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NRM’s tough choices Why Museveni will not support Mbabazi against independents

By eriasa mukiibi sserunjigi

On Dec. 20, President Yoweri Museveni will take his re-election campaign to Kamuli district, home to three important members of his government. There will be no controversy around Deputy Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga, who is looking to retain her seat as district Woman MP on NRM ticket.

The situation of two junior ministers – Buzaaya County MP and Regional Affairs State Minister Isaac Musumba and Bugabula South MP and Lands State Minister Asuman Kiyingi – is different. They are seeking re-election as `rebels’ or `independents’ as party-leaning parliamentary candidates who lost in the primaries to select party flag-bearers but have rejected calls to step down.

Their presence in Kamuli, and indeed, the whole country poses a strategic challenge for President Yoweri Museveni. The rift they create in the party has Museveni’s loyalty divided as party leader demanding cohesion and as a presidential candidate seeking popularity. And the strategic dissonance is set to play out on the campaign podium. In Kamuli, for example, Museveni will most likely share the stage with Kadaga. But will rebellious Musumba and Kiyingi join him on the podium? Even if they do not show up at his rallies, will Museveni campaign against them in favour of the official flag-bearers?

Although the phenomenon of rebel independents has been around for some time, Museveni has not campaigned against them. In fact, most of them, like Kiyingi in Kamuli, have printed their campaign paraphernalia in NRM party colours with Museveni featuring prominently.

Instead, in October last year, Mbabazi attempted to stymie the tide of independents when he told party officials in Hoima district that the party would table a bill in parliament to block individuals from contesting parliamentary and local council elections. The threat fell through.

It has emerged that many independents are better known to Museveni and the voters than the official flag-bearers. Most, like Musumba in Kamuli, claim they are the best candidates for NRM in the area but were defeated because of NRM Electoral Commission shenanigans.

Musumba was third in the primaries and is angry that the NRM Electoral Commission failed to dismiss Martin Muzaale, the Kamuli district councillor who defeated him. Muzaale allegedly spread a rumour that Musumba killed a person. Musumba says this turned the voters against him.

Most independents blame the NRM party Secretary General, Amama Mbabazi for their woes.

“The man (Mbabazi) wants a showdown (and) he will get it,” says Edward Babu, who is running for Kampala Mayor as an independent. Babu is angry that Mbabazi “anointed” Peter Ssematimba, a relative johnie-come-lately in the party as the official flag-bearer.

Babu sees himself as a top-honcho of the party. He is the NRM regional vice chairperson for Kampala, a third-tier position in party hierarchy, and is also a member of its highest administrative and policy organ, the Central Executive Committee (CEC). Sematimba is a lowly Rubaga division chairperson. Babu is angry that he was not consulted over Ssematimba’s candidature.

He started his campaign on Dec. 5 at Nakulabye market in a defiant mood, explaining to the voters that NRM has no rightful flag-bearer since primaries for the position were never held at all, contrary to the NRM Constitution.

Abim district Woman MP, Janet Okori-Moe, is also a member of CEC who is running as independent. She told The Independent that primaries in her district were rigged and 8000 voters did not vote. She wrote a formal petition to the party EC.

“(Former NRM Electoral Commission boss Felicitous) Magomu left a recommendation that these people should vote but when (Elijah) Mushemeza came he just declared a flag-bearer,” said Okori-Moe.

She is angry that her grievances were discussed in CEC in her absence and as “a by-the-way”.

Top party members, ministers, and MPs who feel aggrieved blame Mbabazi and have been plotting to kick him out of the secretary general job.

The Independent has learnt that they initially secretly solicited signatures for a petition against Mbabazi as a vote of no-confidence for his alleged mishandling of party activities. An NRM member who is running on independent ticket and says he signed the petition paper as N0. 73, said this idea had been mooted as a tool to pressure President Museveni to trim Mbabazi’s powers.

This plot failed when they were warned of “Mbabazi’s intelligence machinery (learning of it and) using it against us”. The rebels feared that Mbabazi would build a case that the independents are working against NRM. Instead, they agreed to “openly confront” the officers at NRM secretariat led by Mbabazi.

The source went on that it was decided that any discussions between independents should be conducted with public knowledge to deny Mbabazi the opportunity to report to the President that the independents are holding secret meetings with sinister motives.

That is how the widely vaunted but poorly attended address to journalists came to be held at Parliament on Dec. 6.

The (self-appointed?) steering committee of the NRM independents, led by Kabarole Woman MP Margaret Muhanga, were raging over an earlier “step-down or quit party “ultimatum to them attributed to Mbabazi.

“How can anyone pass such an ultimatum; who do they think they are?” wondered Ibanda North MP Guma Gumisiriza, one of the independents. Reading from a pre-prepared statement, Muhanga said they decided to run as independents to protect the party, its chairman (President Museveni) and its supporters from “individuals who want to usurp power.”

