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End of road for Mbabazi?


By Independent Team

Security minister faces censure over NSSF as party opponents wait in the wings for Museveni’s action

On July 12, 2008, President Yoweri Museveni attended a wedding at the Serena Hotel. The groom was Mao Mbabazi, son of Security minister and secretary general (SG) of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), Amama Mbabazi. “I have always been close to Mbabazi,”the President said as the audience listened attentively, “because he is not greedy.”  Many NRM leaders present felt envious of the Security minister.

It is very unlike Museveni to openly shower prices on his subordinates. Yet the President has consistently broken this rule in regard to Mbabazi and deceased permanent secretary in the Ministry of Defence, Brig. Noble Mayombo. At the funeral of Mayombo, Museveni mourned that the deceased brigadier and Mbabazi were the two persons he trusted most, repeating statements he had made at the funeral of former deputy prime minister and minister of Foreign Affairs, James Wapakhabulo.

Always picking on Mbabazi for praises has over the years inflated the “super minister’s” ego, it has also generated enormous envy from many in cabinet and other senior positions in the army, security services and the ruling party. Many historical figures in the NRM consider Mbabazi a fluke, smuggled to the high table by Museveni. They say Mbabazi refused to go to the bush, preferring the comfort of exile in Sweden to the struggle in Luwero. Yet he turned out to be the biggest beneficiary of the fruits of the struggle he deserted.

Thus, leading NRM ‘historicals’ like Maj. Gen. Kahinda Otafiire, Maj. Gen. Jim Muhwezi, Brig. Henry Tumukunde, Eriya Kategaya, Crispus Kiyonga, Col. Tom Butime, etc have not hidden their distaste for Mbabazi and his preeminent role in the NRM. Indeed, many feel that Mbabazi’s ascendance in the party and government was by speaking ill of his colleagues to Museveni. Non-‘historicals’ like Vice President Gilbert Bukenya have also complained openly that Mbabazi undermines them.

Recently, Mbabazi has come under severe attack from the young Turks of the NRM. They accuse him of being inaccessible, pompous and of killing the party through inaction. It is in this context that many NRM power brokers have been looking for an opportunity to pounce on the ‘super’ minister. By trading with NSSF in a deal riddled with many irregularities, has Mbabazi finally handed his enemies within the ruling party the rope with which to hang him? Most likely!

The NSSF-Mbabazi saga has taken on a life of its own. As the parliamentary investigations continue, the list of irregularities is getting longer by the day, thus casting a lot of doubt on how it was handled. For example, on August 27, parliament found that although NSSF paid for 464 acres, the actual land was 411 meaning that 53 acres were ‘air’. When this evidence was put to the NSSF board, they said they had noticed the irregularity and were working on correcting it

However, on August 29, NSSF produced titles showing that in fact the land it bought was actually 494 acres, more than 30 acres in access of what it paid for. Informed sources claim that Mbabazi’s partner in this land deal, businessman Amos Nzeyi, has several lands in the same area. These sources claim that after parliament finding out the anomaly, Nzeyi gave one of his other titles to NSSF to cover up the shortfall. If true, this means that the sellers initially intended to cheat the fund.

“How can a shrewd businessman like Nzeyi under-declare land he was selling” an MP asked rhetorically last week. The parliamentary investigation is digging out and spewing a lot of dirt. By the time it ends, Mbabazi’s reputation for incorruptibility may have been irrevocably tarnished. With so much scandal exposed, will Mbabazi’s enemies in NRM allow him to stay secretary general of NRM?

Last year, at the height of the trial of Muhwezi and his colleagues at the health ministry, Museveni made strong promises to fight corruption. If Mbabazi gets tarnished by this scandal, will Museveni throw him to the wolves or will he try to hang unto him?

Sources close to Mbabazi told The Independent that when the minister was going to sell his land to NSSF, he sought advice from the President. Sources say Museveni actually approved the transaction and that he is the one who advised Mbabazi to sell the land indirectly using Nzeyi.

Since the scandal was broken by The Independent on August 1, Museveni has kept unusual silence. People who have worked closely with him say the President is gauging the public mood and the direction the scandal is taking. “If parliament exposes a lot of dirt and Museveni realises that keeping Mbabazi will damage his fourth term bid, the President will dump his minister,” a close Museveni confidant told The Independent.

