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Collapse of the Opposition Inter-Party Coalition in Uganda

Catherine Promise Biira

5. Case Analysis: Making Sense of it All

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1This section examines the party leaders’ various accounts of the collapse of the IPC and interprets the implications of the assumptions inherent to these explanations for the process of negotiation.

2Mismatch of Objectives: Despite its constraining effects, the parties that adopted the Additional Protocol for Inter-Party Cooperation did not oppose conditions of the Protocol, or the common electoral platform. Yet, it is now apparent that the seeds of the IPC’s demise were planted in this platform from the beginning. At the onset, the IPC was created to meet clear objectives, but the desire to accommodate different parties’ interests led to expansion of the ‘menu’, so to speak, which, rather than enriching the culinary experience, caused an upset. Adoption of the common electoral platform, for example, logically implied participation in the electoral process. As such, the election boycott championed by Dr. Otunnu directly challenged the raison d’être of the common electoral platform. That said, the boycott should have been adopted prior to the forging of the common electoral platform, and such a platform put into practice only after the required electoral reforms had been undertaken. Alternatively, the boycott could have been adopted as a provisional agreement to be used as leverage – one option among many that could be implemented if the government did not meet the opposition’s demands. Instead, the boycott was introduced as an almost unilateral UPC demand, presented to the other partners as a fait accompli. In the process, for its UPC sponsor, this position came to take precedence over the common interest. It is thus no wonder the UPC felt betrayed when the IPC decided to participate in the elections.

3Differences in Judgment: The FDC leader also mentioned that there was an evaluation of the pros and cons of the boycott, on the basis of which the IPC leaders concluded it was better to participate in the election. It is unclear whether the UPC reached out to its IPC partners to discuss their decision. The UPC leader, however, said he was convinced that after the common IPC statement was issued in May 2010, the President of Uganda was under immense pressure to meet the demands of the opposition. According to him, all that the IPC needed to do was maintain their resolve to boycott the election and remain united. That is why Dr. Otunnu was very disappointed when his partners deviated from the previously agreed-to course of action. As mentioned above, according to the other partners, this misread the situation. As they felt they ‘knew’ President Yoweri Museveni better, having dealt with him often, the other party leaders in the IPC were certain that he was not going to yield to their demands. They felt that Dr. Otunnu’s approach was ‘out of touch with reality’ and had to be re-evaluated. Indeed, the Additional Protocol was adopted not for the purpose of boycotting the election, but jointly mobilizing the electorate to weaken the support base of the ruling party. Whether a boycott would better serve this end should, ideally, have been discussed by all parties. By declaring that the IPC had lost its raison d’être when the other partners decided to participate in the election, Dr. Otunnu was relying on a purported IPC raison d’être that was consistent with the UPC’s political position, but not the common interest. This was clearly a mismatch, as the common electoral platform, for which the Additional Protocol had been adopted, was clearly the group’s original raison d’être.

4Positions versus Interests: Truth-telling in relation to the dark chapters of the country’s history, another of Dr. Otunnu’s ideas was also ill-fitted to the Additional Protocol, not in terms of fundamental principle, but priority. Although it was not necessarily beyond the IPC’s mandate, as truth-telling could have been incorporated within the other objectives of the Protocol, the strong emphasis placed by the UPC on reconciliation at a time when electoral success was the top priority constituted a failure to appreciate the political environment. One can understand, of course, why Dr. Otunnu felt so strongly about the issue of truth-telling. Over the years, his party, the UPC, has been portrayed as the black sheep of the Ugandan political scene. Accused of sectarianism, murder, committing massacres during the National Resistance Army (NRA’s) bush war, and rigging the 1980 elections, the party has been dragged through the mud without an opportunity to explain itself. The idea of truth-telling, so important to the leader of the UPC, had the potential to open a discussion of the ‘dark chapters of the country’s history’, and perhaps offer the UPC a chance to finally redeem its image. In fact, in an interview, the CP leader indicated that it would have been very difficult for the opposition to accept a UPC presidential candidate because most people still see the party as a villain. It is likely the UPC intuitively understood this and hoped, with the support of the other parties, to address this issue once and for all. In other words, the UPC was hoping that the IPC would provide an institutional platform and the necessary social support for it to confront its contentious past.

  • 1  The opposition perceived the electoral commission as serving the interests of the ruling party sin (...)

