Uganda’s elections concluded three months ago, and yet political tempers remain high. Most obvious—and perturbing—is the continued state-led repression of the opposition, including most recently the treason charges levelled against opposition leader Col Kizza Besigye. All is not well within the ruling party itself either. As parliament convened this week, the National Resistance Movment (NRM) leadership were scrambling to stave off a rebellion over the party’s official candidate for the position of Deputy Speaker. While seemingly minor in and of itself, this incident shows that President Museveni has his work cut out for him handling backbench MPs. And already he has had to resort to his trump card: money.
Shortly after the February elections, the race to be House Speaker erupted in controversy. The outgoing Speaker, Rebecca Kadaga, faced a challenge from her then deputy, Jacob Oulanyah. Both NRM heavyweights organized campaign teams, and started inviting their fellow parliamentarians to meetings with promises of up to Shs200k ($60) in ‘transport’ allowances. Kadaga, a Speaker with a reputation for being independent-minded, won the support of well-known dissident MPs. She attacked Oulanyah for being new to the NRM—he used to be a member of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC)—and for showing undue ambition. Oulanyah, in turn, questioned Kadaga’s loyalty to the ruling party.
With the parliamentary caucus fracturing into rival camps, the NRM Central Executive Committee (CEC) intervened to settle the dispute. CEC opted to preserve the status quo, recommending that the NRM parliamentary caucus nominateKadaga as the official NRM Speaker candidate and Oulanyah as Deputy. This move restored a degree of calm, and the NRM caucus approved both names to be the official NRM candidates ahead of a vote in the full House.
The twist came when one of the other contenders for Deputy Speaker, Mohammed Nsereko, refused to pull out of the race. Nsereko won his seat in February as an Independent. This come-back came after he was first expelled from the NRM, along with three other MPs, for disloyalty in the previous parliament. Ahead of the 2016 elections, President Museveni sought to mend fences with these four ‘rebel’ legislators, two of whom ran again on the NRM ticket, and all of whom were re-elected. After the elections, even those who remained Independents were invited to join NRM caucus meetings.
Nsereko’s‘rebel’ background made his refusal to withdraw his candidacy all the more provocative. Even more troubling for the NRM top brass was Nsereko’s apparent popularity within the caucus. He also showed his financial muscle, outspending both Kadaga and Oulanyah by rewarding supporters with Shs500k ($150) at campaign meetings.
With the very real threat of an embarrassing upset in the election for Deputy Speaker, President Museveni rushed to convene the NRM caucus on Sunday 15 May, four days before the parliamentary vote. He used this meeting to discipline Nsereko, who was escorted out by security after (again) refusing to withdraw his candidacy. Museveni then adopted a softer touch with the remaining MPs.He suggested he might reimburse their inauguration expenses, as many newly elected parliamentarians planned expensive parties for their supporters. He also promised to reconsider his decision to block the Income Tax Bill, which sparked a public outcry after MPs exempted their own allowances from taxation.
Seemingly fearful that money might not speak loudly enough, Museveni took a further, unprecedented step. On Thursday 19 May, he attended the parliamentary session, arriving shortly after Kadaga was elected Speaker and just as voting began for the position of Deputy Speaker.
After such an aggressive campaign, it was no wonder when Oulanyah won 300 out of 413 votes. But this clash between Museveni and the NRM caucus promises to be one of many as the 10th Parliament gets underway. It is in line with a recurring pattern in Uganda. At the start of a parliamentary term, a fresh cohort of NRM MPs—59% new in this parliament—arrive having fought a bruising and expensive election battle. For many, loyalty to the NRM is conditional at best, leading President Museveni to buy MPs’ support at a seemingly ever more inflated price. This year the tug-of-war between Parliament and the President has started earlier than ever before.
Sensing, at least for now, that parliamentary independence is in vogue, newly elected Deputy Speaker Oulanyah urged his fellow MPs to “choose national interests over party allegiance.” Whether the irony was intentional is anyone’s guess.