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Museveni, Mbabazi deal?

By Independent Team

Move could avert costly conflict

Continuing backroom deals between President Yoweri Museveni and his former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi are fuelling speculation that open conflict between them can still be averted. However, analysts warn that if the fallout between the two is not handled properly and escalates, it could prove costly in economic terms even before any political fall-out is registered.

When Mbabazi appeared before the party’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) on Oct.18 to answer charges of misconduct as alleged by a group of party youths, he refused to speak and instead sought a one-on-one meeting with Museveni, which was granted.

Two days later, on Oct. 20, he formally wrote to Museveni – the party chairman – that he would be taking leave of absence until Dec.31, 2014. It also emerged that a meeting of the party’s supreme organ, the National Conference, that was slated for 2015 has been brought forward to December 15, 2014.

As most of what was agreed behind closed doors remains a secret, what happens to Mbabazi after December 31 when his leave ends has become the subject of speculation.

“The delegate’s conference that was supposed to have been called in 2015 being brought to December 2014 says much. They are going to bribe the delegates to do what is favourable to Museveni and not the will of the people,” says Prof. Edward Kakonge, a former minister in Museveni’s cabinet.

Whatever was agreed, the deal between Mbabazi and Museveni reinforces that perception that NRM is a `big man’ party where members, who are viewed as clients and not citizens, will be used as rubber stamps at the National Conference.

Mbabazi is unlikely to be at the meeting as the role of presenting the party report has been assigned to Acting Secretary General Dorothy Hyuha.

And contrary to earlier speculation, the agenda released on Oct.28 does not include any election of top party officials at the National Conference, which will bring together thousands of delegates at the Mandela National Stadium, Nambole, in Kampala.

This conference is critical because Mbabazi’s troubles with Museveni have been traced to his perceived popularity among the grassroots rank-and-file and the National Executive Council (NEC).

Speculation is rife that with Mbabazi away on leave, the party is set to remove the powerful position of secretary general and replace it with a lower position of general secretary. The name change is symbolic and the significance of the switch is that the General Secretary will not be elected but be appointed. This will mean that the position is designed to have reduced clout and the holder could be easily dismissed.

Weakening Museveni

In all these strategies, analysts point out, Museveni could be weakening himself by throwing out party efficiency and effectiveness with Mbabazi at the helm.

Many point out that it is not for nothing that Mbabazi earned the “super minister” moniker even as early as 2004 when he held the cabinet portfolios of attorney general, defense, and foreign affairs minister simultaneously.

A renowned workaholic, Mbabazi is widely believed to have been the horsepower pulling Museveni’s 28-year hold on power.

Many point out that since he started working on diluting Mbabazi’s hold on the NRM party and the government, President Museveni has been unable to put together a solid cabinet line-up.

Since Mbabazi’s ouster, the top cabinet posts are held by the new 66-year old Prime Minister Ruhukana Rugunda; an amiable gentleman and efficient bureaucrat without known grassroots campaigning and mobilisation credentials. He has not held any popular elective position in over 20 years.

Next in line are 80-year old 1st Deputy Prime Minister Henry Muganwa Kajura and 75-year old 2nd Deputy Prime Minister Moses Ali. These political dinosaurs are unlikely to be of any value to Museveni in the looming 2016 presidential election campaign.

This campaign is critical for Museveni who, at the official age of 70, is also starting to show signs of slowing down.

Although there have gaping holes in his cabinet and widespread criticism and allegations of corruption, Museveni appears unable to maintain even his previous game of musical chairs.

When he removed Mbabazi, appointing Dr. Rugunda as his replacement was the only change he could manage. He did not even name a replacement for Rugunda in the minister of health position.

That omission brings to five major positions that remain vacant in Museveni’s cabinet. They include the Third Deputy Prime Minister, and the portfolios of Health, East African Affairs, Foreign Affairs (held by Sam Kutesa, who is the President of the UN General Assembly and lives in New York), and that of Water, which was vacated by Betty Bigombe who joined the World Bank.

Before Mbabazi’s ouster, Museveni’s last reshuffle had been in May 2013, when he made several switches, the most significant being the removal of Gen. Aronda Nyakairima from the powerful position of Chief of Defense Forces to Minister of Internal Affairs.

Gen. Nyakairima had, together with Mbabazi been mentioned as likely targets of a purge by Museveni of top officials opposed to the so-called “Muhoozi Project” allegedly designed by Museveni to groom his son, 40-year old Brig. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, to succeed him. The list was drawn up by Gen. David Sejusa (formerly Tinyefuza) shortly before he fled into exile.

Beyond numbers, however, is the crucial issue of lack of clout and experience among Museveni new kids on the yellow bus.

