Uganda Peoples Congress

Walking in Oboteís shadow

As the inexperienced ex-First Lady dives into the deep end of politics, Daily Monitorís Asuman Bisiika asks if she can swim her way to power. When Ms Miria Kalule Obote returned home in October, after 20 years away in exile, she thought she was coming home to bury her husband, former president Apollo Milton Obote, and bring her family home.

Two months later, she is the head of the Uganda People's Congress, the party Obote founded and led until his death, and a candidate in next year's presidential election. For the 70-year-old former First Lady, things have moved pretty fast, but not for the first time.

Born on July 16, 1936 to Mr Blasio Kisule Kalule and Mrs Malita Kalule who had a 'big family' in Kawempe, a Kampala suburb, and educated at Gayaza High School and Makerere University, Miria was working at the Ugandan Embassy in New York when she was whisked back to marry the young, dashing Prime Minister Obote of the newly independent Uganda, in November 1963.

Miria Obote with her supporters after being nominated at Namboole stadium last week The wedding was a double coup for Obote; not only was Miria not without other suitors, by marrying a Muganda, Obote cemented his political matrimony with the Buganda Kingdom and its Kabaka Yekka political party, albeit for a short while.

While the political honeymoon continued, Miria enjoyed the office of First Lady, hosting balls and dutifully accompanying Obote to state functions as required.

While Obote's marriage to Miria blossomed, his political union with the Baganda collapsed, leading to the events of 1966, when Obote drove the Kabaka to exile and made himself head of state, and 1971, when his henchman, Idi Amin, took over power in a coup.

Thus began one of two stints in exile for the Obote family, spent mainly in Tanzania - the other, which eldest son Jimmy Akena has described as a very difficult time, between 1985 and 2005 - was spent mainly in Zambia.

Throughout this time, Miria was hardly seen or heard from. In an interview published by Daily Monitor in April this year, Miria said that she remained a loyal aide to former president Obote throughout his exile, ending speculation that the couple was estranged.

The tide that swept Miria up to our shores came on October 10th, when Obote died in a South African hospital. Obote's death drew a nation-wide outpouring of sympathy for the former president and the bereaved family - as well as celebration from some sections of the Baganda, who never forgave Obote for abolishing traditional kingdoms, theirs included, in 1966.

It was in that moment of grief that Miria emerged from the veil of gloom, asking Ugandans to forgive her late husband's mistakes, and work for reconciliation. Perhaps stung by the criticism, Miria went on the offensive; in Lira, Obote's home district, she criticised President Museveni's government over the continuing poverty in the country and its failure to manage the co-operative movement that had been successful during Obote's reign.

She then rose above the infighting that had dogged UPC for the last 10 years when she asked factional leaders in the party to reconcile and rebuild the party. Little did Miria know then, that she was talking her way into a job.

On November 28, UPC elected Miria as party leader and its candidate in next year's presidential election, making her the first woman to lead a major political party in Uganda and stand for president. It also threw her into the political fray, drawing criticism from many who claimed that she was inexperienced and could not lead a party, let alone stand for president.

More questions were raised about her academic qualifications - although these were answered when the Electoral Commission nominated her last week.

UPC's new spokesman, Joseph Ochieno, says Miria's inexperience is an asset and not a liability because it brings new ideas, vision and vitality to the party. He also says that by fielding the first female candidate, UPC will benefit from the novelty factor.

Miria Obote thus finds herself on the campaign trail, trying to bury the excesses of her late husband's reign while exhuming the interest and support that many party supporters once had for UPC. Others have walked that path before, like Sonia Gandhi, the widow of Rajiv Gandhi, who was asked to head the National Congress Party in India; she led it to power but declined to take the post of prime minister.

UPC insiders see Miria Obote as a unifying candidate. At 70, she can only stand in one election, so she is also a transitional candidate to help the party emerge from 20 years of dormancy.

UPC officials privately hope that Miria's gender will give the party some mileage in the race. Already there are some flattering comparisons to Liberia, where Ms Johnson Sirleaf beat former footballer George Weah to become the first female president in Africa, and South Africa and Zimbabwe where both vice presidents are women.

Spouse legacy

It is hard to separate Miria Obote's candidature from the profile of her late husband - and she is not the first to ride the wave of emotion; like Sonia Gandhi, former Philippine president Corazon Aquino rode a wave of sympathy and emotion following the death of her husband, Philipino opposition leader, Benigno Aquino, who was assassinated at the airport on his return from exile in the United States. Led by the widow, Aquino's funeral procession drew hundreds of thousands of mourners marking the beginning of the 'People's Power' movement which eventually saw her come to power in February 1986.

Miria is expected to tap into the legacy of her late husband as a campaign tool. When she appeared on KFM's Tonight with Andrew Mwenda Live, Miria said she had expressed some reluctance to take over leadership of the party, much like Sonia distanced herself from party politics after her husband's assassination in 1991.

However, sources in UPC told Daily Monitor that party elders who asked her to lead the party thought she was the most qualified person to preserve the legacy of Milton Obote and the party. Indeed, the UPC manifesto for next year's elections is dedicated to former President Milton Obote.

Personality choice

Except perhaps for the 1961 and 1962 elections, Ugandans tend to vote for personalities, not ideas. Even the sloganeering (like agende or No Change) during the elections is inclined to individual candidates; not institutions or ideas they represent. And next year's elections are not expected to be different. The main issue in next year's elections will be the personalities of the candidates and how much influence or the potential acceptability they have in the military establishment.

Which means, in spite of the structures in the political organisations, the chances of the parties to win the presidential poll will depend on the personalities of the party leaders.

The six candidates go into the February 23 elections with varying fortunes.

UPC's Maria Obote's strength lies in the legacy of the party that led Uganda to independence and that of her husband. Her matronly image and the feminine sympathy are likely to pull some votes. However, for a party that has been out of action for more than 20 years, she faces serious challenges.

There is the 'small matter' of the party's lack of appeal in the populous Buganda region and the factional party division in the most secure UPC stronghold district of the Lango sub region. Miria has tried to address this by highlighting the fact that she is a Muganda and therefore, one of 'them'.

There is also internal strife in the party, where most of the UPC MPs have accused the leadership of cold-shouldering them in favour of new inexperienced political mobilisers and electoral challenges.

Ultimately, Miria goes into the race swimming against the tide of inexperience and the party internal divisions. How she fares will depend on her ability to play the gender card and unite the party to consolidate its support in areas like Lango.