By James Karuhanga
Senior Researcher Uganda

Great Lakes Centre for Strategic Studies
 

In the past month, Uganda’s ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) has experienced open dissent among its members. There has been political speculation that this is a sign of trouble for the NRM; however, party insiders describe it as just a normal path to multi-party democracy.
 

Most NRM party officials do not agree that the party faces deep internal wrangles as various recent incidents and local press reports suggest. One such incident was when an NRM MP, Sam Lyomoki moved a motion against his own party’s position about the 1 March police deployment and forceful re-arrest of the bailed People’s Redemption Army (PRA) rebel suspects at the high court in Kampala.
 

Party MPs criticized the government for deploying the police to forcefully re-arrest the PRA suspects. About 18 MPs voted with the opposition against their party when the motion to condemn the court siege was tabled in parliament. Talking to the Great Lakes Centre for Strategic Studies (GLCSS), NRM MPs and officials stated that there are no fundamental differences in the party even though disciplinary measures have since been threatened.
 

‘‘There are no wrangles as such, it is just that the NRM is such a vibrant party,’’ Kinkizi East (Kanungu district) MP, Dr. Chris Baryomunsi said. He explained that the NRM by definition is a multi-ideological kind of organization that entertains views from different backgrounds.
 

Rubanda County West (Kabale district) MP, Henry Banyenzaki also doesn’t believe the recent events mean wrangling in the party.
 

‘‘It doesn’t show wrangles,’’ he said. ‘‘It only shows that we who are independent minded have difficulty in expressing ourselves.’’ Baryomunsi and Banyenzaki are two of the party members accused of dissent from the party’s official position.
 

Old guard versus young generation
 

According to Dr. Baryomunsi, young people are coming in and it is important that ‘‘the old guards’’ accommodate independent objectives of the young people. ‘‘How do you blend the thinking of the young people with the old people?” he asks.
 

GLCSS interview revealed that sections of the ‘young generation’ party members want to have more influence in the party – they feel overshadowed by the ‘old guard’. This could also explain recent demands by some members for the party chairman, President Y.K.Museveni – an old guard – to stop chairing caucus meetings.   
 

Some MPs have recently come out strongly to criticize the President’s appearances in party caucus meetings. Their strongest argument is that the president’s presence at caucus meetings intimidates them and some MPs thus do not openly debate or contribute to the meetings. This, however, doesn’t seem a viable option since President Museveni as NRM’s leader must interact with the caucus to harmonize positions. Apart from the president, the NRM caucus also boasts of about 60 MPs who are ministers. 
 

 

Multi-party democracy – a new challenge
 

The coming of multi-party democracy in Uganda has also had a significant impact on the party’s present situation. While some believe that the MPs are answerable to their constituencies first than the party, others see it the other way round – the party comes first.  This issue is currently proving to be a challenge for the party.
 

‘‘There are teething problems of multiparty democracy,’’ Baryomunsi is of the view that most ‘‘of our leaders’’ don’t have knowledge on how political parties function in a multiparty setting.
                                            
The GLCSS believes most of the party’s present challenges are a due to members’ differing outlook and interpretation of the new multiparty democracy platform in the country.
 

Baryomunsi believes that, ‘‘not everything on the floor should have a partisan color.’’
 

‘‘The mistake, if at all, we are making here is that on everything in parliament, the party must have a position,’’ he said explaining his position. He argues that there should be issues where the party has strong interest and others which are not necessarily important and not restricted by ‘party line’ – a view which NRM Chief Whip, also Caucus Chairperson and Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Kabakumba Labwoni Masiko does not agree with.
 

‘‘In multiparty democracy now – NRM will account for all actions by members especially on critical issues,’’ Kabakumba stressed. Given Uganda’s present political situation – most often affected by partisan politics – the chief whip’s argument cannot be ruled out. GLCSS observes that politician’s actions anywhere in the country are linked to their political affiliation and can be damaging to the party. 
 
Acknowledging that there are ‘‘some few cases of indiscipline’’, Kabakumba pointed out that as far as party code of conduct is concerned, everything goes through the caucus. This a damage control mechanism that parties the world over apply. However, it is important to note that if not well harmonized, the party caucus could give ground for further dissent or even split in the party.
 

Banyenzaki also disagrees with Kabakumba on the party code of conduct and he believes he can “disagree on the view of the caucus when I am very convinced that what I am doing is in interest of country and constituency so long as my disagreement on such a matter is not in disagreement with national constitution and Ugandan laws.’’
 

GLCSS finds the NRM in a dilemma with the two constitutions and this is a matter that will have to be re-examined very carefully if the threat of continuous internal dissent is to be controlled. The NRM Parliamentary caucus will have to review its methods of work to control internal dissent (or indiscipline) of its members.
 
Disciplinary action
 

For a while now, the party has been battling internal dissent and following the latest development, the chief whip seems determined to ensure that disciplinary action is taken. She also dispels concerns over fears of splits due to disciplinary action.
 

‘‘No, it will actually cause cohesion in the party,’’ she said. GLCSS observes that it will take very careful deliberations to decide which disciplinary measures will strengthen rather than weaken or split the party – indeed, as she earlier pointed out, disciplining members cannot split NRM but undisciplined members can split it.
 

‘‘They [dissenting MPs] are not going to be disciplined because of what they said but because of going against party position and party methods of work,’’ Kabakumba clarified. The issue of enforcing discipline in the party ranks, however, does not seem a simple task. This is especially so since the national constitution is supreme.
 

‘‘The national constitution is supreme but party constitution allows us to organize through the party,’’ urged Kabakumba.
 

The GLCSS observes that discipline will be the strength of the party but what is very important is how that discipline is enforced without seeming to weaken the party – and without compromising the national constitution which is supreme to the party constitution.
 

Further, if the party members who dissent from party position feel harassed, this will only serve to heighten rather than solve the problem. Some MPs don not believe disciplinary action can be taken.
 
‘‘I don’t think so, they don’t even have the legal basis to do so [enforce disciplinary action],’’ Baryomunsi insisted. ‘‘The national constitution is supreme and gives me insulation’’ he stressed.
 

He believes the political implications of disciplining members might be worse than what is being cured. ‘Because we shall interpret it that members are being stifled and gagged,’’ he added stressing he believed that MPs might interpret this as meaning “that we shouldn’t express our independent minds.’’
 

According to Baryomunsi, the party position should, ‘be arrived at through a participatory and democratic process for members to own that position. He observes that in caucus no such position was arrived at.  He notes that recently when the President and Party Chairman came into the caucusand explained what was happening, the issue was not debated thoroughly.
 

‘‘Very minimal if any, debate ensued there after,’’ he said. ‘‘I wouldn’t say that was the right way of doing things.’’
 

The GLCSS observes that if consensus is not reached in the party caucus, the party is bound to experience further dissent within its members. The new multiparty political setting is yet to be well grasped and internalized in a manner that does not weaken but strengthen the ruling party. Unity of the party is very important and members will have to agree on the workings of the new multiparty political setting.

The Great Lakes Centre for Strategic Studies is a London-based think tank with offices in Kigali and Kampala. GLCSS trains African journalists, offers an on-site internship to foreign African studies students, and manages an exchange program with journalists from the United Kingdom, the United States and Europe.
William Church is director of the Great Lakes Centre for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank with offices in Central and East Africa. You may contact William Church at wchurch@glcss.org. GLCSS trains African journalists, offers an on-site internship to foreign African studies students, and manages an exchange program with journalists from the United Kingdom, the United States and Europe.

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