By Haggai Matsiko
President Yoweri Museveni’s first significant shot against his Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi in the race for 2016 is being described as an “ambush”. On Feb. 8 at the 10-day NRM Caucus at the National Leadership Institute at Kyankwazi, some MPs declared that they want President Museveni to run `unopposed’ as the party flag-bearer in the 2016 election.
The next day, the Presidential Press Unit went ahead to announce that the declaration was “re-soundly supported by the entire caucus”. Two days later, up to 190 MPs out of the 250 MP had signed on the document endorsing Museveni.
It looks shabby, hurried, and lacking in decorum. But the declaration might have effectively locked Mbabazi out of the race for 2016. Unless, of course, the prime minister can muster the courage to say publicly that he will not be locked out. Insiders say that is the signal Museveni is waiting for to wage an all-out onslaught on Mbabazi.
In a story in December 2013, The Independent asked the single persistent question: “Why doesn’t Museveni simply sack Mbabazi?”
Apparently, it is not that simple.
Although on-and-off talk of a Cabinet reshuffle, which potentially could see Mbabazi removed as PM persists, it might not resolve the rift. Museveni cannot remove Mbabazi from the powerful position of party Secretary General.
“Mbabazi has not openly broken ranks,” a source told The Independent, “The president prefers to go around, not to confront him. He wants to seduce him from any plans.”
`The party has spoken’
Museveni has to handle the Mbabazi challenge delicately because the prime minister potentially could split the party.
Mbabazi, who describes himself as a “super minister,” has used his position and political skills to build a powerbase within NRM and nationally.
As `king-maker,’ he has either appointed or recommended for appointment many people in influential positions in the government.
Many NRM candidates owe their parliamentary and local council seats to Mbabazi. In some cases this extends to district, sub-country and even parish level.
Museveni knows that the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), the only force that challenges his absolute grip on power, is in fact a splinter group from the NRM.
Founded by Museveni’s bush war personal physician, Col. Dr. Kizza Besigye, FDC is today led by Gen. Mugisha Muntu, a former army commander under Museveni.
As Museveni mulls his options, the rest of the NRM cadre that backs him is already falling in line behind the Museveni endorsement.
NRM Vice Chairman (Central Region) Abdul Nadduli who seats on the party top organ; the 14-member Central Executive Committee (CEC), told The Independent that as far as he is concerned, the party had spoken.
“The party has chosen its candidate,” he said, “once they bring this decision to CEC, we shall look at it but as far as I am concerned, the party has chosen its candidate.”
Asked where that leaves those with intentions of contesting against Museveni, Nadduli was equally candid.
“Those who want to contest will have to contest as independents because as things stand, the party has zeroed in on Museveni”.
This is the first time in his 28-year old reign that Museveni’s grip on his party leadership position is being seriously challenged. But even minor challenges in the past have been similarly quashed. Museveni does not take chances. He prefers to be “unopposed”.
Former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya who has masterminded such moves in the past, immediately declared that the Caucus proposal was “stage-managed”. The question is why Museveni feels so insecure that he wants the MPs to “ring-fence” his position for him.
The motive of the endorsement was also not lost on Mbabazi who, in the past, has also orchestrated similar plots. In 2010, he was behind the plot that saw Museveni announced as the unopposed party flag-bearer in 2011 national elections.
When the NRM National Conference was held at Namboole on September 11-12, 2010 to elect office bearers and the party presidential flag-bearer in the 2011 election, a little known member, one Capt. Ruhinda Maguru got nominated to contest against Museveni.
However, instead of holding party elections, the CEC met behind closed doors and emerged to announce to members that it had unanimously nominated Museveni as flag bearer.
This time, before the move to endorse Museveni at Kyankwazi, the Mbabazi camp had been in high spirits chanting “Our man! Our man!” whenever Mbabazi spoke. Such open defiance has been unusual in NRM.
Museveni had just warned them that he was aware some of them were already campaigning to contest against him.
“There is one little problem; lack of cohesion in the leadership of NRM, which you have witnessed over the past years. I would like to advise those involved to restrain themselves. The forums are there to discuss everything. Why, then, create cliques?”
