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Inside Museveni’s war with Bukenya

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Why the president may fire and throw him in jail

When Vice President Gilbert Bukenya refused to appear before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of parliament that was investigating the abuse of over Shs500 billion meant for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) 2007 to answer queries, the Attorney General wrote a legal opinion defending his decision. Bukenya had said that under the law he cannot submit himself to PAC.

However, when the committee asked to meet President Yoweri Museveni over the same CHOGM money issues, the president immediately accepted. Museveni met the committee at State House Entebbe. Those who attended the meeting say he was jovial and respectful of the committee and promised them full support.

In accepting their invitation, Museveni had pulled the rug from under Bukenya’s feet. For if the president can meet the committee members, who is the vice president to refuse? Indeed, Museveni promised an already angry committee that he would talk to Bukenya. For public relations purposes the vice president would not ‘appear’ before the committee but would ‘meet’ its members in his office.

Bukenya and Sam Kutesa are implicated in the alleged irregular procurement of BMW limousines for CHOGM VIPs at Shs9.4 billion.

By the time the vice president met the committee, its members had already pronounced him guilty. It was an embarrassing moment for Bukenya to have to swallow his pride and speak to the parliamentarians. And as expected, their report recommended that he be criminally prosecuted for abuse of office.

Sources close to the president say two things have bedeviled him during this PAC investigation. First, they say Museveni is angry at the accusations by his lieutenants (Bukenya, security minister Amama Mbabazi and foreign affairs minister Sam Kutesa) that he personally approved many of the flawed deals that characterised public procurement for CHOGM. Second, that he has been under intense pressure from the donors to do something about this investigation.

The first point carries a lot of water as Museveni has a strong self-interest to project himself as above corruption. It is actually true that Museveni personally sanctioned some of the corrupt deals like the procurement of TETRA communications systems by the ministry of ICT for use by the security agencies during CHOGM.

However, as the report shows, the president seems to have approved the deal on the recommendations of Mbabazi without full knowledge of the irregularities his security minister had been involved in. This raises questions about why the president involves himself in the procurement process or listens to one person when there are institutional procedures to handle the tendering.

Donors have politely sought to push the president’s hand on fighting corruption at almost every meeting they have had with him. However, Museveni has over the years learnt how to play donors and keep them at bay. Therefore while donors may have exerted pressure, its effect could be negligible.

However, donor pressure may have had effect on another institution involved; Parliament. Details emerging from PAC reveal that persistent phone calls made between May 11 and May 13 by two members of the European Union (EU) delegation, and two ultimatums to the Deputy Speaker compelled the parliament’s business committee to accord the report special status, paving way for its presentation in the House after it had been blocked by the Speaker.

Sources privy to what transpired on May 12 when PAC chairman Nandala Mafabi and the committee’s Lead Counsel, Tom Kazibwe, and Claver Mutuluza, tabled the report before Kadaga, revealed that she was warned that if the report was not presented before parliament, the committee would not only release the report to the public, but also expose her before the donor community as one of the obstacles to the exposure and fight against corruption.

Sources at State House say Museveni agreed to meet the committee largely to clear his personal name but also to put Bukenya on the spot by giving legitimacy to PAC’s work. Indeed, observers say, the president has literally thrown Bukenya, and with him ministers, Mbabazi (Security), Kutesa (Foreign Affairs), John Nasasira (Works) and Mwesigwa Rukutana (Higher Education) to the wolves.

Why would Museveni want to do this? Those who know the president well say his target is Bukenya“ the other ministers are collateral damage.

PAC’s indictment of Bukenya is an opportunity Museveni has sought since 2005 when the vice president gave Daily Monitor an interview where he claimed the government was ‘full of mafias.’  Why did the president wait this long to take action against Bukenya?

According to sources close to the president, when Bukenya gave the interview, Museveni wanted to know why the vice president would be so open and brutal in his criticism. He was told that at the time, Bukenya had information that he was going to be fired. But he did not want to leave government quietly, the president was told. He wanted to depart with a big bang ‘ an earth shaking story.

When Museveni asked what Bukenya’s motive was, the answer became obvious: If Bukenya attacked government viciously and Museveni fired him, he would leave government with a lot of political capital as the man who stood up against corrupt powerful ministers aka mafia. Combined with his Catholic and Ganda identities, this profile as a dare-devil would give him daunting political weight to bid for the presidency.