5Although the idea of truth-telling was aimed at addressing many incidents in Uganda’s recent history, a great deal of which were actually independent of the UPC, the party no doubt stood to benefit most from such proceedings. As such, the UPC should have realized that the other partners likely had interests best served by election participation. Correspondingly, rather than taking exception to its partners’ failure to prioritize reconciliation, it may have been wiser for the UPC to have remained within the IPC while tabling the issue for future cooperation. This would thus have allowed the other parties to pursue their own interests through election participation while preserving the future chances of cooperation for reconciliation. After all, the Inter-Party Cooperation was only intended to run for a period of five years. Since, by their own assertions, the opposition parties were certain that the election would be rigged,1 and therefore the chances of losing were high, they could have focused on strengthening their relationship and prepared to engage the NRM over the next five years of its rule. Instead, they allowed an election they had in effect already lost to destroy future efforts at cooperation. This failure to make lemonade when the NRM lobbed a lemon at them was thus at least partially due to the fact that they were too preoccupied with their narrow interests to fully understand how the IPC could be used to achieve their common interests.

6Commitment to Agreements: Accepting the UPC-sponsored threat to boycott the 2011 elections in the absence of an assurance that such a strategy would be effective was a disastrous decision for the IPC. Whether it was a tactic to gain the confidence of the new UPC leader or a genuine commitment, the IPC and the UPC should have first established a plan to meet their common interests in the eventuality that their demands were not met. By taking up the UPC’s position as its own, the IPC gave the UPC the impression that its voice mattered and the coalition was not under FDC influence alone. Reversing the IPC’s position on the boycott thus eroded the UPC’s faith in both the negotiation process and its own ability to influence others within the existing (power and institutional) structure of the coalition. Regardless of whether or not the UPC’s claim of the centrality of this particular IPC decision to its withdrawal from the cooperation is genuine, it cannot be denied that the UPC could simply have seized a convenient excuse with which to conceal its real intentions. The fact that after this incident the party leader went on to contest the election as a UPC candidate –despite the fact that the reason he had given for leaving the IPC was the coalition’s decision to contest that same election – points to the fact that the withdrawal was motivated by reasons beyond the boycott.

7Trust: The IPC’s reversal of its original position on the election, and corresponding reneging on the negotiated agreement, also gave the UPC a basis from which to further question the credibility of the FDC. When asked as to whether he found it strange that all the other partners were one side of this issue and the UPC on another, Dr. Otunnu did not hesitate to suggest that the FDC unilaterally decided that the IPC would participate in the election, and canvassed other parties for support behind the UPC’s back. This assertion clearly reveals that UPC had very little trust in the FDC. In choosing to participate in the election after agreeing to a boycott, the FDC confirmed to the UPC that it could not be counted on to keep its word. Whether the UPC would have trusted the FDC even if this particular incident had not occurred, of course, is doubtable. The UPC leader attributed several other faults to the FDC, underscoring the fact that no other party he referenced was ever constructed as similarly culpable. This lack of trust –or ‘inherent negativity’ – is evident in the UPC leader’s assertion that these events ‘confirmed [the] UPC’s worst fears’. The question remains, then, as to why the UPC entered the Cooperation with the FDC in the first place.

8History and Context:  If, independently of the outcome, one accepts that Dr. Otunnu’s initial commitment to the IPC was genuine, one should also find out why he was so committed. It is apparent that the UPC leader saw in the IPC an opportunity to exert his leadership while simultaneously making a contribution to redirecting the Ugandan opposition. He pushed for the IPC to coordinate more closely on issues outside the immediate electoral issues, and he appeared interested in long-term policy cooperation. Beneath the surface, however, there was a latent competition for supremacy and recognition between the leaders of the opposition. After several years abroad, Dr. Otunnu had been newly elected as president of a party that had twice ruled the country. Since his departure from Uganda, the party had been systematically weakened, to the extent that Dr. Otunnu inherited an institutionally impoverished party that needed to rebuild virtually from scratch. Realizing that the personal appeal and qualifications of the party leader is crucial to rebuilding confidence and strengthening a party, Dr. Otunnu arrived in Uganda after many years of service with the UN determined to present himself as that leader that people could trust.

