A brief history of the NRM: How Museveni has managed to stay alone at the top

A brief history of the NRM
Museveni remains the central figure in the National Resistance Movement (NRM) party and the peacemaker

Kampala, Uganda | By Timothy Kalyegira | In his dealings with Ugandan political, military and traditional cultural leaders, Museveni has realized, to his surprise, that the aspirations of most prominent Ugandans did not go beyond basic material welfare, apart from the prestige of holding public office as an end in itself.

Men who had taken risks and fought a sitting government seemed content to settle for any position in government that Museveni offered them, for as long as with that came perks of office such as a house and chauffeur-driven car.

This understanding of the Ugandan mentality has shaped Museveni’s agenda as head of state and his modus operandi. It partly explains the bloated cabinet, the creation of more districts than there are resources to administer them and what seems to most Ugandans like Museveni’s turning of a blind eye to corruption. That was how he consolidated power and how he has held it for more than 30 years.

The National Resistance Movement (NRM), was founded on June 9, 1981 by the merger of Yusuf Lule’s Uganda Freedom Fighters (UFF) and Popular Resistance Army (PRA) of Yoweri Museveni, a former Minister of Defence and former presidential candidate representing the Uganda Patriotic Movement political party that threatened to “go to the bush” and wage war should the 1980 general election be rigged.

The core of the PRA was composed of fighters drawn mainly from Bahima sub-ethnic group of Ankole, Rwandan Tutsi refugees long resident in Uganda, and two Baganda army officers. They were all Anglican Protestants. Among these were Museveni himself, Fred Rwigyema, Reuben Ikondere, Paul Kagame, Fred Mule Muwanga, Godfrey Akanga Byaruhanga, Julius Chihanda, Ahmed Seguya, Julius Aine, Jack Mucunguzi, Elly Tumwine and others.

Rwigyema and Kagame would later, in 1990, go on to invade Rwanda under a Tutsi-dominated force called the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

The other guerrilla groups fighting to oppose Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) government included the Uganda Freedom Movement (UFM) lead by the former Minister of Internal Affairs, Andrew Kayira and the UFF. Other UFF members were the former President Godfrey Binaisa, Moses Kigongo, Dr Samson Kisekka, Livingstone Kateregga, Abubakar Mayanja, Tom Kayongo and several others.

The military wing of the UFM was led by Kayiira, Capt. Ben Kashanku (Kayiira;s deputy), Brig. Hussein Ada, Capt. Michael Kalyesubula, Col. Mark Kodili, Capt. Stephen Ndugute, Capt. George Nkwanga, Sergeant Samuel Kasirye Gwanga and other former Uganda Army officers of the late 1960s and under Idi Amin in the 1970s.

The UFF and the UFM leaders came from most regions of Uganda and from various religious backgrounds while PRA, as indicated above, were from a handful of ethnic groups and were all Anglicans.

Wherever the PRA guerrillas went in Luwero Triangle, the main base of their fighting group, they were asked by the Baganda – Uganda’s largest ethnic group and the most influential in national politics – if or when they intended to to restorethe Buganda monarchy that had been abolished in 1967.

The village peasants would also ask Museveni and his men why, for example, there were no Catholics and Muslims among his PRA and why the PRA seemed to be composed only of Banyankole and Banyarwanda.

With his PRA gaining the military upper hand, he started negotiations with the UFF to form one United front for the war effort. Those were the talks that climaxed in the formation of the NRM at the home in Nairobi, Kenya of the Ugandan businessman John Bageire, a supporter of Museveni.

Museveni had learned a major lesson in Ugandan politics. He came to understand how important gestures and the holding of office were to ordinary Ugandans. As long as “there man” was seen to be holding a prestigious office, that was enough to win the support of an ethnic or religious group.

Read Also: 24 years of the NRM who ruled better, northerners or southerners?

Lule was named the Chairman of the NRM with Museveni the Vice Chairman and Chairman of the NRM’s High Command and military wing, the National Resistance Army (NRA).

The NRM was now a much more varied and representative political group than the PRA had been. However, it was still dominated by the southern Bantu-speaking tribes. The few NRA officers from northern Uganda, such as Lt. Col. Nassur Ezaruku, were from West Nile.

The NRM not only was largely southern Bantu in its ethnic composition but it played along with and took advantage of the prejudice against the Nilotic and Nilo-Hamitic tribes by the southern tribes.

As the civil war went on and the NRA continued to score military victories in 1984 and 1985, many defeated officers and men of rival guerrilla groups like the UFM and one called the Federal Movement of Uganda (FEDEMU) that had broken away from the UFM, were absorbed into the NRM.

After it ascended to state power on January 26, 1986, the NRM started talks with various Ugandan political and military groups with the objective of absorbing them into NRM and getting them to form a large, amorphous, “broad-based” umbrella of various political shades. This became what we know today as the NRM.

Today, Museveni dominates the party, having used the last 32 years to consolidate his personal power beyond contest within the NRM. Most of the NRM’s senior officials and founders have been left to privately and (often these days) publicly bicker over the other positions apart from the chairmanship.

However, with time, it was inevitable that with personal wealth amassed, many veteran NRM leaders, now in middle age, would start getting restless at never having the chance at the presidency of the party and the state.

Moses Kigongo, formaly of UFF, has virtually become the life Vice Chairman of the NRM. This background in coalition building, using patronage as a tool for quelling restless ambitions among politicians in the simple society that Uganda is, is what has kept Museveni and his NRM in power for a quarter of a century.

But it also explains why the country’s infrastructure can descend into such a state of disrepair, most public institutions dysfunctional, and there does not appear to be any threat to Museveni’s hold on power. For the foreseeable future, the NRM will remain in this state of stable stagnation. And so will Uganda.