Ruling parties’ tyranny putting down opposition across continent

Sunday March 17 2024

L-R: ACT Wazalendo (Tanzania) Vice chairperson Dorothy Semu, National Freedom Congress (Burundi) leader Agathon Rwasa, NARC Kenya party leader Martha Karua, Pastef party (Senegal) Vice-President Yassine Fall and Chadema Party (Tanzania) Secretary General John Mnyika during a press briefing of the Pan-African Opposition Solidarity Network at Serena Hotel Nairobi, Kenya on October 27, 2023. PHOTO | NMG


Africa’s political parties may last long, but their members come and go, in search of power. But what happens when vibrant opposition movements crack under the weight of internal wrangles? Uganda, Burundi, Zimbabwe and most other countries in the region have seen opposition fights diluted by smart government operatives.

This week, Burundi’s Agathon Rwasa, one of the biggest names in the country’s opposition politics, found himself in the cold after his party, CNL, anointed new leaders.

But Rwasa read foul play from the ruling CNDD-FDD party. Burundian authorities rejected the allegations even though they deployed heavily at a function in Ngozi, north of Burundi, where the party’s controversial congress happened.

Rwasa found solace in the Pan-African Opposition Leaders Network, a grouping of political parties in the opposition on the continent.
In Burundi, Nestor Girukwishaka was elected as the president of the CNL party for a five-year term. Rwasa was away in Tanzania, attending a convention of the opposition party ACT-Wazalendo.

Read: Burundi coup: Agathon Rwasa loses another political party

Mr Rwasa accused Burundi government of interfering with internal issues of the party citing that his members were being harassed and some arrested countrywide being prevented from conducting the party’s activities.


This is not the first time Mr Rwasa lost his leadership position in the party. In 2010, Agathon Rwasa boycotted the General Election citing rigging and lack of transparency by the electoral commission. He fled the country and stayed in exile for almost three years.

By the time he returned, his then political party FNL had been taken over by Jacques Bigirimana.

In 2015, Rwasa coalesced with others to form the Amizero y’Abarundi (Hope of Burundians). It lost that year’s presidential vote. In 2019, he created the CNL which, in 2020, came second after the CNDD-FDD.

Government hand

The Network accused the government of working with “a few rebels from the Congres National pour la Liberte of Burundi,” as the CNL is known to “hatch a plot to unlawfully take over leadership of the party from its legitimate and bonafide leader Agathon Rwasa.”

“We expect Burundi and indeed all the countries in our Jumuiya (East African Community) and the continent to be working to strengthen the state of democracy, rule of law and human rights and not to destroy it. Strong opposition parties are necessary component of multiparty democracy and work for the benefit of the people, our sub-region, our continent and the world,” they said.

The Network’s members include Narc-Kenya leader Martha Karua, Dorothy Semu, the new leader of Act-Wazalendo party in Tanzania, former ACT Wazalendo party leader Zitto Kabwe, Tanzania’s Chadema’s John Mnyika, Ugandan opposition chief Kizza Besigye and Yassine Fall of Senegal’s Pastef.

Read: Senegal crisis offers plenty of lessons to all

ACT-Wazalendo said in a statement that Rwasa remains the legitimate leader of CNL. We call upon the Burundian authorities to refrain from the unjustified interference in the affairs of the Congres Nationale pour la Liberte or any other opposition group, and to uphold principles of democracy, the rule of law and human rights outlined in the East African Community Treaty,” said Mwanaisha Mdeme, Secretary for Foreign Affairs for ACT-Wazalendo.


Rwasa has been Burundi’s opposition chief since 2020. And ahead of presidential elections next year, the new turn of leadership in CNL has raised concerns from opposition groups of interference.

The congress also came at a time the CNL activities were suspended by the Ministry of Internal Affairs after divisions in the leadership of the party broke up in early 2023. Burundi is due for legislative elections next year which could strengthen the NDD-FDD’s grip.

