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Are NRM bush war heroes plotting against Museveni?

By Odoobo C. Bichachi & P. Matsiko wa Mucoori

Kololo meetings celebrate Otafiire ‘downfall’; 2016 is too far to wait

In his autobiography, Sowing the Mustard Seed; the Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni argued that in his search for power, former Ugandan President Milton Obote (RIP) ‘provoked divisions even within his own party.’

‘In every district, there would be several wings of the UPC [Uganda Peoples’ Congress] ‘ the [Paulo] Muwanga faction, the [Grace] Ibingira faction, the [John] Kakonge faction and so on. All these people were constantly reporting each other to Obote. Whenever people were united, Obote was worried. In the end, this kind of system was bound to collapse,’ Museveni writes.

And collapse it did; on January 25, 1971, army commander Idi Amin staged a successful military coup d’tat against Obote. Has Museveni learnt this lesson he observed about Obote and which he has been so eager to teach?

Inside sources say that NRM has developed factions similar to those of Obote. But rather than seek to undermine them, insiders say, the president has instead been nurturing them and exploiting them to his advantage as Obote used to.

How these factions play out and whether they will be a real threat to Museveni’s hold on power will be tested in the coming months when the president pushes his second round of constitutional amendments seeking to lift the age limit on the presidency, remove the 50+1 constitutional requirement to win a presidential election replacing it with the ‘simple majority vote’ provision. And if that fails, Museveni will seek to revert the country to the parliamentary system where the president is elected by the winning party, not direct adult suffrage like it is today.

Sources have indicated to The Independent that there is a growing resolve among some of the factions to oppose the amendments. ‘Is being president a profession? No one should deceive the country that without him Uganda cannot survive. We must stand up as fighters and tell Museveni that this is wrong and this is right. Ugandans are mature enough and no one will cause chaos,’ one General (name withheld) said at one of the meetings at a Kololo restaurant early last month.

Normally, the most intense political contests tend to take place where power is concentrated. In Uganda’s case, the personalisation of power by Museveni has tended to centralise it at State House. Consequently, the most intense battles over access to and therefore influence over the president are being fought at State House.

There is still some residual power in what exists as the ruling party, NRM and therefore more battle and competition does take place here although with a highly reduced intensity compared to State House. Question: which are the major factions vying for power and influence? Who are the major actors and leaders in these battles? What is driving the factions in this increasingly fracturing political party? What are the likely implications of these battles over Uganda’s troubled present and uncertain future?

According to insiders, the major battles at State House consist of three major factions. One is led by Security Minister and Museveni’s favourite, Amama Mbabazi. The second is led by the president’s Principal Private Secretary (PPS), Ms Amelia Kyambadde while the third faction is led by the First Lady and State Minister for Karamoja, Mrs Janet Museveni. Sources say the battle between these two women and one man is determining the characteristic outlines of what Uganda is likely to end up in.

There is, however, another battle for power inside the government and the NRM itself. Here, there is the battle between Mbabazi and Vice President Gilbert Bukenya over any possible succession. There is also the battle by Major Generals Kahinda Otafiire and Jim Muhwezi against Mbabazi. Below these are sub-battles of an ethnic or regional nature: For example, the battle within the Kigezi Parliamentary Group, the wars between Deputy Speaker, Rebecca Kadaga and Third Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs, Alhaji Kirunda Kivejinja in Busoga region and so on and so forth.

Plots and counter-plots

According to The Independent‘s sources, several meetings of the different factions in NRM have been taking place at different locations in Kampala; attended by both NRM ‘historicals’ who have fallen out with the president, and those still serving. The former bush war fighters especially, are reportedly angry at being sidelined and Museveni’s seeming intention to have Mbabazi succeed him.

Museveni’s latest cabinet reshuffle largely mirrored Mbabazi’s influence in the party, with his chief antagonist in cabinet, Trade Minister, Maj. Gen. Kahinda Otafiire, getting sidelined.

A source told The Independent that a few days to the reshuffle, a group of Mbabazi’s supporters held a party in a residence of one minister in Kololo celebrating the supposed downfall of Otafiire—which never came to pass.

