By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi and Agather Atuhaire
Defending the Prime Minister may have left Museveni with a narrowing circle of allies. Is he worth it?
NRM members unhappy with the way their chairman and secretary general are running the party voice one common grudge: their “leader is surrounded”.
Ruling party members say that President Yoweri Museveni is increasingly listening to only one voice – that of Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi.
Ironically, as anti-Mbabazi voices grow in number and pitch, his star seems only to rise. Reports last week that the President had ceded to him powers over all the Ministers in his [President’s] office – on top of his control of most government activity as Leader of Government Business – indicate a precedent that gives Mbabazi more muscle than any of his predecessors under the current regime.
For whatever reasons the President trusts Mbabazi – whether it’s because he’s strong, weak, smart, organised, sober, whatever – it should be natural that a head of state would step up to defend a man who is such a vital part of his operation, especially if he feels he’s being unfairly accused.
But the President’s protection of his Prime Minister has not come without a price. Many trusted allies – within and outside Parliament – appear to have retreated from the “inner circle”, reluctant to work with Mbabazi. As demonstrated over recent weeks, many party members – especially in Parliament – do not want to listen to him. It may be only a matter of time before such disaffection percolates into the lower ranks of the party. Some say the President is stubbornly alienating the party for Mbabazi’s sake and that in the not-too-far future, he may find the price to this sacrifice to be too high for the prize.
Among the disenchanted, The Independent has learnt, is the President’s brother, bush-war hero Gen. Caleb Akandwanaho aka Salim Saleh, who many see as a galvanising factor within the ruling party.
As a former Minister of State for Microfinance (2006- 2009) , former Army Commander (1987-89), Member of Parliament, businessman, and more importantly as the President’s brother, Saleh is said to have a substantial appeal in the NRM – among its historical and latter-day members, its civilian and armed cadres, its radicals and ‘rebels’, alike. Until recently, he was also reported to have the President’s ear.
Sources say Saleh had been gearing up for a return to cabinet in May, but changed his mind when he learned that Mbabazi would be heading that team as prime minister. Saleh reportedly protested to his brother – in Mbabazi’s presence – that his choice of prime minister had proved divisive in the party and his becoming premier would worsen conflicts at a time when the NRM needed consolidation.
Museveni refused to reconsider, it is said. Saleh withdrew his interest in cabinet, and returned to his Garuga home, where he spends most of his time overseeing his businesses – including farming interests in Nakaseke and Arua. That is also where he sits to proclaim he has no interest in the on-going shenanigans in the NRM.
Saleh’s disengagement might be a relief to Museveni compared to the more vindictive paths other NRM members have taken. Sources have told The Independent that even out of the ubiquitous eye of the cameras in Parliament, party members in the army had become more outspoken, making a habit of talking to Museveni about the danger of his overstaying in power, arguing for the need to organise an orderly transition. The President reportedly got tired of that talk and ordered them to stop it.
A spoke in the wheel
At the recent Kyankwanzi retreat, when some MPs walked out on the President Museveni as he attempted to hand running of the show over to Mbabazi, Kampala Central’s Muhammad Nsereko engaged his party chairman in a bitter altercation.
The last time a similar confrontation was reported was in 2003, when former Local Government Minister, now PPP President Jaberi Bidandi Ssali, opposed the lifting of presidential term limits.
At the time, Museveni reportedly asked one of his king-pin ministers; “Who are you? You are just a spoke in the wheel. You can go.” Which he did. When the next cabinet reshuffle was announced, Bidandi and like-minded ministers including Museveni’s childhood friend Eriya Kategaya, Miria Matembe and Sarah Kiyingi, had been thrown out.
Perhaps wary of a similar fall-out, most other historical allies of the President have kept their peace as the drama in Parliament has unfolded.
Sources say that some of them – now in Mbabazi’s shadow – are understood to have sponsored ‘rebel’ MPs, whom they keep urging to pressure the party leadership to reform, or more precisely, to throw out the prime minister.
Reasons for hating Mbabazi appear to be as many as the diversity of NRM’s membership, but one oft-quoted has been his tendency to actively alienate others from the President.
In an interview with The Independent a month ago, former vice president Gilbert Bukenya said a “senior leader of the NRM told the president a lie” that Bukenya was mobilising his own support to become president. That “senior leader”, The Independent has established, was Mbabazi. Bukenya said that despite his efforts to correct the impression, Museveni seemed to have believed “the lie” because he minimised contact with his deputy from that time, later dumping him and setting after him the dogs of the IGG’s office.
