On the morning of October 9, 2003, then State minister for Health Mike Mukula walked down the steps of the government building at Busoga Square in Jinja where he was to preside over the Independence Day celebrations.
In tow was Jinja Resident District Commissioner (RDC) Deo Kayongo. Farther behind were two female legislators, Ms Justine Kasule Lumumba (Bugiri Women) and Ms Salaamu Musumba (Bugabula South).
“These people (Lumumba and Musumba) want to cause problems here (in Busoga). We should find a way of dealing with them,” Mr Mukula told Mr Kayongo as he explained their conspicuous presence in Jinja.
The two women were by then part of the Parliamentary Advocacy Forum (Pafo), a body which had sprouted from the Young Parliamentarians Association, and was ruffling feathers by fighting what they called attempts by both the Executive and NRM leadership to turn the 7th Parliament into a rubber stamp.
They said they needed to get the 7th Parliament to exhibit the same level of independence as the 6th Parliament, which had censured ministers Jim Muhwezi and Sam Kutesa.
Pafo members were generally associated with two fights – one in defence of a return to political pluralism and another against plans to amend Article 105 (2) of the Constitution and provide for the lifting of the two-term limit for the President.
With the NRM increasingly looking reluctant to open up the political space and at the same time intent on lifting presidential term limits, Pafo members were viewed as troublemakers, especially in
predominantly NRM-leaning areas like Busoga.
Little wonder then that Mr Mukula thought that they would cause trouble.
While Ms Musumba joined other legislators like Mr Abdu Katuntu and Mr Augustine Ruzindana in founding the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) later, Ms Lumumba, along with others like former Bunyole East MP Emmanuel Dombo and Maj (rtd) Guma Gumisiriza, stayed with the NRM.
On December 23, 2014, just over 11 years after Mr Mukula named her a potential troublemaker, Ms Lumumba was named secretary general (SG) of the ruling NRM, a post in which she has been for two years now.
Speaking at Bugiri District headquarters during a January 25, 2015, thanksgiving service to celebrate her appointment, President Museveni not only revealed that he had appointed her on account of a sterling performance in her role as Government Chief Whip, but also took a veiled swipe at her predecessor, Mr Amama Mbabazi.
“The party was like a big garden that you don’t care for. The new team will be in the office permanently to ensure that the party grows from strength to strength,” he said.
The rest of the new team includes Mr Richard Todwong (deputy secretary general), Ms Rose Namayanja (treasurer), Dr Kenneth Omona (deputy treasurer), Mr Tanga Odoi (chairman NRM electoral commission), Mr John Kigyagi (deputy chairperson NRM electoral commission) and Ms Jane Alisemera (NRM electoral commissioner).
The untended garden
Long before Mr Mbabazi’s sacking, some party members had been agitating for the appointment of an SG who they said would not be encumbered by parliamentary or ministerial responsibilities. Mr Mukula was one of the agitators.
“All successful secretaries general don’t have competitive offices and don’t have other demands,” Mr Mukula argued.
Attempts to get a comment from Mr Mbabazi for this article were futile.
The former prime minister has taken a low profile ever since he came a distant third in the February 18 presidential election.
It is, however, generally understood that Mr Museveni’s comments in Bugiri were an allusion to the apparent incompetence of the administration at the secretariat during the Mbabazi years.
During the NRM National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting which ran in Entebbe from January 12 to 14, 2010, members raised concerns about what they called an administrative vacuum occasioned by perpetual absenteeism on the part of the secretary general and his deputy, Ms Dorothy Hyuha.
They also cited lack of a means of communication as the secretariat did not have a functional telephone.
Mr Museveni directed Mr Mbabazi to install a telephone complete with a switchboard. He also directed Ms Hyuha to permanently sit at the party headquarters to handle party affairs. The telephone was never installed and Ms Hyuha’s compliance was confined to putting in only one appearance per week.
However, the September 2010 NRM party primaries, which were dogged by chaotic scenes, were perhaps the biggest blemish on Mr Mbabazi’s tenure as SG.
During the said NEC meeting, Mr Mbabazi reported that the party had moved to “build capacity and work towards a clean, transparent, credible and efficient internal electoral process”.
The process, he said, involved moving the party’s EC into its own premises and training EC officials right up to the villages in election management. That did not happen.
Some NRM supporters led by Rubanda West MP Henry Banyenzaki also questioned the process of registration ahead of the primaries and the contested figure of nine million party members. It later emerged that Mr Mbabazi’s daughter, Ms Nina Mbabazi Rukikaire, had been central to the registration process.
It was generally felt that the chaos would have been averted if Mr Mbabazi had not been away in Kinkiizi fighting to get elected.