But internal wrangles aren’t just a tactic in Burundi. Kenya’s ruling Kenya Kwanza coalition poached several opposition MPs soon after it took power in 2022. And Dr Besigye, has found himself with little ground to stand on after his Forum for Democratic Change (FDC)started to splinter.

The FDC was formed by a combination of political forces, including the Reform Agenda of Dr Kizza Besigye, the Parliamentary Advocacy Forum, a group led by legislators, and the National Democrats Forum of Chapaa Karuhanga.

Now it is on a sliding lane towards extinction, just like independence period parties; Uganda People’s Congress, and the Democratic Party, whose leaders abandoned the ship join the government of President Yoweri Museveni.

Read: Focus on Besigye’s next move after losing party

The faultlines in the party emerged after the party’s presidential elections that pitied bush war hero and former army commander, Maj-Gen Mugisha Muntu against former Kumi legislator Patrick Amuriat in 2017.

The party’s ideological difference came into play. While Muntu believed in building party structures for a successful power clinch, Amuriat’s group believed in using civil disobedience to make the country ungovernable and push Mr Museveni out of power.

Because of that, the defeat of Muntu marked the beginning of an end of the once most formidable grouping in the country since the reopening of party activities through a referendum in 2005.

When President Museveni captured power in 1986, he banned party activities and promoted individual merit and broad-based arrangement, which was politically amorphous. But it created a one-party state, and party leaders would be arrested and jailed if they held meetings or mobilised rallies.

The emergence of FDC gave hope to the political actors and people who had felt bottled into a system they did not want. It is this internal disagreement that explains the quiet departure of founding senior officials such as Rubaramira Ruranga, Musinguzi Garuga, Amanya Mushega, Augustine Ruzindana, John Kazoora, Jack Sabiiti, and Richard Kaijuka, who had been part of Museveni but departed to play a role in the formation of a new political party, the FDC in the run-up to the 2006 elections.

But now it was breaking up and Mugisha Muntu, its former president, after the founding president Besigye, was leaving. He was leaving with about 20 out of its 36 MPs to form another party ahead of the 2021 general elections.

Although the Amuriat faction denied receiving money from Museveni, who had promised to destroy all opposition in the country by 2021, they failed to disclose the source of money they received.

The suspicion that Nandala Mafabi and Amuriat were working with Museveni to compromise the party contributed to the tensions within the party.

Read: Battle for once popular Uganda opposition party

Mr Muntu left the party together with Winnie Kizza, Alice Alaso, Kassiano Wadri to form the Alliance for National Transformation, which took part in the 2021 elections.

Before the dust of Muntu’s departure had settled, another form of chaos emerged in 2023. It began with party grassroots elections where a faction led by Secretary-General Nathan Nandala Mafabi and Party President Amuriat Oboi were accused of hate speech against senior leaders such as spokesperson Ibrahim Ssemujju, while the group led by Dr Besigye, party chairman Wasswa Birigwa, accused the Amuriat group of receiving money from President Museveni for the 2021 campaigns.

While the FDC represented the intellectuals, there was a new group of people that were not served by either the FDC or the ruling NRM; the young people. They were tired of the stories of liberation and wanted a new dawn.

The emergence of the National Unity Platform, led by Bobi Wine (Robert Kyagulanyi) a popstar and aged below 40. Uganda’s estimated 40 million people has over 70 percent of its people aged below 40. The party swept through central Uganda (Buganda) like a wave and left no politician from the ruling party standing in its wake.

However, infighting began, in no time.

Mathias Mpuuga, the party’s leader in parliament, received Ush500 million ($128,635) of the Ush1.7 billion ($437,360) shared out among five Parliamentary commissioners, terming it as a service award. Kyagulanyi asked him to resign and replaced him as Leader of Opposition in Parliament with Mr Joel Ssenyonyi, a former party spokesman.

“We all know that a matter involving huge sums of money which is not legislated but a matter of negotiation normally involves give and take. The people of Uganda would love to know what the Hon Mpuuga gave in exchange for this big favor,” Kyagulanyi said.

But Mr Mpuuga has said he has no regrets about getting the money and will not resign.