Even after leaving vice president’s office, sources say Mbabazi has continued to witch-hunt Bukenya, and his indictment before the Anti Corruption Court was understood to be the handiwork of the prime minister. Museveni’s protestations that Bukenya had no case to answer even as the trial proceeded appear to suggest that the President was helpless in the matter.
As helpless as he appears to be in his defence of the Prime Minister? The irony of the President’s defence of Mbabazi is that while it shows the Prime Minister’s clout as growing, it depicts the President’s as somewhat diminishing. Not only because he has had such a hard time shoring up the support of his own party, his cajoling and threatening apparently not as effective as it used to be, but also because the dissenters appear to be too many and diverse, and too invested to back off.
But the President is also keenly invested in protecting Mbabazi. When opposition MPs chorused “Temangalo”- in reference to the controversial land deal in which the Prime Minister sold land to the National Social Security Fund at Shs 11 billion – as they heckled Mbabazi during Museveni’s State of the Nation Address in June, Museveni defended the Prime Minister. He argued that his man was not corrupt, and stories were being made up by his detractors. “If any of you had lasted as long as he has lasted, that would be a good achievement,” he told them, a veiled reference to a history in the NRM of many opposition MPs.
Counter-accusing a whole range of detractors appears to have become Museveni’s default defence of the Prime Minister:
“Baryomunsi is fighting Mbabazi’s wife, while Niwagaba is fighting battles on behalf of Father Gaetano [Tibayenda] against Hope Mwesigye [former Agriculture Minister and sister-in-law to Mbabazi, [MP] Sekikubo is fighting Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa…,” the President reportedly told the NRM Caucus at the retreat in Kyankwanzi.
Following the port-retreat confusion in Parliament – during which NRM members were unable or unwilling to withdraw the resolution demanding that the prime minister and ministers Sam Kuteesa and Hillary Onek step aside to allow an investigation of the oil contract affairs, including allegations that they had taken oil bribes – the President attempted to mend fences between the Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga and Mbabazi. Summoning the duo to State House, where Museveni made no secret of his intention to stick with Mbabazi and not ask him to step aside. Not much is known of the details of that discussion, but Kadaga, who was still awaiting a presidential response to the resolution, returned to parliament appearing to have washed her hands of the resolution and all that it represented.
While an ad hoc parliamentary committee, chaired by former Minister of state for Transport and chairperson of the Natural Resources Committee, Michael Werikhe, has been appointed to investigate the allegations, not much confidence is invested in its outcomes.
“The findings of the investigation have already been predetermined [in Mbabazi’s favour],” said the dispirited Lwemiyaga County MP Theodore Sekikubo, who was a lead petitioner in the recall of parliament for the special sitting. Part of the pessimism is because aside its chair – a former minister who some fear may use the committee to climb back into his cushy cabinet post – the seven-member committee also has Mbabazi’s ally and mentee Steven Tashobya and three unknowns. The two rays of hope, opposition politicians Hussein Kyanjo and Cecilia Ogwal, may find themselves outnumbered and outmanoeuvred.
NRM’s vice chairman for Eastern Uganda and Soroti Municipality MP, Mike Mukula, says that in the course of his long 25-year rule, Museveni has realised that not many people can agree with him all the time, which explains his “deep attachment to Mbabazi”.
Mukula said it is unfortunate that the public has a different perception and great dislike for a man that the president has immense faith in.
Over the past quarter century, Museveni has showed himself to treasure loyalty as much as he loathes challenge.
When a retired army captain, Ruhinda Maguru, declared his ambition to challenge Museveni for the leadership of the NRM in the run-up to the 2011 election, the NRM’s vetting committee, under Mbabazi’s stewardship, ignored him and declared Museveni unchallenged. Maguru threatened court action in vain.
A similar fate befell Dokolo County MP, Felix Okot-Ogong, who is believed to have lost his place in cabinet as State Minister for Youth and Child Affairs because he declared a desire – however unlikely – to succeed Museveni.
Another former minister and bush war fighter, Col. Tom Butime, lost his Mwenge North constituency in the last election because, observers say, he rejected a post as state minister for Karamoja Affairs in 2006, which he saw as a demotion, coming down from a full Minister-ship of Internal Affairs.
Butime was lambasted by the army and defence spokesperson Lt. Col. Felix Kulaigye for “insubordination”. The moment the commander-in-chief deploys a soldier, argued Kulaigye, the soldier must comply without questions.
What Mbabazi has, that others lack, observers say, is a keen understanding of what his boss wants. “Mbabazi always positions himself as seeking to work for the president, not to be president,” an NRM insider said.
