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Power slipping away from Museveni in NRM

By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi

Parliament rebels, Muhoozi not in control of army, no bail law for opponents

Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi usually prefers to be the perfect picture of calm even at his most harassed moments.

So a few eyebrows went up when the dapper NRM-strongman, on the afternoon of July 21, hurriedly walked into parliament with his sharp black suit and blue necktie flying.

Mbabazi, who is the Leader of Government Business in parliament, the Secretary General of NRM, and a canny operator, appears to have been in a rush to bolster a push by his deputy, Gen. Moses Ali and the Minister of State for Finance Aston Kajara to get the additional funding for the ministry of Energy. But he was too late.

All he could do was to ask parliament to defer debate on a government request for a Shs 61.3 billion cheque to pay subsidy arrears to thermo electricity producers who weeks earlier had cut supply and plunged the country into darkness and possible economic ruin.

Mbabazi’s next target became clear soon enough; new-controversial kid in the House, Muhammad Nsereko (Kampala Central). Nsereko had just tabled his first successful motion on the floor of Parliament – to set up a committee to investigate alleged misconduct in the Energy ministry.

“What is going on?” Mbabazi asked as soon as he bumped into Nsereko in the corridor.

It was a loaded and desperate query. Mbabazi and Nsereko have clashed before over election campaign finances and ministerial jobs. But Mbabazi, the Government Chief Whip, John Nasasira, and the NRM party boss, President Yoweri Museveni, are desperate about Nsereko for more pertinent reasons. He is ahead of a new pack of MPs who have so far made a habit of killing off party moves in parliament with friendly fire.

Despite belonging to the same NRM party, new MPs like Nsereko who are out to make an early mark, are not making it easy for Mbabazi to herd them into one sub-servile rubber-stamp of Museveni’s whims.

Almost immediately the new parliament was sworn in, Nsereko put Museveni on notice to expect opposition by openly criticising Mbabazi’s appointment as Prime Minister, saying it was a bad signal in the war against corruption since Mbabazi had faced corruption accusations.

In another unprecedented move, the Parliamentary Appointments Committee chaired by Speaker Rebecca Kadaga and dominated by NRM MPs, soon followed up by rejecting five of Museveni’s ministerial appointments.

But the biggest blow to Museveni so far has come from NRM women MPs, a corner from which Museveni traditionally expected no problems. Trouble erupted over the election of chairperson of the influential Uganda Women Parliamentarians Association (UWOPA).

President Museveni and his wife, Janet Museveni reportedly favoured Ibanda District woman MP, Margaret Kiboijana for the slot. However, their plans were scuttled when, during their NRM primaries, women MPs instead voted for Sheema District Woman MP, Rosemary Nyakikongoro. She won by a few votes in a tight race. Although she is NRM-leaning, Nyakikongoro is officially an independent MP. So her win angered the true-blood NRM. In anger, on voting day July 8, many of these NRM women voted for the opposition UPC candidate, Betty Amongi.

Since then, NRM insiders fear that the next victim of the NRM chopping squad could be Nasasira. Some ruling party MPs are questioning how Museveni appointed the Kazo MP to head the NRM Caucus. They argue that according to the party constitution, the holder of the post is supposed to be voted for by the caucus.

Nasasira is the third NRM Chief whip to chair the NRM MPs Caucus. All previous holders of the position were never challenged despite being Museveni appointees.

Anger against Nasasira has erupted over the so-called `Code of Conduct’ for the MPs that he is expected to release soon. The code of conduct is apparently designed to ensure that MPs toe the party line but some MPs appear determined to oppose it and debate and vote in what they are calling “public interest”.

“We shall wait and see what the code says,” one of the MPs said, “Nasasira should expect ‘opposition if it is obnoxious.”

“Nasasira lacks legitimacy as leader of the caucus,” another NRM MP who requested anonymity for fear of reprimand said, “but he can regain it by conducting the caucus business according to acceptable rules.”