According to State House sources, Museveni listened to the analysis attentively. Firing Bukenya, the president reasoned, was out of the question“ at least for now. “He has tied my hands,” the president reportedly said.

However those who know Museveni well say that the president does not fight today’s battle today. He is like a leopard and stalks his prey slowly and pounces only when he has the decisive advantage. In this sense, Museveni has been stalking Bukenya since five years ago.

For Museveni to dislodge Bukenya and render him politically impotent, observers say, he needs to first destroy his credibility among three major constituencies; his Buganda ethnic group, the Catholic church, and among the public and donor community.

First to alienate him among the Baganda by placing him in a position to be seen to insult Mengo and disparage their claims during debate on issues dear to Buganda like land, federo, and the closure of Buganda’s radio, CBS FM. The strategy has partly worked; Bukenya openly opposed the Buganda position on the Land Bill and supported government’s closure of CBS FM.

Bukenya, however, is no easy prey. Sources close to Bukenya indicate that he is aware that the curtain is about to drop on his days as vice president and has been repositioning himself in Buganda. In a major fence-mending gesture, Bukenya was the first government official to hand Buganda a cheque for the rebuilding of the kingdom’s burial grounds, the Kasubi Tombs, when they were gutted in a mysterious fire in March.

To undermine Bukenya’s appeal among Catholics and the Cardinal has proved more difficult for Museveni. However, news headlines about Bukenya’s profligate private life and adultery have persisted. Even in the face of this, however, the Catholic church has not disowned Bukenya. Insiders at State House say Museveni has to prop up another Catholic, especially from Northern Uganda to replace Bukenya.

Such a vice president, it is believed, will either divide or win over the opposition’s vote in the region to compensate for the reversal that the NRM and Museveni are likely to suffer in Buganda. Another Catholic, the Minister of Water Miria Mutagamba, has been mentioned. She is a Muganda, a Catholic and a woman and therefore able to deliver three constituencies.

Finally, Museveni has sought to destroy Bukenya’s credibility among the wider Ugandan public and international community by projecting him as a greedy and corrupt politician.

It is on this last point that Museveni’s political brinkmanship appears to have worked best. Allegations of corruption against Bukenya stretch back to his days as Dean of the Medical School at Makerere University.

The Inspector General of Government (IGG) at the time, Jotham Tumwesigye, investigated the matter and found that Bukenya was involved in corruption. He was using the driver whose wife he later allegedly “took over.” When his name was proposed for cabinet, Tumwesigye sought audience with Museveni to stop Bukenya’s appointment but failed.

Bukenya’s position as head of the Cabinet Sub-committee on CHOGM involved handling many procurement contracts. Observers say Bukenya was given a rope with which to hang himself.

With PAC now recommending Bukenya’s prosecution, Museveni finally has his chance.

He can fire him easily without being seen to have initiated Bukenya’s fall. This will keep the president in the good books of Bukenya’s Ganda and Catholic constituencies. If there is still a threat of Bukenya taking on Museveni for the national presidency, which still remains a strong possibility, the president may again use the PAC report to have his vice president sent to jail.

Many observers say Bukenya’s situation is precarious. However, knowing Museveni, if the vice president openly apologises to him and shows he does not intend to challenge him for the top job, Museveni might not act against him. Whatever the case, it will still remain difficult for Museveni to keep the vice president in his current job.

Yet Bukenya is not taking all this lying down. He has consistently demonstrated an incredible political survival instinct. His jocular style and sometimes almost cavalier approach to politics has often convinced people that he is easy to push around. He has, therefore, been underestimated. Bukenya suffered a major loss in November last year when his son, 26-year-old Bryan Bukenya died in a motor-vehicle accident. A lawyer, Bryan was due to complete his cadet officers’ course at the government’s top military training school, Kabamba. President Museveni relies on the army to stay in power. His son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, is a Lieutenant Colonel in the army. Having a son high up in the army would have bolstered Bukenya politically.

Late last year, The Observer ran a story alleging that Bukenya had written to Museveni, seeking to be allowed to retire from politics this year. Bukenya did not refute the story.