‘There was jubilation that Otafiire had been sacked. But Museveni refused to sack him possibly because he knew that with Otafiire out of cabinet, he could be tempted to mobilise against government alongside old comrades Amanya Mushega and even Kizza Besigye. So for purposes of cohesion and stability he was brought back,’ said a source in State House.

Apparently, Mbabazi’s supporters accused Otafiire of using his access to local government structures when he was Local Government minister, to strengthen his political network ahead of the next general elections.

Be that as it may, many political observers say Mbabazi is now in a comfortable position in the much talked about ‘queue’ to succeed President Museveni. He has been re-equipped with more support in government while his opponents who castigated his involvement in the NSSF-Temangalo land saga did not influence as many ministerial appointments as him.

The appointment of Perez Ahabwe, Asuman Kiyingi, James Kakooza and Jessica Alupo as junior ministers is an indication that Mbabazi retains political clout. They backed him over Temangalo.

Inside sources, however say the appointment of Ms Museveni as State Minister for Karamonja Affairs has set Mbabazi’s faction aback because she will give a lease of life to her allies like Otafiire and Muhwezi.

What is breeding the factions?

Some of the 1981-86 bush war ‘historicals’ like Major John Kazoora attribute this infighting to loss of ideological direction in the NRM.Â

‘Look at the disagreements between Mbabazi and Otafiire during the Temangalo [land saga]; what ideological differences are there between them? None! They are looking at the post-Museveni era and who will be controlling what,’ he told The Independent.

Maj. Kazoora, who is now a member of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party, said that even in the bush there used to be some disagreements among fighters in the military wing and members of the political wing. But what used to bind them together was the collective objective of winning the war and restoring democracy in the country.  But today, he says, the NRM has lost that ideological direction which held everybody together and that’s why they are fragmenting.  ‘NRM has now moved away from the bush war ideology of ‘fundamental change’, to ‘no change’ and now to ‘life presidency’,’ adding, ‘it’s now a free field and everybody is positioning himself to grab what is available.’

Kazoora believes the infighting in the NRM is about control of resources and power, not because of ideological differences so it should not excite Ugandans.

Many analysts indeed share this view; that the emerging factions in NRM are motivated by the need to prove who is stronger than the other, who can be in charge when Museveni is finally out of the political stage.

But besides the fight over control of resources, the infighting in the NRM runs back to historical differences during the 1981-86 bush war. Jack Sabiiti, one of those who were in the NRM political wing during the Luweero war told The Independent that some people made fundamental mistakes which have continued to haunt others. He declined to give details of the ‘fundamental mistakes’ but said they caused serious problems within the NRM rank and file yet the offenders have never apologised to their aggrieved colleagues. In such a situation of an unhealed past, any slight disagreement can resurrect the old wounds and cause friction within the respective party.

But there is also the fact that the NRM has stayed for a long time in power (23 years) and is therefore vulnerable to cracks within its ranks because over time, people tend to develop differences whether personal or ideological over certain issues.

When NRM/A came from the bush, some people had their own ambitions of leading the country one day. Now each sees the other as the obstacle to his/her ambitions. First, none of them thought President Museveni would stay in power for this long. So those who had projected to take over from him as president are growing frustrated at the thinning chances of ever realising their dream. They see Museveni as not leaving power, something that is heightening their disillusionment.

Sabiiti however says some of the causes of the factionalism are purely personal differences over certain issues. He declines to give examples but observes that if such differences continue, they will weaken the party and the presidency too.

But fundamentally, analysts say, there is a good number of top NRM leaders who think the way the party is handling affairs of the state has taken a completely different direction from what they had envisaged. And this ideological difference has occasioned confusion within the party and is a major cause of the growing friction among the NRM ideologues.

Will it be 2011 or 2016?

There seems to be no agreement within the bickering factions in the NRM on whether they should push Museveni out in 2011, or wait until 2016.

A former director of an intelligence organisation (names withheld) in one of the meetings became agitated when his colleague, a decorated general, suggested that they should support Museveni for the fourth term because after that, common sense and nature would ensure that he relinquishes power.

