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Museveni 1996 poll: 3 tricks brought victory

Hajji Nasser Ntege Sebaggala

Hajji Nasser Ntege Sebaggala

In the second part of our series “How Museveni Beats Opponents” published a fortnight ago, we saw how former President Apollo Milton Obote’s name was invoked to frighten people off the opposition Inter-Political Forces Coalition and Democratic Party presidential candidate Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere during the 1996 presidential elections.

We continue to review that election, look at the transition to Hajji Nasser Ntege Sebaggala in DP and the emergence of Col (rtd) Dr Kizza Besigye as an opposition leader.

When Museveni called for general elections in 1996, he was confident he had the polls in the bag right from the get go. These were to be the first elections held under universal adult suffrage and, to some, were also a quasi-referendum on his performance over a decade in power.

“I was not worried; I knew we would defeat these chaps. There was absolutely no way they would win but the only thing that worried me was stealing votes. You see Cecilia Ogwal’s group was training the Ssemogerere’s group to steal votes,” Museveni said on Heroes day on June 9, 1996 at Kololo airstrip, following his victory.

Although he was still relatively popular with some tangible achievements over his 10-year rule at that point, Museveni did not leave anything to chance. The fact that Ssemogerere had teamed up with Ogwal’s Uganda Peoples Congress, which stood accused of stealing victory from him only 15 years earlier in 1980, unsettled Museveni. Ironically, Ssemogerere and Muhammad Kibirige Mayanja, the other presidential candidate in 1996, would accuse Museveni of committing the same crime of vote rigging.

Before the final vote in the 1996 election was counted and Museveni declared winner, Ssemogerere had braved untold verbal and physical attacks from Museveni’s machinery. His rallies at Makerere University, Mbale, Kabale, Moroto, Bundibugyo, Kapchorwa and other areas were interrupted, in some cases with live bullets fired by the police; the openly partisan Local Defence Units, District Internal Security Officers and NRM vigilante groups. 

In Rukingiri, which has since evolved into a hotbed of anti-Museveni politics, thanks largely to Besigye who comes from the sub-region, Ssemogerere was run out of town by a rowdy, pro-ruling party crowd chanting: “We don’t need Ssemogerere in Rukungiri, go and campaign from Bushenyi…”

Ssemogerere escaped unharmed, but UPC luminaries Ogwal and Dr James Rwanyarare were not as lucky. They were pelted with stones that badly damaged their cars. Ssemogerere’s posters in the area were defaced or replaced with those stating that he was not welcome in Rukungiri. There was not even a word of condemnation of any of these election malpractices from Museveni – a man who had ridden to power on the promise of restoring democracy and respect for fundamental human rights, among others. 

Ogwal says she was not really surprised by the dirty tactics and the violence.

“Museveni doesn’t change. The tactics he is using now are the same tactics he has always used. The problem is when Idi Amin was killing Acholis and Langis, people thought he was doing the right thing; ‘kill them, they have been a nuisance’. It’s when he started killing people here in Buganda and the West that they woke up and said, ‘wow, he is a bad man’”, Ogwal told The Observer.

“They thought he was doing the right thing; it’s when he started brutalising them that they woke up and said ‘eh kumbe he is a dictator’ but we had already suffered a lot.”

Obote scarecrow

Museveni and his lieutenants also amplified their message of fear that if the people voted against National Resistance Movement, there would be a repeat of war. Uganda was still coming to terms with the debilitating effects of the bush war Museveni and group waged against the Obote II government. Few people wanted to revisit the horrors of that five-year guerrilla campaign fought largely in the so-called ‘Luweero Triangle’.

Museveni, therefore, set the tone on the very first day of campaigns, saying in Luweero, the area that suffered the brunt of his war, that Ssemogerere and Ogwal were conspiring to bring Obote back to power. If the people didn’t vote “wisely”, they would regret the consequences, he said.

“For us we were freedom fighters while Cecilia Ogwal was murdering…that is the first group. The second group was that of Ssemogerere who was a spectator while Cecilia Ogwal was murdering. They have nothing to show and the only weapon they have is lies,” Museveni said.

