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Mbabazi’s challenge

By Haggai Matsiko

Prime Minister must make difficult decisions as he eyes President Museveni’s chair

Huge pools of muddy water threaten the fading yellow fence wall of the ruling party, National Resistance Movement (NRM) Secretariat headquarters on Plot 10 Kyadondo Road in Kampala.  On a street that is dotted with well-kept homes, hotels and other state-of-the art buildings, the site on Plot 10 nowadays is but unseemly especially for the headquarters of Uganda’s biggest and longest-ruling political party.

Yet barely a year ago, the party headquarters bustled with activity as the party faithful from all over the country came in and out. Now, tensions between President Yoweri Museveni and his Premier Amama Mbabazi, who also doubles as the party’s secretary general (SG), over the latter’s alleged presidential ambitions have sent the party headquarters into a state of slumber.


Insiders say that once he learnt of his Premier’s ambitions, President Museveni, who is the NRM’s biggest fundraiser—raising over 90% of the party’s funds—weaned the secretariat off his bags of money.

When The Independent visited on a rainy Friday afternoon, we could understand why people were not in office probably because of the downpour, but a party insider who declined to be named said this is now the norm.

“People are rarely in office,” the official said, “several party positions are unoccupied, there is no serious secretariat to talk about.”

The Secretariat is central to the party—it is where the SG—the party’s top technocrat is supposed to sit. But the NRM’s party SG and his other honchos are never there. Insiders say the Mbabazi-Museveni tensions have worsened the situation at Kyadondo.

Just like these tensions have sparked different groups/factions within the party—there are those calling on Mbabazi to contest, there are those who want to stand out as the originators of Museveni’s sole candidature and those who say the sole candidature is not any individual’s initiative but that of the whole party—the secretariat too has not been spared. Insiders say each group continues working mainly secretly because these activities attract funds.

That is why a bigger headache for President Museveni now, more than ever, is how to oust his Premier Mbabazi completely from the post of the party SG, insiders say.

The fight to hound out Mbabazi, which started immediately when he was appointed Prime Minister in 2011, has been a subject of discussions in almost all the top party organs over the last three years but it was fuelled early this year by reports about his plans to contest against Museveni.

It is even likely to gain more traction as the different party organs discuss the findings of the Parliamentary Caucus Select Committee on the NRM Primaries tabled before the party leadership last month. The party caucus and the Central Executive Committee (CEC) —the party’s top governing organ—were set to discuss the findings this week.

Legislators; Rosemary Seninde, Felix Okot Ogong, Jim Muhwezi, Dr.Chris Baryomunsi, Steven Tashobya, Connie Nakayenze, Theopista Nabulya and Emmanuel Ninsima sat on the committee that interviewed President Museveni, the party chairman, Al Hajji Moses Kigongo, the first National Vice Chairman, Rebecca Kadaga, the second National Vice Chairperson, Felistus Magomu, the former head of the party Electoral Commission (EC), Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, the current head of the party (EC), Mbabazi, the SG, and several other leaders.

The committee’s main mandate was to study and suggest methods to improve electoral processes within the party following the mess that the 2010 NRM party primaries were.

Established in March 2014, the committee travelled and picked lessons from Namibia’s SWAPO and Tanzania’s CCM among others.

According to the recommendations of the report, a copy of which The Independent has received, the committee wants a cleaning up the party register, proper dispute resolution, nomination of candidates, overhauling the party’s electoral body, party financing and infrastructural development but the most contentious is the one that deals with Mbabazi.

The team noted that it was “oversight” to have office bearers in the positions of secretary general, deputy secretary general and treasurer and deputy treasurer holding other serious responsibilities.

Having noted that, the committee recommended “that, those who occupy the positions of Secretary General, Treasurer and their deputies, be barred from contesting or occupying any other political seats and that they are not assigned any other governmental responsibilities in order to concentrate on building the party”. Trade Minister Amelia Kyambadde is the party treasurer, her deputy is Singh Katongole. Mbabazi’s deputy is Dorothy Hyuha

Already, this recommendation is being seen in the context of the Mbabazi politics. Matters are not helped by the fact that Mbabazi’s biggest political foe, Muhwezi sat on the committee.

“What do you expect from a committee where Muhwezi is a member?” asked Adam Luzindana, an NRM youth leader who doesn’t shy about his unwavering support for Mbabazi. “I can tell you that recommendation is targeting Mbabazi yet Mbabazi might have even lost interest in those offices.”

