By Haggai Matsiko
Arrest. Expel. Block. The Independent has learnt that those are the three main options several meetings of NRM leaders on the Amama Mbabazi issue have been discussing. The most anticipated of the meetings is the Central Executive Committee (CEC) slated for early July. The desired outcome is clear; ensuring that Mbabazi does not contest against
President Yoweri Museveni to be either the chairman of NRM or the flag bearer of the party in the 2016 elections. But ahead of the CEC meeting, several groups within the party are jostling to influence and take credit for the manner in which Mbabazi is stopped.
The most vocal group, youths calling themselves Cadres 2014 and allied to the Minister of State for Youth Affairs, Evelyn Anite, have petitioned the party chairman, President Museveni, to have Mbabazi expelled from the party.
Anite has become known for springing surprises following her out of the hat petition at the NRM Parliamentary Caucus meeting in Kyankwanzi to have Museveni endorsed as the ‘sole presidential candidate’. Anite sprung the move so unexpectedly that even Mbabazi was left with no wiggle room and signed the petition. Anite appears to be cooking up a similar coup de grace on Mbabazi.
But Kasule Lumumba who replaced Mbabazi as party Secretary General is also laying a mine field in his path. Her strategy appears to involve declaring Mbabazi not to be a member of NRM. In an interview with The Independent, Lumumba said Mbabazi needs to register as a member and get a membership card.
“Without a membership card of the party, he will not be nominated,” she said.
Since registration of NRM members, which was launched by President Museveni in April and ended on June 24 without Mbabazi, who has said it is of no consequence, not being registered, in Lumumba’s view, Mbabazi can now not be nominated.
But holes could be punctured in Lumumba’s strategy. Locking Mbabazi out of NRM could leave President Museveni looking ugly because when the party was launched in 2003, Mbabazi was among its main promoters. He also played a central role in the 1980s politics of the Uganda Patriotic Movement, and the bush war that brought Museveni and the NRM to power. Mbabazi has also indicated that he will not leave NRM and will not allow himself to be locked out. “Nobody can chase me out of NRM. Asking me to quit NRM is like asking me to quit myself,” he told students of Makerere University on April 25, “This is my party. My friends and I started this party and I cannot leave it.”
It is also not clear how Museveni will react to attempts to lock Mbabazi out of NRM. Museveni’s actions can be quite unexpected as was seen when he embarrassed Susan Muhwezi during the NRM Women’s League meeting at the Imperial Royale Hotel in Kampala in April. Mbabazi’s wife, Jacqueline, is the chairperson of the League. However, possibly basing on the rift between Mbabazi and Museveni, and her husband, Jim Muhwezi’s return into favour, Susan Muhwezi called a League meeting. When Jacqueline Mbabazi showed up, she was locked out until Museveni arrived. He immediately asked Susan Muhwezi to vacate her seat, and invited Jacqueline Mbabazi to take it as the rightful chairperson. Based on that, it is easy to contemplate Museveni shoving aside Lumumba’s ploy to lock Mbabazi out. Despite their disagreements, Mbabazi remains an NRM member of parliament; with or without Lumumba’s registration.
It is also noteworthy that when he represented the government at various points as minister for defence, security minister, foreign affairs, attorney general, and Prime Minister, Mbabazi is said to have cultivated a network of supporters in foreign capitals stretching from the UK, Tel Aviv, to Beijing and Moscow. Most of these contacts will frown upon any treatment of Mbabazi that is deemed “undemocratic”. In the past, Museveni has been sensitive to international opinion.
Mbabazi appears to be aware of this. A source close to him told The Independent that he has hired a powerful London-based company to handle his campaign communication and strategy. Recently, he was in London on a trip said to have involved selling his candidature internationally. He had an extended interview with the BBC and spoke before an audience at Chatham House, the royal institute of international affairs of the UK. Mounting international pressure could also affect the third option; blocking Mbabazi from contesting within the party.
Museveni uses CEC
This strategy has been used before, including by Mbabazi himself, to deal with other challengers to Museveni. The NRM party chairman and flag bearer is elected by all delegates at the National Conference. However, for one to be a candidate, they must be vetted at different levels of the party. First, they must express interest in writing to the party Electoral Commission. The names of interested candidates are then sent to the party Central Executive Committee, a small close-knit group of party apparatchiks, for vetting. The CEC forwards the final candidates to a bigger group of mainly NRM members of parliament, the National Executive Committee (NEC) for endorsement. Successfully endorsed candidates are then listed to be voted in at the National Conference. In all previous elections, Museveni has emerged from this process as the unopposed chairman and flag-bearer of NRM. Mbabazi is unlikely to change.
