This week, former army commander and former president of the Opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party, Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, announced he was leaving the FDC to form a new political party.
The news came as a surprise in the sense that news always comes as a surprise. But it was not really a surprise to political analysts and many among the FDC’s senior leadership.
After the FDC’s presidential election that saw Patrick Amuriat Oboi defeat Muntu, the general put on a brave, gentlemanly face but as soon as he embarked on a nationwide “consultancy” tour, it was clear that he and his loyalists planned to break away from the FDC.
This is the biggest political story in Uganda in 2018 so far. It is the biggest political story for a few reasons.
The drama involving the Kyadondo East MP and musician Bobi Wine first went national, then global and, on the face of it, seems the most obvious choice for political story of the year.
But viewed with detachment, Bobi Wine became a major news story mainly because of his arrest and reported torture at the hands of the presidential guard, the Special Forces Command .
Had Uganda been a proper democracy run by the rule of law, most of what made Bobi Wine a national and international talking point in 2018 would not have taken place and, therefore, he would still be a medium-level political figure notable for campaigning for candidates in parliamentary by-elections in Jinja East, Bugiri and Arua.
Muntu’s departure from the FDC is a direct, pure political story and does not involve diversions such as State deployment of force and riot police.
So let us examine Muntu’s leaving the FDC and what this means for Uganda, the Opposition, the ruling NRM and the next general election in 2021.
Tensions had been brewing within the FDC over how best to challenge the Museveni government.
One section of the FDC, loyal to the former party president, Dr Kizza Besigye, and the present president Amuriat, insisted that he had won the 2016 general election and that fact had to be recognised.
Therefore, according to this group, all party activity should be focused on rejecting the NRM party’s claim to government after 2016 and the method it should use was defiance against the State, civil disobedience and resistance.
Another faction, the one backing Muntu, seemed to believe that the FDC was weak at the grassroots and had to build up a formal party organisation, complete with office structures and institutions.
It was okay to occasionally engage in civil disobedience against the NRM government, Muntu’s faction conceded, but the long-term viability of the FDC depended on a grassroots, institutional strength.
The Muntu faction, by this approach, inadvertently suggested or admitted than the NRM had rightfully won the 2016 election, otherwise why would it be emphasising building party structures rather than claiming the 2016 election, as the Besigye-Amuriat faction was doing?
The other source of tension in the FDC was the relationship between Besigye and Muntu.
Muntu and his supporters felt short-changed by Besigye. When Besigye and Muntu contested the party presidency and Besigye won, Muntu whole-heartedly threw his support behind Besigye, as a matter of principle and for the sake of party unity.
Yet when Muntu as FDC president contested for re-election against Patrick Amuriat, Muntu and his supporters noted, Besigye not only did not reciprocate Muntu’s support; Besigye supported Amuriat.
Worse still, all through Muntu’s presidency rather than Besigye throw his influence in the party and the country behind Muntu, Besigye tended to stand back from the FDC and devote most of his time to joint activism with figures like Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, who officially belongs to the Democratic Party.
So the FDC has split over what approach to take in the aftermath of the 2016 general election and, before that, over Besigye’s lack of support for Muntu during Muntu’s tenure as FDC president.
Many in the FDC have always been lukewarm toward Muntu because of a belief that Muntu might not be quite what he seems.
These FDC members suspect that Muntu is either a secret mole for the State or is viewed by the Museveni regime as an acceptable alternative to Besigye, which for hardline Besigye supporters is another way of saying Muntu is a mole of the State, or potential mole.
It hurt Muntu, who worked tirelessly for the FDC, to be viewed with suspicion as a double agent and he made that clear in late 2016.
Where does Muntu’s departure from the FDC leave Ugandan politics?
In weak nation-states, it is never a good idea for political parties, ruling or opposition, to break into splinter factions.
The parties are always left weaker.
A party full of tension and rival factions that remains officially one party is better off than a party that breaks up into two competing factions.
The FDC will become weaker than it was when Muntu and his supporters were still in the party, and yet Muntu will not necessarily become strong now that he is free to operate without the constraints of the FDC party constitution and structures.
In the music industry at a certain level, the parts can become greater than the whole.
Lionel Richie, lead singer of the Commodores, left for a solo career in 1982 and Beyoncé Knowles, lead singer of the girl group Destiny’s Child, similarly went solo in 2002.
Both Richie and Knowles became much bigger international stars as solo artistes than they had been as part of a group.
But in politics where it is much harder to build up organisational strength and create a national brand, rarely do breakaway factions become bigger than or equal in size and influence to the original party.
That is the first challenge that faces Maj Gen Muntu.
Muntu and his supporters must now test for themselves if they became nationally prominent because of their personal qualities and principles or because they bore the mantle of the FDC brand and the undeniable charisma and name recognition of Dr Besigye.
Given the tidal wave of support for Bobi Wine and his defiant, militant brand of activism, the national mood in Uganda at this stage appears to favour a hard line confrontation with Museveni.
In that case, Muntu and his new party could end up like Amama Mbabazi’s 2016 Go Forward group – a respectable, well-organised, moderate group but which failed to tap into the widespread, raw public discontent.
The fact that Muntu as party president failed to win a second elected term and was beaten by Amuriat who in outlook is more a Besigye than a Muntu, itself raises questions about Muntu’s ability to start afresh with an entirely new political party and that party matches the FDC.
Muntu’s new party has, as its best hope, a formal or indirect alliance with the Bobi Wine pressure group, People Power.
That would be a move as smart as the alliance between Besigye’s Reform Agenda of 2000 and the former Kampala Mayor Nasser Sebaggala.
Where Muntu personally, with his image as modest, principled and decent, appeals to NRM moderates, FDC moderates and many neutral, apolitical Ugandans, Bobi Wine would bring to an alliance with Muntu the angry youth and urban dispossessed and unemployed.
It was this group of urban disgruntled that Sebaggala brought to Besigye and dramatically increased Besigye’s appeal in central Uganda.
But, as just said, Bobi Wine is a more natural ally of Besigye than of Muntu, not only because Bobi Wine and his supporters believe in street activism and head-on encounters with the army and police, but also because in the 2016 general election Bobi Wine officially supported Besigye as presidential candidate.
All this means that the FDC will get weakened without Muntu’s new party becoming a national force to rival or even grow bigger than the FDC.
A weakened FDC and an upcoming but hardly forceful new Muntu party will mean the Opposition gets weaker overall.
It will also complicate life for Bobi Wine.
Much of Bobi Wine’s recent appeal has been of him as a unifying national figure, free of any formal party affiliation and simply voicing the national outcry over the NRM government’s excesses.
During the parliamentary by-elections since 2017, Bobi Wine supported anyone who stood firm against Museveni regardless of political party.
With the FDC now broken up in two, Bobi Wine’s inter-party unifying influence will also be weakened.
The NRM itself revealed deep internal tensions with the Mbabazi presidential bid.
But since the 2016 election and Mbabazi’s dropping out of the political limelight, the NRM is once again solidly under Museveni’s control.
The NRM as a party is weakening, as are the FDC, DP and UPC.
But relative to the Opposition, the weakened NRM is now the strongest among the weak.
This means the 2021 general election at this stage favours the NRM for victory.
Uganda, therefore, heads to 2021 as a politically weak country, with the NRM holding on to power, the population getting angrier with the NRM, but the Opposition too fractured to act on the deep public anger.