Luzindana says blaming Mbabazi’s busy schedule over the incompetence at Kyadondo Rd is missing the point.

“President Museveni doesn’t like a strong party with strong institutions,” Luzindana says, “that is why the party is in the state that it is in. He prefers it that way.”

Seninde, who chaired the committee, however, told The Independent that her team was objective while dealing with the issues.

“What we set out to do is to address the challenges that the party is facing,” she said at her office at Parliament. “We talked to different people, we did not point any fingers. It is clear in that report that we were out to get solutions, which we hope the different party organs will debate and possibly take up.”

Just like Luzindana hints, party sources say, Mbabazi is more than ready to step down as prime minister if that is what it will take him to retain the SG post and the law is on his side. Seninde’s committee even notes that the party Constitution is silent on whether officials can hold more than one office. That would therefore warrant a constitutional amendment.

The ideal for President Museveni would be for Mbabazi to resign the SG post and not re-contest come 2015 because of the threat he poses. The premiership is the easier part as Museveni can wake one day and replace him. That would basically leave him with the Parliamentary seat only, which would effectively send him into political oblivion.  But Luzindana, who was also once Mbabazi’s personal assistant, says that Mbabazi does not need to be SG to contest for presidency.

However, what might make this particular recommendation a hard sale is the fact that it affects more people than just Mbabazi—apart from the three posts, the committee recommends that whoever earns a party position does not hold an elective office.

Some fear that such a controversial matter could win Mbabazi sympathisers. As things stand, President Museveni and his supporters seem to have sucked energy out of Mbabazi’s camp by taking over the party secretariat.

Currently, the de facto SG is Richard Todwong, the minister without portfolio.

Chaos over allegations of Mbabazi’s 2016 ambitions saw Todwong take over Mbabazi’s duties as acting SG, other officials who were actively involved in party activities when the Premier was in-charge were also forced to retreat.

Insiders easily point out Mbabazi’s wife Jacqueline Mbabazi, who as chairperson of the NRM Women’s League, and her daughter Nina Mbabazi, met at the secretariat from time to time.

The coup at Kyadondo was intended to minimise Mbabazi’s widespread imprint on the party. For instance, while Mbabazi’s daughter was part of a team that put together the party register, the official party SG (Mbabazi) told a recent Parliamentary Caucus Select Committee on the NRM Primaries that he keeps the party register at his private office on Plot 18A Akibua Rd.

It is such that Museveni and his supporters find threatening especially as they aim to hound him (Mbabazi) out of his position as the party SG.

For four years now, the party faithful have waited for the party to host the National Delegates Conference—a body that brings together the about 10,000 party delegates from all over the country—but in vain.

While previously party officials said money was the issue—the party needs billions to host the conference—everyone now agrees that the Mbabazi threat is the reason President Museveni has been sceptical about convening the meeting.

Realising that the conference is inevitable, party sources say, Museveni assigned a team led by Todwong to scrutinise the lists of delegates with the view of checking Mbabazi’s footprint after he was meant to believe that Mbabazi put so many of his supporters in key positions at the grassroots, meaning that in case of a contest between him and Museveni, the Premier would swing the vote in his favour.

The Independent could not establish exactly how Todwong is dealing with this issue. Several efforts to reach him for a comment also failed as he was not picking calls on all his known numbers.

However, a source intimated to us that one of the solutions Museveni and his supporters might be considering is inviting more delegates just like in 2010. NRM rules allow Museveni, who is the party chairman, to invite about 30 guests to the party’s Delegates Conference but in 2010, the party chairman invited thousands. That is why about 15,000 delegates attended that year instead of the expected 8,000-10,000 delegates.

It is not clear whether the party will go ahead and convene the conference in May next year as had been planned but by announcing in August that the party’s National Delegates Conference will chose the ruling party flag bearer, President Museveni gave the latest hint on  how he intends to deal with the Mbabazi threat perceived or real.

Some party officials interpreted the announcement as a signal that the President thinks the Mbabazi threat is steadily being neutralised.

Indeed, while the jury is still out on whether Mbabazi will contest against his boss or not, every move by Museveni over the Mbabazi factor is being watched closely by these cliques and supporters at the grassroots.