Of Museveni’s original NRM/Army comrades in arms, only Minister of Defence Crispus Kiyonga, Justice Minister Kahinda Otafiire, ICT Minister John Nasasira, and Dr. Rugunda remain. The 2nd Deputy Prime Minister Moses Ali is a significant outlier while First Lady Janet Museveni, who is also the Minister for Karamoja, is a significant backroom broker.

Below them is a motley crowd of debutantes who are yet to grow their political teeth. Among them is 40-year old Minister without Portfolio, Richard Todwong, Youth MP and former radio presenter Evelyn Anite, 30, the 41-year old Justine Kasule Lumumba who leaped from the classroom as a teacher ten years ago, and the 41-year old David Bahati, a business major. None of these bring an ounce of Mbabazi’s punching power on the national stage.

However, some top NRM honchos, such as Dr. Chris Baryomunsi, who is a member of the NRM National Executive Committee (NEC) attempt to play down the weakening effect of Mbabazi’s departure.

“I don’t think the party will be significantly affected negatively because of his leaving because he would live with a small number of people,” Baryomunsi told The Independent, “In some areas, the party will even become stronger. Amama has no strong political constituency in Uganda because his base has been President Museveni.”

Risk of conflict

But analysts point to the fact that a further weakening of the NRM, as an institution, could pose a high risk for open conflict, according to a 2012 study titled; “African political party systems and conflict.”

The study, which puts Uganda among countries with the weakest instutionalisation of political parties, is based on surveys by the World Bank and Afrobarometer. It says there is likely to be open conflict if political parties in countries like Uganda lack a strong connection with voters, hold internal elections that members do not consider fair, and are tied to particular leaders instead of policies, platforms, and ideologies.

So far, Museveni and Mbabazi have managed to remain civil to each other.

In a recent interview with the BBC, President Yoweri Museveni   tactfully parried questions about their tense relationship.

“Who told you that I sacked Mbabazi; I just appointed a new prime minister,” he said. But the BBC persisted: And was that done because he posed a threat to your candidacy?

Museveni: “Nooo…, we have had how many elections in Uganda, I always get competition. Competition cannot be a problem at all.”

BBC: Many Ugandans would say there was quite a bitter power struggle within the party?

Museveni: “Power struggle. If someone is engaged in a power struggle that’s a problem. But competition is different. Power struggle is like intrigue because if it is competition, then it is according to the rules. There must be rules that are followed. So the speculation [that] Museveni sacked Mbabazi or what, is wasting your time for nothing. These are our party issues. You just watch, you will see what will happen.”

Attempting to dodge addressing the issue appears to be the decided position of Museveni’s government.

When The Independent asked the Minister In-charge of the Presidency, Frank Tumwebaze, what Mbabazi’s exit portends for the country, he opted to be evasive.

“Amama has not left the party therefore I do not want to speculate,” he said.

But as Museveni pleads for observers to “wait and see what will happen” and his top ministers refuse to “speculate,” there is a cloud of uncertainty over the country.

Many are warning that the `politics of exclusion’, as political scientists describe situations where leaders remove others they deem to be threats to their hold on power as Museveni appears to be doing, have created many costly conflicts.

According to some studies, African loses up to US$18 billion per year over conflicts and up to 15% in economic growth.

The latest example is South Sudan where the country exploded into open civil war when President Salva Kiir removed his vice, Riek Machar. Currently, Kiir’s hold on power is guaranteed by Ugandan and UN armed forces. Should they abandon him, his regime would possibly collapse.

Before fighting erupted in December 2013, the South Sudan economy was projected to grow by 35% on the back of the 350,000 barrels of oil it was exporting per day.  Oil exports have dropped by over 50% and stories are starting to emerge that the economy is “in intensive care” with famine on the horizon.

In the 2014/15 financial year, Uganda is projected to grow by 6.1%. In case open conflict erupts, this growth could easily evaporate into negatives as was witnesses in the pre-Museveni era of the 1980s.

Many Ugandans say they have seen “enough of war” and even hardened bush-war fighters like Dr. Kizza Besigye have ruled it out as an option for removing Museveni. But there are others, like renegade Gen. David Sejusa who insist that it’s the only option left. Even hitherto pacifists like opposition Democratic Party President Norbert Mao are saying “nothing is being ruled out”. As political uncertainty persists, some form of military activity appears unavoidable.

Uganda has consistently been grouped among the so-called “alert” states where open conflict can erupt at any time, according to the global Failed States Index compiled by the US governance think tank, Fund for Peace. Uganda’s ranking is ranked together with Kenya, which witnessed ethnic violence recently; Nigeria, which is battling Boko Haram fighters; Rwanda, which witnessed genocide; and Ethiopia. It is just slightly better off than the “very high alert” states like Somalia, DR Congo, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and Ivory Coast.

