By Haggai Matsiko
Why Mbabazi-Museveni fight threatens to widen fault lines in the ruling party months ahead of the 2016 polls
On Sept.19, a day after President Yoweri Museveni had sacked his long-serving Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi, the towering new US$36 million Chinese-built President’s office building was placed under distinct siege by police’s Counter Terrorism and Special Forces operatives.
There was no terrorism threat. Inside, Mbabazi was busy putting his issues in order for the last time. The security operatives anticipated tension.
But as security operatives hovered around his premises, Mbabazi emerged. In his usual calm demeanour when ambushed by journalists, Mbabazi offered a brief “there is nothing unusual here”.
“… [I] will remain loyal and dedicated to working with them [Public Service] whenever my services are needed,” he later noted in a presser giving no hint of what his next move would be.
As Amama Mbabazi, who has been Uganda’s Prime Minister for the last three years, clears way for his successor Rukana Rugunda, the seat of power on Plot 9-11, Sir Apollo Kaggwa Road, will never be the same again.
It is not for nothing that even before he was appointed prime minister, Amama Mbabazi once described himself as a “super minister”. As long as Museveni considered him loyal, even when Mbabazi served in Museveni’s government as a minister in-charge of Political Affairs under the president’s office in 1992, Attorney General and minister of Justice in 2004 and Minister of Defence in 2006, he wielded more clout than his seniors.
Political pundits like MP Ssemujju Nganda has always said that during the now Vice President Edward Ssekandi’s term as Speaker of Parliament, Mbabazi was the defacto speaker and head of government business. This is the first time since he took power in 1986 that Museveni will have a government without Mbabazi in it.
The heavy deployment after Mbabazi’s removal, pundits say, signals how the Museveni-Mbabazi power struggle at the heart of the ruling party could suck in security organs and the military.
Adam Luzindana who leads an army of youth loyal to Mbabazi and call themselves the NRM Poor Youth, told The Independent that as Museveni’s supporters run around attempting to undercut Mbabazi, the poor youth are also not sleeping.
“Security people thought we [Mbabazi supporters] would be angry,” Luzindana told The Independent the morning Mbabazi was fired, “but for us we are happy because now our candidate can now officially concentrate on 2016.”
Although he is no longer PM, Mbabazi remains an NRM big shot as the Secretary General of the party with Museveni as the chairman. The fallout bears the hallmark of what might turn out the ruling party’s biggest war in Museveni’s 28 years in power.
Because Museveni’s biggest challengers including three-time presidential contender, Kizza Besigye, former head of military intelligence David Sejusa aka Tinyefuza, and even former vice president Gilbert Bukenya, have always been break-away members of the NRM, pundits have for long predicted that “the beast that will expose the NRM will be from within”.
None of these challengers has been as close to Museveni politically or as influential in both government and the ruling party as Mbabazi.
Already, friction between Mbabazi and Museveni has in the past divided members of the ruling party’s governing organs—the Central Executive Committee (CEC) and the National Executive Committee (NEC) with some members siding with Mbabazi and others against him.
In the past the divisions have been about whether Mbabazi could retain both the Secretary General post and that of Prime Minister. Museveni has settled that.
In the next months, however, as the party rolls out its electoral road map, he will be looking at how to kick Mbabazi out of the Secretary general-ship, which currently is Mbabazi’s last political blood life.
Reading from Museveni’s 2005 meeting with Mbabazi himself, Otafiire and Kiyongo at State House Nakasero, one gets a clear picture of the NRM’s fate.
Citing four examples, Museveni explained why he didn’t want a strong SG.
He told the trio that the late president of Uganda, Milton Obote, had problems with three of his SGs in the 1960s – John Kakonge, Grace Ibingira, and later Felix Onama.
He also said Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya had problems with Tom Mboya, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania with Oscar Kambona, Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia with Simon Kapwempwe and Kamuzu Banda in Malawi with Kanyama Chume.
There is one common feature about these examples—when these presidents fell out with these officials, the officials were either eliminated or exiled, the presidents consolidated their grip on the parties but the parties did not remain the same. In this fight, both Museveni and Mbabazi have a lot at stake.
While President Museveni simply cannot tolerate any challenge from his backyard as he eyes 2016, Mbabazi finds himself faced with two choices with seemingly dire consequences.
Should he back away from the challenge, observers say, he is likely to sink into political oblivion and disappoint a growing constituency that currently sees him as Museveni’s most viable challenger given the state of doldrums that the opposition is in.
Should Mbabazi opt to take on President Museveni, he has to be ready for one of the ugliest political fights in the NRM’s history.
