There was a time when it appeared all but certain that Nabilah Naggayi Sempala’s days within the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) were numbered.
That was around 2008. The talk in the corridors of Najjanankumbi, where the party is headquartered, was that Naggayi, the Kampala Woman MP, was hobnobbing with the NRM and selling sensitive party secrets to the ruling party.
Naggayi and FDC’s relationship, however, reached breaking point in the run-up to the 2011 elections when many party bigwigs threw their weight behind little-known Rashida Naluwooza during the party primaries. In one dramatic event in October 2010, Naggayi stormed a press briefing, grabbed the microphone and declared before journalists that she was the party’s flag bearer and would do anything to protect her turf.
Perplexed and almost speechless, Wafula Oguttu, the party spokesperson, prematurely ended the briefing. Later, he told The Observer that Naggayi “should first clean up herself before thinking of cleaning up the party.”
In the end, Naggayi triumphed after a long, arduous battle that included fist fights among supporters and the postponement of the primaries on more than three occasions. But her relationship with the party remains chilly. Not that she is bothered.
Naggayi says she can never live in anybody’s shadow, not even that of her husband.
“I love to fight on my own,” she told The Observer at her Buziga residence last week.
Any causal political observer would have noticed that, lately, Naggayi has become more confident, politically. Gone are the days when she would smile shyly and then half-heartedly wave to the crowd whenever she would be introduced at public functions. Gone too are the days when she freely attracted description of a “beautiful woman whom people voted for because of the key symbol”.
She has stepped out of her shell.
These days, Naggayi does not only dare those in government; she also has turned into one of the most avid critics of FDC. This has awakened a rebellious streak that some say she has always had since childhood.
“Where most people fear to demonstrate because of police brutality, Naggayi will be the first to light the fire. She is brave,” said one FDC legislator.
Naggayi’s newfound political rhythm has been on full display during the recent opposition public rallies in Kampala. Her criticism of government has become sharper and her articulation of the problems that affect the people much clearer.
“If the government cannot get you jobs, if you go to hospitals and there is no medicine, who will blame you for going to the bush? The youth want action,” she said during a rally at Kitintale, as the crowd roared.
At another rally in Namungoona the following day, she reached out to the youth by displaying her dancing skills, before rallying them to fight for political change. As she left the rally, her car got entangled with a police vehicle, leaving her injured. The accident, while unfortunate, appears to have given her the kind of mileage politicians crave.
When The Observer visited her last week, at least three other journalists had queued to interview her. Our interview was constantly interrupted by phone calls; from well-wishers to radio journalists. Seated in the elegant black leather sofa in her palatial living room, Naggayi hardly moved. Her right leg was still wrapped in a bandage and whenever she moved her right arm, she would wince. Yet her resolve to push harder remains unshaken.
“Some politicians have mastered the game of hide and seek, and others use the media as their refuge. But it is when the going gets tough that you see who stands out to be counted,” she said.
Naggayi says the opposition has done a good job of exposing government’s ills such as corruption, unemployment and poor social services but this has not had much impact.
“Sixteen years down the road [since the 1996 elections], it is out of sync for us as leaders to tell the people what they already know. Words are no longer enough. It is time for action,” she declares.
Naggayi is obviously buoyed by the huge support she now enjoys in Kampala. During the 2011 parliamentary elections, she got 222,724 votes while her closest challenger, NRM’s Margaret Zziwa, garnered 164,378. She attributes her support to committees of mobilisers she established in all parishes of the district.
She uses the committees that largely comprise women and youth not only to canvass votes, but also as a sounding board for new ideas. It is these committees that design and identify the small income generation projects to be implemented in the respective parishes.
Naggayi says she has invested money and efforts to ensure that youth and women learn skills to make soap, candles and baskets. She says: “The people’s challenges within your constituency are your challenges. MPs have to put aside a sizeable amount of their income to meet them”.
Naggayi’s political curiosity was aroused long before she straddled the corridors of Parliament. As a vocal councillor at Wakiso district between 2001 and 2005, she constantly questioned dubious district expenditures while fighting for people’s causes.
Afterwards, she founded the Social Democrats Party (SDP) alongside political actors like Muhammad Nsereko [now Kampala Central MP]. She campaigned for the political space to be opened up during the 2005 referendum.
Naggayi joined FDC just before the 2006 elections, having identified it as the most viable vehicle to promote her election bid. It hasn’t been smooth sailing, she says, since some view her as a “latecomer” and others a “spoiler”.
She has withheld her monthly financial contribution of Shs 400,000 to the party because, in her view, it is out to fight her, not build her. But she needs FDC just as the party needs her. One of only two FDC MPs in Buganda [the other being Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda of Kyandondo East], FDC needs Naggayi to improve its disappointing fortunes in the region.
Aaron Mukwaya, a senior lecturer in the department of Political Science at Makerere University, says political parties in Uganda are still weak institutions and, therefore, it is not surprising that some individuals tower above them.
“The multi-party system has not yet taken root. Parties are still disorganised and many do not have structures. Strong people can overshadow them,” Mukwaya said.