December 11, 1990, was not the best of times for Makerere University. A students’ riot had ended in cracks of gunfire. Two students, Tom Okema and Tom Onyango, were shot dead on that day, which came to be known as “Black December”.
As is wont to happen in such riots, the Guild President has to respond. A certain Norbert Mao, who had defeated soldier man Noble Mayombo (RIP) in a hotly contested guild race three months earlier, was that guild boss.President Museveni summoned him to State House in the aftermath of the deadly riot. Mr Mao, who had been ridiculed for his small stature when he contested for head boy at Namilyango College, fixed his gaze on the trappings of power and vowed to occupy the seat someday.
Twenty years later, Mr Mao’s political dream has nurtured some plumes with his nomination as the Democratic Party (DP) presidential candidate on October 25, 2010. Whether these plumes can grow into feathers that can help him soar, is something only the next two months can prove.
Mr Mao, a rather squat politician, compensates for his lack of height by sheer gift of the garb, toned down with a sly delivery of deadpan. Dismas Nkunda, Mr Mao’s peer at Namilyango and Makerere, likens Mr Mao to Squealer, the sweet-tongued propagandist in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.The DP firebrand says he has already crushed Museveni’s political proxies, beginning with the blue-eyed boy, the late Brig. Noble Mayombo in the 1990 MUK guild race. When he sought to step into the House six years later, Mr Mao blew out the candles of Museveni’s former northern Uganda pacification minister, Betty Bigombe, in a fierce battle for Gulu Municipality MP seat. Not done, Mr Mao again humiliated another Musevenist, Lt. Col. Walter Ochora in the Gulu LC5 seat in 2006.
Now he wants to slay Goliath. But what are Mr Mao’s odds against the NRM juggernaut?Mao is the youngest of eight presidential candidates. His byword for the election campaign is, “now is the time.” He draws a battle line between the old and new generation. But while he rides on the euphoria of the youthful bubble, Mao is not without headaches. The “Young Turk” has to contend with a splinter DP faction.
Mr Mao’s troubles stem from the disputed DP Delegates Conference in Mbale that elected him President General in February. Top DP leadership had remained the preserve of Catholic Ganda since its founding in 1954. But Mr Mao, 43, turned the tables on this, succeeding John Ssebaana Kizito, 77, as DP president. In the event, a section of the party hierarchy accused him of convening an illegal conference that allowed him to run away with the DP crown. A Roman Catholic adherent, Mr Mao became the first to break the Ganda dominance of DP, debunking the popular myth that the party had become bika by’Abaganda (party of Buganda clans).
But he still has to contend with fiery rebel DP Ganda MPs. His forecast is fluid: “I predict north will identify with me. I believe I’ll get a huge vote in Buganda; DP has the deepest roots in Buganda. East is a toss-up. West; Museveni has a strong say. But I have a connection with the west and I am the best guarantee that there will be no retribution by virtue of Museveni’s origin.”
But Buganda remains a toss-up between Museveni, Besigye, and Mao, although Mao still has eight of 10 DP MPs in his political stable. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him are two former DP presidents, Mr Ssebaana Kizito and Dr Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere.
Yet that notwithstanding, Mr Mao is nursing political headaches in the mould of Suubi 2011 in the heartland of Buganda, a traditional DP stronghold. Suubi, a loose Ganda-DP pressure group, has thrown its lot with the Inter-Party Cooperation’s candidate Dr Kizza Besigye.
Mr Mao, who says he has been received well, feels the sharp stab of treachery as he quips: “They’re paying us by kicking us in the teeth. We exhibited our genuine side and campaigned for MPs Dr Bayiga and Nambooze,” in apparent reference to hotly contested by-elections against NRM-sponsored candidates that the DP duo won.
Mao points the finger at Dr Besigye over woes plaguing DP. “FDC rejected our proposal to cooperate at MP and grassroots levels. We could not be party to an arranged marriage. IPC is FDC by another name. Joining was like stepping down and becoming a cheerleader for Besigye and FDC.”
