So the long-festering boil has finally been lanced. Uganda’s largest opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, recently suffered a major split.
A number of notable senior leaders and cadres led by its former president, retired army General Gregory Mugisha Muntu, have walked away to start new political lives elsewhere.
At the time of writing, their final destination was yet to be revealed and remained a subject of much speculation in mainstream media and on social media platforms in Uganda and beyond.
Were they going to form a new party? Were they going to join an existing party and engineer its rebranding? Were they seeking to add energy to the wave of popular disaffection against President Yoweri Museveni and his party, now known as People Power, that pop star Bobi Wine has generated?
Some of the speculation has gone much farther, asserting that Mugisha Muntu is preparing to lead his fellow defectors into the NRM that he and Dr Kizza Besigye (his predecessor as FDC president and the man who dared take on President Museveni at a time when no one else in the NRM had the courage to do so) put their young lives on the line to help bring to power.
If stories circulating over the past few days are a measure of how bad things are in the Forum for Democratic Change, a party that many once believed would grow to dwarf the NRM, it is likely to suffer yet more haemorrhage of talent as Uganda edges closer to fresh presidential and parliamentary elections in just over two years.
Apparently only electoral legislation that does not give MPs freedom to quit their parties whenever they want to, has prevented other defectors from announcing their departure.
There is a view being bandied about by many commentators that Muntu’s departure and that of his allies is bad for the opposition because it means that they cannot now establish the broad front that is necessary if they are to stand a chance against the deeply entrenched President Museveni given all the advantages of incumbency he enjoys.
This view disregards arguably the most important reason opposition groups in Uganda have consistently failed to establish this broad front, and why Muntu and before him another FDC stalwart and now a minister in the Museveni government, Beti Kamya, left the party.
The reason is simply lack of trust. It is important to begin with the FDC. Long before Beti Kamya left the FDC, rumours had been circulating about her being a mole for President Museveni, and therefore undermining the party from within.
These rumours circulated liberally within FDC, media, and other circles, with commentators treating them as unquestionable truth.
Eventually, they led to Kamya’s isolation, her departure to form her own political party, and her metamorphosis from a critic of the “Museveni system” into a diehard supporter of the very man who presides over that system.
Muntu has long been the victim of similar badmouthing. Ultimately, it made no sense for him and his supporters to remain in a party where the leadership and some of the rank and file questioned their integrity.
No united front without trust
This absence of trust among party leaders and activists affects the internal workings of all opposition parties. In some cases, it extends to relations among party leaders and severely undermines efforts to forge a united front against Museveni and the NRM and to craft a coherent agenda for the post-Museveni era, whenever it may come.
Besides the rumour mongering about moles, one thing that has severely degraded internal party cohesion is a misguided adherence to a particular approach to choosing leaders and candidates for parliamentary seats. It is widely believed among parties that the best way to choose and change leaders is through adversarial contests where competition is a zero-sum, do-or-die exercise.
Candidates who win often do so as a result of badmouthing their rivals and ruining their reputations, sometime irreparably.
It leaves the losers deeply wounded and unable to work with the winning team in pursuit of what their parties continue to claim are common interests.
Past attempts at coalition building have sometimes aborted because of rival factions in different parties pulling in different directions.
One can therefore argue that the continued presence in the FDC of Muntu and his supporters would have simply made it difficult for the party to approach any process of coalition building, and I mean this in a loose sense, as a united organisation.
Their departure, on the other hand, offers both groups a chance to regroup, think about their political future, and tell the public what they are about and why anyone should support them.
As for the other political groups, the key lesson to draw from the FDC split is that ways must be found to manage internal relationships, including leadership and other contests, ways that preserve and strengthen unity and cohesion rather than undermining them. Divided parties can neither pursue coherent agendas nor build stable coalitions.
** Mugisha Muntu announced a new platform called the New Formation on Thursday September 27, 2018.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]