By declaring war against the dissenting MPs, Museveni may be taking on virtually everyone who matters within the NRM, except Mbabazi. This is especially as, at an age just shy of seventy, they don’t take seriously his threats to return to the bush against them, or to rule forever. Moreover, some MPs like Kampala Central’s Nsereko may be encouraged by the fact that even NRM voters in their constituencies want to see reforms in the party.
That Mbabazi is Museveni’s closest ally in government is instructive. The Kinkinzi West MP has attributes Museveni is always happy to publicly celebrate – loyal, hardworking, sober; with no time to spend in bars and other social places where he might spill state or party secrets. Mbabazi reinforces this image. One of his favourise retorts are; “I have a lot of work to do”.
Ironically, it is for these qualities that many of Mbabazi’s detractors do not want him in charge, as they perceive him to look down upon the mass, grass-root origins of the party in the jungles of Luwero, on which they rely for their political strength.
While Mbabazi was an active player in the liberation war, he worked far from the jungles, in the external wing, helping to mobilise resources and support for the war effort. On taking power in 1986, he served as Director General of the External Security Organization (ESO) until 1991, participated in writing the 1995 Constitution, and started his ascent through different ministerial portfolios to become premier.
It is a tribute to his discipline that as Museveni’s view of many of his colleagues has waned over the years, his view of Mbabazi has only improved.
Of the 41 Ministers Museveni named to his first cabinet in 1986, only five remain –Ruhakana Rugunda, Kahinda Otafiire, Crispus Kiyonga, Moses Ali and Eriya Kategaya. Although at senior cabinet level, none of them remains as influential in government as Mbabazi.
During the bush war, there was always friction between the field combatants and members of the external wing, but special dislike seems to have been reserved for Mbabazi.
Maj. Gen. Pecos Kutesa, in a 2006 book titled “Uganda’s Revolution 1979-1986: How I saw it” even questions Mbabazi’s bush-was credentials. Kutesa narrates a visit to Nairobi for the 1985 peace talks, during which he was astounded by Mbabazi’s lifestyle.
“I looked at Mbabazi wearing an expensive suit and driving a posh car and wondered whether we were fighting the same war,” wrote Kutesa.
But Mbabazi’s penchant for sharp suits and posh cars, in Museveni’s view, is a lesser evil compared to the drinking and womanising of many of the other cadres.
When Maj. Gen. Kahinda Otafiire and former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya challenged Mbabazi for the party’s secretary general-ship, Museveni remarked to NRM members that they needed a secretary general who wouldn’t drink and spill party secrets in bars.
When Kizza Besigye first challenged Museveni in 2001, Mbabazi famously declared that Besigye had “jumped the queue”. While some NRM leaders say they may consider running for president when Museveni retires, Mbabazi says he has no presidential ambition and he will retire when Museveni retires. Museveni may not believe him, but he is happy that Mbabazi is sending a good example to quell ambition in the party.
Observers expect Museveni to stick with Mbabazi because he seems unable to spot cadres who suit his approach. The rare competition to Mbabazi, paradoxically despite his love for the bottle, was Brig. Noble Mayombo, who unfortunately died young. Like Mbabazi, insiders say Museveni treasured Mayombo for his combination of hard work and constructive – but cautious – advice, given with due care not to push his boss’ positions too much.
Another cadre groomed in the stable of the NRM, whom Museveni once considered a viable successor in the party, observers say, was former Army Commander Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu, who unfortunately defected to the opposition FDC, where he is now organising secretary, along with his former bush war colleague and Museveni’s former doctor, Kizza Besigye.
Muntu says there is a problem with Museveni’s management style. “When a leader prefers control to delegation of powers,” says Muntu, “that is how things end up [in failure to trust the people the works with].”
Muntu says his former boss had fallen out with a lot of people over time and if he lost the loyalty of “those few he has identified he knows his position will probably be much more threatened than it is already”.
Muntu, who is said to have declined a cabinet posting on quitting the army in 1998, says he is now most concerned with how Uganda will be managed after Museveni. This echoes Besigye’s stand. The FDC leader insists on “walking to work”, a move widely seen as meant to mobilise civil disobedience against Museveni.
Besigye had been critical of Museveni’s rule as early as the Constituent Assembly when he represented the army, but it was his damning 1999 dossier, “An Insider’s view of how the Movement lost the broad base” that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
Besigye depicted his boss as a manipulator, fixated on staying in power against all odds. Referring to a letter Museveni wrote to a group of CA delegates, Besigye showed that Museveni urged them to retain the Movement System as opposed to reintroducing the multiparty system since it was a convenient vehicle to retain power.
