Kampala. By the time Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu requested to meet with Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party president Amuriat Oboi last week, a number of last-ditch attempts had been made to convince him from leaving the party he helped found to start a new one.
Before the last-minute efforts came into play, Gen Muntu had already come face-to-face with fears over a decision to leave the party that different party members that he consulted countrywide raised. In the final report that he handed to Mr Oboi, he presented these fears, most of them based on the assumption that FDC splitting will make the Opposition weaker.
The report also contains the reasons that the people he consulted who supported separation raised, the most rampant point being that the two factions staying together would not help since they will keep bickering.
Saturday Monitor has established that a senior politician, who is not a member of FDC, spoke with Gen Muntu and Dr Besigye in a last attempt to broker an understanding and prevent the separation, but his effort did not yield results.
The question that lingers, therefore, is why Gen Muntu was so bent on leaving the party to the extent that he shut his ears to all pleas to stay in the party.
In 2005, as FDC party had just been formed, a group of top party officials flew to South Africa to meet Dr Kizza Besigye, who was in exile. Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu was part of the delegation.
Dr Besigye had escaped from the country citing threats to his life after challenging President Museveni for the first time in the 2001 election.
Majority of the leaders who were in the meeting still considered that Dr Besigye was the Opposition’s best shot at the presidency and that particular meeting mainly focused on finalising the finer details of his return ahead of the party’s inaugural delegates conference in late 2005 in preparation for the 2016 election.
Then after the discussions ended, in which a member who attended says Gen Muntu remained largely silent, the former army commander pulled Dr Besigye to the side and whispered to him this message: “As you prepare to come back home, know that I am also planning to run for President on FDC ticket and you should be prepared to compete with me.”
Gen Muntu and Dr Besigye would later share this message with other members of the party.
That happened 13 years ago, but it is a memory that has been on many occasions chorused by a number of players in and around FDC in recent times.
And it has been interpreted differently by the two camps – one allied to Dr Besigye and the other to Gen Muntu.
To a number of FDC members allied to Dr Besigye, this act by Gen Muntu was viewed as treachery. They think that Gen Muntu should have tabled his desire to contest for the leadership of the nascent party for discussion during the meeting.
Since the meeting was to finalise plans for Dr Besigye’s return to Uganda in the full knowledge that he would likely be arrested on arrival, the people who share this view believe that Dr Besigye needed the party flag as some sort of insurance lest he would rot in jail.
So if Gen Muntu had told the meeting that he would compete with Dr Besigye for the leadership of the party, his opponents argue, perhaps the direction of the conversation would have been different.
Dr Besigye eventually returned to Uganda, got arrested and was charged with rape, treason and misprision of treason. Another issue then arose.
By the time he was arrested, Dr Besigye had already been elected unopposed as the leader of FDC and was set to be the party’s flag bearer in the 2006 General Election.
Arrangements for his nomination had been made, including collecting signatures countrywide that were to support his nomination.
With Dr Besigye on remand, facing capital offenses, one of which is punishable by by death, a new debate erupted within the new party on how to handle the possibility of Dr Besigye being blocked from running for president on account of being in prison.
Then Attorney General Kiddhu Makubuya added fuel to this debate by supplying an opinion to the Electoral Commission that Dr Besigye could not be allowed to run for office because having been charged with the offences he was facing, he was “not at the same level of innocence” as those other aspirants who had not been charged.
In FDC, a group of people, which included Gen Muntu, argued for the need to have an alternative ready just in case Dr Besigye were to be blocked from running.
The other group that favoured Dr Besigye insisted that they would only have Dr Besigye as the candidate or no candidate at all and insisted that he would be nominated to run even if he remained in jail.
They questioned the ethics of using signatures that had been collected to support Dr Besigye’s candidature to support the candidature of another.
To counter this argument, the group that favoured that an alternative be readied made money available for the collection of an alternative set of signatures just in case it became necessary for FDC to nominate a candidate other than Dr Besigye and there was no time to collect signatures from all over the country.
In the end, the State relented, with Deputy Attorney General Freddie Ruhindi supplying an opinion that contradicted his boss’, and Dr Besigye was nominated while in prison.
We recount these events that happened early in FDC’s life because, it appears, they bear pointers to how relations within FDC, particularly between the camps allied to Dr Besigye and Gen Muntu, were framed and reproduced over the last 13 years.
For purposes of this article, we asked Gen Muntu why he acted the way he did after the meeting in South Africa.
The former army commander said that was not the only time he acted that way.
He said even when he competed against Dr Besigye for the party presidency in 2009, and for the party flag in 2010, he made sure to first tell Dr Besigye of his intention to do so before he told the other members.
In 2005, Gen Muntu says after informing Dr Besigye of his intention to run against him while still in South Africa, he returned to Uganda and informed other top leaders of the party of the same.
But he would later go back on his decision to challenge Dr Besigye, he says, because on further analysis of the situation, he concluded that 90 per cent of the top leaders of the party would not understand his decision to compete with Dr Besigye at that stage, and so his candidature would destabilise the young party.
When he decided on not running, he says, he went back to the top leaders of the party and explained why he would not run. The situation, in Gen Muntu’s assessment, had changed in 2009 when he finally competed against Dr Besigye, with the party then, in his opinion, more suited to managing the contradictions that would result from a competition for the top slot.
