The Disarray Observed at Ugandan Parties Since Independence

It has been 18 years since multiparty politics was reinstated in Uganda, and the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) was the new kid on the block in 2005 when a referendum that allowed the return of political parties was organised. 

FDC had for these years prided itself in organising credible internal elections, but a dispute over money that allegedly emanated from State House has left the party divided into two factions codenamed Katonga and Najjanankumbi.

It seems the State, which is one and the same as the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), has decided to recognise the Najjanankumbi faction. It was clear all to when police was deployed in a bid to thwart the Katonga faction’s extraordinary delegates’ conference while giving the Najjanankumbi faction a go-ahead to organise theirs without much questioning.

Former Prime Minister Milton Obote (right) and then President Edward Muteesa.

For years factions had been restricted to Uganda’s oldest political parties – Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) and the Democratic Party (DP) – with NRM being blamed for ensuring these parties remained divided as it tightened its grip on power that it got after wedging a five-year guerrilla war.

DP and UPC have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with President Museveni, yet there are factions that insist that they aren’t party to those agreements. 

Uganda’s history with major political parties didn’t last beyond a decade, with causes ranging from colonial state harassment and economic hardship. 

In 1952, Uganda National Congress (UNC), Uganda’s first political party, was formed, with Abubaker Kakyama Mayanja becoming its first secretary general, with Apollo Kironde as the legal advisor, and Ignatius Kangave Musaazi as its first president.

Ignatius Kangave Musaazi, the first President of Uganda National Congress.

Musaazi, whose body lies at the heroes’ bend of Kololo Independence Grounds, in Kampala, had been involved in the struggle against the colonial government when he founded the first farmers association with the aim of securing better prices for their produce. 

He was the brainchild of the Bataka Party and the Uganda African Farmers Union (UAFU). 

In 1949, the Bataka rioted against the Mengo establishment, culminating in the murder of Martin Luther Nsibirwa, the Katikkiro (prime minister) at the time.

After the riots, both the Bataka Party and UAFU were banned. Records show that Musaazi was imprisoned 37 times by the colonial government, but by 1962, the year in which Uganda got its independence, his UNC had ceased operations.

Political researcher Geoffrey Engholm, in this paper Political Parties and Uganda’s Independence, says UNC’s demise became inevitable once Kabaka Edward Muteesa was exiled by the colonial government in 1953. This forced UNC honchos to banish the nationalist struggle they had planned for. 

“The Kabaka crisis of 1953 immediately confronted the UNC, which had barely begun to spread its wings, with a cruel dilemma; should it agitate for the Kabaka’s return, or should it concentrate its efforts on the main struggle for independence? In the event, UNC tried to achieve both ends simultaneously and this dissipation of effort led to its decline as a political force,” Engholam writes.

“It is true that by backing the Kabaka’s return, it obtained a measure of popular support in Buganda which had previously eluded it, but at the same time the party became associated with traditional elements that were to, in the long run, break the party as a political force,” he adds. 

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As UNC was losing steam, Democratic Party was established in 1954 as a Catholic party. At the time of its formation, Dr Simba Kayunga, a lecturer at Makerere University’s Department of Public Administration, says DP had a strong Christian democratic foundation and was openly hostile to the Mengo establishment.

“…it stood for a unitary system of government for the entire Uganda as opposed to the demand for a special status for Buganda by the Mengo establishment. It was also openly hostile to communism or any ideology with socialist underpinning,” Simba says. 

DP participated in the 1961 elections that saw Benedicto Kiwanuka elected as pre-independence prime minister, but Buganda Kingdom boycotted the election for fear that national independence would challenge their kingdom’s regional autonomy. 

In consequence, Jonathon and Jay Carney in their book Contesting Catholics: Benedicto Kiwanuka and the Birth of Postcolonial Uganda, write that DP secured control of the federal government, which they maintained only until 1962. 

In the mix was UPC. After the 1958 election, Engholam says seven unaffiliated members of the Legislative Council (Legco) came together and formed the Uganda People’s Union. 