The national Electoral Commission registered over 390 independent candidates for parliament, most of them NRM-leaning, including 52 MPs and eight ministers. However, only eight MPs turned up for the Dec.6 “open confrontation”.

Where were the rest? Did they fear to openly confront Mbabazi?

No, Muhanga explained, they were merely in their constituencies canvassing votes. Muhanga and Gumisiriza were joined by Fort Portal Municipality MP Stephen Kaleeba, Female Youth MP Mariam Nalubega who is now standing for Butambala district Woman MP, Bunya County East MP James Kubaketerya, Buluuli County MP Erisa Kaahwa Amooti, Ashraf Noah Olega of Aringa County and Buhaguzi County’s Tomson Kyahurwenda Abwooli. No minister attended.

Despite Muhanga’s claims and apparent bravado, not many NRM party members are in a hurry to confront Mbabazi openly.

Mbabazi, who has come to be known as a “super minister” because of his closeness to and special assignments he does for President Museveni, showed his mettle when he gave Vice President Gilbert Bukenya, minister of Trade Kahinda Otafiire and Mushemeza a thorough beating during the party primaries. The gang contested against Mbabazi for the party secretary general job but their combined vote was less than half of his votes.

Not satisfied, Mbabazi was again on the firing line when the Parliamentary Accounts Committee tabled to parliament its findings of alleged misuse of funds and abuse of office during the 2007 CHOGM in Kampala. Some MPs, hoping to censure Mbabazi and other ministers, demanded individual accountability. Mbabazi and co. were let off the hook on a technicality – the Speaker Edward Ssekandi ruled in favour of “collective responsibility”.

It appears Mbabazi, who favours a debonair public demeanor with his well-trimmed grey moustache and sharp suits, is an untouchable, calculating, and smooth backroom operator. In 2008, Mbabazi appeared cornered when it was alleged that he colluded with a city businessman to pilfer over Shs11 billion from the national private sector pension scheme,   the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) in a dubious land sale. Mbabazi was absolved by a parliamentary vote after President Museveni summoned the NRM Caucus MPs to State House a few days earlier.

Some Independents hope, however, that the current impasse will hurt Mbabazi. “It is Mbabazi’s team that mismanaged the primaries and should be the one to pay for it,” one of the defiant candidates told The Independent. But that is highly unlikely as another independent who preferred anonymity said the party has more pressing problems.

“The President is busy fighting to keep his job and Mbabazi will also have a run for his money in Kinkizi [West] (in Kanungu district),” the NRM-leaning independent observed.

According to this source, the NRM is having difficulty raising money to fund some of its flag-bearers against some incumbents and ministers who are running as independents. The Shs30 million parliamentary flag-bearers are likely to get, he said, is just “peanuts” given the demands of the campaigns and it will not necessarily advantage some flag-bearers. Apparently, President Museveni, who is the party’s leading fundraiser, has not approached his usual sources of campaign money in the private sector.

But the independents appear to have calculated that despite various warnings and ultimatums, there is not much that Museveni and his right-hand man, Mbabazi, can do to stop them as official campaigns start on Dec.16.

At the press briefing, Muhanga made this point.

“Has the president said anything (about independents); why was he seconded (at his nomination at Namboole) by Alex Onzima when there is an official flag-bearer?”

Onzima, who defected from FDC, is an NRM-leaning independent vying for the Maracha County seat.

There is also a claim that Museveni could, in fact, be exploiting the emergence of independents. Museveni is reportedly anxious about Mbabazi’s bourgeoning clout, especially regarding claims that Mbabazi ensured that the official NRM flag-bearers are mainly his allies and protégés.

Museveni may not consider this a serious claim, but sources say, he is happy to keep his options open by supporting a host of independents as an alternative power base which could not only counter Mbabazi’s influence, but would also provide him with the opportunity to continually mediate between conflicting centres of power within NRM.

In any case, the NRM constitution has a clause that can be used against independents. Under Article 8(5), campaigning for a candidate sponsored by another party and/or campaigning against an NRM flag-bearer can lead to dismissal from the party. It has not been invoked.

The favoured strategy to deal with independents within NRM is negotiations. But even this is wearing thin.

“We have been talking about this since August; I cannot lament anymore,” says Youth MP Nalubega, who is challenging NRM octogenarian and Education Minister Namirembe Bitamazire for the newly created Butambala District Woman MP seat.

The MP whose phone caller tune is President Museveni’s rap song, “Another Rap”, says “NRM can go on with their plans and I will proceed with mine”.

Naubega speaks for many of the 360 NRM-leaning parliamentary candidates who have defied Museveni, Mbabazi and their party to run as independent. Unless Mbabazi can pull another of his magic tricks, the NRM seems set to go into the 2011 elections as a divided party.

Faced with seven formidable challengers, including Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) candidate Kizza Besigye who is running against Museveni for the third time, the independents could prove the weakest link in Museveni’s bid in 2011.  They could also prove an opportunity for him to remodel the party, and his government, if he wins.

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