As political parties face a possible internal revolt, the concept of individual merit is also taking shape, with the surge of independent candidates in some areas, almost doubling the total number of parliamentary contenders ahead of the 2021 general elections.
Within Kampala, one of the heavily and hotly contested political areas, out of the 96 nominated candidates for parliamentary seats, 43 are standing on independent tickets.
Some political analysts argue that the almost predatory nature of independents, which has also eaten into the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party's fold following the nomination of several ministers as independents, largely stems from the unclear process of resolving internal party contradictions and the inherent fluid nature of political parties.
In fact, for the fi rst time since the country embraced multi-party pluralism in 2005, the only position that NRM will not have a candidate is Mawogola North, where President Yoweri Museveni's brother Aine Kaguta Sodo and the daughter of foreign affairs minister Sam Kutesa, Shartis Musherure, will face off as independents.
Sam Bitangaro, the former state minister, lost his Bufumbira South seat in the NRM primaries on September 4.
He has been nominated as an independent candidate. Jessica Alupo, the former education minister, was also nominated for Katakwi Woman MP on an independent ticket.
The NRM appeals tribunal found that Kaguta rigged the NRM party primaries and forwarded the matter to the party's top organ, the central executive committee (CEC), which also failed to resolve the matter ahead of nomination deadline, a move that pushed Kaguta and Kutesa to register as independents. "It seems like ‘full rebellion' inside the NRM, with those who lost or were rigged out of the primaries opting to contest as independents. The centre is holding; is it?" Dr Fredrick Golooba-Mutebi, a political researcher, said.
Yet this is not the fi rst time that independents are threatening the political ground of political parties. Going by the number of MPs in the current Parliament, the number of independents almost doubles that of lawmakers on the Opposition ticket.
In fact, realising the threat of independents, there was an attempt to block contesting for political office as an independent if one has participated in internal party primaries, but this proposal, which political party chiefs vehemently rooted for, was bucketed as anti-democratic.
During a meeting convened by the Electoral Commission (EC) and National Consultative Forum for Political Parties last year, opposition political parties, in their quest to ban independents, argued that these are always aggrieved members of political parties who should not be allowed to contest for elections after losing in party primaries.
"I support the idea of scrapping independents from Parliament and from the entire electoral process because they are a ‘dangerous virus' to our multi-party democracy," Alfred Kasozi, the secretary-general of the Conservative Party, said.
The chairman general of Congress, Service and Volunteer (COSEVO) party, Saddam Bisase, also called for the regulation of independents.
"These are not independent. When they reach Parliament, they don't tow their independent line. They are undisciplined, both in Parliament and in the public. We need to regulate them," he said, calling for the strengthening of multi-party politics.
Out of the 433 total MPs in the current Parliament, NRM enjoys a numerical strength of 306, followed by 67 independents, FDC 34, DP 17, UPC 7 and JEEMA 1.
To show the impact of independents, Busiro East MP Medard Ssegona, in his Constitution Amendment Bill 2019, called for the creation of the position of dean of independents in Parliament with a five-year tenure.
Currently, independents are supervised by the Speaker of Parliament.
WEAK INTERNAL MECHANISMS
Explaining the political inter-play behind the surge of independents, political analyst and executive director of the Dialogue and Democracy Training Centre, Henry Kasacca, said the weak internal selection process has this time round largely contributed to the rise of independent candidates.
"The number of independents is likely to be higher in the next parliament. A number of reasons explain this. First, the weak internal party selection process saw many falling out and opting to run as independents. The internal mechanisms of seeking redress are also ineffective to deliver justice.
‘‘Secondly, due to internal poor planning by all parties, the COVID-19 lockdown got them unprepared and, as such, the parties had no time to organise propped internal primaries," he said.
"They have not had time to prepare and effectively hear all the petitions. These were handled hurriedly to beat the EC deadline, which left many unsatisfied," Kasacca added.
Some candidates, such as Michael Mabikke, an ardent supporter of the National Unity Platform (NUP), who is contesting as an independent for the Makindye East MP seat, said: "We were treated badly by NUP's Election Management Committee (EMC) and I and my other colleagues in the DP block have decided to run as Independents." Within NRM, the internal party primaries sprouted 516 petitions.
The verdict of the tribunal, which was set up to hear the petitions, was not accepted by some petitioners, who have decided to contest as independents.
The science and technology minister, Dr Elioda Tumwesigye and state minister for works Joy Kabatsi, among others, were nominated as independent candidates for Sheema Municipality seat and Lwemiyaga County, respectively.
Shamim Nanfuma, who lost the NRM flag for Kampala Woman MP to Faridah Nambi, also opted to run as an independent.
Other contenders for the Kampala Woman MP seat on independent ticket include Evelyn Kent Kasiri and Rebecca Robina Namugwanya. In Kagadi district, Margaret Rujumba and Proscovia Bamutura were nominated as independent candidates in the Woman MP race.
They will face off with the incumbent, Jennifer Mbabazi Kyomuhendo, who trounced them in the NRM party primaries.
