By Patrick Odongo
Two weeks after declaring she will run for Lira District Woman Member of Parliament (MP), a video of Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng, the Health Minister, appeared, showing her in a public procession of adoring women, but not wearing the mandatory face mask. The footage set off fierce debates among the talking heads on social media, about the pros and cons of her political aspirations. Joy Atim Ongom belonging to the beleaguered Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), currently occupies the Lira District Women’s MP seat.
This past Sunday, I had pointed out in an opinion piece in one of the daily newspapers that Dr Aceng’s entry into the murky waters of partisan, elective politics would set tongues wagging and inflame political tempers. Indeed, opinions are sharply divided on the wisdom of her joining the rough and tumble of elective politics, on a National Resistance Movement (NRM) ticket, and in a traditionally UPC dominated constituency.
Some opposition ideologues, fearing the unknown factor that Dr. Aceng’s candidacy brings, have urged her to stick to her profession or perhaps, seek an international appointment within the UN system. On the other hand, members of the ruling NRM, salivating at the opportunity to finally end the UPC hegemony in Lira District politics, are on cloud nine about Dr. Aceng as their star candidate and an instant favourite with Lira electorates.
This euphoria and trepidation was heightened further by a viral video footage of Dr. Aceng, with a procession of excited women, but wearing no face masks; an obvious violation of her own ministry’s mandatory public health proclamations. This was widely condemned and denounced, especially by opponents of the government, who alleged “double standards” in the application and enforcement of standard operating procedures (SOPs) against the spread of Covid-19. Unpropitiously, as Dr. Aceng was “launching the distribution of facemasks” in Aromo sub-county, Ibrahim Ssemuju Nganda, the FDC spokesman, was having running battles with the police over concerns about holding public meetings and procession in violation of the Covid-19 SOPs.
Welcome to Uganda politics Dr Aceng!
Dr. Aceng needs to take heart. She is not alone in receiving roasting for political missteps. A few weeks to the 2016 USA Presidential elections, an audio tape surfaced showing Donald Trump bragging that because he is a celebrity, he can grope any woman. “This is the end of the man”, the holier-than-thou political commentators intoned solemnly on television and social media. Even the usually unapologetic Donald Trump looked properly chastened and scared for his political life.
But Trump, like a magician, defied all predictions and pulled the rabbit out of his hat. Conventional wisdom was trounced! The issues that exercise the minds of the electorates are usually bread and butter issues that rarely come up on the radar of armchair social media commentators.
Similarly, in the UK last June, police were called to the flat of Boris Johnson, then vying to become Conservative Party leader and future Prime Minister. There were allegations of serious domestic altercations between Mr. Johnson and his fiancée. The British tabloids had a field day and pilloried him ruthlessly. However, the voters in the UK were able to effectively separate form from substance, by electing Johnson with a thumping majority.
These show that we need to distil the real issues that drive election-day decisions of voters from the excitement of social media trolls. The real issues that move the needle of public opinion and determine one’s fortune at the polls, rarely get reported on, and are seldom discussed on social media.
Hence, the election fortunes of Dr. Aceng will not be determined by this one single incident.
As Winston Churchill once said, “one day is a long time in politics”. In the intervening weeks and months, therefore, a confluence of factors will come into play that will determine whether Dr Aceng gets elected or not. Perhaps, she might even not be on the ballot, given the serious elbowing and jostling happening within the NRM in Lira district. But what we can be sure of is this: Dr Aceng is not a political lightweight or pushover.
The writer is a NRM cadre from Minakulu, Oyam district