Museveni’s decision to part with Mbabazi will be a difficult one. Sources say that the President has increasingly lost most of the people he trusted. Mbabazi is among a few remaining confidantes he can trust. If he throws away Mbabazi, whom is he going to work with? As Museveni ponders this question, some MPs are already working on a petition to censure Mbabazi and the minister for Finance, Ezra Suruma.

Yet some sources at State House claim that Museveni was already developing some unease about Mbabazi. These sources say that the Security minister has been personally interested in running for President but sees Museveni’s stay as a roadblock to his own ambitions. Thus, sources claim, Mbabazi has been not so quietly opposed to the fourth term project.

According to an intelligence source at State House, Mbabazi has been meeting groups of people; one group was from Mbale, the other was from Butaleja and Busia. During these meetings, Mbabazi is alleged to have expressed discomfort with the fourth term project. These allegations are difficult to prove. However, what is true is that Museveni received a verbal briefing from some vigilantes about this event.  It is also alleged that during the youth conference early this year, Mbabazi’s supporters tried to remove from the list of resolutions an item that Museveni should run for another term. When Museveni was later told of this, sources say, he was visibly pissed.

Another piece of information to the President was that Mbabazi had hired a public relations firm, Saatchi & Saatchi, to improve his image. Some Mbabazi haters claim that this is in preparation for his shot at the presidency. Yet, when The Independent contacted Saatchi & Saatchi, they denied any such deal, meaning that Museveni is possibly being sold a lot of false information. Whether the President sought to verify it is not clear. But sources say that the list of issues regarding Mbabazi’s desire to seek Museveni’ job and his lack of enthusiasm for the fourth term have been creating a distance between the minister and the President.

Museveni, sources close to him say, does not always rely on professional and mainstream intelligence for his information. His preferred strategy, sources claim, is popular vigilance. Thus, when enthusiastic supporters with less political ambition bring this kind of information, the President takes it seriously. These factors, combined with Mbabazi’s newly discovered vulnerability may become the last nail in the coffin of what has hitherto been a very successful political career.

NRM sources say Mbabazi has too many enemies: Kiyonga, Otafiire, Muhwezi, Tumukunde, Mike Mukula  “ have all been waiting for an opportunity to do him in. In fact, the configuration of power in his home region of Kigezi also does not favour Mbabazi. For example, the other two MPs from Kanungu, Jacqueline Kyatuhire and Dr Chris Baryomunsi are opposed to him. All the MPs from Rukungiri; Muhwezi, Winnie Matsiko and Paula Turyahikayo (she defeated NSSF deputy MD Prof. Mondo Kagonyera who was being supported by Mbabazi), are opposed to the Security minister. Of the MPs from Kabale, only Hope Mwesigye, who is his in-law, supports Mbabazi. Others like Fred Nuwagaba, David Bahati, Henry Banyenzaki, Serapio Rukundo (Mbabazi is close to Ruhakana Rugunda who is Rukundo’s rival) are opposed to the minister.

If Mbabazi falls, sources say, there is going to be a lot of celebrations among the historical figures and the young Turks of the NRM. One historical told The Independent that when they were passing the new UPDF Amendment Act, Mbabazi, as minister of Defence was tasked to write a list of people on the Historical High Command. Some ‘historicals’ claim that on the initial list, he omitted people like Otafiire and Muhwezi. Instead, Mbabazi put himself on the list and has remained there since.

However, most beef with Mbabazi inside the NRM came during the December 2005 delegates’ conference of the NRM in Namboole. At the time, Kiyonga was the National Political Commissar (NPC) of the now defunct Movement, a position equivalent to that of SG. Many of his colleagues felt that he should become the SG. But Museveni wanted Mbabazi and openly fronted and campaigned for him to the chagrin of other ‘historicals’. In fact, many wanted Mbabazi to turn down his bid. When he refused, a faction led by Muhwezi and Otafiire sponsored the Bushenyi politician in order to divide Mbabazi’s vote and thus pave way for a Kiyonga victory.

When Otafiire joined the race, Museveni was not amused. He decided on two things: first, to pour money into Mbabazi’s campaign; the second was to call Otafiire, Kiyonga and Mbabazi into an early morning meeting at State House to ask the two to withdraw in favour of Mbabazi. During the meeting, Museveni was open that he needed an SG who was totally loyal to him and therefore would not threaten the President. He spent hours explaining the history of conflicts between presidents and their SGs.