However, in May, Bukenya gave an interview in The Sunday Vision in which he said he wanted to replace Amama Mbabazi as secretary general of the National Resistance Movement (NRM). Bukenya had previously belittled this position and said it was too low for him. So why does he want it now?

This repositioning, close NRM insiders say, could place Museveni in a difficult position if Bukenya defeats Mbabazi.

Some NRM insiders say that with Mbabazi swimming in one corruption scandal after another, he will be a hard sale for Museveni. But critics may be underestimating Mbabazi.

Analysts say, Museveni does not want to be seen fighting Bukenya directly. That is why he left the matter of CHOGM in the hands of PAC which is chaired by an opposition politician.

If PAC brings Bukenya down, Museveni will have hit two birds with one stone: destroyed the political career of a potential rival while at the same time keeping his hands clean.

Fighting Bukenya is becoming a double-edged sword for the president. The CHOGM report has not only called for Bukenya’s head but also that of close Museveni confidantes like Hope Mwesigye, Mbabazi, Nasasira and Kutesa. Nasasira and Kutesa share a common sub-ethnicity of Bahima with the president. Kutesa is a brother-in-law to the president and father-in-law to the presidentâ’s son, Lt. Col. Kainerugaba.

Therefore, if Museveni has to fire Bukenya; Nasasira, Kutesa Mwesigye and Mbabazi can only be spared at the price of disappointing Ugandans and donors. It could carry a high cost in legitimacy. It could alienate many Baganda who would feel their man has been unfairly punished as a Muganda while leaving “westerners” to go scot free.

Yet it will be extremely difficult for Museveni to remove from cabinet all the aforementioned ministers.

According to those who have worked with the president for a long time, Museveni has over the years alienated most of his historical colleagues. With few remaining politicians of stature he can trust, the president is stuck with Mbabazi, Kutesa and Nasasira. Therefore, it is possible that in trying to keep these three, Museveni may be forced once again to retain Bukenya.

The second problem is that if Museveni has to fire Bukenya and the three ministers, it must come across as a decision he has taken personally to fight corruption. People close to the president say he realises the depth and breadth to which corruption eats into his moral standing and political capital.

He needs to take some strong symbolic action to regain some moral ground ahead of next year’s presidential election. Because of this, Museveni has been toeing with the idea of dumping Mbabazi, Nasasira and Kutesa. However, those close to him say, he can only do it if it comes across as his personal initiative. Museveni wants to take credit for it.

Yet the opposition are positioning to profit politically from the CHOGM scandal too. By presenting themselves as the group that is cleaning up the mess in government and forcing the president’s hand, PAC Chairman Mafabi may bolster the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC’s) image as a party of action.

The president’s associates say that if Museveni feels his action to fire the ministers will be seen by the public as driven by the opposition, he will retain them. Therefore, the only way the opposition can get what the public wants “ the heads of ministers and the vice president“ is by avoiding being seen to take credit for it. This means they must downplay their own role and present the entire enterprise as a move by the president to fight corruption.

So will Museveni swing the axe against his allies in the face of donor and public pressure?

UPC’s Patrick Mwondha says that this will not happen. He says Museveni has been taken hostage by some of his cronies. But Bidandi Ssali, a former Local Government Minister, now leader of the People’s Progressive Party is not sure. “Museveni believes in self-preservation. He will sack or drop them if it will help him stay in power,” he says.

At the time the report was being tabled before parliament, Museveni was in Karamoja. Officially, he was there on a working tour of the country, but inside sources say that he was taking time off to study the political and economic implications of his options. He wanted to be out of reach from the many lobbyists who may want him to intervene and help some of the beleaguered ministers.

Museveni also went with his wife, Janet. Although as minister of state for Karamoja she is expected to be with the president on such a tour, other sources say the motive could be different. Janet Museveni has consistently taken positions at odds with her husband especially when Mbabazi is involved.

According to people close to the first family, the president could have gone to Karamoja and taken his wife with him to avoid her staying behind in Kampala where she was likely to cause more trouble by inflaming anti-Mbabazi fires. If this is true, then Museveni may still be nursing a desire to save Mbabazi.

Additional reporting by Isaac Mufumba

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