By Andrew M. Mwenda
What the humiliation of Mbabazi at Kyankwanzi portends for the succession of Museveni in NRM and Uganda
Last week, the Prime Minister and Secretary General of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) was forced to sign a resolution saying that President Yoweri Museveni will be the “sole” presidential candidate of the party.
The ambush and capitulation of Mbabazi at a retreat of NRM’s parliamentary caucus in Kyankwanzi opened doors for the amendment of the constitution to remove term limits. And more than that, it also set in motion a process that is most likely going to bolster chances of a family succession in Uganda.
History unfolds in ways that even major actors in it cannot predict or even intend to. For example, many of those who signed the resolution may have done so out of very short-term political, career, financial and other considerations. However, the long-term effect of this decision may be more than they bargained for. For example, this resolution, which was clearly aimed at nipping in the bud real and/or perceived ambitions of Mbabazi to succeed Museveni, may equally have destroyed the last credible alternative to the President in NRM. Without such an alternative, the door is open for a family succession.
That Mbabazi’s fall was in the making seems like a political inevitability given the credentials he has accumulated. He has been a Director General of External Security Organisation, a minister of defense, a minister of security, a minister of foreign affairs, a secretary general of the NRM and now a prime minister. He has played the role of Museveni’s special envoy on many missions. Given his personal discipline (he does not drink, smoke, or womanise), and given his work ethic (he works hard and smart and for long hours), Mbabazi carries all the credentials of the man to succeed Museveni.
Since 2000, his influence inside NRM as a political party and on Museveni as the leader of the government began to grow rapidly and by 2007 had become effective Number Two. That should have been a sign of his coming trouble – for the higher you climb in politics, the bigger is often the fall. Did Mbabazi see this coming? Did he ever develop presidential ambitions? Remember, it seems his star rose in large part because he exhibited no ambitions! Where did Mbabazi slip? Or were all the allegations that he was eyeing the top job exactly that – one of the many wild rumours that defines political discourse in Uganda?
Many commentators on Uganda’s political developments allow their desires to shape their conclusions instead of relying on existing facts to guide their analysis. Consequently, a lot of what goes for analysis is hope based on political preference. Indeed, the idea of analysis that is detached from one’s hopes and desires is so alien in Uganda’s political debate so much so that most commentators mistake it for preference. For example, each time I have argued that Uganda is likely to end up with Mrs. Janet Museveni succeeding her husband, critics have replied saying that I am campaigning for her.
Yet Mbabazi’s capitulation in Kyankwanzi should be seen as laying the foundation for her candidacy should Museveni die in office before his son Brig. Muhoozi Kainerugaba has left the army and joined mainstream politics. It is increasingly becoming difficult to stop family succession in Uganda precisely because of the way politics is evolving inside NRM. Anyone with credibility, experience, skills and legitimacy to challenge or even succeed Museveni in that party immediately becomes a target of attack.
This is because there are many people interested in such a position and the best way to improve their chances of becoming the successor is to destroy the one seen as most likely suited to succeed Museveni to the leadership of the party and country. Given Uganda’s culture of reliance on rumours, street gossip, idle talk and speculation to explain politics, allegations will always grow like flowers in June against anyone with the slightest possibility of being in line to succeed Museveni. Evidence will be manufactured, intelligence will be falsified, and wild allegations will be accepted.
Indeed, I am increasingly of the view that Museveni does not need to plan a family succession. If he tried, it would collapse on its face. Museveni will most likely leave Ugandan politics to drive to its own conclusion and it seems to me that even without his overt or even covert plans, the way NRM is working right now will deliver a family succession. This is because while all the major players in NRM are involved in a life and death battle to destroy each other, the only people who are beyond internal infighting are Museveni’s family members. This creates a situation where – should Museveni die accidentally – the only acceptable compromise is his wife or son.
Secondly, given the way things are moving inside the NRM, it is becoming increasingly difficult, almost impossible for Museveni to hand over power even if he wished to. The party is now rife with personal squabbles and infighting among its top leadership so much so that the only alternative to its degeneration into chaos is by keeping Museveni at the top of it. Indeed, so diverted has Museveni grown that today his main role is to act as a referee in the party’s internal competitions for power and influence. His value is in his ability to balance the competing interests that have consolidated.
This is the context in which Mbabazi’s fall needs to be understood. It is also the lens that allows us to see why Museveni will not leave power voluntarily even if he wished to. The stakes seem to be too big, the risks so high, the vested interests in his continued presidency too powerful and the power struggles in his party so intense that a situation has evolved in Uganda as had done in Marshal Mobutu SeseSeko’s Zaire where it was “it is either Mobutu or chaos.” Uganda has not reached such a level of state collapse. But it has reached a level of political paralysis that the dictum either Museveni wins or NRM loses is real.
The aim of every political party is to win and hold power. It now seems NRM can only hold power with Museveni – and after him his family member. Therefore it is in the interest of many NRM players that they keep Museveni in power for as long as they can and if he dies they look for someone from his family to keep them together.
Museveni and family are, therefore, as much hostages of the interests of their coalition as they are its principle architects. This may not have been the subjective motivation of those who fought Mbabazi but it seems to me that it is the most likely objective outcome of their action.