By YAHYA SSEREMBA
If the formation of the Uganda Muslim Education Association constituted a turning point in the education of Ugandan Muslims, the Justice Forum (Jeema), in its nascent years, appeared to comprise a milestone in the political journey of the same section of the population.
But whereas the 1996 presidential contest of Muhammad K. Mayanja inspired many Muslims to compete for political positions in subsequent elections and gave them self esteem after decades of post-Amin marginalization, the party he has led for 14 years has not turned out to be a turning point.
It has, on the contrary, been a disappointment. Jeema waited until 2006 to have just one seat in parliament. The party still fields no more than 10 parliamentary candidates out of hundreds and hardly fields any candidates for local council or for by-elections, waits until the election season to carryout some mobilization, lacks a fully-functioning Secretariat and its leaders no longer have time for it. This is not the Jeema that cast restlessness in the heart of President Museveni when it setoff sixteen years ago.
Without much preparedness, the team that called itself ‘Justice Forum’ abruptly appeared in 1996 and declared its presidential aspirations. Yet the speed at which it collected signatures throughout the country to back its bid for presidential nomination shocked the ruling party as well as the opposition alliance composed of parties that had existed for close to a half century.
Jeema found ease because it did not have to establish structures in the districts to facilitate its activities – the existing mosques and mosque committees served as structures. The emphasis that Islam puts on Muslim brotherhood greatly aided the party. Muslims who openly supported other candidates were declared traitors, if not apostates, by some passionate Imams.
In Kasese District, where I was a little pupil in primary six, the highest Islamic authority warmly welcomed Mr. Mayanja and served as his spokesperson. It was not surprising that in parts of the district that were dominated by Muslims, for instance in Bwera, Mr. Mayanja won close to 100 percent of the vote. The voting pattern, albeit with notable exceptions, took that form throughout the country.
Whereas the Muslim bloc alone could by no means propel the Justice Forum to power, the party’s performance convinced everyone that Jeema commanded the support of the Muslims – the fastest growing section of the population.
So scared was President Museveni that he reportedly attempted to give ministerial posts to Jeema officials to hamper the progress of the new party. Museveni’s offer was instantly thrown back at him by the fresh politicians whose confidence in their mounting influence was compelling. For the past nine years, since its declined performance in the second presidential election, the Justice Forum has been retreating. But for the acquisition of one parliamentary seat in 2006, Jeema’s total collapse would not be debatable.
Even with representation in parliament, Jeema, in the eyes of some senior party leaders, is, at best, dormant. During the 2009 discussion of the Inter-party Cooperation proposal for forming either a merger or an alliance, high-ranking party officials resolved and attempted without success to convince the rest of the members to accept the option of the merger – which effectively meant dissolving Jeema – simply because the party was too weak to continue operating.
So shocked were some party members that they thought their senior party officials had been bribed to bring the party to an end. Yet that was not the case – the leaders were simply expressing their sincere hopelessness: they knew that the party had failed every test except survival. With newly formed parties overtaking Jeema, it became clear that the party had even fallen from trailing to walking lamely in the extreme back. Why?
The forgotten terror
Some have blamed Jeema’s decline on the reign of terror that left many of its members killed, detained, tortured, disappeared and, most disastrous, terrified. The late 1990s saw the climax of the terror that President Museveni has, so far, unleashed on Uganda’s minority Muslim population.
Under the pretext of fighting the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group that was reportedly led by a Muslim, Museveni’s government summarily killed countless Muslims as if there were no courts of law while most of those who were detained have never appeared again.
It was not the first time that Mr. Museveni had behaved that way towards Muslims. In his book, Is the 1979 Muslim Blood–bath in Bushenyi history? A review of the genocide that was called liberation, Makerere University Associate Professor Abasi Kiyimba quotes the survivors of the 1979 Bushenyi massacre of Muslims accusing Museveni – the defence minister by then – of ordering the massacre. It was not surprising that when the ADF emerged, he seized the opportunity to let loose atrocious atrocities on Muslims the like of which none of his predecessors ever committed.
The label “rebel” was indiscriminately stuck on all Muslims who had long beards and shorter trousers – many of whom were killed or disappeared by the army and intelligence operatives. My own father survived by a hair’s breadth.
This state-orchestrated terror was seen at Jeema as a campaign executed to suppress the party. The killing of Muslims, Jeema leaders thought, sought to eliminate the party’s agents in various parts of the country and to cripple its mobilization machinery.
Instead of capitalizing on these gross human rights violations to reinforce its political clout among Muslims by calling for the end of such violations, the Jeema leadership kept silent in order, as one party official told me, to avoid being branded the “political wing” of the ADF.
The failure of Jeema to speak out against the atrocities committed on Muslims was a betrayal of the people who had overwhelmingly voted for the party in 1996. Whereas the party tried quietly to secure the release of some detainees, its total silence was unforgivable. It was not a friend in need and, indeed, it was not a friend at all.
The significance of this terror is that it terrified Jeema leaders who saw it as a form of political persecution. They, out of fear, slowed down on their political activities at the expense of the growth of the party. Their cowardice demonstrated that they entered politics without expecting challenges. And they retreated when the challenges advanced.
But the forgotten terror ended many years ago and it is, certainly though unfairly, forgotten. Yet Jeema’s change for the worse has continued unabated. Secondly, the relatively new FDC party has suffered almost similar persecution, but has still managed to gather strength and lead the opposition for many years.