Ms Nambooze and Mr Lukwago have publicly courted Dr Besigye, chipping away a critical piece of their party. While DP-leaning former Buganda kingdom premier Mulwanyamuli Ssemwogerere and Mr Mathias Mpuuga have decamped to Dr Besigye. But Dr Bayiga and former Buganda deputy information minister Seggona Lubega, also Busiro East parliamentary candidate, have since retreated into Mr Mao’s fold, so did Ms Nambooze on her nomination.
Mr Mao portrays Suubi as victims of manipulation, riding on popular sentiments of a narrow agenda for Buganda. He says Suubi shows FDC’s sly side. He sees Suubi as a reactionary movement on a balloon journey, awaiting a crack.
“Suubi is the biggest liability that Buganda has. It shows their inward-looking side. Their agenda is opportunistic.” He draws parallels with Kabaka Yekka that rallied around the flag of the Kabaka in the1960’s but became the first to betray the Kabaka. Already, the cracks in the IPC have put the allies at loggerheads and their desired option of cooperation has lapsed into frequent deadly skirmishes between FDC, Suubi, SDP and DP.
Even then, Mao is not about to stop digging his knees into Dr Besigye’s sides. He, as much as UPC’s Olara Otunnu and Dr Besigye, know they must cooperate or cannibalise one another in order to ring-fence the turf in northern Uganda. The region has twice delivered Dr Besigye the block vote in 2001, and 2006. But Mao and Otunnu see that support as rented. They see DP and UPC as the due vote holders.
However, DP has no single incumbent MP in its presumed backyard. His coup as Gulu district boss in 2006 was boosted by goodwill votes from FDC and UPC. Mr Mao, a centrist who focuses on peace-building and moderate politics as the centrepiece of his campaign, casts himself as a bridge between the north and south. He says he is best poised to bring national healing.
A gifted multi-lingual, Mao speaks Luo, Runyankole, Luganda, English, and Kiswahili. His blessed double heritage of an Acholi dad and a Munyankole mum also straddles him across the divide that has defined the ethnic north-west mantra since 1986.
For some inexplicable reason, Mr Mao is often accused of links with Museveni. Snide remarks have been leveled at him for allowing wife Naomi work with State House. Dr Besigye exclaimed thus after his nomination: “I respect Mao. I would have loved to work with him but he has a choice of whom he wants to associate with.”
But Mr Mao dismisses this as a smear campaign deflecting the innuendos as “indicators of fear of the threat he poses to claims of providing a legitimate alternative to Museveni.”
He adds: “Besigye has sacrificed a lot but being a victim doesn’t make him the most legitimate alternative to the regime. DP suffered the same ills; our accusers have breastfed and groomed the NRM! FDC is a faction of NRM. It was our voices of dissent that forced Besigye to stop the NRM dance of no change.”
Mr Mao has been accused of conciliatory overtures towards Museveni, especially for keeping silent on the much-maligned Kiggundu-led Electoral Commission. He is also accused of lack of vim over grave issues, including alleged army and police brutality during elections. In his defense, Mao goes theatrical: “If Kiggundu attempts to manipulate these elections, I will call you to the streets and we will count the voters, not the ballots. If that fails, then Museveni will remain the president of the ballots and I will be that of the people,” Mao told fans in Mbale and Tororo.
An enrolled advocate, two-term MP and one-term Gulu District Council chairman, Mao has not escaped the tag of political flip-flop. He has hobnobbed with Chapaa Karuhanga of the National Democrats Forum before teaming up with Mr Aggrey Awori to plot the latter’s bid for the presidency in 2001.
But few would outmatch First Couple Mao and Naomi. And if ladies were vote winners, Naomi, likened to first ladies Carla Bruni and Michelle Obama, would win over to Mao lovers of nouvelle society. With youthful touches to their lives, Mao, 43, and Naomi, 36, represent a breath of fresh air. The couple symbolises class to generation X, a new generation born after Uganda’s independence.
Mao and Naomi touch up their lives with being IT-savvy. Mao remains an active Facebook and Twitter candidate with over 10,000 fans backing his run for the presidency. He frequently posts his political trailers online. If online political activism could translate into offline votes, Mao and Naomi would be 11,000 votes the richer!
But will Mr Mao, who has notched up several victories in his short political career, steer DP to the end of the campaigns chanting the party slogan? The verdict is out on February 18, 2011
Monday, November 29, 2010
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