In previous contests, he has had difficulty in the 22-member CEC. Members included President Museveni (Chairman), Jim Muhwezi (Veteran’s league), Al-Hajji Moses Kigongo (1st Vice Chairman), Francis Babu (Vice, Kampala), Rebbecca Kadaga (2nd Vice Chairman), Kahinda Otafiire, Denis Namara (Youth league), Jacqueline Mbabazi (Women’s league), Matayo Kyaligonza Vice, West), Hassan Basajjabalaba (Business league), Sam Engola (Vice, North), Mike Mukula (Vice, East), Al hajji Abdul Nadduli (Vice, Buganda), Kirunda Kivejinja (Historicals league), and others. Although, he was the powerful party secretary general, most CEC members openly opposed him and Museveni back then defended him. Although CEC has new additions like Richard Todwong (deputy SG), Rose Namayanja (Treasurer), Kenneth Omona (deputy Treasurer), and Lumumba (SG), Mbabazi is unlikely to get any support in CEC apart from his wife, Jacqueline Mbabazi. Even the few members who previously spoke in his favour have distanced themselves since he was purged. Some like Kyaligonza, Mukula and Muhwezi have come out to announce their support for Museveni. Lumumba, Todwong, Namayanja and Omona are Museveni appointees. Babu says Mbabazi is not worth a lot of thought.
Therefore, if Museveni is looking for the safest route to locking out Mbabazi, the CEC route is it.
But a source in the Mbabazi camp has told The Independent that Mbabazi has prepared for those shenanigans.
“Part of the reason Mbabazi took time to declare was to organise for such eventualities because they have always been expected,” the source said.
Part of the expected was that Mbabazi, who has over the years been seen as the chief architect of Museveni’s government would be discredited as an “insider” who cannot throw mud at Museveni. Museveni’s handlers tried this but it appears to have misfired as Mbabazi refused to throw mud, conceded responsibility for “NRM’s successes and failures’, and laid out a lofty 8-point agenda for “going forward”. In his June 15 letter, he points out being an insider as a strength that will enable him to consolidate the party’s achievements and infuse a new life in the government.
“Museveni has no ideas,” Mbabazi says. He also appears to have hit proper notes with rhetoric about Ugandans wanting “a peaceful transition” from Museveni.
Recent media reports have shown that Mbabazi’s strategy involves a slew of litigation and he has lined up to 500 lawyers, according to the Daily Monitor newspaper. Mbabazi already is reportedly the architect of several cases being pursued in the courts against the NRM and Museveni by his alleged proxies. Two cases challenging the manner in which Mbabazi was ejected as NRM secretary general and the other challenging Museveni’s declared age are being pursued by one Benjamin Alipanga. Recently, Mbabazi named Alipanga as the spokesperson of his campaign.
When The Independent contacted Alipanga to comment on a call by youths led by youth league leader Denis Namara to have Mbabazi investigated for dealing with the opposition and over his sources of funds, he said the youths were just exposing themselves.
“If those youths knew what was going on in this country, if they knew the law and what is being challenged in court,” Alipanga added, “they wouldn’t be speaking like that. They are just exposing themselves.”
Makerere Law professor John-Jean Barya also dismissed the talk of youths saying the issues raised do not provide grounds for him (Mbabazi) to be expelled.
“What is wrong with speaking with the opposition? Is he the only one that does it?” Barya asked, “Museveni also does it too.”
Barya said the same applies to funding. “Politicians facilitate supporters,” Barya said, “He is not the only one who does it, why should he be questioned when everybody does it? This is just politics.”
Alipanga said that all the negative talk about Mbabazi shows how powerful and influential he is.
“They are trying to down play him,” he told The Independent, “Otherwise, why is everyone from the President to the last man up in arms? It speaks volumes of the power Mbabazi wields.” For Barya, Mbabazi comes with both strengths and weaknesses.
“Weaknesses because he was at the forefront of among others putting in place negative laws like the Public Order Management Act but if Mbabazi is to blame for this, President Museveni is also to blame,” Barya said.
He added that Mbabazi’s strength have to do with his experience in government and strength within the ruling party.
“He might bring about a meeting point for those who want change within and outside the party,” Barya said.
Taken together, although he was previously thought to be the “moon drawing its political light from his close relationship with the sun, President Museveni”, the momentum with which he has shaken Museveni appears to contradict this view.
Part of the reason could be that Mbabazi has been running Museveni campaigns in the last three elections, some of which have been challenged, including court action, over allegations of rigging. Therefore, apart from knowing Museveni’s game quite well, Mbabazi could be the one who knows where the skeletons are.
Mbabazi is not unique in this. In fact, almost all of the leaders of the largest opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), are former members of NRM.
But Mbabazi is the most senior member of the “inner circle” to jump. The break up appears to have hit Museveni hard. Sources close to Museveni say he feels “betrayed”.
“Mbabazi is the only person that Museveni would give the presidential jet to use on foreign travel,” the source said.