But later, Mbabazi reportedly responded.
“When the Ethiopian empire was falling, it listened to rumours. The Museveni that I know should have come to me if there was a problem,” he is quoted to have said.
Mbabazi knows that technically that Kyankwazi endorsement of Museveni is redundant. The NRM caucus is not among the bodies mandated to name party flag-bearers.
But symbolically, he knows, there could not have emerged a stronger warning to him that any challenge to Museveni within the party will not be tolerated.
Museveni’s fighting zone
Historically, the Kyankwanzi retreats are where Museveni fights and wins his wars with in the party.
In 2003, it was here in Kyankwanzi that he won the war against a group of his ministers who were against the lifting of term limits.
Then cabinet ministers Bidandi Ssali, Miria Matembe, the late Eriya Kategaya who openly criticised the removal of term limits at the retreat, were immediately dropped from the Cabinet. Museveni then herded the MPs to lift term limits.
In another major fight, Museveni in 2011 summoned MPs to Kyankwanzi and made it clear they would not censure Mbabazi, Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa and Hillary Onek, who had been implicated in the oil bribery scandal.
The last war was in 2012. Tired of the noises of a group of five MPs that had become so critical, Museveni summoned the MPs to Kyankwanzi. Again Museveni got the MPs to decide the fate of Theodere Ssekikubo, Mohammad Nsereko, Barnabas Tinkasimire, Winfred Niwagaba and Vicent Kyamadidi. The party resolved that the five would face disciplinary action. Only Kyamadidi who apologised, was let off the hook; the rest were ‘expelled.’
This time around, while officially the party was at the retreat to reflect upon its performance, the biggest question was on how to deal with Museveni’s potential competitors especially Mbabazi.
Tension in the air
Although Museveni has not officially spoken against his Premier, the President’s attitude towards his erstwhile trusted right-hand man has changed.
Even at Kyankwanzi, the body language of the two gentlemen was telling, sources say that although they were seen talking, an air of tension marked their body language.
A good photo is worth over a thousand words. One such photo was taken by the PPU shows Museveni, in full army uniform standing in a slowly drifting boat on River Mayanja in Ngoma, Nakaseke District, with Mbabazi.
There are about six people on the boat but only Mbabazi is seated and holding on firmly as if he fears he might drown in the gentle stream. Mbabazi, and another unidentifiable man, are the only ones wearing life jackets.
That photo could be an apt metaphor of what is happening between Museveni and his prime minister.
NRM caucus vice chairman, David Bahati says the recommendations arrived at by the caucus would be tabled before the party’s top governing body, the Central Executive Committee (CEC) and the National Delegates Conference.
But the Kyankwazi declaration is a sign that CEC would not reverse the move to endorse Museveni and lock out Mbabazi.
In a contest of either Mbabazi against Museveni or Kadaga against Museveni, majority of the organ’s members are likely to side with Museveni.
The 14 members that make up the body include; President Museveni, First Vice Chairperson Al Hajj Moses Kigongo, 2nd Deputy Chairperson, Kadaga, Mbabazi, and regional Vice Chairpersons; Sam Engola (Northern), Abdul Nadduli (Central), Michael Mukula, (Eastern), Francis Babu (Kampala) and Brig Matayo Kyaligonza (Western). Others are; NRM Deputy Secretary General Dorothy Hyuha, NRM Treasurer who is also Trade Minister Amelia Kyambadde, Deputy Treasurer Singh Parminda Katongole, Entrepreneurship League chairman Hassan Basajjabalaba, and Rujumbura County MP Maj Gen Jim Muhwezi (Veterans League).
Of these, Kadaga, Muhwezi, Babu, and Kyaligonza are openly not in Mbabazi’s camp. Even the remaining, who have in the past seen as Mbabazi’s supporters, would side with president Museveni in a contest of the two men.
Mbabazi’s next move
But Mbabazi has for a long period belonged to the inner-circle of Museveni’s government. How he goes down, is therefore, being closely watched.
