What opposition can learn here to achieve success elsewhere
Sironko - The scars of the February 18 election violence that engulfed parts of Sironko district are still visible and the tension palpable - going by the facial expression of many people.
Sironko lies 28km southeast of Mbale town. When The Observer visited this week, many residents in the town were not willing to talk about politics, particularly the nasty events on election day. Those who volunteered to say something could not hide their suspicion about the intentions of the writer.
"I do not know where they are...you go and ask those people at the taxi park. Why do you want to go there?" a boda boda cyclist, who only identified himself as Nagimesi, replied when asked for directions to the NRM office - which was padlocked.
Less than 400 metres from the stage where Nagimesi and his fellow riders had pitched camp, is the central police station, housed in what seems to have been a commercial building.
Adjacent to the station is a playing field, where two imposing green army tents are erected. Inside the tents are rows of mattresses and a few household items used by police officers, who keep guard in the town and neighbouring areas. At Cave Down restaurant in the centre of the town, where some officers were having lunch, the waitresses looked at them curiously, waiting to attend to their whims.
Yet, the tension aside, the most remarkable story coming out of Sironko is how the FDC candidates, nearly at all levels, against all odds, defeated the NRM here - with the intriguing exception of the presidential contest, in which Museveni scored 34,479 votes against Dr Kizza Besigye's 30,124 votes.
It's a dramatic tale about meticulous planning, luck and hard work. It is also about the courage of one man, Nandala Mafabi, who, on election day, risked his life and physically engaged the heavily armed security personnel, who he alleged had been sent to intimidate the people and rig the vote in favour of his opponent, NRM's Beatrice Wabudeya.
To outsiders and residents, the heavy deployment and patrol by security personnel atop mambas in remote villages with no known recent history of rebel activity conjured up images of a battle front. But it was also a statement about how high the stakes were - so high that the NRM government had to pull all the stops to ensure that FDC did not take Sironko and that Wabudeya defeats Mafabi in Budadiri West.
In the end, Mafabi won, but not after an outbreak of violence between his supporters and security, that left dozens of people injured, including a journalist who was trying to capture the events.
To put FDC's victory in Sironko into perspective, it took all the three parliamentary seats (Budadiri West: Nandala Mafabi, Budadiri East: Isaias Sasaga, and Woman MP: Famier Wadada). At district level, FDC's James Nabende defeated the incumbent, NRMís Kibale Wambi, to become chairman, while FDC took 18 of the 34 slots in the district council. In 2006, the party had seven councilors at the district.
At LC-III level, FDC candidates emerged winners in 12 of the 21 sub-counties, which is a significant improvement from the 2006 situation when only two candidates from the party made it. Even at presidential level, where NRM won, FDC reduced the margin of loss because this time, Museveni defeated Besigye by 4,000 votes, compared to 2006 when the difference was 22,000 votes.
FDC's victory in Sironko had Mafabi's name written allover it. The Budadiri West legislator is easily the most revered person in Sironko, but his popularity extends to virtually the entire Bugisu sub-region, where he enjoys the status of a demi-god.
And not for his politics or attachment to the FDC, but for his work as chairman of the powerful Bugisu Cooperative Union (BCU), a position that has earned him the nick name, 'Mr Coffee'.
Bugisu is a largely coffee growing sub-region and BCU is the biggest trade partner. When Mafabi took over as chairman in 2008, the union was on its knees and had not made profits in many years. Many of its assets had been attached over failure to pay debts and it could only offer farmers Shs 800 for a kilogramme of coffee.
Mafabi, together with a new management team, have breathed new life in the union. Farmers are now paid Shs 6,200 per kilogramme and have started reaping the benefits. Many built houses, bought plots of land and paid their children's school dues in time. It thus played into the hands of FDC when government suspended BCU activities last year - and dismissed Mafabi - over allegations of mismanagement (court has since overturned this decision).
Mafabi successfully argued that government was jealous of BCU's good performance and its suspension was intended to make the people poor. Isaias Sasaga, MP-elect for Budadiri East, says the untimely removal of Mafabi angered many people, especially the elders.
"People had looked at him as a performer because he had even started paying them bonuses due to the good performance of BCU. So, when government closed it, what would you expect the people to do? He asked, before volunteering an answer: "vote for FDC".
In 2006 when FDC lost heavily at the hands of the NRM in the district (only Mafabi made it to Parliament), the party resorted to some soul searching. The leadership acknowledged that many of its candidates lost not because they were weak but because of rigging. But this was not time to cry over spilled milk.
Quickly, the local leadership convened and decided that mobilisation committees be set up in every village of the district well ahead of the 2011 elections. The task of the committees was to move from house to house, sensitizing people about the ìemptyî promises of the NRM and its local leaders.
"Our message was consistent. We told the people that NRM cannot be relied upon because it only tells lies", Polly Mugoya, the FDC chairperson in Sironko told us this week.
Peter Masaba, leader of Sironko Youth in Development (SYID) - a community based organization - told The Observer that when President Museveni campaigned there in 2006, he promised to give the youth free hoes and coffee seedlings, but these promises have never materialised.
"I remember he was standing there", Masaba says, pointing at the spot from where the President addressed the people. "Up to today, we have not seen the hoes".
With minimal funding, especially from leaders like Mafabi, the committees combed villages, stopping at every house. At times, they were met with hostility, especially in areas where NRM support was strong. Every weekend the committees would hold meetings to review the challenges, share experiences and to forge ways of moving ahead.