In situations like these, Mbabazi likes to sit and reflect hard enough on the next move. But approximately fifteen months to the 2016 polls, time is ticking fast. Museveni is clenching his fists ready to unleash anything that will remind Mbabazi who the boss is, a party insider told The Independent.
Museveni usually takes his time before springing into action the reason he for over a year kept many guessing when he would fire Mbabazi.
A source State House told The Independent that the ball is now in Mbabazi’s hands; he can come out and face the music or coil and hopefully calm the tempers.
Whatever choice the party SG makes, he must know what is in store for him. Already, dealing with him is the number one priority for the intelligence community and the security apparatus. A source within the party told The Independent, even in the NRM, a team led by Richard Todwong, who is in charge of political mobilisation, is working around the clock to undercut Mbabazi’s connections in the party.
A particular assignment for Todwong and company, a party source says, is taking stock of the party’s 10,000 members of the Delegates Conference. This is the only ground where Mbabazi, who personally keeps the party register, compiled by his daughter, Nina Mbabazi, is feared to be very influential.
The plan for Museveni and his camp is to upstage Mbabazi when the party calls the Delegates Conference, which Museveni has said will choose the party flag bearer. Earlier attempts to ring-fence the party chairman and flag bearer position for Museveni led to the March Kyankwazi resolution on a “sole candidate”.
The Todwong’s have all the support of another team led by the Inspector General of Police, Kale Kayihura and Special Forces Group Commander Muhoozi Kainerugaba.
Mbabazi’s supporters, however, have welcomed his sacking as a blessing in disguise. The NRM Poor Youth, led by Adam Luzindana, his Mbabazi’s former Personal Assistant are particularly more than ready to take the war to Museveni within the NRM.
In a Watsapp network that they have named JPAM (John Patrick Amama Mbabazi) Youth Network, they rant against Museveni’s alleged failures, tout Mbabazi as their candidate for 2016 and even campaign for Museveni’s supporters to wake up and smell the coffee.
They have printed T-shirts proclaiming Mbabazi as their 2016 candidate. At Nambole, they proudly wore the T-shirts and are not afraid of security, which has severally arrested them.
Mbabazi has appeared to cheer them on. In fact, a source in the group told The Independent, he was slated to appear on Watsapp to share a moment with them when Museveni swung the axe.
Luzindana is particularly confident about Mbabazi’s 2016 shot.
“He [Mbabazi] is going to contest,” Luzindana told The Independent, “and he is a strong candidate, he has the support of the masses and even some opposition leaders like [Kizza] Besigye.”
Mbabazi’s clash with Museveni has won him sympathy from even the opposition.
Besigye, a three-time contender against Museveni told reporters the same day that Mbabazi was fired that has for some time now Mbabazi has been treated as an enemy in the NRM, something that some interpreted as a way of saying Mbabazi was one of them [the opposition].
Sources even claim Besigye is open to the idea of Mbabazi joining and even taking a leadership role in the opposition.
It is early days to tell whether Mbabazi can bank on this sympathy, though. According to Beti Kamya, the president of Uganda Federal Alliance (UFA), Mbabazi faces one grim future—the thinning of his NRM circle and a loss, if he takes on President Museveni, who uses the treasury and the security apparatus as he pleases.
In the opposition, Kamya said while appearing on Capital Gang, Mbabazi does not have the luxury of getting the position he would want in the opposition—the top.
According to Major John Kazoora, who in the 90’s got caught up in a power struggle between Jim Muhwezi and Mbabazi, when the two headed ISO and ESO respectively, very few 1986 bush-war heroes have sympathies for Mbabazi because of his history in the NRA’s external wing. Apparently while his colleagues starved in the bush, Mbabazi lived a life of luxury on resources mobilised meant for the war.
Kazoora acknowledges that Mbabazi is a focussed man with a record of delivering and also knows a lot from his dealings with Museveni; however, he equally says that Mbabazi just like Bukenya was only as useful to Museveni for as long as he was loyal.
“With Museveni, it all depends on how Mbabazi reacts, if he keeps low, he will survive but if he chooses to carry on with his activities” Kazoora told The Independent, “I can put him beyond jail. Museveni sent Bukenya, who was a Vice President to jail. Mbabazi was only a Prime Minister”
However, opposition politicians like FDC’s Ssemujju Nganda and Abdu Katuntu admit that given that the natural leaders of the opposition like Besigye have come from the ruling party, Mbabazi cannot be ruled out as a leader in the opposition.
Whether the opposition respects Mbabazi or not, President Museveni and his supporters are working on one thing—ejecting him from the ruling party Secretary General (SG) post.