Factionalise elites

The biggest source of conflict in Uganda, according to Freedom House, is from “factionalised elites” like Museveni and the growing list of rivals and challengers. These are characterised by power struggles, defections, flawed elections, and political competition. Uganda is also at risk over so-called “vengeance-seeking groups”. These are groups that have tense relations based on feelings of discrimination and powerlessness. Conflict can erupt on the basis of ethnicity, religion, and sectarianism.   Poor public service delivery, which has been a perennial complaint against Museveni’s government, is a high risk issue, according to the survey.

Mbabazi’s fallout with Mbabazi adds to the divisions among the elites and exacerbates feelings of helplessness among groups frustrated over Museveni’s 28-year hold on state power.

Indeed, since 1997, President Museveni has been losing members of his inner circle, starting with national unity government colleagues like former DP boss Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, bush war comrades like Dr. Kizza Besigye, Gen. Mugisha Muntu, Gen. David Sejusa, and former NRM top brass such as his former Vice President Prof. Gilbert Bukenya, and former ministers Bidandi Ssali and Miria Matembe. Several of these are part of a  coalition to remove Museveni from power. The Mbabazi-Museveni fallout is the latest.

This fallout however is different because he has been the defacto power behind the throne. He is also known to be the godfather to many influential people in the NRM party, the government, public institutions, and in the country’s intelligence and security circles from the time when he founded the External Security Organisation (ESO) when he was minister of defense. It is also feared he does have sympathisers in the army.

In a recent statement, the Ministry of Defence attempted to pre-empt perceived Mbabazi influences on the military.

The statement said that “the UPDF would continue to act professionally in all circumstances and will not accept to be dragged into partisan politics.”

It was a weak effort because not many people believe that the army is neutral regarding political challenges to Museveni. Secondly, the same statement repeated the allegation attributed to Mbabazi, but not uttered by him anywhere on the record, that he has categorized army top brass into “good and bad”. The ‘good’ army officers, allegedly according to Mbabazi, are those against Museveni.

However, according to the Failed States Index survey, the risk from either a military coup, rebel activity, or other militancy is relatively low in Uganda.

But Mbabazi has certainly contributed to the increased tension, uncertainty, and anxiety, according to one observer, by also keeping his cards close to his chest.  Indeed, concerted efforts by The Independent to speak to Mbabazi remained fruitless.

“Amama is playing it close to his chest and is not saying anything and all the public announcements indicate that he is not challenging Museveni,” another observer said, and added: “This may be explained by the fact that Amama is good at posturing than taking issues head on and living the  issues to his inner circle to handle.”

That inner circle includes his wife, Jacqueline Mbabazi and daughter, Nina Mbabazi. Although known to be no-holds-barred individuals, the duo has for some time been unusually quiet. Speculation is rife that Mbabazi, who is said to have amassed a fortune in over 30 years in top positions, could start a new political party. However, analysts say this is unlikely because he might face a challenge in recruiting supporters.

Said an observer: “What we are going to see is a desolate isolated Amama because a lot of people who were supporting him were there because they thought he was going to get into power and therefore would be at the high table.

“Now that he is likely not going to be there, either those people will play safe and remain where they are or they will join the person who will be at the high table.

“In this country we have got a shortage of personnel especially in the politics who have the ability and interest. People with ability don’t have interest and those with interest don’t have ability.”

Other analysts say that Mbabazi’s only other alternative is to join an existing opposition political party. Already, some opposition leaders like former FDC President Kizza Besigye have said Mbabazi “is welcome” to join them. Whether or not Mbabazi’s exit will make the opposition stronger and the NRM weaker is not easy to tell at the moment.

But as one observer said, “Amama is welcome in the opposition but whether he will be at the top or bottom is what is not known because in politics people don’t give way.”

When The Independent first reported the fall-out between Mbabazi and Museveni (See: “Mbabazi versus Museveni”; The Independent, December 20, 2013), one commentator wrote that “what President Museveni owes Ugandans is a peaceful political transition from him to another president be it Amama Mabazi, in NRM, or even opposition. He should be around for some years outside the presidency to see how the new president runs the country. President Museveni would remain an elder, a unifying factor and a key mediator in case political conflicts arise.

President Museveni will be considered a failure if he does not deliver on a peaceful political transition given the trust the Ugandans have in him and considering that political transition has been the greatest leadership challenge.”

With the Mbabazi fallout and its attendant ramifications, what is clear is that a peaceful transition is likely to face an even steeper hill to climb.

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