Opposition leaders are preparing to choose a single candidate for
next year’s presidential election but the three biggest parties do not
trust each other completely, a situation that the incumbent is bound to
exploit to his advantage.
As Uganda’s three main opposition leaders square up to President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, the drama of next year’s elections has started to unfold. The next big step will be in June, when four opposition leaders are to meet under the auspices of the Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC) to choose a single candidate to run against ?Museveni. In the same month, the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) will announce its unsurprising choice of presidential candidate.
Like Alexandre Dumas’s Three Musketeers, Uganda’s trio of oppositionists – Kizza Besigye, Olara Otunnu and Norbert Mao – espouse solidarity for the common good: all for one and one for all. That will be put to the test when two of the three will have to choose between their personal ambition and support for a unity candidate against one of Africa’s wiliest incumbents. Unity is already slipping, as Mao is reluctant to join the IPC.
The opposition leaders are also calling on international organisations to pressure Museveni for a free election. “The time to engage is now,” says Besigye, “not to send [former UN Secretary-General Kofi] Annan walking over corpses. They should come in now and cause a situation where all parties sit around the table and agree upon how to have a credible election.”?
1986 National Resistance Army takes Kampala and Yoweri Museveni is named president??
1995 The ban on other political parties is removed, but political competition is still unwelcome??
2001 Museveni wins the presidential election with 68% to Kizza Besigye’s 28%
2004 The government and the Lord’s Resistance Army hold the first in a series of negotiations which have still not achieved a sustainable peace??
2005 Parliament removes ?presidential-term limits? ?2006 Museveni wins February’s presidential polls with 59% to Besigye’s 37%??
2011 Next national elections ?to be held
Besigye, who leads the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), is the favourite to win the opposition nomination. He boosted his vote in the presidential elections to 37% in 2006 from 29% in 2001, winning many supporters from Museveni’s NRM. Otunnu, of the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), returned to the country last year after 23 years in exile. The effervescent Norbert Mao, of the Democratic Party (DP), is a local media star.
Yet, the DP has not signed up to the IPC agreement and is not keen to rally behind a joint candidate. DP officials fear that the FDC would take over its supporters if they endorsed a common candidate. As a northerner, Mao’s choice of the DP, which is dominated by Catholics from Buganda in the south-west, is canny. Discontent with Museveni among the Buganda, Uganda’s biggest ethnic group, has grown sharply after last year’s confrontation between government troops and supporters of Kabaka Ronnie Mutebi, the Buganda king.
Each of the musketeers has his strengths: Besigye made himself a national figure in the last two presidential campaigns, Mao appeals to younger voters in a country where half of the population is under 20 years old and Otunnu’s scrutiny of the human rights record of the Museveni government and its army worries the senior ranks of the regime.
A former UN under secretary-general, Otunnu has called for a probe into human rights abuses committed by Museveni’s National Resistance Army in the 1981-1986 war that brought his government to power. On a northern radio station in April, Otunnu accused Museveni of sending money and satellite phones to Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony. He said that Museveni is sabotaging efforts to end the insurgency through peace talks.
Shortly thereafter, the police issued a summons against Otunnu, and the radio station that hosted him was forced to issue a personal apology to Museveni. General David Tinyefuza, who coordinates the intelligence agencies, has told the UPC leader to watch his mouth. Instead, Otunnu says he will produce documentary evidence about the LRA’s government links.
In the latest episode of accusations and counter-accusations, the government and the opposition are arguing about human-rights abuses in the Luwero Triangle during the civil war from 1981-1986. The government blames the UPC and its military successors. In the Luwero Triangle, President Museveni is regarded as a hero and he is more popular there than in some areas of his home base in western Uganda. Former President Milton Obote, who has produced a dossier entitled Notes on the Concealment of Genocide in Uganda, accuses Museveni’s fighters of committing atrocities and blaming them on the UPC.
Besigye has been interrogated by the police on orders from President Museveni after accusing the government of leasing lakes to foreign investors and disenfranchising local communities. In the upcoming election, the economic stakes are higher than ever, as Uganda launches oil production from its more than 2bn barrels of reserves. Besigye and the opposition want a wide-reaching review of the oil contracts.
The opposition is also attacking Museveni on democracy and human rights. In a report to the US Congress in March, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton strongly criticised the Ugandan government’s failure to push through electoral reforms, to guarantee civil liberties and to support a free press.
A united opposition would win new support. If Mao and Otunnu back Besigye, they could attract the northern vote as both are from the northern Acholi group, as well as the youth vote. However, each of the opposition leaders has his own weakness: after losing two elections Besigye is a harder sell, Otunnu is unknown among rural voters and many believe Mao is too young. If Mao stays in the race to test his chances ahead of the 2016 election, he could split opposition votes along ethnic, regional and age lines, helping Museveni to another victory.
Doubtless the opposition is stronger than in previous elections: it has more time, more money and more issues on which to challenge Museveni. Western pressure on the electoral commission might reduce blatant abuses. Museveni’s popularity is falling independently of growing interest in the opposition. Perhaps for the first time, a united opposition has a chance of winning a majority. The opposition has to craft the right message and pick the right candidate to sell it. The three musketeers must be willing to shoot at the same target and avoid a mutiny in their ranks.
This article was first published in the August-September edition of The Africa Report.
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