History shows it was inevitable Mbabazi would fall on the sword of `sole’ candidate-culture
In 1965, then opposition MPs introduced a motion on the floor of the National Assembly to repeal the Deportation Ordinance. This was a draconian colonial law that allowed the state to deport, to a remote party of the country, anyone who gave government a headache through political agitation. Many Ugandans fighting for independence would be deported from Kampala to then-remote areas like Kisoro, Karamoja or Arua.
The motion was debated in parliament at the beginning of February 1966. UPC’s Secretary General, Grace Ibingira, convinced many UPC and KY members not to support it. When the vote was finally called, the motion was lost; Ibingira had won the day and the opposition were leaking their wounds in defeat.
Three weeks later, Ibingira was arrested – in the middle of a cabinet meeting – along with four other ministers and jailed. Their lawyers successfully filed a writ of habeas corpus. The five ex-ministers were produced in court and released. As they were walking to freedom at Buganda Road Court, they were served with deportation orders under the Deportation Ordinance. As he was being hand-cuffed, Ibingira said: “Fate is a double crosser; I am the one who saved the Deportation Ordinance from being repealed.”
This story came back vividly to my mind when Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi came under pressure to sign a resolution by the National Resistance Movement (NRM) parliamentary caucus declaring President Yoweri Museveni the “sole presidential candidate of the party.” Mbabazi had been accused of “eyeing” Museveni’s job and that he was planning to challenge the president in the ruling party primary in 2015. Intelligence dossiers to the president about Mbabazi were filled with tall tales of sabotage and subversion that bordered on treason.
The trick in Kyankwanzi was to put Mbabazi on the defensive, to compel him to either restate or recant his loyalty to his boss. He could have refused to sign; in which case he would have been declared an enemy. But in signing, he risked being seen as cowardly and humiliated before his supporters.
I thought Mbabazi would try to be technical and argue that the resolution was against the constitutional provisions of the NRM constitution and could be challenged in courts of law. But Mbabazi was smarter. It seems he realised that his opponents would seize the opportunity to accuse him of subversion, which would be followed by dire consequences.
When Mbabazi capitulated in Kyankwanzi, he was living to the logic of his own position over the years. He was a key figure in building and consolidating the view that the party chairmanship is a monopoly of the founding leader and a position that cannot be challenged. From the time NRM was formed, there is no evidence of how and when Museveni was elected vice chairman and later, after the death of Yusuf Lule, who was the figurehead, its chairman. From the time NRM became a ruling party in 1986 to 2005, the party never held elections for its leader.
Since 2005, the NRM has held elections for every other office except that of the chairman, which has always been taken by Museveni through acclamation. Felix Okot Ogong once tried but was never given a chance and so was the case with Capt. Ruhinda Maguru. The first real attempt at an internal challenge was in 2000 when Kizza Besigye declared he would run against Museveni for the presidency of the country.
Mbabazi, supported by Sam Kutesa introduced a motion that the National Executive Committee of the “Movement” (NRM was still claiming not to be a political party then) should adopt Museveni as the “sole” presidential candidate.
Eriya Kategaya, Amanya Mushega, Mugisha Muntu and Mathew Rukikaire successfully opposed this move. The meeting at Conference Centre agreed to adopt Museveni as the Movement presidential candidate but removed the wor d “sole” from the resolution and in fact added that others were free to contest.
If Mbabazi actually wanted to challenge Museveni in 2015, then he has fallen onto the sword he actively helped put in place. This way, he and Ibingira have met the same fate. This kind of history repeats itself often because human nature is human nature – the traps we lay for others today often turn out to be the ropes around our necks tomorrow.
Did Mbabazi really want to challenge Museveni? To many insiders, the answer is yes. But this could be because these insiders stood to benefit from promoting the myth that Mbabazi had become ambitious. To many outside observers, Mbabazi was least likely to challenge Museveni for the leadership of the NRM. He has been in the party long enough to know that opportunities for a successful challenge to Museveni are limited. He is also acutely aware of the costs of such an undertaking.
Mbabazi’s capitulation at Kyankwazi is both depressing and illuminating. It represented the consistence of the NRM with other such revolutionary movements of the 20th Century – the position of the founding leader cannot be challenged.
The NRM parliamentary caucus presented any potential challenge to Museveni’s leadership as subversive and signifying the creation of “cliques” in the party. They used this to bully and intimidate Mbabazi to sign a hastily written resolution. Mbabazi must have read the writing on the wall and yielded to the inevitable perhaps recognising the nature of the political party he belongs to.
NRM is like all other such revolutionary movements – from China to Vietnam and Cambodia, Cuba to Nicaragua, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Rwanda and Algeria. None of these movements has ever lost power except Cambodia (due to Vietnam intervention in 1977) and Nicaragua (US sabotage). In all these cases, the founding leader’s position is never challenged. He dies in office (or retires after 48 years of service like Fidel Castrol did in Cuba). It may not have been inevitable that the NRM would tread this path. However, it was always most likely that it would not fundamentally depart from the script of other movements of its ilk.