In March 1960, the Union and the Apollo Milton Obote-led part of the UNC joined together to form UPC.

UPC’s membership, according to Earle and Carney, was ostensibly Protestant and comprised members of Uganda’s first nationalist political party, UNC, and members of the predominantly Busoga-based movement, the Uganda People’s Union.

UPC powerbase, Jonathon and Carney said, resided mostly outside of Buganda. Kabaka Yekka (KY – king only), the third party, emerged in 1961 to publicly advocate for the supremacy of kingship in Buganda. More sweepingly, Earle and Carney say, to advocate for a federal arrangement that guaranteed the political integrity of Uganda’s precolonial kingdoms, Ankole, Buganda, Bunyoro, Busoga, and Tooro. 

“Their principal ambition was to dislodge from power the Democratic Party, which had subjugated a Protestant king to the government of a Catholic commoner, Benedicto Kiwanuka,” Earle and Carney say of KY. 

In the parliamentary election of April 1962, before Uganda could secure independence, UPC and KY teamed up in a marriage of convenience to secure control of the government. The arrangement was electorally partitioned: UPC stood for all of the seats outside of Buganda; KY for those exclusively in Buganda. 

Kiwanuka and his DP couldn’t overcome the alliance and his short-lived tenure as Uganda’s premier came to an end via an electoral defeat. 

Uganda’s government would be controlled by a coalition government between UPC, led by Obote, a northerner who cast himself as a republican statesman, and KY, whose membership backed the southern, monarchical presidency of Kabaka Muteesa, the king of Buganda and first president of Uganda. 

The UPC/KY alliance was brief. It scattered by August 1964. The feeling that it was no longer essential to comply with the government of Buganda – and in immediate response to the Lukiiko’s (Buganda parliament) declaration that it no longer recognised the federal government’s authority on Ganda soil – prime minister Obote ordered the Ugandan army, under the command of Col Idi Amin, to apprehend the kabaka in May 1966. 

“Obote formally charged Muteesa with abrogating the Constitution. During the attack, Muteesa escaped from the palace compound by discreetly scaling the north-western wall,” Earle and Carney write. 

“Obote’s supporters argued the Uganda Peoples Congress was a united party leading the majority of people in the ‘Move to the Left’. Obote’s opponents on the contrary saw Uganda as a police state, in which any form of opposition to Obote, whether within or outside the UPC, was impossible,” Peter Willetts says in his paper The Politics of Uganda As a One-Party State 1969-1970. “…odd feature of this whole period that Uganda never became a de jure state, and it took another year before disputes, on what form the one-state should take, were resolved.” 

Former President Idi Amin banned all political activities.

Obote was ousted from power by Idi Amin, his army commander who banned all political parties and Parliament. 

“The change from Milton Obote to Idi Amin exacerbated Uganda’s longstanding political problems; as in many instances, Amin simply continued from where Obote had left off. Obote had undermined local government autonomy; Amin banned local councils altogether. Obote had banned political parties but retained Parliament, albeit largely as a rubber stamp; Amin outlawed it altogether,” Mr Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a political researcher writes in his paper Collapse, War, and Reconstruction in Uganda.

“Amin’s answer to Obote’s mass nationalisation of foreign-owned businesses was the expulsion of Asians and the confiscation of their businesses. Obote had disregarded inconvenient judicial decisions or flouted them; Amin simply cowed the Judiciary into paralysis. Obote had detained political opponents without trial; Amin simply murdered them,” he adds.

In April 1979, a combination of Tanzanian troops and Ugandan rebel elements who had been harboured in Tanzanian ousted Amin.

Under the auspices of Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) – a political group formed by exiled Ugandans opposed to the rule of Idi Amin – Prof Yusuf Lule was elected president, but his tenure lasted a record 68 days.

He was replaced by Godfrey Binaisa who was also against political parties, although in the 1960s, he had been a member of UPC. 