In 2011, when Mbabazi and other ministers were facing allegations of accepting bribes from oil companies, Museveni defended him.
“Mbabazi has been a good NRM cadre for a long time, if some of you can last as long as Mbabazi, it will be a big achievement,” Museveni said during the June 2011 State of the Nation address.
Chasing Mbabazi’s money
Mbabazi’s bid remains with a lot of challenges. His move, although an apparent forced move, comes when Museveni is more entrenched in the party and presidency but far less popular than he was in 2001. Many observers say Museveni’s invincibility today is less a result of his strength than of the opposition’s weakness. This opposition weakness has worked in Mbabazi’s favour as they are more willing to “forgive” him. He was recently represented when the various opposition groups formed The Democratic Alliance and could easily vie to lead the pack.
It is not clear whether, after attempting to challenge Museveni within the NRM and failing—as the odds seem against him-the opposition will still accept Mbabazi. Already, there are countless calls for former Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) President Kizza Besigye to contest. Mbabazi might be fresh but many will still find Besigye more tested when it comes to being able to withstand Museveni’s violence. Current FDC president, Mugisha Muntu, has also already announced that he will be seeking to be FDC’s flag-bearer.
Many observers are comparing Mbabazi’s bid to the first bid of Col. Kizza Besigye who has contested thrice against President Museveni. However, the two are different at several levels. When Besigye announced his bid, there was a lot of pessimism within the party about his bid. Besigye was also more junior in the Movement the reason he had tried to convince other senior party officials—People’s Progressive Party founder, Bidandi Ssali, the late Eriya Kategaya and Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga to contest against Museveni but in vain. Top NRM officials had bought into Museveni’s promises that he was about to retire. On the other hand, Mbabazi has all the right to claim to be the most senior party official after Museveni.
Mbabazi’s campaign has been different because Besigye has been seen as the only politician capable of ousting President Museveni. Not surprising because Besigye’s consistency, fearlessness and sacrifices in his battle against President Museveni have endeared him to many. Most importantly, however, Besigye is still seen as the first insider—Museveni’s former personal physician during the bush war days—to break ranks with the system.
So far Mbabazi has not divulged his game plan apart from notifying the Electoral Commission in a June letter that he would embark on country wide consultations between July and August. In his response, Badru Kiggundu, the EC boss, has hinted that all Mbabazi needs to do is to make sure he does all that within the law.
But Lumumba on June 20, wrote to Inspector General of Police (IGP) Kale Kayihura notifying him that Mbabazi is not an aspirant sponsored by the NRM, his notice to the EC is not only speculative but also illegal, his aspirations as a candidate have not been endorsed by NRM and are, therefore, illegal and that Mbabazi, therefore has no “Locus Standi to hold public meetings as a prospective presidential flag bearer of the NRM or presidential aspirant”. This is the clearest step so far the party is taking to block Mbabazi.
Having launched his bid online, some see Mbabazi’s plan to embark on a countrywide consultation process, as an effort to bolster his bid on the ground where the real voter is. Uganda has only 1.6 million Facebook subscribers and a majority of this group is the middle class, which happens to be the most apathetic. So, while Mbabazi has excited the online audience, his strategists know that there are not as many voters in this group as there are upcountry.
It is not clear how strong Mbabazi’s support is on the ground. While still state minister for defence, in 2001, he struggled to defeat tycoon Musinguzi Garuga for the Kinkizi West parliamentary seat. But the Mbabazi of 2001, is not the same Mbabazi, his supporters are quick to point out.
So far, Mbabazi does not seem to have a clear cut support base. In almost all the regions, kingmakers remain NRM stalwarts. In Eastern Uganda, Mbabazi has to contend with former Soroti legislator, Mike Mukula, Lumumba, the party Secretary General and Rebecca Kadaga, the Speaker of Parliament.
In Northern Uganda, the NRM has Richard Todwong, the party’s deputy secretary general, young Turk, Evelyn Anite, Sam Engola, among others.
Mbabazi’s chances of beating Museveni in western Uganda are also seen as limited at the point. The only major battle grounds could be Kigezi sub region, which is his ground zero and the central region, which is in the habit of voting Museveni’s opponents. But even in Kigezi, President Museveni seems focused. He has made a third trip to the region since the year begun on top of appointing several sons of the soil into ministerial posts. He also replaced Mbabazi with Ruhakana Rugunda, who too comes from here.
Mbabazi also has to beat Museveni in the arena of commercialised politics. Campaigns have become expensive. While Mbabazi is said to have money, Museveni’s henchmen will be looking for where that money is and how it can be blocked. When the Anti-Terrorism amendment bill was passed recently, several speakers said it aimed at blocking Mbabazi’s money. The new law empowers the Inspector General of Police, Gen. Kale Kayihura, to freeze monies he suspects to be connected to terrorism.