By Charles Onyango Obbo
Mr Yoweri Museveni has made many notoriously bad mistakes in his 23 years as president of Uganda. However, there are two things he hardly does: One, it is rare for Museveni to lose initiative in any big political confrontation. And he almost never leaves an opponent stronger at the end of a confrontation, than at the start.
I can only think of three times when he lost the initiative big time. First, when the UPDF fought with the Rwanda Patriotic Army in eastern DR Congo in 2000. In two encounters, through mistakes born partly out of arrogance, the fights ended in victory for the RPA.
The other was in late 2000 when Dr Kizza Besigye declared that he was going to run against Museveni in the February 2001 elections. Museveni who, together with Rwanda president Paul Kagame, was happily playing football at an anniversary of their old school Ntare in Mbarara, was clearly broadsided by Besigye’s announcement. However, unlike the faceoff with Rwanda in the DRC, he moved quickly to near-fatally disrupt Besigye’s campaign.
The other was last week, when pro-monarchist activists broke out into riots in and around Kampala to protest the government’s decision to block Kabaka Ronnie Mutebi from travelling to Kayunga. Indeed and clearly, even the Kabaka and Mengo were caught off guard, evidenced by the total lack of their ability to control the situation, and even more remarkably, to capitalise on it, even if cynically.
It was clear that if the protests were not controlled quickly, and if Museveni backed down and let Mutebi travel to Kayunga, his image of a tough General, which has played a large part in his controlling power, would be shattered. And, then, all sorts of groups that have been agitating for concessions, and even his own NRM party dissidents, would be emboldened to come out and challenge him.
From that point onward, there was only one option for Museveni ” to crack down hard and get the demonstrators off the streets before the protests became viral and spread. And that, he did. Luganda FM stations were shut down, and Mutebi’s palace was surrounded. Museveni had taken back the initiative decisively.
However, unlike some of his previous confrontations, this was not a victory. Some of the details of Museveni’s actions showed a less astute strategist than we have thus known.
For example, he said he had tried to talk to Mutebi for two years, and the Kabaka had refused to take his call. This was startling, because no one would have thought that anyone in Uganda ” especially someone like Mutebi who is presumed to be indebted to Museveni for restoring his kingdom ” would refuse to take his call and get away with it.
There is a stereotype of the Baganda held by some of the ‘Republicans’ in the NRM ” and many other Ugandans it should be said – that Baganda are cowards and opportunists who will betray their mothers for money at the first drop of a coin. This view is politically necessary, because it is used to revise the contribution of the Baganda to the armed struggle that brought the NRM to power. In other words, it cannot be true that they were the main fighters in the NRA (and therefore are entitled to a fair share of the spoils of the armed struggle) “it had to be other groups.
Mutebi, in particular, has been portrayed as spineless.
So here, we were, being told that the Kabaka after all, was man enough to treat Museveni contemptuously for two years. Then, his subjects who are supposed to be cowardly, were the first protestors to mount such a wide scale and daring protest against the government.
Against this background, by the end of the first day of the demonstrations, the Kabaka and Buganda had gone everything that they could have expected out of the protest. One test for Kabaka remained. Would he have had the stomach to dare the government and go to Kayunga?
If one thinks hard about it, there was no real political dividend that Mutebi was going to gain from going to Kayunga, apart from a symbolic blow for his prerogative to roam his kingdom as he wished.
Kabaka’s gods, however, were with him. Museveni threw him a lifeline, as that decision was taken out of his hands when the army surrounded his palace, effectively putting him under house arrest. Compare this to 1993 when Museveni banned DP and Conservative Party rallies planned for the City [Constitution] Square. At that time, Museveni made his still much-quoted threat; that any of the multipartyists who dared hold a rally there would ‘end up six feet in the ground’. In the end, through a show of force”including mean-looking helicopter gunships that overflew the Square ” Museveni prevailed. He was so confident he would stare down the multipartyists, he didn’t try and surround their houses to prevent them leaving for town.
Why the difference with Kabaka? Probably because, the president realised that having Mutebi beaten along Jinja Road or arrested, was simply too politically costly. Among other things, it would have been the end of the NRM party, because it would have led to the collapse of the alliance formed in the Luwero war in the early 1980s that is the foundation of the ruling party.
And Museveni, obviously, has his eyes on the 2011 elections. At the last election, Museveni won Buganda with 57.8% of the vote, and Besigye got 35.3%. In actual figures, they were separated by 463,834 votes. Because Museveni’s vote share has declined in every election since 1996, even with rigging factored in, before this crisis Besigye was at par with him in Buganda
Besigye would leave Museveni in his dust in Buganda if a fair election were held today. Frog-marching Mutebi through Kampala Road, therefore, wasn’t an option. Mengo has gained three more things. First, the crisis might have delayed the government’s push to bring the Land Bill that Mengo opposes, to parliament before the election.
Second, for the first time since 1989, it has freed Buganda to vote relatively more freely without feeling a historical obligation to support ‘our son’ Museveni.
And, third, it has increased the prize that Museveni will have to offer Mengo, or the Kabaka, for their support in 2011. For Museveni, it was important that he emerges looking strong. He didn’t quite get that, but he managed to come out not looking weak (a different concept from being strong).
Also, the president’s stars were aligned in one respect; Mengo gifted him with the timing ” nearly all of two years to the next election. That is enough time for Museveni to recover some ground, and do enough to ensure he is not humiliated in Buganda 2011.
Should defeat look certain in Buganda, then just like Obote postponed the 1967 election after the 1966 Buganda crisis, then we should fully expect that there could be no elections in 2011, or if they are held, Buganda could be under a state of emergency.
Mengo should know that it has picked a fight with an unforgiving adversary. Feeling cocky, it could easily be manouvered into a corner that gets it to make a grand mistake that will justify a state of emergency. It needs to watch how it responds to the rhetoric from Bunyoro.
Then, even if all passes fairly well into 2011, there will be a price to pay after the election. Where politics is concerned, Museveni is not a sprinter. He is a marathoner. This is not over by any means.
*The author has contributed this article in his individual capacity