‘What are you saying, the NRM we fought for is not there and we are not part of the so-called NRM party. We should not allow this man to confuse the country; 2016 is far to let him stay in power,’ he old his colleagues.

Another general who has fallen out with the regime told our reporter that Museveni should not expect to win when he is mistreating his comrades who sacrificed to bring him to power.

‘Museveni should not expect me to campaign for him in 2011 and he should forget that he will win when he is sidelining us and treating us (fighters) like this. I am not alone, I am representing a voice of many colleagues, I have accepted to die in prison but I will not apologise to him,’ he said.

Sources within cabinet told The Independent that the succession battles are intensifying as intrigue and counter-schemes are increasing. Sources further say that the real battle is between Mbabazi on one side, and Otafiire and First Lady Ms Janet Museveni working closely on the other hand. Vice President Gilbert Bukenya who in the past has been fought to the woods by Mbabazi seems to be a lone ranger but is a rallying centre for ministers and MPs from Buganda and eastern Uganda. Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa, who is also an in-law to the president, may naturally gravitate towards Janet Museveni’s camp but he is reportedly wary of Otafiire who once drew a gun against his late wife Jenipher. So he seems to have taken the ‘safe route’ out of the wrangles ‘ business.

Is Museveni trapped?

‘All these factions will have a big impact on both the party and the presidency. If the presidency is weakened, despite the claim of military might, there will be external factors that may eventually cause the regime and the party to collapse like what happened during the Obote II [1985],’ one political commentator said.

However for Dr John Jean Barya, a professor at Makerere University’s Faculty of Law, it is still early times. Dr Barya says this is Museveni’s style of management. If he keeps some individuals in the party fighting each other, it helps him to remain the dominant force in the NRM because they will never come together to challenge his status quo both in government and the party.  He will remain the godfather to all of them because each will be coming to him for support or he becomes an arbitrator between the fighting parties.

He says that soon, the NRM old guard will be phased out to give an impression that the party is on self renewal; new faces will emerge to give a semblance of a rejuvenated NRM and the few remaining old guards in the NRM like Mbabazi and Otafiire will eventually go away.

‘But Museveni will not chase them now,’ Barya says, ‘because he cannot afford to fight everybody at ago. Museveni will keep Mbabazi and Otafiire in the short run but they will not remain for long.’

Dr Barya’s view is reinforced by that of a senior NRM leader from eastern Uganda who told The Independent that they are saddened by the way the party chairman and president of Uganda, Museveni, has handled the differences within the party.

‘When you complain to him he will look at you, then when you leave he calls the person you have complained to him about and tells him how all that he is doing is fine yet he had promised you that he would sort out your problems,’ this party leader said, preferring to remain anonymous.

‘He only meets and tries to reconcile us during elections where he promises to reward both parties if they united and won an election. He benefits from these wrangles because at the end of it all, he will remain the king and the mediator of the parties,’ said the party leader, adding that; ‘All these differences benefit Museveni and Mbabazi because they agreed to kill the party structures and stifle all leaders that can market the party ideology.’

Whatever can be said of the infighting in NRM, it is clear President Museveni is riding the high tide and depending on how the factions play out, he could end up like Obote or Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi. When Moi failed to fiddle with the constitution to run again, he chose to anoint a successor and naturally from among the four factions ‘ George Saitoti, Musalia Mudavadi, Uhuru Kenyatta and Kalonzo Musyoka ‘ that had been jostling to succeed him. It blew in his face when he named Kenyatta, resulting in the desertion of the party KANU and its routing at the 2002 general elections.

President Museveni’s recent but long delayed cabinet reshuffle is his attempt to rein in the factions but also signal a succession queue in case he fails to continue governing. Unfortunately at that point, he seems not only to have sided with one faction against the others ‘ setting him up for a ride or a fall, but he has also introduced another figure to the equation; his wife Janet.

As one party official put it, ‘This cabinet is going to determine whether NRM as a party will continue being in power for long or if it will descend into factions like KANU of Kenya. You cannot claim to be a strong party when the party chairman is stronger than the party structures and operates in his interests.’

The die has been cast.

-Additional reporting by Steven Kibuuka

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