Party factions emerge

Reports that Mbabazi intended to contest against his boss threatened to split the party. But it is the decision by legislators to select Museveni as the sole party flag bearer that exposed the underlying fault lines within the party.

Pitting party cadres against each other and youths against historicals, Museveni’s sole candidature threatened to undercut the party leadership and expose the NRM. The party leadership had to distribute over Shs 6 billion to de-toxicate supporters of the Mbabazi 2016 bid allegations and sell Museveni’s sole candidature.

Publicly, Museveni has portrayed the image that he is not keen on the sole candidatureship as he insists that the party flag bearer would be selected by the National Delegates Conference.

“…the [Kyankwanzi] resolution was a specific effort that was in response to some happenings, which had to be responded to. And the good thing is that your response to those happenings has done much more work because the report is more detailed after you traversed all the sub-counties,” Museveni said at the launch of another report—an account of the legislators’ campaign to market his candidature.

Museveni even asked that the report is completed when it emerged that some MPs had not put in their accounts of how the project of selling Museveni’s candidature went.

Without the full report, it is hard for Museveni’s strategists to know how much the sole candidature campaign ate into Mbabazi’s gains.

But with or without the sole candidature, insiders know that dealing with Mbabazi is not going to be a piece of cake.

Museveni has nursed a desire to replace Mbabazi as SG for the last three years. It all started when Mbabazi was elected SG of the NRM in a landslide victory against two powerful ruling party officials; former VP Prof. Gilbert Bukenya, and current Justice Minister Maj. Gen. Kahinda Otafiire.

President Museveni, who directly campaigned for Mbabazi against the others, had hoped that Mbabazi would make a good SG because he was loyal and not too ambitious but was shocked by the latter’s margin of victory.

He would later learn that Mbabazi, a former security minister, had built a strong network of support using security agencies and his family.

On learning about Mababazi’s growing influence in the party, Museveni sought to clip his wings by appointing him prime minister.

Given that the NEC had agreed that the SG of the party should not hold another executive job, except as minister without portfolio, appointing Mbabazi Prime Minister was a way to force him to relinquish his elected office in the party. Mbabazi remained put.

When Museveni called the first NRM caucus meeting in early 2011 at State House Entebbe, he informed the caucus that he wanted to nominate Edward Sekandi as vice president and Mbabazi as prime minister.

Dokolo County MP Felix Okot Ogong asked the President how Mbabazi could run two busy and powerful offices at the same time when it had been agreed in NEC previously that a secretary general should not be given a substantive ministry.

When Museveni asked his Premier to explain, sources say Mbabazi told the caucus that he was aware both positions were very busy and one would undermine the ability of the holder to perform the other functions. He promised the caucus that he was going to resign his position as SG.

But he continues hold onto the job like glue. Later, in 2012, at a CEC meeting, Francis Babu also asked the President why Mbabazi had not resigned his job as SG. Museveni replied that he had talked to the prime minister who had said he could not resign because of procedural and legal reasons.

Museveni told CEC that even before he met the caucus to announce his intensions to appoint Mbabazi prime minister, he had held a meeting with Mbabazi and the latter had promised to resign the post.

The next day, there was a NEC meeting and Museveni raised the issue of Mbabazi holding both jobs but did not take a position on it.

At this meeting, Mbabazi defended his position arguing that an individual can hold two demanding positions and perform well in both of them. He gave the example of the President, whom he said is leader of the party, president of the country and commander-in-chief of the armed forces and he is doing all of them very well.

When Museveni opened the issue for public debate, one after another all the speakers defended Mbabazi.

After everyone had spoken, Museveni said that it is not “other people” but his (Museveni’s) wish that Mbabazi relinquishes one of the posts especially that of secretary general and remains prime minister. Publicly, Mbabazi has declared that he cannot contest against Museveni for the presidency but his supporters back home and beyond believe that he can actually win a contest against the President. A few days ago in Kanungu District, a group of youth publicly handed over to Mbabazi a stool, walking stick and shield, which they said was in “appreciation of his support to the youth. But most observers understood these to be instruments of power. Indeed, the youth pressed Mbabazi to contest for President in 2016, to which Mbabazi replied, “We are warriors, and we never lose battles. We always emerge victorious on the battlefield.”  Mbabazi now walks a tight rope. Whether or not he will manage to keep his balance in the crocodile-infested waters of NRM politics is what remains to be seen.

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