This past week, the Central Executive Committee (CEC) of Uganda’s long-time ruling party concluded a five-day retreat, lavishly hosted at the luxury Chobe Safari Lodge.
Among other decisions, the CEC members agreed to endorse President Yoweri Museveni’s “sole candidacy” in the 2021 elections, meaning there should be no challengers from within the National Resistance Movement (NRM). The CEC also agreed several reforms to the party’s structures and procedures. These changes include reversing an earlier reform, which barred top party officials from also seeking elected office, and eliminating the secret ballot in parliamentary primaries. The idea is that party members will, instead, line up behind their preferred candidate, a procedure last used in the 1980s.
The CEC’s resolutions still must be voted through at the next NRM delegates’ conference, scheduled for November this year. The support of conference delegates is all but guaranteed, though, and if need be, there is always the option of deploying police around the conference hall, as happened at the 2014 conference.
What then, if anything, is the significance of these proposed changes?
There is nothing remotely surprising about the “sole candidacy” resolution, which paves the way for Museveni to extend his 33-year-long presidency. Indeed, in late 2017 already, the NRM leadership pushed through a constitutional reform lifting presidential age limits, making its intentions to keep Museveni in power perfectly clear.
The only point of interest relating to the “sole candidacy” resolution is that it came from the CEC and not, as in 2014, from the NRM parliamentary caucus. Although the CEC’s intervention is more in line with official party procedure, the parliamentary caucus had—in the past—assumed a prominent role in championing key party decisions. Its absence from the story now may simply be an indication that Museveni’s sole candidacy is a foregone conclusion; it requires minimal mobilisation within the party, unlike in 2014 when he faced a challenge from an NRM insider.
More interesting, though, it may also be a consequence of mounting frustration within the NRM parliamentary caucus, linked notably to fallout from the age limits reform. Of note, and likely related, the annual NRM caucus retreat, usually held in January at the Kyankwanzi National Leadership Institute, did not happen.
Shifting focus to the CEC’s proposed party reforms, there is nothing particularly new here either; the latest changes fit into a long series of (failed) attempts by NRM leaders to secure greater internal party discipline and organisational coherence. These repeated efforts do nevertheless raise important questions, namely, how have NRM leaders tried to reform the party and why, by their own admission, have they failed? As in, why has the NRM, despite the unending lamentations of its leaders, remained a fractious and weak organisation?
Going back to the 1990s, under the so-called No-Party or Movement system, NRM leaders were experimenting with various institutional reforms, including investing in a would-be stronger secretariat. The 2005 multiparty transition was later cast as a fresh opportunity to strengthen the NRM, to make it the “CCM of Uganda”, CCM being a reference to neighbouring Tanzania’s better organised and more cohesive ruling party.
Come 2019, however, little has changed. Speaking to journalists at this latest CEC meeting, one party official acknowledged, “The truth is NRM is not well run. The squabbles have become too many, both at the national and lower levels […].”
The CEC’s proposed changes are a sign that it is effectively going in circles. As noted above, the CEC aims to reverse a previous decision, introduced in 2014, to bar top officials—specifically the Secretary General, Treasurer and their deputies—from seeking elected office. The rationale in 2014 was that, by barring officials from other political activities, the party would ensure they focused on their party duties. Five years later, though, party officials are caught up in their own internal disagreements, they complain that they no longer enjoy the same “status” as an elected MP, and they have not strengthened the party’s formal structures or mobilisating capacity. The CEC’s response—to revert to status quo ante—does not address the core issue of how to strengthen the NRM, although it may address the immediate concerns of these disgruntled officials.
The CEC’s change to parliamentary primary procedures is even less promising. Candidate selection has proved a major challenge for the NRM, exacerbating internal party divisions and parliamentary indiscipline. In a sign of this dysfunction, the 2015 NRM primaries saw 168 petitions challenging results submitted to the NRM’s Electoral Commission. What is more, in the ensuing general elections, more Independent MPs—many of them disgruntled former NRM aspirants—were elected to Parliament than opposition MPs.
NRM leaders have responded to these tensions with a series of institutional fix-its, most notably abandoning an electoral college system in favour of open primaries in 2010. The idea was that by allowing all NRM members to vote in primaries, it would be harder for rival factions to bribe their way to victory; as in, the relatively small number of electoral college members could be more easily compromised than a large mass of voters.
This optimistic assumption, however, proved wrong. As noted, allegations of malpractice during primaries remain pervasive. The CEC’s latest proposal, i.e. to abandon the secret ballot and return to the 1980s practice of lining up behind candidates, is hardly a solution. The queuing system was controversial in the past, rife with accusations of bribery and intimidation. There is no reason why it should be different today.
The only conclusion, reviewing the CEC’s latest decision, is that it faces the same old problems but has yet to find a solution. Party unity cannot be engineered through institutional means alone; rather, if it were serious, the CEC would need to address the root causes of factional tensions. These include wealthy NRM leaders’ tendency to cultivate rival networks within the party as well as the lack of material support for NRM candidates, who instead rely on their own private backers and resources.
The NRM top brass lack the appetite—or ability—to handle these issues; indeed, it would require a fundamental renegotiation of how power is distributed within the party. They instead resort to grand declarations—the creation of a “CCM of Uganda”—accompanied by marginal and ultimately ineffective reforms.
We are left with something of a paradox. The NRM’s electoral dominance has endured over several decades. Yet, NRM leaders’ control over the party itself remains—by their own standards—partial and unsatisfactory.
 Much of this historical discussion draws on my PhD thesis, “The Political Economy of Institutions in Africa: Comparing Authoritarian Parties and Parliaments in Tanzania and Uganda”.