Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu aka Bobi Wine’s meteoric political ascent began in June 2017 with a parliamentary by-election in Kyadondo East, and ended in a presidential run that saw his National Unity Platform (NUP) sweep a large cache of votes in Buganda in the January 14 general election.
That electoral victory was enough for NUP to topple the opposition Forum for Democratic Change from top spot as the largest opposition political party in parliament.
NUP won 57 parliamentary seats against FDC’s 32. With this, the party birthed in August 2020, got the special responsibility of leading the opposition in parliament.
A month ago, Mathias Mpuuga, the NUP MP for Nyendo–Mukungwe in Masaka City, was chosen as leader of opposition (LoP) replacing FDC’s Gulu Woman MP Aol Betty Ochan. With the clean sweep, NUP not only gained the coveted parliamentary seats but also inherited some of the problems that dogged FDC’s 15-year stewardship of the opposition in parliament.
Before Mpuuga was chosen, there were other MPs who had aggressively lobbied to be appointed as LoP. These included longtime Mpuuga’s political allies; Betty Nambooze Bakireke (Mukono Municipality MP) and Medard Lubega Sseggona (Busiro East MP).
Others were Manjiya County MP John Baptist Nambeshe and Mityana Municipality MP Francis Zaake. In the last 15 years, FDC has been riveted by battles over parliamentary leadership jobs.
Whenever the party chose one MP over another, the losers sulked and their loyalty dampened. This is how leaders like Ogenga Latigo, Abdul Katuntu, Alice Alaso, Odonga Otto fell out with the mainstream FDC after they were passed over for parliamentary leadership appointments.
Speaking weeks ago during the burial of former Kayunga district chairperson Ffeffeka Sserubugo, Nambooze said publicly that she eyed the LoP job but was satisfied that the party had chosen Mpuuga.
Nambooze, Mpuuga, Sseggona, Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, Moses Kasibante, Muwanga Kivumbi and Erias Lukwago were part of a crop of politicians in Buganda who used Sssuubi, a political pressure group in 2011, to promote what they called Buganda’s aspirations.
Their alliance was shattered recently when Kyagulanyi emerged and overshadowed them. To survive the Kyagulanyi political wave, all of them except Ssemujju dumped the Democratic Party.
CRACKS IN THE ALLIANCE
NUP’s ascension to the summit of the opposition in parliament set up a high-stakes confrontation with the ousted FDC. Ssemujju, the only FDC MP who survived the NUP onslaught in Buganda, has used his outspokenness to say uncanny things about NUP. Ssemujju was FDC’s candidate for speaker of parliament in May and needed the bloc opposition support.
But Mpuuga’s NUP whipped its MPs to vote for former Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga who eventually lost to her former deputy Jacob Oulanyah.
That to Ssemujju was betrayal. In a recent interview with The Observer, Mpuuga said it would be a misrepresentation to call Ssemujju who only garnered 15 votes out of 529, the opposition candidate. He said it was wrong for FDC to hurriedly name a flag bearer for speakership without first consulting NUP, which had majority opposition MPs.
“My party leadership was already in communication with other parties and the election of the speaker didn’t bear on these parties including parties that sponsored candidates. I don’t want to speak about the fact that our comrades knew that we are the leading opposition party and they were in a hurry to sponsor candidates without consulting us... You sponsor a speaker and deputy speaker and you say, well they will come. I think that was in bad faith...” Mpuuga said.
LEADER BUGANDA CAUCUS
NUP’s other test came weeks ago when the party had to choose the chairperson of Buganda caucus. Of the 57 NUP MPs, 55 come from constituencies within Buganda region.
There are 78 directly elected constituencies and 27 districts in Buganda region. Therefore, it follows that the party would provide leadership of the second largest caucus after the NRM in parliament.
Until January, NRM has been the largest political party in Buganda region. Having lost out on being named LoP, Nambooze the new chairperson of the parliamentary committee on Government Assurance, thought taking over leadership of Buganda caucus would swell her leverage in national matters.
But her party had other ideas. The position was given to Butambala MP Muhammad Muwanga Kivumbi. Interviewed, one NUP MP said in Nambooze’s calculus being chairperson of Buganda caucus would put her on the same pedestal as the LoP since the NUP caucus is one and the same as Buganda caucus because all NUP MPs with the exception of Nambeshe and Manjeri Kyebakutikka [Woman MP Jinja City] come from Buganda.