She predicted that Nasasira would fail if he resorts to threats to push positions members feel are unpopular.

Trouble ahead

The omens do not look good for President Museveni. Observers say Museveni could resort to other means, including using the army, to cling to power if he fails to get his way with crucial legislation in Parliament. But this choice is being imposed on him when he is 67 and frail.

Although his son, Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, has a firm foothold in the army, he is not yet entrenched enough to guarantee that the armed forces remain loyal to Museveni in times of crisis. It is partly for this reason that the President’s younger brother, Gen. Caleb Akandwanaho aka Salim Saleh is currently schmoozing with ex-servicemen in northern and West Nile regions. His modus operandi is to ensure their loyalty to Museveni.

Museveni also wants to use the law to gain a firmer grip on opposition politicians. That is why he is anxious to push through parliament an unpopular law scrapping bail for suspects accused of ‘economic sabotage’. Although he had mooted it in the past, the President reignited his demand for bail for some suspects to be scrapped when the FDC President, Col. Dr Kizza Besigye, led massive `Walk-to-Work’ protests in the city early this year. The law is, therefore, designed to ensure that suspects arrested in such protests are locked away for at least six months.

A committee of NRM lawyers under Prime Minister Mbabazi has already been set up to ‘study the legal issues around this proposal and come up with a legally tenable proposal’. The other offences for which Museveni wants no bail include murder, rape and treason. But it has been opposed even within the NRM camp. Even Maj. Gen. Jim Muhwezi, one of the very few Museveni generation bush war colleagues still surviving in parliament, says the proposal to ban bail for some offenses is fraught with complications. “It would defeat the end of justice and presumption of innocence,” he told The Independent, “Innocent people will be incarcerated for a minimum of six months just on the basis of mere suspicion. Even its framers could fall victim at some point.”

But Muhwezi is not one of the MPs Museveni is most worried about at the moment. The President’s biggest concern, says Makerere University political historian Mwambutsya Ndebesa, are the new MPs ‘who for various reasons may want to do things differently’.

President Museveni has, until now, played the numbers game in parliament. But his camp is now dominated by these new MPs whose loyalty to him is not guaranteed. Insiders say he is frantically fighting to get as many of them as possible firmly into his camp.

Museveni dangles money again

A rubber-stamp NRM Caucus is crucial for Museveni because over the past 25 years, he has relied on different sets of people to extract favourable resolutions from parliament and other organs of state. Observers say the challenge he now faces is to rely on people in their 30s, which is three generations away from his bush war colleagues, and without historical debts and gratitude to Museveni.

Therefore, although, on paper, Museveni has the numbers to pass any Bill in parliament, the election of opposition UPC MP Betty Amongi to the UWOPA chair on July 8 showed that the NRM cannot count on how the new breed of mavericks in its ranks would vote.

Amongi’s UPC has only four female MPs in the House, but she beat the candidate of the powerful NRM which has 97 female MPs because they were not united. It could happen on any vote. That explains Museveni’s determination to beat the new NRM MPs into line.

Observers say it’s this anxiety that has led to the numerous NRM caucus meetings in State House and agricultural modernisation tours in which President Museveni has schmoozed with MPs and ‘sized them up’ with the view to stamping his authority.

Apart from hosting the MPs to nominate the NRM’s candidates for Speaker and Deputy Speaker just over two months ago, the President still found it necessary to host them again for three days beginning on July 17, first at his country home in Rwakitura for an ‘agricultural modernisation tour’  and later for a closed door meeting at State House Entebbe.

As they toured farms in Masaka, Mbarara and Kiruhura districts, many easily figured out that their host’s cardinal preoccupation was not modernisation of agriculture.

“Although the President showed willingness to listen to the different views, he seemed most interested in unifying the party position in parliament,” an MP on the tours told The Independent.

President Museveni was widely criticised in December last year when the government gave MPs Shs 20 million each to purportedly monitor National Agriculture Advisory Services (NAADS) projects in their constituencies. Some opposition MPs labelled the money a `bribe’ for passing the unpopular traditional leaders Bill and rejected it.