The new team’s first test was the January 2015 Busia LC5 by-election, which was won by NRM candidate Stephen Wanyama Oundo, who beat the joint Opposition candidate, Mr Deo Hasubi Njoki, with 31,443 votes against 21,844 votes.
The second test was to organise the October 2015 party primaries which proved a problem from the start. There was no register for party members since the old one had not been handed over to the new team of administrators amid a pay dispute between the secretariat and Ms Nina Mbabazi, Mr Mbabazi’s daughter.
A meeting of the NRM caucus presided over by vice chairperson David Bahati soon resolved to create a new register. The official reason was that this had been triggered by a loss of trust in the old register, but it was to all intents and purposes aimed at breaking the hold that Mr Mbabazi seemed to have on the party.
If getting a new register had been a hurdle, organising a hitch-free election would be a much bigger hurdle. Suddenly ghosts from the past were back to haunt the party. Misplaced ballots, missing names, delays in delivery of election materials, mixes up in symbols, among other problems, resurfaced.
Polls that had initially been meant to be held nationwide on October 26, 2015, were postponed, some for a day, others for two days or even a week.
Vote rigging and violent scenes such as those which had plagued the primaries of 2010 returned.
Bickering between the secretary general and EC chairman Tanga Odoi over funds and alleged insubordination on the part of Mr Odoi threatened to add insult to injury. The public spats were only put to bed following the intervention of Mr Museveni.
A source within the party has since revealed that Mr Odoi had without the authorisation of Ms Lumumba opened up a bank account on which proceeds from the nomination exercise were banked.
“While he was busy in the media claiming that she was denying the EC funds to run the campaign, he made it a point not to allow her look at the account which he had opened. That was quite odd,” said the source.
The secretary general herself was unavailable for comment. She neither picked our calls nor responded to text messages, but her deputy Richard Todwong has since explained that neither Ms Lumumba nor Mr Odoi had direct control over what had been collected.
“The account was known to the party chairman. The collections were declared before CEC and expenditure was approved by CEC. That was part of the money which was used for printing of ballot papers,” Mr Todwong explains.
Watchers of events in the party, however, attributed the stormy relationship between the two party bosses to Mr Museveni’s methods of work.
Former Jinja Municipality East MP David Kamusaala, who is now a lecturer at Mbarara University of Science and Technology, accuses Mr Museveni of “giving power minus the authority that is meant to come with it”.
“He, for example, appointed Tanga Odoi and made him answerable to him, yet he should have ordinarily been appointed by and answerable to the secretary general,” Mr Kamusaala, argues.
According to Mr Kamusaala, this was unlike the situation that pertained during Mr Mbabazi’s tenure as SG. The party’s electoral commission chairperson, Ms Felistus Magomu, was not only appointed by, but also directly reported to the SG.
Mr Museveni and Mr Mbabazi, of course, had worked together for about 40 years and had struck a closeness that would perhaps enable Mr Mbabazi to run part of the power machine. It was going to take time for Ms Lumumba to achieve this, watchers say.
It was, therefore, clear from the start that Ms Lumumba’s team, even if they would not hold elective or ministerial positions and only have to concentrate on running the party, would start out with much less clout compared to what Mr Mbabazi commanded.
But how has the team fared under the circumstances?
Mr Todwong says in order to appreciate the team’s work, one has to look back at the background against which this team of relatively young people was picked from the corridors of Parliament and government buildings and thrust into a zombie-like organisation.
“This was something that we were all not experienced in handling. We had just come out of a delegates’ conference, which amended the constitution to make us fulltime members of staff.
There was no orientation. We suddenly needed to reorient our minds to become administrators of an organisation,” Mr Todwong says.
Nevertheless, Mr Todwong adds, the team not only delivered a victory in the presidential elections, but also ensured that the NRM has at least 75 per cent of the Members of Parliament, in addition to 95 out of the 116 district chairpersons who were elected this year.
Besides, he says, the team has been able to stabilise the secretariat and open up a call centre through which its members can always reach the secretariat.
He also says following the Kyankwanzi resolutions they have been able to cause the alignment of government policy with the NRM manifesto.
“My verdict is that based on a scale of 1 to 100 we have been able to score at least 72 per cent,” Mr Todwong says.
In Uganda’s examination grading system, scoring 72 per cent means someone had passed with credit, not distinction. And this is the grade Mr Todwong awards his team.
A more critical look at the situation, however, will yield a much lower grade. It was reported in the media this week, for instance, that the party’s workers had not been paid for six months and counting. Paying rent for the party’s headquarters at Kyadondo road has also remained a problem.
If the team has not yet moved an inch in finding money for the party away from Mr Museveni and can therefore not run the party’s business away from the government, which their party chairman heads, it is hard to start talking about hitting the pass mark.