“Although she says she’s comfortable with Mpuuga being LoP, I can tell you she’s still interested in taking that position. I think she’s looking at Mpuuga’s term of two and a half Muwanga Kivumbi years and maybe if she plays her cards well, she can replace him,” the source said.
Another source said that Nambooze’s frosty relationship with Buganda Kingdom especially the Katikkiro Charles Peter Mayiga was another undoing.
“How can she be the chairperson of Buganda caucus when she can’t see eye to eye with the Katikkiro? How can she advance Buganda’s aspirations when she has no audience with the biggest stakeholders in the kingdom?” one NUP official said.
In the end when it became obvious that the party would choose Muwanga as its flag bearer for the position, an angry Nambooze stormed out of the meeting, accusing the party of being undemocratic.
In an interview with The Observer, Ssemujju accused NUP of reading from the same script as President Museveni by using their numbers to muscle through candidates of their choice in total disregard to the wishes of other people.
“NUP are driving Buganda caucus the same way you see NRM. When there is any matter, they go and caucus and parliament becomes just ceremonial and I think that is a mistake,” Ssemujju said.
The Kira municipality MP was also surprised that a caucus meeting was held and he was never informed about it. He said it was even wrong to convene a meeting before members get to know each other.
“In the last parliament when Kiwanda [Godfrey, former MP for Mityana North] came to hand over, I objected saying that we needed to first know each other because this office is not statutory. They listened and postponed the election,” Ssemujju said.
WE SHALL PICK UP THE PIECES
Ssemujju said although he was not amused that Nambooze and Muwanga went for each other’s throat, he was happy that Muwanga was elected as chairman of the caucus.
“I have known Muwanga and Nambooze for more than 20 years. They both love Buganda and have capacity to serve in that post. It’s unfortunate that they contested against each other but I’m happy that Muwanga was chosen as the chairperson,” Ssemujju said.
He said he hopes that as a group, they will pick up the pieces and reconstruct their relationship.
Last month, Mpuuga put out a list of 30 MPs who are going to serve in his shadow cabinet. Of these, seven were from FDC, one from the People’s Progressive Party, one from the Democratic Party, one from Uganda People’s Congress and two independents. However, Ssemujju accused NUP of appointing FDC people without consulting the party.
“As FDC, we have not received any communication from the National Unity Platform about the constitution of the shadow cabinet. We had resolved that if they wrote to us about forming a coalition government we would discuss it and take a decision whether to join or not,” Ssemujju said.
Asked whether they will tell their MPs to decline the appointments, Ssemujju said it’s only FDC to make that decision, not him.
“I don’t want to turn myself into FDC; that decision can only be taken by the party but because of the lockdown, we can’t sit,” Ssemujju said.
The former opposition chief whip also downplayed the decision by Mpuuga not to name him on the shadow cabinet.
“I’m the whip of the 32 FDC MPs in parliament. That’s a constitutional office I’m holding. The media forgets that in parliament we are there as political parties, that’s why each of us has a whip. Therefore, I think that office is enough for me to serve,” Ssemujju said. For his two terms as MP, Ssemujju has been part of the general opposition leadership.
Joel Ssenyonyi, the spokesperson of NUP and MP for Nakawa West, said parliamentary appointments are individual, not party appointments.
“It’s up to those MPs who were appointed to consult their parties on whether to take up the appointments or not. But for us, these appointments were done in the spirit of working together as the opposition,” Ssenyonyi said.
On what looks like power struggles within the rank and file of the party, Ssenyonyi said all their actions are driven by the desire to have harmony in the party.
“For all elective positions, our first option is consensus. We want our members to first agree among themselves on who should hold which position. It’s only after consensus fails that we opt for elections because that’s the only method within a democracy,” Ssenyonyi said.
He called upon Nambooze to resort to the party bureaucracy if she disagrees with the process that ushered in Muwanga as the chairman of Buganda caucus.
“We respect our senior colleague but we surely don’t know why she stormed out of the meeting before a final decision was reached on who should be our candidate,” Ssenyonyi said.
Before he was elected as the chairman of Buganda Caucus, Muwanga Kivumbi had been left out of parliamentary leadership yet almost all his colleagues with whom they had decamped from DP had been given positions.