Until a referendum in 2005, Uganda held elections on a non-party basis. The relative strengths of the parties is difficult to gauge as no elections have been held since the party-politics was reinstated. The NRM dominates parliament, however, and is expected to continue to do so. The presidential elections of 12 March 2001 were won by Yoweri Museveni of the NRM with 69.3% of the popular vote. It began as the political body associated with the rebel National Resistance Army before Museveni came to power in 1986.
The National Resistance Movement's history begins after the overthrow of Idi Amin by an alliance of Ugandan exiles and Tanzanian forces in 1979. The factions that formed the alliance of exiles included former military officers like Tito Okello from the previous government of Milton Obote which Idi Amin had overthrown in 1971. It also included a younger group of fighters including Yoweri Museveni of FRONASA, Buganda nationalists of the Uganda Freedom Movement (UFM) and the federalist FEDEMU forces. These forces came to power in Uganda under the banner of the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF). A political figure head Yusufu Lule was appointed leader and president of Uganda but had very little political or military power.
Each faction quickly began an extensive recruitment campaign to strengthen their forces. The UFM particularly attracted a lot of support from Buganda, Uganda's largest ethnic group which aspired for an autonomous status in Uganda. The years of Idi Amin and northern dominance of the military had galvanised many southerners, particularly the Baganda into realising that they had to take up arms to achieve their political ambitions. The UFM played on this feeling.
The core UNLF led by Tito Okello recruited fighters mainly from the north of Uganda and enlisted them en mass into the new national army. Two northern tribes, the Langi (of Milton Obote) and the Acholi (of Tito Okello) had been extensively brutalised by the regime of Idi Amin (a northerner from West Nile sub-region) and saw this as a chance to consolidate their position in Uganda. Within a few months, the new army was dominated by officers and men from these two tribes.
In the capital city, Kampala, the UFM and FEDEMU forces established themselves and there were many clashes with the core UNLF. There was also the feeling within the UNLF that president Yusuf Lule (from Buganda) was in subtle alliance with these forces. The ruling body within the UNLF, the National Consultative Commission (NCC) which included members of other factions began clashing with the president and on 20 June 1979, after only a few months in office the NCC forced Yusuf Lule out of office and replaced him with Godfrey Binaisa (another Muganda).
Demonstrations erupted in Kampala, and there was the suspicion that these were being fuelled by the UFM and FEDEMU forces. In response the UNLF government became more brutal. Gunfire erupted in the city to disperse the demonstrations, UFM and FEDEMU were confronted and their leaders forced into exile. The role of Yoweri Museveni, whose faction remained loyal to the core UNLF is unclear.
The random and speedy recruitment into the national army by the core UNLF created an army that lacked discipline or professionalism. The army was involved in random murder, robbery and atrocities. It was not unusual for people to be picked off the street and murdered wantonly. The situation was particularly worse in the south as most of the soldiers came from the north. A deep seated resentment grew in the south and particularly in Buganda, but any form of opposition was put down.
The National Consultative Commission (NCC) was dominated by a sub-committee called the Military Commission. The sub committee was chaired by Paulo Muwanga, a close associate of ex-president Milton Obote who was still in exile. Although not a military man himself, Muwanga was backed by the Army Chief of Staff Oyite Ojok, a veteran of the war against Idi Amin and from Obote's tribe - the Langi.
Muwanga was a controversial figure, because although from Buganda and with enormous power he seemed more comfortable with the northern dominated military junta. However, there were signs that even within the core UNLF, divisions were beginning to emerge. The Langi and Acholi recruitment campaign either by accident or intentionally had resulted in the Langi dominating key positions while the Acholi made up the foot solders. To appease the Acholi, Tito Okello was made Commander of the Army, but real power lay in the hands of Oyite Ojok who increasingly became closer to Muwanga.
Paulo Muwanga and Oyite Ojok began to plot the return of Milton Obote to power. In response the president, Godfrey Binaisa announced that Oyite Ojok had been dismissed. Within days Godfrey Binaisa was overthrown and the Military Commission which included Oyite Ojok, Tito Okello, Paulo Muwanga and Yoweri Museveni assumed absolute power. Muwanga and Ojok began to speed up their plans to return Milton Obote to power by announcing an election date. Okello was less enthusiastic but being less articulate played a passive role. Yoweri Museveni however finally split from the Military Commission to form his own political party, the Uganda Patriotic Movement(UPM).
At this stage of Uganda politics, very much remains speculation - it is a wonder why the ruling junta did not go after Museveni who was clearly opposed to their plans to return Obote. In 1980, Yoweri Museveni stood against Milton Obote's Uganda People's Congress and the Democratic Party (Uganda) in the national elections. Museveni's Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) gained only one parliamentary seat in what was widely seen as an election rigged in favour of Obote's UPC. Museveni rejected the result and went to the bush to fight a guerrilla war.