Museveni made this clear in 2012, when he told the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) that his wish was for Mbabazi to relinquish the SG post and remain Prime Minister.
Mbabazi defied the President and recently made matters worse when he accepted a spear—a symbol of power—and said that fighters like him do not back down from a fight once they have started it but aim to win it. Museveni’s supporters interpreted this as a challenge to Museveni.
Even back then, when Mbabazi and his army of supporters refused to heed his call, President Museveni promised NEC that he as president and party chairman would find a solution.
As part of this plan, sources say, Museveni embarked on undercutting Mbabazi’s spheres of influence by at first, closing the National Bank of Commerce (NBC), keeping his Chinese financier circles at bay and lastly completely shifting the power centre. Also while Mbabazi was able to traverse the country and mobilise in his official capacity as Prime Minister, security operatives are on standby to foil any attempts by him to mobilise.
In the past two decades, Mbabazi has been Museveni’s point’s man both in the NRM ranks right from the grassroots and in the mainstream government structure—in the intelligence circles, cabinet, parliament and even the judiciary. That has completely changed.
A new crop of leaders have replaced Mbabazi. Frank Tumwebaze, the Minister of Presidency takes care of the politics with the assistance of the likes of Richard Todwong, the de facto NRM secretary general.
The main force, however, is the Inspector General of Police, Kale Kayihura.
And both Kale Kayihura and Mbabazi have used the same tool—intelligence—to get at the centre of power.
Just like Mbabazi gathered intelligence about his enemies and what was considered Museveni’s threats, the leaked tapes revealed that Kayihura had been gathering intelligence on Mbabazi, his wife and others like the coordinator of intelligence services, David Tinyefuza, who has since remained in exile after the police chief burst his activities.
For Museveni, an insider told The Independent, a valuable cadre need not occupy an official position to wield influence of that position.
However, Museveni’s new breed of leaders lack the influence Mbabazi had on the security apparatus. That is where the Kayihura and Special Forces boss, Muhoozi Kainerugaba come in.
Yet this team also lacks another element that Mbabazi had, which coincidentally made him more powerful and ultimately—a threat.
None of Museveni’s new team has dominion over the ruling party like Mbabazi had.
Neither Muhoozi Kainerugaba nor Kayihura is a member of the ruling party’s governing organs.
Having been Justice Minister, Mbabazi has a network in the legal circles, his stint in the security ministry earned him contacts in Uganda’s intelligence circles and as the ruling party’s SG, Mbabazi also amassed a following that delivered him a land slide victory against former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya, Justice Minister Kahinda Otafiire and Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga.
This network in all the arms of government made Mbabazi so powerful and he brought this power to bear against whoever stood in the way of government or party business. With Mbabazi out, therefore, none of Museveni’s new crop of leaders can deliver this influence or most importantly bring it to bear on party members.
For instance, it is Mbabazi who hounded out of the NRM the four MPs that had become a thorn in the party’s flesh.
Rwemiyaga MP, Theodere Sekikubo, Buyaga county’s Banarbas Tinkasimire, Kampala’s Mohammed Nsereko and Wilfred Niwagaba, sources in the legal fraternity say, only won the Supreme Court case in which they were challenging the party when Mbabazi ignored the case to focus on his war with Museveni.
It is also Mbabazi who nipped in the bud Ruhinda Magulu’s case, in which the president’s former aide was challenging the ruling party for making Museveni the flag bearer without carrying out party primaries.
Therefore, while Mbabazi used these networks to serve himself, to a large extent, he used them to serve Museveni’s and by extension the NRM.
Now, whatever Mbabazi does, his biggest mission must be how to remain relevant if he values his political ambitions as he has made everyone believe.
But this path is riddled with threats ranging from the exposure of the few skeletons he has accumulated during his service, which Museveni would gladly throw at him.
The list of cases to learn from is endless. But Besigye and former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya are quick examples.
While Besigye endured a relentless barrage of charges and trials ranging from treason to rape, Bukenya had to spend a fortnight in prison.
In most of these cases, sources say, Mbabazi did the hatchet job. Bukenya told The Independent that Mbabazi told Museveni in his presence that he Bukenya was planning to over throw him.
When Bukenya was sent to Luzira on charges pressed by the Inspectorate of Government, critics claimed Mbabazi had used Raphael Baku, his former Personal Assistant and the then acting IGG to deal with the former VP.
With all these credentials, firing Mbabazi was always going to create tension and widen fault line in the party. For now, though, everyone is watching how Museveni will navigate the Mbabazi crisis and what implications his war with a man that was once his closest confidant will have for Uganda’s ruling party.