"None of us rested even on the day of the elections. We had to watch out for signs of rigging", says James Nabende, Sironko district chairman-elect.
Come election day, the party's grassroots structures were strong and determined to guard their votes, even in the face of intimidation, as was the case in Budadiri West.
Intrigue in NRM
FDC's victory would not have come easy if the NRM leadership in the district was not in disarray. Sources in the NRM claim that two party camps exist in the district - one allied to Wabudeya and another to Kibale Wambi, the outgoing district chairman.
As they fought for supremacy, the party fortunes dwindled. The rift came to the fore during party elections, when Wabudeya supported Suleiman Lumolo ahead of Kibale in the race for the NRM district chairperson. Lumolo triumphed. During the NRM primaries in Budadiri West, Kibale sought revenge and backed David Jiruli against Wabudeya. The minister won, but with cries of foul play.
Political observers and opinion leaders in the district say these divisions seeped into the general elections. Kibale did not actively campaign for Wabudeya, while a sizeable section of NRM supporters voted for FDC candidates. Ashraf Kimono, 54, a coffee dealer who says he supports NRM - and is respected because of the modest wealth he has accumulated from the trade - says his party lost because it lacked a sense of direction.
"They are telling you this and that. I was supposed to benefit from NAADS but some NRM people fought me", he says, as he supervises porters offloading coffee sacks from a truck into his store.
His store in Sironko town, along the highway to Kapchorwa, bears campaign posters of Museveni and Nandala Mafabi. He says he voted for Museveni for President and Mafabi for Parliament. David Mafabi, a seasoned journalist who has covered the sub-region for many years, says the intrigue in the NRM leadership in Bugisu has been brewing for a long time.
"I know some senior NRM people who quietly campaigned for FDC or its candidates because they were tired of wrangles. They looked at Mafabi as a unifier", he said in Mbale last week.
However, Lumolo, the NRM district chairman, attributes the party's loss to what he describes as tactics of intimidation employed by FDC leaders.
"They beat up our people during elections and many got scared and feared to vote", Lumolo says.
Asked whether it were not the security personnel that intimidated the people, Lumolo says the police and the army moved in to protect the people from "Nandala and his thugs".
He also dismisses reports that divisions within the NRM local leadership could have cost the party dearly, denying, for instance, that he is on bad terms with Kibale.
"We are friends [with Kibale]. That is all", he says, sounding uncomfortable with the topic.
For now, it is back to the drawing board for the NRM and Lumolo says they are about to embark on a sensitization campaign, to "detoxicate the message of FDC" and repair their party's image.
"We wish FDC all the best, but tell them we are not resting", he said.
Lessons for FDC
As FDC searches for solutions to its generally poor performance in most parts of the country during the elections, Sironko could provide a blue print on how it can achieve success in the remotest of places, usually thought to be a domain of the NRM. First, it must identify strong personalities in different areas and support them to spread the gospel of the party.
Mafabi, Sasaga and Wadada managed to gain acceptance easily because people believed in them and their message. They had also been consistent in advocating for change, even when the going was not easy.
Secondly, it is important to have strong grassroots structures. Strong structures are good for mobilisation purposes and when it comes to elections, they can be relied upon to safeguard the vote. If FDC's structures in Sironko were weak, they would not have resisted the intimidation of the military on voting day.
Famier Wadada, the woman MP elect for Sironko, says the strong structures made her work easier.
"I didnít do a lot of campaigning because I had an able team of people moving around and ensuring that everything on my part was moving well", she said.
Mugoya, the FDC district chairman, advises the party to abandon the idea of workshops and get down to the hard work in the villages.
"Seminars are a waste of time and resources. The real work is in the field, where you meet people and they tell you their problems", he says.
Sironko, with an estimated population of 324,000 people, is no different from other poverty stricken parts of the country. The town is dominated by ancient buildings, many of which are in a dilapidated state. The narrow alleys between the buildings form the streets that divide the lower from the upper side of town.
With the exception of people engaged in coffee trade, most town dwellers are petty traders dealing mainly in household items or selling food crops for a living. The basic social services such as health and education are in shambles, while majority of the people live below the poverty line.
New faces in Sironko
Isaias Sasaga - MP-elect Budadiri East
Born in 1976, Sasaga is a teacher and proprietor of Sironko Parents and Mbale Parents schools. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in Economic Policy and Planning at Makerere University. He contested in 2006 and lost to NRM's Cosmas Busima.
Unlike many people who despair after losing, he returned to the drawing board, identified his weaknesses and polished his strategy for the 2011 elections.
When The Observer spoke to him minutes after he had recorded a statement with the police on the election violence, he pledged to live up to the expectations of the people. "I donít want to disappoint the people like Busima did. I want to be a performer like Nandala", said Sasaga, who is also general secretary of FDC in Sironko.
Famier Wadada - Woman MP elect Sironko
Prior to being elected Woman MP for Sironko, Wadada worked with Bugisu Coffee Exporters and Importers Company as an accountant. Born in 1972, she is married with three children. She contested in 2006, and lost.
James Nabende - Chairman Sironko district
Nabende describes himself as an "eternal political activist". Born in 1949, he joined the civil service in 1972, working as an accountant in the ministry of Cooperatives. In 1992, he retired from civil service and went into private business.
In the mid 1990s he was chairman of Budadiri county (present day Sironko). Prior to being elected district chairman, he worked as treasurer of Bugisu Cooperative Union.