By Agather Atuhaire
Prime minister’s presidential ambition seems to have ruined a perfect partnership
Two weeks before the 2010 delegates’ conference that saw Amama Mbabazi elected as secretary general of the ruling National Resistance Movement party, the National Executive Committee sat and agreed with party Chairman President Yoweri Museveni that the person who “ate“ that post should not be appointed to any ministerial post.
This, they argued, would to enable the SG to devote all his/her energy to organizing and building the party, which was deemed critical, especially given the acrimony that marred NRM’s primaries in 2010.
As fate would have it, Mbabazi won the heavily contested race, beating former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya and Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Kahinda Otafiire, who sources say Museveni had tried to persuade to drop out, and failed.
About six months later while assembling a new post-victory cabinet in May 2011, when Museveni told the NEC that he had nominated Mbabazi for Prime Minister, Dokolo County MP Felix Okot Ogong and reminded him of that resolution.
In response, Museveni said he had asked Mbabazi to choose which of the two posts he preferred.
“Let him come to the microphone and tell us what his position is,” Museveni said.
Mbabazi told the NEC that he would relinquish the party secretariat and become Prime Minister. A year after his appointment, Mbabazi is yet to give up the secretary generalship, and is now fishing for legal loopholes to keep it.
When Lwemiyaga County MP Theodore Sekikubo raised the matter at a retreat in Kyankwanzi, Museveni said it was his fault because he had not identified an acting SG, pending party elections.
But the issue came to a head at the Central Executive Committee meeting on April 22, when Mbabazi’s wife Jacqueline booed members who insisted that a new SG be chosen. Museveni, a source at the meeting said, ordered her to shut up or be thrown out. This was found to be unusual, considering that less than a year ago, as Mbabazi faced demands by MPs from his own party to step down following oil corruption allegations, Museveni put his neck out to defend him.
The source told The Independent that members were shocked to see Museveni show such anger towards one considered his “most loyal and sober” ally, a hardworking and resourceful right-hand previously thought to have no presidential ambitions of his own.
Mbabazi reportedly told the CEC that he would leave after the party elected a new secretary general at the annual delegates’ conference, as provided by the party’s constitution.
When Museveni told him he could not be Prime Minister and SG at the same time as both jobs were demanding, yet critical for the success of a ruling party facing rising discontent within its ranks, Mbabazi reportedly pointed out that Museveni himself more than two jobs – as party chairman, president and commander in chief of the are forces. NRM members at the meeting were astonished, as they had never witnessed such an exchange between the two men.
When the NEC sat in Entebbe two days later, sources say Mbabazi had mobilised district chairpersons and other lower-level members of the party, mostly from Karamoja and Northern Uganda, to defend him.
With the help of former State Minister for Agriculture Hope Mwesigye, Mbabazi reportedly met the delegates at Emerald Hotel, a small establishment in Kampala, coached them, and paid them amounts between Shs 500,000 – 1,000,000 each. Most of these are said to be party flag-bearers who lost during elections to opposition and independent candidates.
When Mbabazi proposed to the NEC that a task force be instituted to study the constitutionality of his holding the two posts, his praise-singers cheered. When others argued that the party needed a full-time secretary general, Mbabazi’s group booed and heckled, accusing critics of being used by the opposition.
Mbabazi’s supporters spoke as if from a script.
“They kept running to Mwesigye for instructions,” said a source that attended the meeting. “It was embarrassing and Museveni seemed so upset he told Mbabazi’s mob to shut up.”
“Stop lying,” Museveni told them; “it is not true members are being used by the opposition because that was NEC’s resolution.”
Museveni said even without NEC’s resolution, he had always preferred that the SG be in full charge of the party without other disruptions. He said even under the movement, National Political Commissars – notably opposition leader Kizza Besigye and Minister of East Africa Community Affairs Eriya Kategaya – never took any other big responsibilities, and that is how they built the party.
Party members said Mbabazi’s part-time performance as SG, often delegating critical tasks to his deputy Beatrice Wabudeya, had bred bad blood in the party as conflicts went unresolved, degenerating into deeper rifts, including public clashes between the arliamentary caucus and the President.
By the meeting’s end, Museveni said he would handle the matter himself and identify a young, competent person to give the secretary generalship their full attention.
Not giving up
Addressing a press conference afterwards, Mbabazi said if the party wanted a full-time secretary general, its constitution should be amended.
However for one who seems to know the party constitution like the back of his hand, Mbabazi seems to have ignored one of the main functions of the SG, which is to implement all resolutions of the NEC and the party’s National Conference, among which was the requirement for a full-time SG.
Mbabazi has reportedly told sources that he would rather give up the priemiership, than SG. The million-dollar question is, what is so important about being NRM’s SG that Mbabazi is willing to jeopardize his relationship with his main benefactor to keep it?
As the succession and term limits debate heats up, even within NRM, most party members suspect that Mbabazi is using the position to nurture his own presidential ambitions. Control of the secretariat enables him to stay in touch with all party members, along with resources to control their loyalties.
“For someone who harbours ambitions of becoming the party head or president in future,” a top party member said, “the position of party secretary general eases mobilisation and keeps him connected to the people, which he can’t do as prime minister.”
“The secretariat is the centre of gravity and the secretary general is the heart of the party,” said NRM Vice Chairman for Eastern region and Soroti Municipality MP, Mike Mukula.
According to Mukula, having possession of the party’s data, membership details, members’ locations and other party intelligence, a secretary general is the most powerful person in the party, eclipsed only the chairman.
Political analyst and researcher Golooba Mutebi agrees with Mukula and says there is no comparison in terms of clout, between an NRM secretary general and prime minister. While the Prime Minister’s position appears powerful to an ordinary observer, it is more advisory. The secretary general on the other hand controls the party membership from grass roots to the top.
“The secretary general has both the resources and the power,” he said. The premiership complements this, as it helps him build clout outside the party on a national, regional and international platform, also critical to win the presidency.
Out of favour
The view of observers is that the writing is on the wall for Mbabazi: He has lost the favour of the President, his main ticket to the party’s top, and may forfeit both posts of secretary general and prime minister.
Given how hard Museveni pushed for Mbabazi’s victory as SG, some party members are concerned that the President appears indecisive. “His indecisiveness is weakening the party and we want to build a vibrant party,” Mukula said.
But others argue that the appointment of Mbabazi as premier – even knowing what the NEC had agreed upon – was deliberate, to remove him from the sensitive security docket and force him to give up the party’s secretary generalship.Golooba agrees: “If Museveni wanted to clip Mbabazi’s wings he would do it in one minute,” he told The Independent.
But Golooba also warned that it was imprudent to underestimate Mbabazi.
“I think some NRM members underestimate Mbabazi. He might be unpopular among the few party elites but with the masses at the lower level, he holds sway.”
Recent reports that Mbabazi had been grilled by the Police’s Criminal Investigations Division, allegedly for embezzlement of funds donated to the party, which he never declared, revealed that the prime minister may be following in the foot-steps of former vice President Gilbert Bukenya, who was said to have been tripped by similar ambitions.
Coming soon after the NEC meeting to which he was said to have paid a whole band of praise-singers, analysts say Museveni may have been more than upset – he may have finally decided to acknowledge and eliminate the threat Mbabazi presented to his stay in power.