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The battle to succeed Museveni

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Inside Bukenya’s struggle to remain VP

On the evening of May 22 2003, President Yoweri Museveni called on his minister of Defence and close confidante, Amama Mbabazi to State House. According to highly placed sources, the president told Mbabazi that he would be announcing a cabinet reshuffle the next day. He then informed Mbabazi that he would be appointing him vice president. Mbabazi left State House a very happy man.

The next afternoon, May 23, the radio announcements went out. Prof. Gilbert Bukenya, then minister for the presidency, had been appointed VP. What had happened between the previous night and the next evening to change the fortunes of Mbabazi? No one really knows with the exception, perhaps, of the president himself.

State House and NRM insiders say that this short-changing of Mbabazi for Bukenya is the major explanation for the rivalry between the VP and the secretary general of the ruling party. But how then did Bukenya come to land this job?

According to sources close to Emmanuel Cardinal Wamala, Bukenya had been given the job in a deal between the president and the cardinal. Museveni had been asking Wamala to help him secure the support of Catholics especially when Dr Kizza Besigye declared his candidature for the presidency in October 2000. Besigye’s wife, Winnie Byanyima, is a devout Catholic with strong links to the Church. Museveni worried that this was likely to make many Catholics vote Besigye.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, leaders of the Roman Catholic Church ‘ both laity and clergy ‘ used to meet at the Cardinal’s home regularly. The meetings were organised by the Rubaga Foundation and brought leading Catholics from across the entire country and political spectrum together to discuss their common aspirations. One such aspiration was to have a president who was Catholic.

Although Catholics are the largest religion in Uganda, the country has never been ruled by a Catholic president. This has been an emotional issue among many Catholics. A smart political tactician, sources say, President Museveni told Wamala that if the Cardinal helped him win the Catholic vote, then the president would ensure that it is a Roman Catholic who succeeds him as president.

According to sources, Wamala got a number of Catholics and went with them to visit the president at his country home in Rwakitura in February 2001 ‘ just before the presidential elections. The Catholic delegation travelled by bus. But upon arrival in Rwakitura, they found Bukenya ‘ then a minister ‘ already there with Museveni. During the meeting, Catholic leaders claim, Museveni promised them that he would appoint a Catholic to succeed him. The then VP, Specioza Kazibwe, was not at the meeting.

According to people who attended the meeting, Museveni told the delegation that after 2001, Cardinal Wamala would give him five names of senior Catholics to appoint to cabinet. According to sources close to the Cardinal, after the election, Wamala actually sent the names. However, Museveni was later to appoint Bukenya who had been with him in Rwakitura as VP instead of picking from the Cardinal’s list. Since Bukenya was the most senior Catholic at the meeting, many assumed the president had picked on him for succession instead of the Cardinal’s names.

In early 2003, some NRM leaders launched a campaign to amend the constitution and remove term limits on the presidency. To the shock of the Catholic leadership, VP Bukenya was the leader of the campaign. However, some Catholics were still willing to go with Bukenya. To secure his potential for succession, they asked him to have a meeting with Museveni. The plan was that Bukenya should trick Museveni by suggesting a constitutional amendment to remove term limits.

If Museveni refused, they would know that he intended to leave and then hence begin Bukenya’s battle for succession. The plan, insiders say, backfired because Museveni asked Bukenya: ‘Is it possible to amend the constitution?’ Bukenya said yes. Then Museveni gave it his blessing. It is for this reason, many Catholic leaders believe, that Cardinal Wamala was the first person to denounce the third term project.

But how did this obscure professor of medicine rise through the ranks to outwit Mbabazi for the VP job?

In 1996, Bukenya was a known Democratic Party stalwart. That year, he launched his campaign for Parliament. According to NRM sources, his opponent, Zimula Mugwanya, went to Museveni saying that Bukenya was DP, a Catholic and a Muganda chauvinist who was a dangerous man. Mugwanya recommended that NRM should do everything possible to fight Bukenya.

Then there was an internal discussion within NRM based on recommendations that had come from security organisations. The NRM leadership meeting resolved not to fight Bukenya. Why? According to sources inside the meeting, it was reasoned that first, the NRM was all embracing; second, that although Bukenya was using the Catholic religion to campaign, he had not positioned himself as a DP; and finally, given the individual merit principle on which the election was to be run, he should not be opposed. In the ensuing race, Bukenya won his seat.

After the 1996 parliamentary elections, Mbabazi was selected as Chairman of the Movement Caucus ‘ as it was known then. However, MPs in the Sixth Parliament led by Winnie Byanyima went to Museveni and argued that having a minister lead the Caucus would suggest that the executive was controlling the legislature. So Museveni called Mbabazi and expressed to him the concern. Mbabazi told the president that he was happy to leave the chair of the Caucus if members felt so. He resigned.

