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How Otunnu lost control of UPC

Olara Otunnu

A noble diplomat who didn’t cut it in Uganda’s banana politics

 On Wednesday, Olara Otunnu resigned as UPC president, bringing an end to an enigmatic reign of a leader who failed to weave his diplomatic skills into the fabric of a party that has twice ruled the country.

Otunnu said he was stepping aside to concentrate on political activism.

“We must bring change to the country and I am not giving up on politics,” Otunnu told journalists at the party headquarters.

By many measures, Otunnu has so far failed to make an indelible mark on Uganda’s political landscape. A powerful orator, Otunnu cannot escape suggestions that once he stepped outside the air-conditioned offices and marbled walls of the United Nations in New York, he failed to find his way around the intricacies of our politics.

“He jumped into a wrong field. He thought that he was going into politics of diplomacy or student politics,” said Ayena Odong, a party MP who represents Oyam North.

Ayena, a respected lawyer, said Otunnu’s goose was cooked once he failed to connect with the people at the grassroots who form the foundation of UPC’s support. This does not in any way suggest that Otunnu was bereft of any good ideas on how to steer the country forward.

In September 2013, while unveiling what he termed as the UPC political agenda, Otunnu said Ugandans must have the resolve to lead the change they want to see in the country.

“This ingredient [resolve] has been conspicuously missing from the Ugandan scene. Without resolve, we would have never witnessed the recent successful uprisings in the Middle East and elsewhere, the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, or the ending of segregation in the United States,” he said.


Otunnu was elected UPC president on May 14, 2010, propped up largely by his diplomatic experience and oratory skills. In him, some saw flashes of Dr Milton Obote, the late charismatic party leader, whose legacy still towers above all thanks to his brilliance and good articulation of issues.

Yet only months after taking over the reins, some of Otunnu’s decisions started dampening expectations of him – and exposed him as an indecisive politician who lacked the political nous to steward UPC to national leadership.

First, he pulled UPC out of the Inter-Party Coalition (IPC), an election vehicle formed by the opposition to field a single candidate against President Museveni in 2011, saying it would be useless for any organisation to participate in the elections without electoral reforms.

“IPC’s reason-for-being is our unequivocal demand for genuinely free and fair elections. That is our common IPC project. This is the glue that unites us. Without that project, our unity is hollow and bereft of a substantive agenda,” Otunnu explained in a statement issued on August 30, 2010.

Then he flip-flopped on whether UPC would participate in the 2011 elections, saying his party would not participate in the exercise “whose outcome has already been predetermined in favour of Museveni.”

Surprisingly, he was nominated in November 2010 as UPC’s presidential candidate, before embarking on a countrywide campaign to explain why UPC needed to be voted into power. However, on election day in 2011, he spectacularly decided not to cast his ballot, even for himself, intriguing party supporters and political observers.

“Otunnu had no experience of leading a party and did not understand Uganda’s political environment. His resignation was the logical conclusion to this reality,” said Dr Mohammed Kulumba, a senior lecturer in the department of Political Science and Public Administration at Makerere University.


This political inexperience showed in 2011, when Otunnu hastily sacked a group of senior party leaders who were critical of his leadership style. They included the then party chairman Edward Rurangaranga, secretary general John Odit, and David Pulkol, the mercurial former director of research in Otunnu’s executive. 

The trio has since taken Otunnu to court. As if this was not bad enough, Otunnu failed to forge a harmonious relationship with the Obote family. The family accuses him of betraying Dr Milton Obote when he [Otunnu] decided to join the government of Tito Okello Lutwa in 1985 that had overthrown the former UPC president.

Otunnu was never going to have it easy without the endorsement of a family that retains significant influence in the party. By failing to win the Obote family support, Kulumba says, Otunnu’s leadership negatively affected the party’s fortunes in some parts of the country.

“The party’s support is waning in some areas such as Lango, where it traditionally enjoyed massive support because of Obote,” Kulumba pointed out.

Late last year, the party embarked on the process of renewing its grassroots structure. The party had planned that this process would culminate in a delegates’ conference on March 27.

Otunnu’s resignation now means that the party will have to first sort out the leadership problem before it attends to other affairs.  Our attempts to talk to Otunnu were futile. Also, the party spokesperson, Okello Lucima, did not return our calls.


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