In fact, Binaisa was the brainchild of the movement ideology that he termed “Ekigaali” (umbrella), which was later adopted by Museveni and his group. 

Binaisa believed that political parties caused divisions, but many analysts say he came up with the “ekigaali idea” as a way of thwarting Obote, the UPC leader, who would sooner or later return from Tanzania where he had been exiled. 

Binaisa didn’t last a year in the presidency that he famously said was sweet (Entebbe ewooma) as he was booted on May 12, 1980, after he demoted UNLA Chief of Staff David Oyite-Ojok and Museveni in the reshuffle.

It was the Military Commission headed by Paulo Muwanga and Museveni that organised the disputed 1980 elections that were won by Obote’s UPC. 

Besides UPC, the other parties that competed were DP, the Conservative Party (CP), and Museveni’s Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM).

Though in its formation, DP had a national outlook, the disappearance of YK ensured it had now entrenched itself in Buganda.

“In spite of the above history, DP has been undergoing several changes. It is increasingly becoming a regional party. In the 1980 elections in Uganda, the party got most of its seats from Buganda. With the return to multiparty politics in Uganda in 2006, the parliamentary seats the party has won are all from Buganda. In Buganda, the support for DP cuts across religious,” Dr Simba says.

NRA leader Yoweri Museveni swears in as president after grabbing power in 1986. NRA banned all political activities.

After the 1980 election, Museveni renamed his group the National Resistance Army (NRA) and started a guerrilla war from Buganda that ended with the ousting of Tito Okello Lutwa, a semi-illiterate army commander who had carried out a coup against Obote.

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Upon capturing power, Museveni instituted what was called the broad-based government in which figures from various political parties such as DP and UPC were given ministerial positions. However, it later emerged they were seen as outsiders. 

“Historical NRM politicians who thought that they were not ‘appropriately’ placed in government, blamed this on a large number of the ‘non-NRM’ people in high-up places and set out to campaign against the situation. They created a distinction between government leaders as ‘NRM’, and ‘broad-based’. If you were referred to as ‘broad-based’, it was another way of saying you were undeserving of your post, or that you were possibly an enemy agent,” wrote Dr Kizza Besigye, an Opposition leader, who was in the 1980s NRA’s junior minister of Internal Affairs and later Chief Political Commissar. 

A decade after Museveni grabbed power, the 1996 elections were held under what was called the “Movement” (Omugendo) system, which barred political parties from fielding and supporting candidates. 

Despite the severe restrictions placed on members of Opposition political parties, some Opposition politicians decided to contest the elections in their personal capacity and were successfully elected. 

Parliament thus included a significant number of Opposition politicians closely associated with political parties. Groups such as the Acholi Parliamentary Group, representing parliamentarians from then war-ravaged districts of Gulu and Kitgum, are examples of organised groups within Parliament often at odds with government policies.

At that time the newly adopted Constitution allowed political parties to exist in name, but outlawed all the activities normally associated with political parties. 

Political parties were prohibited from opening and operating branch offices, holding delegates’ conferences, and holding public rallies. 

Political parties were further prohibited from “sponsoring or offering a platform to or in any way campaigning for or against a candidate for any public elections”. Additionally, they were prohibited from “carrying on any activities that may interfere with the movement political system for the time being in force”. 

According to Prof William Muhumuza, Museveni put a ban on political parties for the greatest part of his rule in order to buttress his hold on power. 

“The only concession was to open up for individuals from any political persuasion to compete for power at all levels of government on the basis of individual merit but not parties. This was justified on the grounds that multipartism would return sectarian politics and consequently polarise the country. This allowed the NRM to implement piecemeal democratic reforms, which were manipulated to ensure Museveni maintained political control. It is not until 2005 that change to multiparty politics was approved,” Prof Muhumza says, adding that it should be pointed out that Museveni opted for this change because it suited his vested political interests. 

“He made this concession in order to get a new lease on political life and bounce back as a president under a different political dispensation. He needed to assure donors that Uganda was steadily transiting to multiparty democracy so as to continue getting aid,” he says.