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Mbabazi could become Museveni’s Achilles

By Joseph Were

Defending him has shredded the President’s armour of invincibility and unleashed the virus that will destroy him

Prof. Waswa Balunywa of the Makerere University Business School in Kampala has entrenched views about the role of leadership that he likes to encapsulate in a single mantra; “leaders are people who do the right thing”. Borrowed from Warren Bennis’s 1989 book “On Becoming a Leader”, the line is used to distinguish leaders from managers who are described as “people who do things right”.

Another favourite quote of many management strategists is a line from Prof. John Kenneth Galbraith. The US economist who wrote “The Age of Uncertainty” and famously said: “all of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it is the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time”.

The anxiety over corruption in Uganda demands a closer look at the essence of leadership in our country today with an emphasis on doing what is right and responding to the anxieties of the people.

Like a moral revival-seeking laser beam, the anxiety of the people about corruption has cut across political, social, and economic divides until it is now fixed on one man; Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi. But around Mbabazi is a shield called President Yoweri Museveni that the anti-corruption beam has previously failed to penetrate. Museveni shielded Mbabazi over the NSSF Temangalo land scandal, over the Electoral Commission procurement scandal and over the CHOGM procurement scandal. In all these and other cases, Mbabazi has maintained his innocence and, in some cases, been exonerated by myriad political gymnastics orchestrated by Museveni. The corruption index and public anxiety around him has, however, never dropped.

When MPs tabled before parliament documents alleging that he and others extort bribes from oil exploration barons in exchange for favourable contracts, Mbabazi dismissed the accusations as malicious in intent. But with everything around oil shrouded in a grave hallow of classified opaqueness, it is impossible to see whether their hands are clean or greased.

For this reason, and perhaps others, the MPs asked Mbabazi to step aside to allow a committee that has been set up to investigate. The question was whether Museveni and Mbabazi would show leadership by doing the right thing to unequivocally confront the major anxiety of the people.

Instead, Mbabazi and Museveni opted for equivocation and “doing things right” or according to the letter and pointed out that the procedures of parliament did not require Mbabazi to step aside.

But more danger lurks. As a military strategist, Museveni must have noticed that by building a protective political fortress around Mbabazi, he has in fact created a formation that appears impregnable but, as any defence systems designer now knows, can become the Single Point of Failure (SPOF) or the proverbial Achilles heel. If it fails, everything else collapses.

Among strategists, a famous SPOF is the Maginot line which France constructed along its border to ward off an attack from powerful Germany in the run-up to World War II.  It was a line of fortifications and other defences that consumed a lot of time and resources. The French believed it would defend them against a Germany invasion. But when the German forces attacked on May 4, 1940, they strategically side-stepped it and entered France without the Maginot Line proving its value. Since then, it has become a symbol of a part in any system which consumes enormous resources and offers false hope.

Museveni is expending innumerable time and resources in defence of Mbabazi because he fears that if Mbabazi falls, Museveni too falls. It is, therefore becoming unclear whether Museveni, in the Maginot sense, is protecting Mbabazi or merely using him as a human shield. Whatever Museveni’s motive, it is a mistake to shield Mbabazi.

In business strategy it is recognised as a sign of bad decision making called escalation of commitment, sunk cost fallacy, irrational escalation or merely “throwing good money after bad”. The point is that a decision to continue investing valuable resources on an obviously bad deal is based more on what has been invested before than on a proper reading of the current position. In Museveni’s case, he decides to continue defending Mbabazi because he has defended him in the past and his ego and fear do not permit him to concede that was probably a mistake.

The decision has now led others forces of gang up against Mbabazi and Museveni. In the ensuing melee, motives have become blurred and a battle of annihilation as envisioned in the construction of any Maginot line is now joined. Again, as a strategist, Museveni must know that by placing the fate of an entire system on the survival of a single strongly protected part, any battle of annihilation haemorrhages the entire system, in this case the NRM, as a political force. As often in such battles, the attacker, in this case Museveni, is exposing himself to self-destruction. It has happened with great men caught up in wars of annihilation from France’s Napoleon Bonaparte to Shaka the Zulu.

To appreciate the danger he and his party face, Museveni needs to read systems risk management consultant Gary S. Lynch’s 2009 book, Single Point of Failure”. Among the many insights it offers, Lynch’s book warns about bad decisions and how saving a part of the system, in this case Mbabazi, does not amount to saving the whole, in this case the party.

Museveni and Mbabazi will realise that whether they survive their current battles with intra-party renegades is in fact secondary now. The issue is whether NRM can rebuild itself as the invincible monolith it has been. Already there is talk of a splinter-NRM in the making. It might not happen. But Museveni will emerge from this battlefield with his armour of invincibility in tatters and the disease that will destroy him flowing like an unstoppable virus throughout the blood vessels of his party.

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