Museveni said that Milton Obote had initially clashed with John Kakonge, then clashed with Grace Ibingira and later with Felix Onama. Jomo Kenyatta had conflicted with Tom Mboya in Kenya, Julius Nyerere with Oscar Kambona in Tanzania. On this basis, Museveni said, he felt comfortable working with Mbabazi adding that the politician from Kanungu always agrees with him without question.

Yet this has been a major sticking point in NRM. Many insiders feel that Museveni has been using Mbabazi to kill the party. They reason that Museveni is afraid that a strong and institutional NRM may seek to impose limits on how he as President exercises power. NRM leaders complain that Mbabazi does not hold regular meetings for the different party organs. They charge that the party has no independent source of finance away from the President. They also complain that there is limited interface between headquarters and the districts and sub-counties. Instead of headquarters listening to the views from branches of the party, it was the one that was always sending instructions on what branches should do.

In 2006, Otafiire led a delegation from Bushenyi which included all local councillors for a meeting with Museveni over Mbabazi. When they arrived at State House, they found to their surprise that Museveni had invited the SG to attend. The delegation had a written memorandum which was a list of grievances against the SG and included all the above points but also added that Mbabazi was inaccessible. ‘You are more accessible to us Mr President than the secretary general,’ the presenter of the memo told Museveni. Mbabazi was given an opportunity to defend himself.

It is a combination of all these factors that have nurtured and nourished the forces hostile to Mbabazi within the NRM. These forces have been waiting for an opportunity, an excuse, a misstep by Mbabazi, a weak point to strike. And now, it comes with a financial transaction that is exposing the dirty hidden side of someone who has always been, or has always projected himself as Mr. Clean.

Many NRM insiders now openly say that Museveni has become a burden to the party. He does not want to leave power, and he does not want the party to grow, a factor that is stunting their own career ambitions. A small circle of loyalists dominate the political process which has led to divisions and anger within the party. Many NRM leaders feel that Mbabazi has been Museveni’s best instrument to keep a lid on party life’ thus turning the NRM into an empty shell.

But the result has been that NRM leaders now see Museveni and Mbabazi as one and the same “ a joint burden that is stifling the life of the party from above. ‘Historicals’ that The Independent talked to said that Museveni is by personality rigid in character and authoritarian in tendency. Mbabazi shares similar characteristics. Members say this has created a big gap between the President and party faithful. Why? Because the SG should be the person to link the President to especially its young party members, a job that Mbabazi cannot do.

There have thus been persistent complaints that Mbabazi should be removed as SG. But these voices have been muted and subterranean.  The current NSSF saga is going to embolden sections of the party leadership to come out openly to call for Mbabazi’s removal. Many ‘historicals’ want Mbabazi to go, as do most of the young Turks in Parliament. In this tussle, Museveni has two choices: to either openly back Mbabazi “which will expose the emptiness of his claims to fighting corruption; or to drop the minister from cabinet and allow him to be removed as SG of the NRM. This way, Museveni may buy some political breathing space.

If Mbabazi wants to quell the situation, he needs to buy off Parliament so that he can stifle the investigation and direct it towards clearing him. However, many observers say this is unlikely to succeed because there are many and diverse forces fighting the SG. If the committee looks compromised, its work will openly be challenged by many members of House. So far, the inquiry has created an unusual alliance between NRM and opposition MPs in a rare bipartisan effort to expose the minister.

Another celebrant to Mbabazi’s problems is Bukenya. In May 2005, Bukenya, in a press interview openly accused Mbabazi of undermining his vice presidency. When the news broke, Bukenya was summoned to State House and literally forced to eat his vomit i.e. call a press conference and deny he ever gave the said press interview. Sources say Mbabazi was very harsh on Bukenya, forcing him several times to swallow back his accusations. Mbabazi has always seen himself as Museveni’s successor. Bukenya’s presence in the VP job looked like a roadblock to Mbabazi’s ambitions.

But Mbabazi is not without allies. His supporters claim that there are many MPs on his side and if any move to remove him was brought forth, it would be defeated. They claim it is not because of Museveni’s support but his own internal party popularity that he won the job of SG. His supporters also say that Mbabazi is a victim of a political vendetta orchestrated by Muhwezi and Otafiire supported by Bukenya.

Which side will carry the day remains to be seen. One thing is certain though: these are not good times for the once Mr. Clean Mbabazi.

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