As the elections for next year get closer, the contours of its alignments are becoming apparent. The election of Norbert Mao to lead DP and Olara Otunnu to lead UPC – Uganda’s founding political parties – adds an important dimension to the leadership of NRM by Yoweri Museveni and that of FDC by Kizza Besigye.
Mao and Otunnu are ethnic Acholi; Besigye and Museveni, ethnic Banyankore. There is something significant in the fact that all the leading parties in Uganda now are led by individuals from two ethnic groups. The two have historically provided the measure of our politics. Since before independence, the most consequential politicians and soldiers in our country have tended to come from these groups.
For instance, in 1962, UPC and DP divided their votes almost equally in Ankole and Acholi. Alex Ojera was a powerful influence in UPC while Latim, leader of the opposition in parliament, was a powerful influence in DP. While DP was led in parliament initially by Basil Bataringaya from Ankole, UPC had Grace Ibingira from Ankole as a powerful Secretary General. When Bataringaya crossed to UPC and became minister of internal affairs, Boniface Byanyima became a dominant figure in DP.
The arrest of Ibingira in 1966 marked the beginning of the 1966 crisis, while the assassination of Brig. Okoya (from Acholi) in 1969 marked the beginning of the fall of Milton Obote in 1971. Officers from Ankole (Ndahendekire, Kakuhikire and Katabarwa) were consequential in the army in the 1960s even though not to the degree of officers like Okoya.
The dominance of Banyankore and Acholi was repeated in 1980, even though there were significant realignments engendered by the war that removed Idi Amin. Thus, although in 1980 UPC won all the parliamentary seats in Acholi, the two regions still provided the most powerful supporters and opponents of the UPC government.
Men like Ojok Mulozi and Andrew Adimola were as powerful in DP as Otema Alimadi and Akena P’Ojok were in UPC, and Tito and Bazilio Okello were in the UNLA, and helped define the Obote II presidency. Equally so for DP, where Francis Bwengye (secretary general), Byanyima (national president), and Sam Kutesa (Shadow Attorney General) came from Ankole. Yona Kanyomozi, Edward Rurangaranga, Ephraim Kamuntu, Chris Rwakasisi, Adonia Tiberondwa (RIP) and Patrick Rubaihayo were a powerful influence in UPC.
Out of eight seats in Mbabara District, UPC and DP got four each. It is therefore clear from our history that our political parties never divided people along ethnic lines as Museveni has always claimed and as “scholars” on Uganda have written. The contours of division tended to follow religion – but only in some places. However, this changed fundamentally under the NRM to reflect Museveni’s claims that political parties divided people along ethnic lines.
Under the NRM, we have seen Ankole vote overwhelmingly for Museveni while Acholi has voted overwhelmingly for his opponents – first for Paul Ssemogerere and later for Besigye – who are themselves not Acholi. However, although Museveni tried to redefine politics along ethnicity, he only succeeded with the masses in Ankole. Some of the strongest opponents of Museveni, like Besigye, have come from Ankole itself.
Museveni used the war in Luwero in an attempt to realign Uganda’s politics from religion towards ethnicity. The prolonged war against the LRA reflects how Museveni defined the nature of the challenge he faced from Joseph Kony. Although LRA does not represent the popular feelings of the political leaders from Acholi or the feelings of ordinary people, Museveni defined it so.
Museveni saw not just the LRA, but the Acholi as a whole as the enemy; LRA was only the armed wing of the resistance. To get the south behind him, he sought to undermine the national platform UPC and DP had built. He presented the military brutality of the UNLA as an Acholi assault on Baganda thereby casting political rivalry in ethnic terms. This has had powerful implications.
For example, Olara Otunnu is a highly intelligent, articulate, experienced, and internationally exposed politician. He is also sober, calm and reflective. But given the way Museveni has realigned our politics, it will be difficult for Otunnu to become a powerful flag bearer for the opposition ticket, except as a vice presidential running mate. His service in the Okello-Okello regime gives Museveni the excuse to play on the north-south divide. And, in order to defeat Museveni, one will need the support of Mengo and of Baganda.
Although historically Acholi and Baganda have had excellent relations, Museveni used the war in Luwero to undermine this. Some of the most powerful MPs from Buganda region like Daudi Ochieng (elected by the Lukiiko in 1962) and Ojok Mulozi (elected on a DP ticket in Kampala in 1980) were Acholi.
With the ethnicisation of the Luwero conflict, Bagandans eager to vote for the opposition may be forced to stay at home if Otunnu is the candidate. Mao is a breath of fresh air in Uganda’s politics because he is among the few politicians on whom ethnic identity reflects least. His threats that the north may secede have not significantly damaged his reputation. However, there is little to his credit that can generate the kind of euphoric support around his candidature like Besigye does.
If the opposition are to stand a good chance in the election, they need to hold their support in northern Uganda, increase their percentage vote in the east and push Museveni’s share of votes in Buganda and Busoga to below 50%. Without Buganda and Busoga, no amount of rigging can rescue Museveni from electoral defeat.
Therefore, if the opposition are looking for a single candidate, it is seems best for them to choose Besigye. Besigye has strong appeal in Buganda because of his role in the Luwero war and because of his close links with Mengo (through his marriage).
However, the opposition should not take the northern vote for granted. It will be necessary for Besigye to find accommodation with Otunnu and Mao in order to keep Acholi and the wider north firmly in his corner. In designing an opposition alliance therefore, the issues of identity will have to play a stronger role than ever before.