9 His ‘initial’ cooperative stance was welcome, but there were factors on the ground that he ought to have been aware of. The political landscape had changed and a new leader had been born. The leader of the FDC, Dr. Besigye, as previously mentioned, had already run for President twice, and the renewed confidence of Ugandans in the opposition could be largely attributed to him. Although the FDC claimed that it made sacrifices for the sake of the IPC, the party, at the very least, needed to maintain its leadership role in the opposition. The FDC leader commanded a lot of respect among his peers in the IPC, a reality that could not be hidden. This influence was too much for the UPC leader to overcome and he was thus unable to make a strong impression on his peers in such a short time. The FDC leader’s influence and personal popularity thus fuelled the UPC’s perception that the FDC was acting unilaterally and aimed to dominate the IPC.

10Ownership: The Inter-Party Cooperation joined by Dr. Otunnu had been led by the FDC. Under its outgoing leadership, the UPC as a party became involved with the IPC when the Cooperation was already well under way, and the FDC, the CP and the DP were already members. That Dr. Otunnu would be able to walk in and become the presidential flag-bearer, or to play a role that overshadowed the FDC either symbolically or in actuality, was therefore highly improbable. That said, according to the CP president, the UPC would most likely have remained in the IPC had it been given the guarantee of choosing the presidential candidate. Yet, even a party like the CP, despite its small size, by virtue of its status as an original member of the IPC, possessed an advantage over the UPC. To expect the founders of the IPC to allow the UPC to present itself as the coalition’s ideological leader was akin to expecting hunters to kill an animal in the forest, but bring the meat to another and give him/her the liberty to apportion it as (s)he pleases.

11Two key issues stem from the above discussion. The first is that the original leaders of the IPC had cooperated together overtime, developing a particular working relationship and culture. A new member would thus enjoy greater success if (s)he adapted to the existing group culture rather than trying to get each member of the group to accommodate them. The adaptation of individual members to the desires and characteristics of a new member would not affect just the individual members’ behaviour, but also the dynamics of the group. Secondly, the UPC initially joined the IPC under the first Protocol, during the tenure of its former leader, Ms. Miria Obote. Dr. Otunnu was therefore inheriting a Memorandum of Understanding and Protocols that he personally had neither negotiated nor accepted. As a result, when political conditions became difficult, his resilience and commitment to a relationship whose trajectory he had not had an opportunity to influence was more easily shaken. The members of the IPC needed to be sure their leader understood how far they had come, how much they had sacrificed, and how much work remained to attain their goal. Dr. Otunnu was new on the scene and, as a result, even when he read the situation differently from his peers, it was attributed to his recent arrival and interpreted as a failure ‘to appreciate the situation on the ground’.

12Donors’ Expectations: It is a well-established fact that opposition political parties in Uganda are financially constrained. The Inter Party Cooperation was supported by the Christian Democratic International Centre (KIC), a Swedish not-for-profit organization that went so far as to invite three IPC leaders to Sweden to learn how their own inter-party cooperation efforts had finally succeeded. Although individual political parties receive funding from different sources, the Swedish had ‘walked’ with Uganda’s opposition to help make the Cooperation a reality. They believed that in view of the challenges facing the Ugandan opposition, their only chance of winning the election was to unite and adopt a common electoral platform. The availability of financial assistance made it easier for the IPC partners to organize around a common platform, but it also bound them to fulfil donor expectations.

13The IPC was supported on the basis of its common electoral platform, with its intention to run a joint campaign during the elections to effectively oppose the ruling party constituting a strong selling point. Dr. Otunnu, on the other hand, was more connected to benefactors in the USA, where he even ‘got the US Congress to take a stand on the Ugandan elections’. His selling point was the UPC’s commitment to boycott the elections, in light of their clearly biased nature and assured pro-government outcome. These two positions are fundamentally at odds. Given that the IPC and Dr. Otunnu had different external constituencies to which they were accountable for the delivery (or failure) of certain results, the IPC ought to have clearly established one clear, common message with which to be identified to their various constituencies. Showing different faces to different donors and external actors thus had profound consequences that went beyond the immediate members of the coalition.