Fear mongering was certainly a major NRM campaign strategy. Museveni’s election taskforce, led by then minister of state for Defence Patrick Amama Mbabazi and deputised by minister for Local Government Jaberi Bidandi Ssali, with their media relations being handled by now senior presidential advisor on media, John Nagenda, ran adverts in the government-owned New Vision fomenting fear.

One of those adverts displayed human skulls allegedly of victims from the Luweero war, suggesting that voting for Ssemogerere would amount to plunging the country into war again. The adverts carried the strapline: “A vote for Ssemogerere is a vote for Obote; Vote Museveni for peace, unity, democracy and modernisation.”

Prof Charles Oweyagah Afunaduula, a former lecturer at Makerere University and political commentator, told The Observer that Museveni had thought in the 10 years that he ruled without subjecting himself to an election and with political parties bottled up, Ugandans had forgotten about them.

“He was shocked on seeing thousands and thousands of people come out in support of Ssemogerere. He went into panic mode, employing everything that he could put his hands on to undermine Ssemogerere’s candidacy,” Afunaduula said. 

Besweri Akabway, the chairman of the Interim Electoral Commission, eventually announced the final tally on May 11, 1996, with Museveni at 4,428,290 votes representing 74.2%, Ssemogerere’s 1,416,129 votes representing 23.7 per cent while Muhammad Kibirige Mayanja only managed 123,290 or 2.1 per cent. Some 6,163,678 voters, 72.6 per cent of the registered 8, 492,231 cast their vote.

Although Museveni took the prize, Ogwal says they considered themselves victors too especially looking at the odds that were stacked against them.

“I didn’t care about whether we won or we lost but I knew we had won on the grounds that we went outside and demystified the idea that there should be only one political voice that should be heard. Now, they had to listen to both sides, contrary to what existed right from 1986. I could now get out and hammer the government properly in their faces; how corrupt they were, how they were abusing people, how militaristic they were and there was nothing they could do about it,” Ogwal said.

Ssemo out, enter ‘Seeya’ 

After losing the election, Ssemogerere increasingly came under pressure from within and outside DP to quit politics. Then minister of Education and Sports Col Amanya Mushega told him it was time to leave. His own party chairman, the respected Mzee Boniface Byanyima (RIP) was, from the start, opposed to the idea of DP participating in the election.

“My advice was that DP doesn’t participate in this hopeless process because I knew the NRM cannot organise free and fair elections. If a person cannot put in place a good constitution, how can you expect such a person to organise a fair election,” Byanyima told The Monitor days after Museveni was announced winner. 

Ssemogerere started withdrawing from politics shortly thereafter, leaving room for the entry of controversial and barely literate Nasser Ntege Sebaggala “Seeya”, who had, on a populist run, stormed through to become the first democratically elected mayor of Kampala in 1998.

Just two months into his term, Sebaggala was arrested in the United States in June 1998 and later convicted on eight counts of bank fraud and trafficking in forged financial documents locally known as “bicupuli”.

He was in prison for 15 months. When he was finally released and returned to Uganda on February 2, 2000, he was treated to a hero’s welcome by an increasingly disillusioned public.

Thousands thronged to Entebbe airport to welcome Sebaggala who immediately declared that he was going to contest the forthcoming presidential election. Museveni’s machinery turned on Sebaggala, who wasn’t that difficult to contain. He was eventually coopted into the NRM. His main weakness was a lack of the required academic qualifications.

Claiming that he had the required A-level or equivalent qualifications, Sebaggala and his supporters stormed the Ntinda-based Uganda National Examinations Board demanding for his papers. Yusuf Ssozi, one of the youths who sustained injuries when the police violently dispersed them from Uneb, says they had total trust in Ssebaggala.

“He was one of us; the wretched of the earth; we believed in him and we would do anything to see him nominated so that he could contest in the 2001 election. We were beaten, [shot] at and many of us injured at Uneb,” Kakembo says. “Now the man we were fighting for is with the same government he was fighting so much against,” Kakembo observes.

After failing to register to contest for the 2001 election, Sebaggala told supporters to back Dr Besigye, the Movement’s erstwhile chief political commissar, who had fallen out with Museveni in 1999.

After his sometimes chaotic tenure as Kampala mayor from 2006-2011, Sebaggala joined Museveni’s campaign team in the 2011 general elections.


In part four next week, we look at Besigye as Museveni’s main political foe…

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