Mayanja: The father of Muslim politicians

YAHYA SSEREMBA
Contrary to the belief of many, Muhammad K. Mayanja did not start his political career at the Justice Forum, commonly known as Jeema. He had, two years before the establishment of the party, contested for a seat in the Constituent Assembly, Uganda’s fifth parliament.
It was probably in the course of his campaign to become a legislator that he attracted the attention of a team of Makerere University Muslim graduates that was dreaming of forming a political movement. These motivated young men and women, when they saw it fit to actualize their dream, explored a list of reliable people capable of leading the party until they settled on Mr. Mayanja.
Thus Jeema emerged in 1996 with Mayanja at its helm and, on 27 June, ran for Uganda’s presidency, attracting the support of many Muslims. Despite his modest performance, Mayanja’s participation in the race inspired many Muslims to run for political positions in subsequent elections, weakening the walls of marginalization that had been raised around the Muslim Community following the fall of President Idi Amin Dada. Indeed, Mayanja’s contest largely accounts for today’s noticeable participation of Muslims in politics, regardless of their political affiliations.
Mayanja’s race for state power gave hope to a community that had been victimized as illiterate and despised as incapable of doing anything apart from driving trucks and slicing meat in butcheries. This alone was a contribution enough to win Mayanja a chapter in the book of Muslims’ heroes in the pearl of Africa.
While Muslims had participated in politics before 1996, their participation remained low and their political presence was never felt outside the presidency of Amin. The fall of Amin in 1979 ushered in an era of demonizing Muslims that started with the massacre and displacement of hundreds of the believers in Bushenyi and the West Nile.
Part of the campaign to keep Muslims away from politics has been to emphasize and even exaggerate the excesses of the only Muslim president and completely ignore his constructive contributions to the country.  The campaign succeeded in cowing Muslims who consequently kept a distance from public life, especially politics, and maintained a low profile.
With the emergence of Mayanja as presidential candidate, however, Muslims were reminded of their ability to lead this country, as they once did for eight years. It was a wakeup call to which Muslims responded by running to secure their places in leadership.  So successful is the call that no political party today can ignore the contribution and indeed the influence of its Muslim members. Reports of some political parties increasingly getting worried of being ‘taken over’ by their Muslim members cannot be dismissed. 14 years after his presidential race, Mayanja’s political influence remains powerful and pervasive.
If there is anybody who foresaw the long run implication of Mayanja’s presidential aspiration, it was President Museveni. Museveni moved very quickly to frustrate the political rise of Muslims. Under the pretext of fighting the Allied Democratic Forces, Museveni’s government murdered, detained without trial and tortured countless Muslims, especially those who had openly supported Jeema in the 1996 presidential elections. This brutal crackdown, or the forgotten terror, cast horror in the hearts of Jeema members, and the party went in a coma.
Out of fear, Jeema abandoned mobilization and lost contact with its district coordinators. The coordinators, many of whom had just narrowly survived death in government’s torture chambers known as safe houses, were equally too frightened to carryon party work.
It was this absence of mobilization that largely accounted for Mayanja’s declined performance in the 2001 presidential election.  Until Jeema secured a parliamentary seat in 2006, it was difficult to imagine the existence of a party with such a name. For about 10 years, Jeema was missing.
The fact that the party was absent for 10 out of its 14 years of existence reflects the effectiveness of Museveni’s forgotten terror that sought to weaken Muslims and thwart their political advancement. But the fact that Jeema did not die completely or, if it did, was able to resurrect and become a major opposition party today points to the stamina and resilience of its leadership. Much as they kept silent throughout the forgotten terror, Mayanja and his companions – even at the climax of the brutal repression – did not abandon the party though President Museveni unsuccessfully tried to offer some of them fatty government positions.
Museveni’s forgotten terror succeeded in retarding Mayanja’s political party for sometime. But the terror came too late to stop Mayanja’s political inspiration to Muslims.
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