And retaining power is what Mbabazi seems to help Museveni do. Makerere University political scientist, Yasin Olum, thinks there must be something beyond just trusting Mbabazi that others don’t see. Otherwise, wonders Olum, “why would Museveni put his career on the line because of him?”
The answer for the above question may elude us for now, but political historians cannot believe their luck. Documenting how an ageing president who shot to power with revolutionary ideas and a “broad based” government, dealt with a stumbling economy and a god-sent oil find, amidst deepening opposition and a thinning coterie of friends and allies, is the stuff that future careers will be made of.
Profile of Parlaiment’s investigators
Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, on Oct.27 institutes an ad hoc committee to investigate the allegations of corruption, bribery and other wrongdoing, involved in the management of the initial stage of Uganda’s oil. Key of these allegations is that three ministers – Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa and former Minister of Energy (now Minister of Internal Affairs) Hillary Onek – had eaten bribes from the oil company Tullow Oil, to favour its concession to exploit Uganda’s oil. While President Museveni appears to have ignored a Parliamentary resolution asking the ministers to step aside and allow an investigation, Parliament’s committee will proceed. However, given the frantic political lobbying, including a week-long NRM retreat that followed the resolution, and the fact that the senior ministers are in position to influence the work of the committee, many advocates have lost any faith that the committee could produce valid outcomes. But objective observers might want to give the committee the benefit of a doubt:
Michael Werikhe Kafabusa
The committee chairman, MP for Bunghoko South, was a state minister for Housing in the previous cabinet till he was dropped from cabinet in the May cabinet reshuffle. Werikhe also served as state minister for Energy for one year from 2005-2006 and before that, state minister for trade in 1999. Critics are concerned that as a staunch NRM cadre with clear ambitions to return to the fold of cabinet – given the amount of trouble he allegedly has been giving Nandala Mafabi in Eastern Uganda – he may use the investigation as an opportunity to win back the favours of the President and his Prime Minister.
He may have the general competence to carry the investigation, having worked as a Social Sciences lecturer in Makerere University and an acting commissioner in the department of physical planning, Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development until 1996, some worry that his political ambitions may over-ride his ethics.
The MP for Kajara County, Ntungamo district, came to parliament in 2006 on an NRM ticket. Tashobya also chairs the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs committee of Parliament, so his presence on the committee has technical legitimacy. But Tashobya, a partner with Tashobya, Byarugaba and co. advocates, is seen by some a Mbabazi-lackey. He was reported to have used the NRM’s Kyankwazi retreat to lobby for support for the Prime Minister, convincing with other NRM members to withdraw their consent on the resolutions once they returned to Parliament. Many see his presence on the committee as intended solely to defeat its very purpose.
The Makindye East Member of Parliament, also leader of the Justice Forum (JEEMA) party is one of only two opposition MPs on the committee. He has reportedly already been to Dubai, Malta and the UK, investigating the documents that allegedly implicate the ministers in corruption. He can also quite ably carry his own in a hostile committee, and supporters of the resolution will hope that he does.
Bigirwa Julius Junjura
The MP for Buhaguzi County, Junjura is a member of the natural resources and budget committees of Parliament and a member of the NRM Party. He’s largely an unknown quantity, but to observer, his party affiliation pre-determines where his loyalties will lie.
The MP for Dokolo County is the other opposition voice on the committee. Formerly known as the Iron Lady of the UPC, the veteran MP crossed to the FDC Party in 2010. Thankfully she did not lose her iron will and supporters of the resolution will hope that she can use it to drive the investigation. Almost an institution unto herself, Ogwal has been a constant staple of Uganda’s Parliament since the Constituent Assembly in the early 1990s. She is currently Uganda’s representative in the Pan-African Parliament in Durban South Africa. She reportedly turned down a ministerial offer by President Museveni. This offers some hope that in addition to her broad experience, the MP has a backbone that can serve her well as she navigates the politics of the committee.
Grace Freedom Kwiyucwincy
The Zombo District Woman representative is an NRM member, but has not yet distinguished herself in Parliament since her term began after the February general elections. A member of the committee on public service and local government, she served for three years as a technical adviser in Ministry of Local Government. Her party leanings might suggest that she pulls for the ministers, but in this day of rebels in the ruling party, it may be best to wait and see.
The Bughendera County MP is an NRM-leaning Independent legislator on his second term in Parliament. Pro-resolutionists hope that his poor treatment at the NRM primaries where he lost might help him carry a grudge into the investigation, but observation of ‘formerly NRM’ Independents suggests that their allegiance to the mother party more often than not, tends to win out.