Groomed in the stable of Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), Jacob Oulanyah politically came of age in the ruling National Resistance Movement, and UPC president James Akena incredibly claimed as he eulogized Oulanyah that a person of such ability needed to cross to the ruling party to realise his potential.
When eulogising deceased former Speaker of Parliament Jacob Oulanyah in the House on April 5, Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) president James Akena reasoned that his fallen colleague had to quit UPC and join the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) because his former party could not give him sufficient platform to fulfill his enormous potential.
That, by all means, is a gross case of self-indictment on the part of Akena, who leads the party that led Uganda to Independence. Akena was not in charge of UPC when Oulanyah left it for the ruling party in the early 2000s. The current UPC leader then lived with his father – former two-time president Milton Obote – mostly in exile in Zambia after the former president was overthrown from power for the second time in mid-1985.
Although overthrown by his own soldiers led by Tito Okello, Obote blamed his woes mostly on Yoweri Museveni, who in the early 1980s launched an armed rebellion against Obote’s elected government – alleging electoral fraud – and made the regime susceptible to the action that its soldiers eventually took.
Based in Lusaka, Zambia, Obote for many years clung to the hope of making a third return to power, and Museveni spent a big part of his early years consumed by ensuring that that did not happen. For instance, the decision to require that the age of presidential candidates be capped at 75 years in the 1995 Constitution is thought to have been a safeguard against Obote possibly throwing his hat in the electoral ring in 1996.
Save for armed resistance especially in the north and east of the country, Museveni’s most potent political threat in the early years was presented by Obote, who maintained a tight control over matters at Uganda House, the headquarters of UPC, even when he was in exile.
Obote ordered his party members to deny Museveni’s young and fragile government legitimacy by not participating in its processes, and the party’s official line was to shun the 1989 elections to the expanded National Resistance Council (NRC) – which served as the parliament of the day; the 1994 elections to the Constituent Assembly and the elections that followed.
Obote also ordered UPC leaders to stay away from the “broad-based” government that Museveni set up during his first decade in power, which was a mixture of his bush war colleagues and mostly non-combatant Democratic Party (DP) politicians led by Dr. Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere.
Ssemogerere’s party had been adjudged by many to have won the election in 1980, which Obote’s UPC is said to have rigged. Museveni’s Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) had come nowhere close to winning the constituency-based elections, scooping only one seat in an election where Museveni, the presidential flagbearer for his party, failed to win his own parliamentary seat.
Museveni was therefore keenly aware that just shooting himself to power would not be sufficient guarantee that he would stamp his authority on a country that had had five different administrations in the six years that preceded his ascent to power.
He had, to worm his way into the hearts of Ugandans, engage in massive propaganda and indoctrination during the five years of his guerilla war, making significant inroads especially in the southern part of the country. But he still knew that he needed to ally with forces like DP to be sure.
It would have been even better for his politics if some UPC leaders who had stayed in the country after Obote’s flight to exile in 1985 would come on board to bolster his promise of a “broad-based” government. Obote knew all too well, and strove to ensure to the best of his abilities that those who subscribed to UPC did not legitimise Museveni’s grabbing of power by joining his government or participating in electoral politics under Museveni.
Enter Akena and Oulanyah
Side-by-side with his father at the time, Akena consumed firsthand the works and struggles of the former president, which were bitterly critical of Museveni. In 1990, for instance, Obote published his “Notes on concealment of genocide in Uganda”, in which among other things he contested the idea that the mass killings of civilians in the Luweero area during the war that Museveni fought against his government were orchestrated by Obote’s soldiers. He placed the blame on Museveni.
As Obote aged, the dread-locked Akena was said to have taken centre stage in the former president’s life, among other things helping to organise his notes, and arrange and attend meetings with him. When Obote passed away in October 2005, Akena, although arguably not Obote’s most illustrious son, had by virtue of having spent most time with his father and seen him at work, earned the right to stake a claim to being his father’s political heir.