14The organizations and individuals supporting the opposition parties in Uganda, moreover, also had domestic constituencies to satisfy. The outcomes of the Ugandan Cooperation therefore had the potential to directly affect the standing of benefactors abroad. The CP leader Hon. Ken Lukyamuzi mentioned that the Swedish donors were very disappointed when the IPC crumbled, as the organization was now being asked by their donors to justify why they funded such an unstable Cooperation. Conversely, Dr. Otunnu was under pressure to account for the IPC’s change of heart to his benefactors in the USA. Even the recognition of the different donors’ expectations as incompatible did not allow the IPC partners to pause and craft a common position that would meet the interests of all concerned. Instead, each party was incentivized to focus on delivering on what their individual constituents expected. In the end, neither the UPC nor the IPC delivered on their promises to their respective international constituencies, and thus both their group and individual reputations were destroyed.

15Communication and Dispute Resolution: It is obvious that there were communication gaps in the IPC. There is, for example, no evidence of any attempts to harmonize the positions of the IPC’s constituent parties regarding the dilemma posed by contrasting donor expectations highlighted above. It is therefore unsurprising that Dr. Otunnu felt betrayed ‘as a person’ when the IPC decided to contest the election, as he also accepted the burden of explaining the policy change to his American benefactors as a personal responsibility. The UPC also complained that they kept hearing about events attributed to the IPC only after they had taken place. Similarly, although the IPC Protocols had a clear dispute resolution mechanism as recourse in the event of serious disagreement, it was not effectively used. While the UPC leader maintains that he took his concerns to the IPC forum, the CP leader argues that he was too quick in deciding to pull out, and failed to allow for thorough discussion of his concerns. The IPC was also publicly humiliated when the UPC failed to attend the nomination of the IPC presidential flag-bearer, instead sending a list of objections without any alternatives. The UPC also did not demonstrate a willingness to engage with the IPC and come to other terms with which to meet some of its interests. Thus, while communication deficiencies existed on both sides, given that most decisions were taken by the summit which comprised of party presidents, if they had been tabled for discussion, such disagreements could probably have been more easily addressed.

16Immediate Aftermath of the Collapse: Upon announcing to the media that UPC had left the IPC, Dr. Otunnu announced that his party was launching a social movement to campaign for more or less the same reforms provided for in the IPC Protocols. Apart from potentially broadening the range of involved actors, the proposed social movement was, in effect, means of pursuing the IPC’s objectives under the auspices of a new institutional centre–the UPC. After the election, which the IPC and UPC contested separately, Dr. Otunnu says he reached out to Dr. Besigye, the FDC leader, and they, in conjunction with other former presidential aspirants from the opposition, took a common stand against the election results. Subsequently, they began a process of discussion to build a new platform. The Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE) in Uganda was born from the said discussions. A day before this campaign was to be launched, however, Dr. Besigye said he needed to consult his party as to how it wished to proceed, and the FDC unceremoniously bolted. There is probably no clearer demonstration of the fact that the UPC’s exit from the IPC was understood as a ‘mutual betrayal’. The UPC had established its position and decided that the IPC’s policy reversal on the election boycott constituted betrayal. To the IPC, the UPC had only considered its own interests, ignoring the consequences of its exit for each of the other partners and the broader coalition. Having signed the Additional Protocol and then withdrawn, the UPC was also perceived as having betrayed its coalition partners. The UPC’s assurance of the validity of its own reasoning, however, rendered it oblivious to the fact that its exit also amounted to a betrayal of the IPC. The expectation that the FDC would fully commit to working with the UPC in the CAFFE so shortly immediately after the election was therefore overly optimistic. The parties should have subjected themselves to their own version of ‘truth-telling sessions’, wherein they could resolve outstanding issues and engage in confidence-building before embarking on another ‘cooperation’.

17To conclude, the departure of the UPC from the IPC enabled it to express disappointment that its preferred position was not upheld, but it also decreased future chances of cooperation towards common goals and the pursuit of individual and joint interests. The table in the next section illustrates that there were several individual and group interests at play in the IPC, which, if they had been the focus of the cooperation, would likely have been sufficient to keep the IPC intact. The focus on individual parties’ positions coupled with a mentality of mistrust and suspicion, however, left all involved parties even worse off than before. One can say, therefore, that regardless of who came out worse, neither the UPC nor the other coalition partners were spared when the IPC collapsed.


1  The opposition perceived the electoral commission as serving the interests of the ruling party since the commissioners were appointed by the President. They argued that the election would be rigged in favor of the ruling NRM if the commission was not reconstituted to include representatives of the opposition or independent commissioners.


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