusing to identify with the ‘defiance’ tendency in the party, which is associated with former leader Dr Kizza Besigye.
Having achieved that, he also won the support of other opposition political parties, especially DP, particularly their potential candidate Alex Mufumbiro, who ran in the 2011 election and 2012 by-election.
“Mwiru reached out to his colleagues in the DP who convinced the DP leadership not to have a candidate,” Ssemujju said.
Mufumbiro campaigned for Nabeta in 2016 but fell out with him soon thereafter. With DP on board, Ssemujju was deputised as head of the Mwiru taskforce by DP’s Samuel Walter Lubega, who led the door-to-door campaign strategy.
“In the end, the real management of the campaign was done by mainly the DP group headed by Kenneth Kakande, Samuel Walter Lubega, Derrick Mutema and John Mary Ssebuwufu,” Ssemujju admitted.
Other DP leaders such as Joseph Mutebi Balikuddembe, Dr Lulume Bayiga and Muwanga Kivumbi happily served as polling agents or supervisors during the election.
Although Mwiru’s structures dwarfed the internal problems within his party, a few days to the election, one group still managed to stir the waters; petitioning FDC headquarters to complain about DP’s deep involvement.
FDC leader Patrick Oboi Amuriat convened a quick meeting of his party’s working committee. As things dragged on, secretary for mobilisation, Ingrid Turinawe reportedly said: “What do you lose if they are helping you to win?”
Amuriat chipped in: “First, Mwiru is our candidate. Secondly, we are not going to use this campaign to solve our internal wrangles.”
Said Ssemujju: “In fact, Amuriat was uncompromising. He said we can’t encourage indiscipline. You have a group of 20 who during the campaign come to blackmail a candidate. We must take a decision. But I said that we can still speak to them.”
Eventually, the group was persuaded to quietly stand with Mwiru.
NRM falls apart
As the opposition was galvanising its house, Nabeta’s camp was falling apart. Although NRM chairman President Museveni had attempted to reconcile Nabeta’s group and a hostile faction loyal to Jinja Municipality West MP Moses Balyeku, this pledge of solidarity was suspect.
“You cannot make Balyeku lead a taskforce to fight for Nabeta yet it is the same Balyeku who has previously fought him…,” remarked an MP from eastern Uganda.
Notwithstanding the fact that by-elections tend to have low voter turnout, a heavy downpour that started in the wee hours of Election day partly explained the small numbers here.
The constituency has about 29,000 voters but only 11,958 turned up to vote. According to Ssemujju, many NRM supporters couldn’t brave the rain to go and vote. “Many are used to being transported by the party to attend rallies and with such rain they couldn’t come,” he said.
For Shawn Mubiru, a member of the Mwiru taskforce, the use of recognisable faces such as Kizza Besigye, Mugisha Muntu, Patrick Oboi Amuriat, Nathan Nandala-Mafabi, Cecilia Ogwal, Winnie Kiiza, Robert Kyagulanyi, Norbert Mao, Erias Lukwago, Asuman Basalirwa, Ken Lukyamuzi and Betty Nambooze, among others, helped galvanise and energise Mwiru’s support base.