Museveni's action made him extremely popular, particularly as the Democratic Party which took up its seats in Parliament was perceived as increasingly irrelevant. The undisciplined army continued its atrocities under Obote's government and Paulo Muwanga (Vice President), Tito Okello (Commander of the Army) and David Oyite-Ojok (Army Chief of Staff) had all been rewarded by Obote. The army responded by carrying out a brutal campaign in the south particularly in the central Luwero district where Museveni's forces were established.
Museveni proved to be an astute politician, and quickly formed an alliance with Buganda resistance groups like the Freedom Fighters of Yusuf Lule and the remnants of Idi Amin's army led by Moses Ali. The alliance emerged as the National Resistance Movement (NRM) with its military wing the National Resistance Army (NRA). Museveni moulded the NRA into a formidable and disciplined fighting force. Its main method of operation was small strikes at military and government installations and then melting away. In response the government army would brutalise civilians around the place of attack thus further alienating them.
Although there were other guerrilla armies fighting the government, such as the Uganda Freedom Movement led by Andrew Kayiira, Museveni's experience gained during his time with FRELIMO enabled him to develop the NRA more effectively.
Despite its symbolic successes, the NRA was unable to establish itself beyond its heartland in the Luwero district and by 1984 there were rumours that Museveni had left the country and was living in Sweden. However things changed dramatically when Oyite-Ojok, the Army Chief of Staff was killed in a mysterious helicopter crash in 1984. Oyite-Ojok was from the Lango tribe along with president Obote. Whereas many of the military elite belonged to the Lango tribe, the Acholi tribe made up most of the rank and file and suffered the most casualties at the hands of the NRA. Acholi resentment grew when Obote appointed a relatively unknown officer from his tribe, Brigadier Smith Opon Acak as the new Army Chief of Staff. Many had expected him to appoint Bazilio Olara-Okello, an Acholi.
Although an Acholi, the respected army commander Tito Okello maintained his passive attitude despite pressure from fellow Acholi officers. Obote appeared confident that as long as Tito remained in place, the resentment would disappear, and in the meantime he began to build an internal army called the Special Forces dominated by Langi Officers to counter any army rebellion. Obote's plans were thwarted when Bazilio Olara-Okello led a surprise coup on 27 July, 1985. The coup leaders recognised that they needed a more conciliatory figure to lead the new government. Their choice was Tito Okello, the army commander. Tito Okello was reluctant to take up the role and hesitated for two days, but finally reluctantly agreed to lead the new government. His first call was to Museveni and the NRA to join him in a government of National Unity.
The coup resulted in an inexperienced military establishment that often seemed unsure how to rule the country. The army was clearly tired of the war and wanted to reach a peaceful agreement with Museveni. However Tito Okello was often out of his depth at the peace talks in Nairobi, and in the meantime the NRA was able to begin recruiting more soldiers and began extending its area of control westwards. At the peace talks it was Museveni who appeared more in control and articulate.
It is important at this stage to recognise the multitude of forces that now joined the National Resistance Movement, because it is only then that one can understand Museveni's success:
First, the Baganda - who for the first time saw an opportunity to gain military influence and power. Hundreds of Baganda flocked to the NRA often risking their lives to cross government army lines. Many Baganda had simply had enough with the northern dominated army, others saw the chance to restore their Kingdom and some level of autonomy.
Second, the Tutsi refugees - Uganda was the home of thousands of Tutsi refugees from Rwanda who were exiled in the 1960's by the Hutu majority. Many of these refugees joined the NRA and became senior figures in the NRM including Paul Kagame. Whether at this point or later, these refugees saw the NRA as a vehicle to eventually begin their own military struggle in Rwanda.
Third, the educated elite - Museveni was admired by many of the young educated elite in Uganda, who suffered high unemployment and lack of recognition. Museveni's speeches were often laced with words of Marxist/socialist influence, which attracted young university students.
Fourth, the tribal factor - which still influences Ugandan politics. Museveni's home district in the West saw him as a route to gaining power. The Western regions make up 35% of the population.
The NRA overthrew the Okello's on 25 January 1986, with Museveni assuming the presidency. The National Resistance Movement embarked on a Marxist-oriented approach to government, establishing a 'no-party' democracy, cadres, and local resistance councils.
In the elections of 2006, the NRM proved its political credentials by out flanking the traditional parties like the Uganda People’s Congress and Democratic Party reminding people–-particularly those in the south--that the brutal northern dominated armies of Amin and Obote could return if the south showed any disunity. This appears to have pacified the Buganda nationalists and discouraged people particularly in the south from voting for the FDC. The death of Milton Obote has also resulted in the lack of any political force from northern Uganda. The north is also blighted by the Lord's Resistance Army which has carried out numerous atrocities there.
The NRM has however not escaped the tribal based politics that has dominated Uganda. Even in the south there is resentment over the dominance of people from the west in most key positions in the party and government institutions. Museveni’s iconic stature and economic progress in the south however are closely related to the NRM. Museveni and his party remain extremely popular.