Why should Jeema find itself neighboring oblivion after a wave of terror which, despite its indescribable brutality, was short-lived? Indeed the terror could not have crippled Jeema if the party had not deserted the pivot of its support — the mosque.
The desertion of the Mosque
We have already seen how religion accounted for Jeema’s marvelous performance in the 1996 presidential election. But as we have also seen, Jeema – the only organized Muslim group by then – failed to consolidate its Muslim support when it kept silent as the believers were killed and confined to torture chambers locally known as safe houses. The party continuously failed to pay attention to its core voters at the expense of its own popularity.
While some Jeema officials have been foremost in advocating for Muslim interests, rarely has the party come out to support such causes. Associate Prof. Abasi Kiyimba and Imam Idi Kasozi, both leading Jeema officials, were, for instance, at the forefront of opposing the Domestic Relations Bill (DRB), a matter that united Uganda’s Muslims like nothing else in many years. In that campaign, Prof. Abasi and Imam Kasozi did not, at any moment, identify themselves with Jeema; as they have never in all of their other Islamic campaigns. Surprisingly, other political parties often come out openly in such struggles and side with Muslims to win their support.
Thus apart from having a Muslim President and a Muslim Secretary General, Jeema failed to show Muslims how it was relevant to them. Even the Imams who passionately mobilized their followers to vote for the Muslim candidate in 1996 could, thereafter, not trace any Jeema official. The officials had retreated to their personal businesses, waiting to resurface at election time and sweep Muslim votes by simply wearing Muslim names. They were mistaken.
But the desertion of the mosque appears to be more of an indicator than a cause of Jeema’s weakness. If Jeema was indeed actively carrying out mobilization, how could it have disregarded its core voters?
Some have pointed the finger at the scarcity of financial resources, which hinders mobilization and every other party activity. But this challenge is by no means limited to Jeema; it cuts across all parties, excluding the ruling party which thrives on taxpayers’ money. Why have some opposition parties, despite their financial constraints, registered relative progress?
Some would say that such opposition parties have relatively more money than others. But this is simply to paraphrase the question. Why should Jeema have lesser money than other parties? Evidently, something deeper is involved than the aforesaid factors, diverse and significant as they may be – something deeper that leaves every Jeema resolution on paper and makes even the smallest assignment a mission impossible. And it is, in my opinion, the absence of leadership.
The absence of leadership
It is important to acknowledge the mighty achievements registered by the Jeema leadership during the party’s embryonic years. They, in the first place, conceived, developed and implemented the idea of forming the party, which has stood the test of time. The impressive presidential contest put up by Muhammad K. Mayanja in 1996 encouraged Muslims to take up political responsibilities in subsequent elections. Muslim kids, who had been told that the best a Muslim could do was to slice meat or to drive trucks, consequently saw in themselves vast potential of leading this country.
The Jeema leadership did not throw away the party even during the hard times of the forgotten terror; a time when growing a long beard, or belonging to any organization perceived to be Muslim, was a crime punishable by death, detention without trial, or disappearance without trace.
Neither did they tear the party apart as their counterparts in the DP and FDC parties have tirelessly tried. They provided a rare leadership that should be commended rather than condemned.
But a few years after founding a promising party their leadership began to regress as they became more and more preoccupied with their personal businesses. Time came when leaders as critical as the Party President or the Secretary General took months without setting foot at the Secretariat. The decline of the Secretariat was naturally followed by the fading of district contacts. And the party’s mobilization capacity eventually weakened beyond imagination.
But even in such conditions enthusiastic party mobilizers occasionally traveled to Kampala to enquire about the plans of the party. They were disappointed to find leaders so detached from the party that they could not be accessed even for some brief discussion.
The explanation the leaders have always given for their lack of commitment remains that they no longer have the time they used to have in the 1990s to run the party. If they have become too busy to run the party, why don’t they resign? Why should they find more sense in closing the party for its weaknesses than in resigning for failing to strengthen the party? It cannot be that there are no other people able and willing to run Jeema apart from these fatigued leaders.
Apart from elected leaders, the party has been weakened by senior officials whom, despite holding no offices, had greatly sustained the party by providing manpower and guidance. They did not survive the disease that exhausted their office-bearing counterparts.
Instead of frankly informing the party that they are no longer able to serve it, they have continuously chosen to evade the party whenever it wants them most and, at worst, failed to accomplish tasks that they willingly accepted to bear. At this point I would like to advise Associate Prof. Kiyimba, Imam Kasozi and Imam Ahmad Ssentongo to state openly whether they still want to serve the party or not.
These and some other ‘founding fathers’ have exhibited a kind of inattentiveness to the party that is too much to tolerate. No party member says these elders should abandon their personal businesses. It is their pretence to work for the party when actually they cannot spare any reasonable time for it that disturbs members.
It should by now be clear that the progress of Jeema faces a mighty barrier in form of its dull leaders. Yet these leaders are not incapable of reforming. They shall have to rediscover their past courage or give way to committed people to run the party. For the time being, the choice is theirs.
This article was written in 2009.
YAHYA SSEREMBA, the founder and executive editor of The Campus Journal, is the author of Stagnant Parties: Why DP, UPC and JEEMA have failed every test except survival, and How terrorists hijacked Jihad.