How the former parliamentary speaker made a series of blunders that may sink her otherwise great political career
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Rebecca Kadaga is a lady of many parts. For twenty years, she held sway over Uganda’s parliament: first as deputy speaker (20001-2011), and then as speaker (2011-2021). To rise and stay at the pinnacle of power for this long is a statement of one’s political skill and judgment. Yet after twenty years, Kadaga made the biggest blunder that may signal the end of her long political career: she defied the man who controls all the political strings in our country, President Yoweri Museveni. What exactly happened?
Immediately after the elections in January, Kadaga got wind of the fact that some Members of Parliament were mobilising to have her deputy, the affable Jacob Oulanyah, replace her as speaker. She went to Kisozi, the president’s country ranch, and sought audience with Museveni. There she complained of a plot to oust her. Yet this was a signal that the president did not want her to continue as speaker. One reason is obvious – she was getting too big for her boots. In an imperial democracy like Uganda, the big man would not want anyone else to hold sway over such a vital institution for very long. Even a political amateur would see this.
Winning the majority of MPs over and over again may mean you have an independent base of support. Because they are drawn from across the entire country, it also may mean you have a national platform. This is dangerous because one can use it to launch their own presidential bid. In such circumstances, it is always better to act stupid. But Kadaga wanted to act smart, show that she had her own power and could raise votes independent of the kingmaker. Yet her best strategy would have been to act modest and show that she is nothing without Museveni. That would have made her safe.
Finally came the NRM CEC meeting which endorsed Oulanyah as the sole party candidate. That was a writing on the wall. There is no way CEC could make such a decision without Museveni’s support. If Kadaga still had eyes, she would have seen this. But I suspect she had gotten drunk on power and may be believed she could hold her own. Her opponents and enemies had claimed that she has made a lot of money, with many prominent businessmen pouring oodles of cash into her treasury. This was risk factor number two: you cannot have independent sources of financing away from the big man. What if these independent sources of finance are used to seek the big prize – the presidency?
These allegations may be false as many political rumours in Kampala often are. But Kadaga did nothing to discredit them. Instead she acted exactly as her enemies wanted – by showing that she is powerful enough to act without the support of the NRM and the president. So, when CEC endorsed Oulanyah, Kadaga walked directly into her enemies trap. She walked out of the CEC meeting and declared that she was going to run as an independent. This meant she was openly defying the party and its supreme leader. Did Kadaga really believe that she can beat Museveni for the heart of NRM? This is not Sweden or the United Kingdom. It is Uganda.
To make matters worse, Bobi Wine aka Robert Kyagulanyi, directed his NUP MPs to vote Kadaga. NUP won Busoga, which is Kadaga’s home region. Many of her enemies and opponents claimed that she had colluded with NUP, helping it secure that victory. That was another accusation she needed to put to rest. Besides, NUP is toxic in the eyes of Museveni. Whoever deals with it becomes enemy number one at State House.
Whether Kadaga colluded with NUP or not is not important. The fact that she could get the votes of the largest opposition party made her a danger to Museveni and his NRM. The president got wind of this and some MPs asked him for cash to buy off many of their colleagues who were inclined to vote Kadaga. He refused flatly saying he wanted to test their loyalty. This may be the first major political fight in which Museveni refused to invest cash.
Yet after CEC, Kadaga should have pulled out of the race and left her career in the hands of Museveni. The president is a very generous man to those who show him respect and obedience. He would have made Kadaga vice president. This position was suggested to her by many people, who were in the know, but she rejected it out of hand. That was blunder number four. You cannot reject an offer from the supreme leader, even if he has not suggested it himself. She would have inferred meaning from those who suggested it.
Yet Kadaga could have done simple mathematics and realised that her chances of victory were near zero. She needed 265 votes to win the speakership in a parliament of 529 members. NRM has 336 MPs plus 54 independents allied to it. The combined opposition has 106 MPs plus 19 independents who are not allied to NRM i.e. a total of 125 votes. So she needed 141 NRM MPs to defy their party and president to vote for her. How many would do that even in a secret ballot? Besides, only 107 MPs were reelected in the last election. This means that out of 529 MPs, 422 are new to the house and have no loyalty to her.
Kadaga’s political fortunes would have been saved if she avoided two things when she ran as an independent. First, NUP should have rejected her outright and declared her an NRM insider they cannot work with. They supported her instead, soiling her name before the big man. Second, she got 197 votes in spite of opposition from NRM, meaning that she has an independent base of support. Now, the next stage will be to neutralise her completely in order to demonstrate to her that she is a political nobody without Museveni.
If she has any independent sources of finance, those will be the first to be dried. Without the power to distribute patronage, Kadaga will not be able to keep a large following of MPs from across the country (the 197) even those from Busoga, her home region. Instead, new players will be raised in Busoga and given power and resources to distribute patronage and thereby become the new power brokers in her backyard. Once she is politically and financially weakened the big man may rescue her and bring her back into the fold on his terms. Joining the opposition will be a worse option for her. For now she has to sink into political oblivion first.