Obote’s family returned to the country with his body, and after the funeral claimed what they saw as their political inheritance, the UPC party. The timing was opportune in a way, because that was the time when multiparty politics was being re-introduced after two decades of Museveni’s monolithic rule through what he called the Movement System. The other older parties – DP and the Conservative Party (CP) – had gone through the processes of leadership renewal as they organised for the 2006 multiparty elections, and new parties, most notably the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), had been formed.
But UPC had not done any such thing as the ailing Obote was seen as its eternal leader and no process of leadership renewal could take place within the party for as long as Museveni ruled and Obote lived. UPC was, as they said, in hibernation. After Obote’s funeral, his family members decided to break the code and re-engage in elective politics under Museveni. The widow and Akena’s mother, Miria Obote, took over the leadership of UPC, and hurriedly dived into an ineffectual challenge for the presidency in 2006.
Akena, on the other hand, went for the Lira Municipality parliamentary seat, which at the time was held by Cecilia Ogwal, who he easily beat to the prize. The nostalgia about Obote was simply too much in Lira, and Akena still rides on the same four electoral wins later.
For Ogwal, being hounded out of the seat was some form of karma. She was one of the first senior UPC leaders to disobey Obote and run for office under Museveni, becoming a member of the Constituent Assembly in 1994, and an MP in 1996 and later. In the 1996 election, Ogwal backed Ssemogerere’s presidential bid in what passed for classic case of reconciliation between UPC and DP. Not to be outdone, Museveni’s propaganda machine told voters that what had happened between Ogwal and Ssemogerere was a marriage of convenience that would lead to the return to power of Obote, and would end in disaster for Uganda. That line was a vote winner especially in Buganda. After the election, Ogwal’s disengagement from UPC and disagreement with Obote continued until 2010 when she joined FDC alongside John Baptist Okello Okello, Ben Wacha, Charles Gutomoi and Ojok B’leo. Until 2010, all five had been members of UPC.
We can never know if Obote would have loved to see his own son running for office under Museveni, but he would perhaps be gratified by his son exacting some revenge on Ogwal for what he saw as her stubbornness. But Ogwal did not stay out in the cold for long, for a year after Akena beat her to the Lira Municipality seat, she returned to Parliament as the woman representative for the newly created Dokolo District. She still represents the district in Parliament.
Ogwal was not alone. Many other UPC leaders had not heeded Obote’s call not to engage in elective politics under Museveni. The late Aggrey Awori, for instance, took to armed rebellion against Museveni in the early years, through an outfit he named Force Obote Back Again (FOBA).
After brewing some animosity in the areas of Busia in eastern Uganda and realising that his effort was going nowhere, Awori came to some form of understanding with Museveni and renounced rebellion. He, however, did not immediately join the ruling government and continued to operate as a UPC-leaning politician under the monolithic regime. He represented Samia-Bugwe North in Parliament, and became an acerbic critic of Museveni’s government.
Awori had mastered oratory and appealed to many, including budding politicians like Oulanyah and DP president Norbert Mao. In the lead up to the 2001 election, Awori was at the height of his powers as a politician and was sizing up a challenge for the presidency. He would show up at Makerere University with Oulanyah, who he introduced as his in-coming attorney-general, and the duo would awe the students with moving oratory. Sometimes they would be joined by Mao to make the cocktail even more appealing.
Oulanyah also subscribed to UPC at the time. But he was not practicing what Obote wanted, at least as far as staying away from elective politics is concerned. He was one of many who were in transition at the time. And, coincidently, the year 2005 – when Obote died – was the same year Oulanyah’s association with UPC became untenable.
He was chairperson of the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee of Parliament that processed the Omnibus Bill which among other things contained the proposal to remove from the Constitution the two-term limit for the presidency. The voters of Omoro were not happy and voted out Oulanyah in 2006. The wider opposition also castigated Oulanyah for what they saw as his part in perpetuating Museveni’s rule. Museveni had already won two elections by then, both of which were contested on grounds that they were rigged and overly militarised, and the belief that the only viable way to get Museveni out of power was through the constitution, when he became ineligible for standing for re-election.