Dr John Tumwebaze and Peter Amanya Kabakyenga were also nominated as independent candidates in Buyaga West after losing the NRM party primaries to incumbent Barnabas Tinkasiimire.
In Kisoro, majority of the NRM party members who lost in primaries returned as independents. Of the 14 candidates, seven were independents.
They are Asgario Turyagenda (Bukimbiri County) and Sam Byibesho (Kisoro Municipality).
State minister for economic monitoring and former principal private secretary of the President, Molly Kamukama, is also contesting as an independent for Kazo Woman after the NRM's top organ approved the victory of her political nemesis, Jennifer Muheesi.
For the Mbale city Woman MP seat, the incumbent, Connie Galiwango, decided to run as independent, citing foul play when the party declared her political opponent, Lydia Wanyoto, as their flag-bearer.
In Rushenyi County, when the NRM top organ (CEC), approved the victory of state minister for labour, Mwesigwa Rukutana, his opponent, Naome Kabasharira, decided to run as an independent. In Kagadi district, a number of aspirants who lost in the primaries were nominated as independents.
They include Margarete Naziwa Rujumba and Proscovia Bamutura Nyakaisiki, who will tussle it out with the incumbent, Jennifer Mbabazi Kyomuhendo for the Woman MP seat.
Dr John Tumwebaze and Peter Amanya Kabakyenga were also nominated as independents to contest for Buyaga West parliamentary seat against the incumbent, Barnabas Tinkasiimire. In Buyaga East, Eric Musana Acaali, the incumbent MP who lost in primaries, has bounced back to compete with NRM flag-bearer Steven Twesige Rulerekere and Brian Asingwire of NUP. In Hoima and Kikuube districts, the number of independents outnumbers the party fl ag-bearers.
The independents, who include two incumbents, Dan Mpamizo Muhairwe of Buhaguzi County and Kikuube district Woman MP Tophace Kaahwa Byagira, said they were forced to run as independents due to massive rigging during the NRM primaries.
Muhairwe is contesting against Francis Kazini, the official NRM flag-bearer and Herbert Kato of the opposition Alliance for National Transformation (ANT), while Kaahwa will tussle it out with Florence Bangirana, an NRM candidate.
Howard Tugume and Steven Asera Itaza, who lost in the NRM primaries, were nominated as independent candidates for Buhaguzi East to face Julius Bigirwa Junjura of the NRM.
In Kigorobya County, Gerald Bihemaiso Kasigwa, who lost in the NRM primaries, will face state minister for public service, David Karubanga, Agaba Richard of NUP and Moses Byahuka Mutagwa, an independent.
Beatrice Wembabazi alias Teacher Mummy, who said she was assaulted and later rigged out in the NRM primaries, will face Harriet Mugenyi Businge, alias Baby Face, an NRM aspirant, Mary Nyamuhaibona of NUP, Rehema Nabisere of the Forum for Democratic Change and Vena Mulindwa of ANT for the Hoima district Woman MP seat.
Violet Kiberu Kabasindi was nominated as the NRM flag-bearer for Hoima City Woman MP seat. She will face Bernadette Plan (independent), Asinansi Nyakato alias Kamanda (FDC) and Bridget Kiiza (NUP).
Shem Byakagaba and Ronald Tumusiime, who lost in the NRM primaries, were all nominated as independents for the West Division MP seat to face Ismail Kasule of ANT and Dr Joseph Ruyonga of the NRM.
In North and eastern Uganda, there are also a sizeable number of independents.
So, what does this mean for political party pluralism in the country? Within the broad NRM spectrum, the party's secretary-general, Justine Kasule Lumumba, said recently that the party always extends an olive branch to contenders who wish to run as independents in order to convince them out of the race.
However, she added, that contesting for political office on an independent ticket is their right, which cannot be extinguished by the force of the party.
If they contest and win on an independent ticket, Lumumba said, the NRM party will sign memoranda of understanding with these NRM-leaning or even those that don't-lean towards NRM in order to create a ‘friendly' working political relationship in Parliament.
Yet, according to political pundits, the rise in the number of nominated independent candidate may create an impression that the multi-party dispensation project is losing steam, at least going by the events shaping the political contest at parliamentary level, when the actual reality is different.
"This development is a challenge to multi-party politics because it gives an impression that parties are no longer relevant, which is not the case. ‘‘It is also important to note that majority of the independents have participated in internal party primaries, which confirms them as belonging to parties despite running as independents," Kasacca said.
"However, the cost of running as an independent for elections is high and many will not make it," he added. According to the NRM election boss, Dr Tanga Odoi, over 87% of election petitions were dismissed for lack of merit.
"Majority of the petitions have been dismissed for lack of evidence. Some of the petitioners accused their opponents of voter bribery and intimidation, but there was no evidence to substantiate such allegations.
About 85% of the tribunal's work tallied with our decisions," he said.
Additional reporting by Robert Atuhairwe and Andrew Musinguzi