Gen Muntu says he explained to party members and Dr Besigye that since many of them were running away from the ruling NRM because it had been monopolized by President Museveni and no competition for the top job was allowed, he would ensure that the same situation did not develop in FDC by competing for the top job as early as possible in the party’s life. In fact, Gen Muntu spotlights this as his biggest contribution to building FDC.
At the delegates conference in 2009, when he first challenged Dr Besigye, he says as a former military man, he believes in tactics, key among them being that you should beat the enemy with something he cannot fight.
He said NRM would have no way to respond to a party that exercises democracy within its ranks because the ruling party simply can’t do so. “You cannot give what you don’t have” became Gen Muntu’s mantra.
In doing all this, Dr Besigye and Gen Muntu always acted civil towards each other even as individuals allied to either of them openly conflicted.
Speaking to a number of people allied To Dr Besigye, a number of accusations against Gen Muntu emerge. A number of them say Gen Muntu, having been army commander for a decade and a major general, would not take being led by a colonel – two ranks below his rank.
These people say Gen Muntu’s motivation to dislodge Dr Besigye from the leadership of FDC is etched in this thinking.
Some say, often in hashed tones, that the problem has to do with tribal conflicts among players from western Uganda, with a number of people around Gen Muntu rejecting Dr Besigye’s leadership because of his tribe. Those who espouse this thinking point to some players who left NRM and indicated their intention to join FDC but withdrew the moment it became clear that Dr Besigye and not Gen Muntu would lead the party.
The other accusation that pro-Besigye players level against Gen Muntu, and this has come out in the open on a number of occasions, is that he is a mole, working as a fifth columnist planted in the Opposition by President Museveni.
At one moment while campaigning for the party leadership in Kamuli District in 2012, Gen Muntu shed tears over this, wondering why his colleagues in the party continued to allege that against him.
At the outset of that campaign, in which Gen Muntu competed against and defeated Mr Nandala Mafabi, Maj Rubaramira Ruranga, the chairperson of the Mafabi campaign team, had referred to Gen Muntu as a mole at their opening rally and repeated the claim on a number of times. Maj Ruranga would, after Mr Mafabi lost, cross from FDC back to NRM.
Whenever Gen Muntu was called a mole by individuals who back Dr Besigye, the blame went to Dr Besigye even when the four-time presidential candidate came out on a number of occasions to say that as far as he was concerned, Gen Muntu is committed to the fight against President Museveni and was not a mole.
Muntu mole accusations. To Gen Muntu and his backers, Dr Besigye’s defence of the former army commander’s credentials as an Opposition activist seemed to ring hollow.
Speaking to a number of them, you get the sense that they felt that Dr Besigye did not do enough to restrain his backers from labelling Gen Muntu a mole.
As time went by, the two men seemed to get more and more encumbered by the desires of the people who back them. On his part, Dr Besigye got more aligned to a group that has been labelled as “radicals” (others call them riff raffs) and he has been accused of being unable to control them.
The group allied to Dr Besigye seemed to grow increasingly intolerant towards those who seemed to cooperate with Mr Museveni’s government in any way, calling them fifth columnists.
On the other hand, a number of politicians who seemed to play ball with the ruling party and President Museveni seemed to find solace within Gen Muntu’s camp. The pro-Besigye group, for instance, accused Gen Muntu of cooperating with President Museveni when he kept Bukedea Woman MP Anita Among as a deputy chairperson of an accountability committee in Parliament even when she openly cooperated with President Museveni – like when the President sent her to deliver money for the widows of those killed during the raid on King Mumbere’s palace in Kasese.
The pro-Besigye group, basing on some of the politicians Gen Muntu allied himself with and other reasons, accused him of helping President Museveni to continue in power. In line with this, a number of pro-Besigye individuals have in the recent past claimed that Gen Muntu secretly met with President Museveni while he was FDC president around 2014.
Gen Muntu on Thursday comprehensively fought back against this allegation, saying he last met with Mr Museveni in 2004 and that if he wanted to work with Mr Museveni, he would get a better posting than being a spy. He argued that if he were a mole planted to spy on the Opposition, he would have stayed to foment trouble within FDC instead of walking out to let the party reorganise and grow.
Pressure from supporters. But from the outside looking in, it is clear that just like Dr Besigye, Gen Muntu increasingly grew incapable of reining in the people allied to him and could perhaps not control their interaction with President Museveni, which affects the way he is perceived.
The two camps then got into a stalemate – Dr Besigye’s dubbed “the radicals” and convinced of the rightness of their cause, but ever suspicious of the intentions of the Muntu camp that positioned themselves as moderates, although some of their members acted like they had left the Opposition and joined NRM.
FDC’s image in the public eye seemed to dip and, in Gen Muntu’s assessment, a vacuum was created, with perhaps an increasing number of Ugandans feeling that the Opposition needed to undergo a process of renewal, failing which another force would emerge and run away with the spoils.
FDC has not yet responded to the question of whether while the two camps bickered, they allowed a vacuum to emerge.
Dr Besigye too hasn’t yet comprehensively responded to Gen Muntu’s decision to quit and what it portends for the Opposition.
But there is no running away from the fact that whether by commission or omission, the seeds that eventually birthed the breakup of FDC were planted in the ambitions of the two men, and it remains to be seen whether them acting separately is a better strategy for the Opposition.