Oulanyah, having been adjudged to have played a key role in removing the term limits even if he abstained from the vote when the matter came to the whole House, no longer saw a chance for being accommodated within the opposition. He officially joined NRM soon after losing the election in 2006.
Sinking to the lowest point
By the time Oulanyah decamped from UPC, too much had been going on. At the party’s headquarters at Uganda House, the Presidential Policy Commission (PPC), to whose care Obote had entrusted the party while he stayed in exile in Lusaka, held steady under some prominent stalwarts like Dr. James Rwanyarare and Hajji Badru Wegulo.
Around 2001, after over a decade of sizing up the party and its nucleus at Uganda house, Museveni made a direct attack and announced that he had appointed Hajji Wegulo, who was the UPC party chairman at the time, a senior presidential advisor. The announcement would end in what stands out as one of Museveni’s biggest embarrassments as far as appointments are concerned. Hajji Wegulo issued a statement rejecting the appointment “with the contempt it deserves”.
But Museveni is relentless, and a decade later, while he launched his 2011 election manifesto in November 2010, presented to his supporters “big fish” in the form of Hajji Wegulo, Henry Mayego, who then served as UPC’s vice chairperson for the central region, and Wang’wor Osinde, who had been a minister and government chief whip during Obote’s government at the time Museveni was a rebel.
At the time Museveni enrolled the late Hajji Badru Wegulo into the ranks of NRM, UPC as a political force only had hope of a resurgence because Olara Otunnu was back in town and had been elected UPC president.
Otunnu had after the overthrow of Tito Okello Lutwa in 1985 left Uganda for the United Nations, where he had a good tenure at and even threatened to become secretary-general before Uganda under Museveni denied him sponsorship. Mopping up any UPC forces that Otunnu could galvanise to resurrect the party was good politics on Museveni’s part. Going back for Wegulo made sense in this regard.
Otunnu had followed the politics before his return to Uganda, and agreed with players like Kizza Besigye that in view of what had transpired in the previous elections under Museveni, the electoral system needed to be reformed or else participating in an election against Museveni would just amount to accompanying him to his 5th coronation.
But the talks about the opposition sticking together to push through electoral reforms or boycott the election collapsed, and Otunnu made an inconsequential appearance on the ballot paper in 2011.
As UPC sunk further into the abyss, Oulanyah’s fortunes were looking up again, and he got re-elected to Parliament as an NRM member in 2011. The 9th Parliament elected him Deputy Speaker the same year.
Back in UPC, Otunnu grew increasingly frustrated and seemed to lose interest in the politics of the day. In 2015, after one term leading UPC, Otunnu announced that he would not seek re-election, leaving his former deputy, the late Joseph Bossa, to compete with Akena for the top leadership of the party.
As the vote tallying went on across the country after the elections for the party president, a group that backed Akena and was led by his wife Betty Amongi stormed Uganda House and held Otunnu and the party electoral commission officials, hostage. The group eventually installed Akena as party president. Akena took over under the protection of police officers, who kept the party’s headquarters under heavy guard for years.
Akena was said to have taken UPC into an alliance with Museveni for the 2016 election, a charge he continued to deny. But all actions indicated that he worked with Museveni, and after the 2016 election Museveni appointed Akena’s wife – Amongi – to Cabinet, of which she is still a member. In opposition circles, UPC under Akena is now considered an appendage of the ruling party.
A faction under the lawyer Peter Walubiri, who took over after Bossa’s death, won a court case against Akena’s leadership of the party and got a declaration that he is not the UPC leader, but they have not been able to remove him from office.
As UPC president, Akena has run the party in the worst possible way his father would ever imagine, epitomised by his expressed belief that party members like Oulanyah who have a lot of potential are better advised to join the party in power. What Akena seems to say is that there is no hope of rebuilding UPC to a point where talented Ugandans like the now deceased former Speaker of Parliament Jacob Oulanyah can belong to it.