Sometime in October last year, I sat with a few comrades in the office of Dr. Tanga Odoi, the NRM Electoral Commission chairperson.
His office was, at the time, like a military war room at the advent of a war.
He hardly sat down and calls kept coming in bumper-to-bumper. If Dr. Odoi were a chain smoker and drinker, the best analogy I can give is that for the two hours we were his guests, he had not put a cigarette or bottle down.
If there was a brief pause, we would try to smuggle in a discussion about the now very hot electoral primaries.
This was the peak of the elections he was overseeing and top NRM cadres were in and out on and off his phones.
He had ensured that he would handle any cases involving high profile members of the party personally.
So we sat; more talking amongst ourselves than with our host. Then finally, in saunters a state minister Henry Banyenzaki had just come back, straight from his constituency.
And it appeared things were not going pretty well for him. He was even in no mood for sitting, but only did after appreciating the circumstances that the EC chairman was operating in.
He could compromise and wait. He was angry. Very angry. He wanted the returning officer for his constituency immediately transferred or booted.
How could she not take directions from him? A whole minister? How? He had tried to intervene in the chaos taking place in his area and wanted some nullifications here, some postponements there, some deletions up there…but the lady was not budging. This was bad.
There had also been some altercations somewhere apparently. A peasant had even cracked his rib with a stone and he uplifted his shirt to show us where he was bandaged.
Things were hot down there. The previous night, there had even been allegations that he had shot someone.
“Armed and ready to shoot,” our brother roared. “If they start pelting me with stones, you can be sure I will shoot them.” Eh!, tough things here.
Dr. Odoi did his part as ably he could. He had the minister call his aide in the village to give account of the affairs and put him on loudspeaker.
Dr. Odoi also called his returning officer and put the phone on loudspeaker and she also stated her case.
Clearly, you could sense who, if allowed to progress to a just conclusion in whatever circumstances, the culprit would be.
A few days later, I would open a newspaper to see my minister friend mournfully holding his cheek as tallying and declarations were made.
His visa application had been successful: he was going to Taiwan. He accepted the outcome.
A few hundred kilometers eastwards of Banyenzaki’s constituency, another unexpected disappointment would also rear its head.
Dononzio Kahonda (rtd Capt), had in absentia edged out Kahinda Otafiire (rtd Gen). This, in real politic is a hell of a double tragedy.
Gen. Otafiire would spew a long blaze of fire. He still is. The questions again; How? How come a minister to just lose anyhow? A cadre, a historical, a General, a farmer, a businessman…how how? What were these people at the secretariat up to? Where was this Dr. Tanga Odoi man when all this was happening? No, it must be the work of JPAM…etc etc. Soon he would be off to Rwakitura and other places to have the party chairman sort this mess out.
Let me digress here a bit to build my point. Charles Byabakama, the LCV chairperson for my district, Rukungiri, had also lost miserably in the primaries.
It intrigued me a lot and I intended to find out what happened during the Christmas break.
How could a man, who had soared to office with close to 97% of the vote, easily be floored by a not that well-known new comer? And the reason I got is what closely explains the predicament of politicians that play disappearing acts with their electorate.
Apparently, in Byabakama’s case, he had gone on radio about two times and just requested the voters to just, “do for me as you did last time, I am still the same old hardworking and dependable me,” and off he went to tend his cows. And resoundingly, the people voted to keep him there with his cows.
“After all,” I hear, “no chairperson has led Rukungiri for two terms; he can join the rest.”
Politics becomes tricky under the allusion of assumed royalty. No one doubts the historical significance of Gen. Otafiire, not only to Ruhinda, but the entire nation.
But we get a problem when a seasoned politician fails to sense whether the people are voting him because of his relevance, or they are voting for him because of their relevance.
Museveni seems to have learnt this lesson far earlier: never to take the electorate for granted.
For a leader to successively survive, he must constantly reinvent his relevance and a lot of that is gained from the relevance given to the voters.
What Gen Otafiire has misinterpreted all this long is that familiarity with power necessarily compels royalty or kingship.
You can never take people for granted. When JPAM announced his intentions to unseat Museveni, people were shocked to see the president (Museveni) hasten a press conference.
He is panicking, they said. He has been a president all this long, why is he calling a press conference to respond? Isn’t he the Ssabalwanyi? Oh boy.
And we forget that this same man cut short his New York visit in 2006 after being informed that Dr. Besigye had returned.
It would be foolhardy for any leader in our regional context to sit and cross his legs and trust confidently in the mighty deeds of his past.
Routinely, the voters get the balloons and blow air into them that should last them the next five years.
They let the balloons soar in the air and quietly watch the elements work on them.
When they finally return to the ground five years later, the people gather again and examine their balloon.
They poke it here and there; bounce it up and down a bit to see: Has it become more inflated? Has its proportion changed? Has it changed its colour? Does it still recognize the territory?
When you toss it up, does it fall right back into our hands or we have to send some boys to look for it in the bushes? How about the other smaller balloons that we filled with less air?
How are they compared to this one…bring them and we see. Oh, there is a new balloon there, bring it also. If the balloon is found wanting, the air in it is merely transferred to another.
Museveni has not rested since the elections started. You go east and west and on almost every radio station, the old man is candidly asking for votes.
You would actually think that with the energy he has put into his candidature, he is not an incumbent but rather a contender trying to get into office for the first time.
And to my friends who have lost and find it hard to accept the outcome of the primaries, you should eat humble pie and seasoned as you are, have known: that every electoral attempt is approached as a first time venture.
True, there could have been some systemic failures within the NRM party, but even those failures produced flag bearers.
Gen. Otafiire, in time you will realize that no one was sitting on you all this time, but the halos of your past.
But you left them to fade. If you honored your seat so much, you would have taken good care of it and ensure that no amount of ‘excitement’ would rob you of your supporters.
By Joshua Turyatemba