He instead has accused Mr Kyagulanyi of having dictatorial tendencies saying the party president is scared of his (Mpuuga’s) popularity and political experience.

Read: Personal ambitions, divisions, defections plague EA opposition

“The campaign to character-assassinate me is deliberate, and I am perfectly aware. It’s well-orchestrated and well-funded. I am ready for the worst, if it takes this sacrifice to return sanity and common sense to our politics,” Mpuuga said.

“I accordingly decline the cowardly call on me to resign as a parliamentary Commissioner, based on spite, and deliberate misrepresentation for mischievous reasons.”

Mr Mpuuga’s planned ejection may weaken NUP. But it could be another successful raid by the government merchants by throwing bones at the opposition.

As in Uganda, Burundi’s CNL first ran into divisions before ruling agents sensed blood. CNL party under Rwasa’s leadership was divided over the leadership of the then incumbent citing selfishness. He had nominated his wife for the EALA slot.

However, it was Kathy Kezimana who was approved by the parliament for CNL’s slot despite her party rejecting her candidacy. CNL told The EastAfrican then that Ms Kathy was not on the list it fronted.

The situation is beyond East Africa. In Zimbabwe, since grabbing power in a coup against long time ruler Robert Mugabe in a military coup six years ago, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been accused of decimating the opposition to create a one party state.

Mr Nelson Chamisa was in January this year forced to abandon his two-year-old Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) party, just five months after gunning 44 percent in the disputed 2023 presidential elections against President Mnangagwa’s 52.6 percent.

Read: Zimbabwe opposition leader quits party

His CCC denied the ruling Zanu-PF a two-thirds majority for the first time since 2008 in the August 2023 polls that were condemned by international observers as not credible.

However, a month after the polls, Sengezo Tshabangu, an activist, claimed that he was the CCC interim Secretary General and started recalling Mr Chamisa’s loyalists from Parliament and local authorities.

CCC said Mr Tshabangu was an imposter, but its protestations fell on deaf ears.

The controversial recalls were endorsed by the head of the National Assembly Jacob Mudenda, who is a high ranking Zanu-PF official and Local Government minister Winston Chitando, a President Mnangagwa appointee.

CCC attempted to challenge the recalls in the court but fell flat in a string of controversial judgements.

Courts also blocked Mr Chamisa’s loyalists from contesting in the by-elections that began in in November 2023, until Zanu-PF re-established its two thirds majority in the National Assembly.

The 45-year-old lawyer and pastor eventually quit CCC in January 2024, charging that the party had been contaminated by President Mnangagwa and his proxies.

“CCC has now been rendered an extension and has been taken over by Zanu-PF,” Mr Chamisa charged then. “CCC has, to all intents and purposes, been criminally handed over to Zanu-PF.

“Our politics has been defiled by schemes of personal aggrandisement upon a runaway pursuit of politics of positions, titles, benefits, trinkets and trappings of office.”

CCC has been on a downward spiral since the resignation of its leader and this week it announced that it will not be fielding candidates in by-elections set for next month to replace its legislators that were affected by the recalls.

The move is likely to hand Zanu-PF two more seats in Parliament on a silver plate as its candidates as they will virtually run without any strong opponents. CCC’s demise mirrors that of the MDC before it.

Formed in 1999, MDC is the only party that had a realistic chance of breaking Zanu-PF’s 44-year-old hold on power but was unable to contest last year’s elections following an onslaught by President Mnangagwa’s government.

Mr Chamisa had again narrowly lost to Mr Mugabe’s successor in 2018 elections, the first polls since the coup, when an onslaught against the MDC began involving ruling party proxies.

In March 2020, Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court ruled that he was not the legitimate leader of the MDC as his succession of iconic founder of the party Morgan Tsvangirai, who had died two years earlier, was unconstitutional.

“We don’t do so in anger or animosity towards the current leadership, but in careful consideration of the national cause. The current party leadership needs to be given time to pursue their agenda untethered by the constant worry of sabotage of suspicion,”