Then a search for the replacement began and Bukenya’s name immediately popped up. Some NRM leaders went to see then Speaker of Parliament, James Wapakhabulo (RIP) and talk to him about Bukenya. Wapakhabulo had known Bukenya in the 1970s and ‘80s when both worked in Papua New Guinea as exiles. The NRM leaders wanted an opinion about Bukenya; what kind of guy was he? Can he be trusted?

According to insiders, Wapakhabulo said that Bukenya was a jocular guy whose character bordered on him being a playboy. ‘He is not a very serious guy or even very ambitious’ Wapakhabulo reasoned, ‘He is the kind of guy who will not cause much trouble.’ It was at this meeting that it was resolved to support Bukenya for the chair of the Movement Caucus.

Among the reasons advanced to support Bukenya was the fact that he was new to the Movement. This would show that the Movement was open to new comers and was also willing to give them high profile and senior positions i.e. political recruitment was open to all. It was also argued that Bukenya was a DP the Movement could win over. Finally, he was a Catholic and a Muganda, factors that could make the NRM reach out and possibly win over these two core constituencies.

However, many of those who supported Bukenya for chair of the Movement Caucus were soon to begin to worry about him. For example, when in late 1999 Kizza Besigye wrote his famous document about how NRM was becoming corrupt and undemocratic, Bukenya invited him to present it to the caucus. Yet some NRM insiders knew that Besigye’s issues were strong and would easily generate bad publicity for the Movement.

It was argued during a crisis meeting between Museveni and core insiders that Besigye’s document should be killed before it sees the light of day. Many of the issues Besigye was raising had been developed from discussions inside the Movement political high command. But Museveni thought it dangerous to extend these discussions to the caucus. It was felt that Bukenya has poor political judgment and therefore should be removed from being chair of the caucus. That is how Bukenya became minister of State in President’s Office.

However, when he was still chair of the Movement Caucus, the Land Bill was brought to Parliament in 1998. Then a heated debate developed over it which threatened to tear the Movement and Mengo apart. Cabinet was divided right in the middle between those who wanted radical land reforms and those who wanted to maintain the status quo. During this time, Bukenya proved himself ‘ in the words of an insider ‘ a great mobiliser.

According to State House sources, Bukenya mobilised different peasant groups and brought them to meet Museveni and express their support for reform of the land tenure system. Sources say Museveni was greatly impressed by Bukenya’s enthusiasm and his willingness to undermine Mengo and work directly with peasants. Thus, although Museveni had become wary of Bukenya’s judgement over vital political issues, he liked his energy and ability to mobilise.

Then, just before the 2001 elections, Museveni called then Vice President, Specioza Kazibwe, and told her that he, the president, had serious concerns about her continued position as VP. If she was to continue with the job of VP, the president said, there were five things she needed to address/correct about herself regarding her conduct.

For example, her open battles with her husband were becoming a matter of vital concern in the Movement especially given the fact that Uganda is a highly conservative society. Her other relationships were also raising a lot of concern over her public image. (There were other issues but for her privacy, we will withhold them without request from her- Editor). She was unable to resolve these issues.

Apparently, Kazibwe had been introduced to the NRM by Besigye when he was National Political Commissar (NPC). Besigye had told the NRM leadership that Kazibwe had been behind him by one year at Medical School. She was a DP, a woman and was from the largest tribe in the east ‘ the Basoga while married to a Muganda. Besigye had argued that she was intelligent and hard working, and therefore a vital asset for political recruitment.

At that time ‘ 1989 ‘ it was agreed that cadres monitor her work through the Kampala District Resistance Council where she was a member. NRM leaders were impressed by her and encouraged her to run for parliament. She did and won and was immediately appointed to cabinet. She grew very fast to become VP in 1994. However, by 2000, the aforementioned aspects of her conduct were becoming a matter of critical concern and many insiders began to argue that she was now a liability.

Thus, by 2002, it had become imperative that she should be dropped. Museveni delayed the decision to the chagrin of many around him. By this time, Bukenya had become a key person in Museveni’s calculations about the Catholic Church and Buganda. Secondly, he did not seem ambitious. That is how Museveni came to appoint him VP.

However, before his name could be approved by parliament, a scandal came up. The Inspector General of Government (IGG), at that time the respected Jotham Tumwesigye, had written a report accusing Bukenya of stealing money from the Makerere Medical School at Mulago where he had been Dean before joining politics.Â

When the information came out, a crisis meeting was held at State House to discuss how NRM would handle it. Museveni realised that it was too late to withdraw the nomination since it had already been announced and also due to many other political imperatives, among them the agreement between the president and the cardinal. Bukenya was summoned to the meeting at State House to explain himself. He said he had learnt of the problem and had gone back and refunded the money.

During this meeting, it was agreed that key NRM leaders be sent to Parliament to defend him against the opposition during the hearings. It had been thought that the opposition would use it for political capital. However, when the debate began, NRM leaders were shocked to see likely opposition MPs like Winnie Byanyima and Emmanuel Dombo stand up and speak favourably about Bukenya.