The fate of the man who popularised the “NRM queue,” in reference to those in line to succeed Museveni, is being analysed at a time when dissent against Museveni within the NRM is growing.
Mbabazi, who is full of surprises, could spring one. Already some NRM members are speaking out against the Museveni endorsement.
“It is illegal and has been engineered to block competitors again,” Ruhinda Maguru, a former aide of President Museveni, who in 2010 took the party to court over the same matter, told The Independent.
Maguru’s lawyer in the 2010 case, Laudislaus Rwakafuzi, says that as they argued in their case and won – endorsing Museveni outside of the party rules and procedures contravenes both the party’s and the country’s constitution.
In an out of court settlement with Maguru, Museveni himself acknowledged that in locking out opponents and choosing him as the party flag bearer in 2010, the party constitution had not been followed. He promised to form a ten-member team to right this by consensus.
The party, Museveni pledged, would devise options to put in place an electoral commission that is competent, independent and free from manipulation.
Museveni also agreed to pay Maguru and his lawyers, Rwakafuzi & Co. Advocates, up to Shs 70 million in legal costs.
If Museveni goes with this endorsement, he will have ignored all this.
Rwakafuzi hopes that serious party members challenge the matter in court.
Already, he says, Maguru’s case, which the NRM lost, can be used as a precedent.
It is not clear whether Evelyn Anite, the caucus spokesperson who moved the motion to endorse Museveni, was aware of that case.
The NRM young Turks led by Anite, James Kakooza, Maj Bright Rwamirama, Richard Todwong and Rose Najjemba pushed the endorsement through.
Mbabazi has not said publicly that he will run against Museveni.
When Kristian Schmidt; the head of the European Union Delegation in Uganda, asked Mbabazi directly if he was running for president, the PM answered indirectly.
“We have the Central Executive Committee, the National Executive Committee, and the National Conference. If the party chooses me to be a candidate, I cannot refuse.”
President Museveni has himself used almost exactly the same language when asked if he would run for the presidency again in 2016.
So far, only former VP Bukenya has announced plans to challenge Museveni within the NRM. But Bukenya habitually shifts positions. Another NRM honcho, Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga’s name is being thrown around but it is unlikely that she could challenge Museveni. Mbabazi, therefore, remains the lone challenger.
The Independent in December 2013 broke the story of Mbabazi’s plan to challenge Museveni for the presidency in 2016.
Under the title: “Battle for 2016: An inside account of the war between Museveni and Mbabazi,” the story quoted some Mbabazi confidants claiming that Museveni and Mbabazi agreed that Museveni would retire in 2016 and let Mbabazi run.
Museveni, The Independent reported, had discovered that Mbabazi has set up a presidential election taskforce chaired by his sister-in-law and former MP and minister, Hope Mwesigye.
His campaign taskforce reportedly had a large collection of Mbabazi diehards including MPs, politicians who lost during the last parliamentary elections, NRM mobilisers, independents, activists and other well-wishers.
At the time, the story was greeted with either apprehension or scepticism.
“I think Mbabazi won’t stand against Museveni,” Robert Tabaro, a lecturer of Political Science and Public Administration at Kyambogo University, told The Independent.
”There will be a lot of negotiations and compromises before the primary elections in 2015. I have come to believe that Mbabazi is an intelligent character; he is a leader and can push the country forward. But I am also sure, that 2016 is for Museveni and nobody else.”
Even Evelyn Anite, the NRM Caucus spokesperson and mover of the “Museveni unopposed in 2016” motion at Kyankwazi, told The Independent that she could not comment because the story was “sensitive”.
But Mbabazi confidants maintained 2016 is time for Museveni to honour his promise.
“We have supported Museveni for a very long time,” an MP in Mbabazi’s camp told The Independent bluntly while asking for anonymity, “This is our chance to have the presidency. Therefore, if Museveni does not honor his promise to Mbabazi, he can forget our support. We already have enough support inside the NRM to challenge Museveni at the party’s delegates’ conference in 2015 – and win outright.” Is this the time that Mbabazi’s camp will choose to show its numbers? Museveni is waiting.