‘We realised that Bukenya was a very cunning guy’ one NRM insider told The Independent on condition of anonymity, ‘He had an unusual ability to mobilise even the opposition to support him. No one knew how he struck the deal with the opposition. All that we had prepared in his defence was not needed. It was clear Wapa [Wapakhabulo] had underestimated the man.’

Bukenya thus sailed through Parliament easily. Immediately he became vice president, insiders say, Bukenya began an ambitious plan to become the next president. He interpreted his appointment as an anointment for possible succession to the presidency. He began to move around the country selling himself to the people. His jocular and simple manner easily endears him to the masses.

Then some NRM leaders began to worry about him. It was reported that he was meeting some Baganda army officers. Museveni called him and strictly warned him against it. It was also said that he was using the upland rice growing campaign to launch his own campaign. Museveni found this difficult to stop. So, some insiders began to investigate many things about him with a hope of bringing him down.

However, many in NRM still underestimated the political animal in Bukenya. When he got wind of the investigations, Bukenya realised his days as VP were numbered. Rather than go quietly, he planned to exit with a big bang. He called Daily Monitor and gave an interview claiming that there was a mafia group in government that was fighting him. He specifically mentioned Mbabazi and Sam Kutesa as leaders of the mafia.

The day after the story was published in Daily Monitor, Museveni called a meeting at State House which was attended by Prime Minister, Apollo Nsibambi; Parliament Speaker, Edward Ssekandi; Attorney General, Kidhu Makubuya, Mbabazi and Bukenya. During this crisis meeting, Museveni asked Bukenya whether he had said the things reported in the media. Bukenya said categorically that Daily Monitor was lying.

Then the meeting asked him to issue a press statement to that effect. It also decided that he should bring the press statement to the meeting for approval before he issued it to the press. He was given two days to do this. He agreed and the meeting ended. Two days later, the meeting assembled at State House again chaired by Museveni and attended by all the aforementioned persons. Bukenya was asked to produce the agreed press statement denying giving Daily Monitor the interview.

Meanwhile, sources say, Museveni and his colleagues knew that Bukenya was lying. So when he said he had failed to write the press statement, no one was shocked or surprised. He now changed his statement and said he had said some ‘ but not all ‘ the things attributed to him in Daily Monitor. ‘Monitor blew my statements out of proportion’ he said. He then apologised to Museveni and Mbabazi for the statements he had made against them.

‘When Museveni asked him why he had lied two days earlier, sources say, Bukenya, without blinking an eye, said: ‘I feared you were going to fire me Sir.’ To their surprise, Bukenya now asked the president and Mbabazi to help him draft the press statement. It is then that the meeting asked Makubuya to help Bukenya write a press statement and bring it to State House the next day. All those in the meeting were asked to reassemble for the final view of Bukenya’s press statement.

The next day, the meeting again sat at State House. When the press statement was presented to them, Mbabazi and Museveni said it was unsatisfactory. They asked Bukenya to get serious and draft something better. But after some discussion, it was agreed that whole matter was dragging too long. The president was extremely angry with his VP and told Bukenya his mind. It was decided that a draft statement be written there and then which was done. Bukenya was asked to call a press conference and appear with Nsibambi and Mbabazi to present it.

According to inside sources, Mbabazi had been aggressive in pushing Bukenya to clear his name. People in the meeting were able to observe the close relationship between the president and Mbabazi. For example, Mbabazi would read instructions to Bukenya even though Bukenya as VP was boss to Mbabazi who was minister of Defence.

Museveni did not fire Bukenya reasoning that if he did so, he would be playing in the VP’s hands. Bukenya had accused government of being corrupt. If he was fired, he would leave with sufficient political capital to launch a political campaign for the presidency. NRM planned that instead of confronting him directly, they would go around him. Yet in doing this, Museveni had literally allowed Bukenya to blackmail him.

Thus, during the NRM Delegates Conference in 2005, key NRM insiders plotted to block Bukenya from being elected to the leadership of the NRM. But when his name was presented in Namboole, there were such wild cheers that nearly drowned the stadium. A shocked President Museveni looked up, then looked down and finally turned and pretended to speak to his wife. Informed sources who have been close to him say the president was trying to hide his facial expressions as they would betray his shock. Bukenya was easily elected NRM deputy chairman for central region.

When elections for parliament came, NRM insiders again supported the LC-V chairman for Wakiso District, Ian Kyeyune against Bukenya. The VP defeated this plot again. Sources close to Bukenya say that the VP was sure Museveni would drop him after the elections. So during his swearing-in at parliament, Bukenya came with a large delegation singing: ‘Abewo, tajakugenda‘ (he should stay). Sources say that Museveni, who was present at the swearing-in realised that Bukenya was a force to reckon with.

Thus, through political manoeuvring and blackmail, Bukenya has been able to retain his job as VP which literally keeps him first in the queue for succession ‘ at least constitutionally. This makes him a major stumbling block to the aspirations and ambitions of Mbabazi who believes he is number one in the queue. As the battles between the two men stay, it is still difficult to tell what the future holds for both.

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