There is now word of the President `facilitating’ the new MPs to set up model farms and monitor agricultural projects in their constituency.

“We can’t modernise agriculture without money (and) the president knows it,” one of the MPs who are looking at the money in it told The Independent.

Dangling money at MPs to get his way has in the past worked for the President. This time, however, the numbers are tighter and the stakes higher.

“Museveni has increasingly hinged his influence on offering money and jobs but the MPs know he currently does not have enough,” says Makerere University political science professor Aaron Mukwaya.

Another Makerere University professor, Yasin Olum, agrees that given that the NRM is not as popular as it was in the past, especially due to the current economic woes, “some of its MPs may not be willing to blindly peg their political destinies to those of the party whatever happens”.

New power centres

The situation today is a broader replay of Museveni’s struggle to maintain party unity after Col. Kizza Besigye broke ranks and penned the controversial missive entitled: ‘An Insider’s View of how the NRM Lost the Broad Base’ in 1999.

Besigye, who was then a serving army officer and had been deeply involved in the politics of the Movement, named individuals Museveni had used to ‘manipulate’ the Constituent Assembly to achieve his ends.

He referred to a meeting between Museveni and his confidants at his farm in Kisozi in Gomba district, where he said a plan to pass Museveni’s views through the CA was hatched. Those in attendance, Besigye said, were “H.E. the President (Chair), Eriya Kategaya, Bidandi Ssali, Steven Chebrot, Agard Didi, George Kanyeihamba. Miria Matembe, Mathias Ngobi, Mike Sebalu, Lt Noble Mayombo, Jotham Tumwesigye, Aziz Kasujja, Beatrice Lagada, Faith Mwonda and Margaret Zziwa.”

Of all these, only Kategaya is in the 9th Parliament, but as an ex-official member without voting powers on key issues like whether to lift bail on some offenses. Kategaya, who wielded immense power at the time, does not seem to have any significant influence over the new NRM MPs. Museveni faces the same fate unless he can turn the tide. His waning clout was felt when his nominees were thrown out and others humiliated.

Kategaya, Janet Museveni, and another long-serving Museveni ally in cabinet, Henry Muganwa Kajura, were thoroughly humiliated during the vetting.

Janet Museveni, 63, was asked if she is not ashamed to be minister in a family-affair cabinet led by her husband. “You are greedy!” the Leader of Opposition, Nathan Nandala Mafabi, snapped at her.

New Masaka municipality MP, Mathias Mpuuga, 36, fired a similar volley at 77-year old Kajura. Mpuuga first said he was just three years old when Kajura was governor of Bank of Uganda in 1978.

Then Mpuuga taunted the elder: “Are you not ashamed that I’m now the one interviewing you to be a minister? Does this country owe you a living?”

The same committee kicked out Kabula MP James Kakooza, who in 2003 led the campaign to amend the constitution to remove term limits on the presidency so that Museveni could run again and again. Kakooza’s rejection is significant because he had been successfully vetted by the more malleable 8th parliament.

Some observers have said, the current disunity in NRM is a result of an increasing tendency within the NRM for ‘various centres of power’ to emerge over every issue as they position themselves for the battle for power in a post-Museveni era.

One MP, who was elected on independent ticket but attended the recent caucus, told The Independent that these ‘centres of power were very active’ in the last campaigns and in some cases supported candidates who eventually won.

“They would like to see reform in the party,” the MP says, “but they don’t want to say so publicly.”

The MP said some of the new MPs and even others who made it back to thThe MP said some of the new MPs and even others who made it back to the House were denied official NRM party funding but still won, a situation that has made them ‘reconsider their priorities’.

Prof. Olum agrees that as Museveni ‘grows frustrated’ that the transforma­tion he hoped to cause in Uganda does not seem to be happening yet he is grow­ing older and ‘increasingly losing control over matters of state and the party’, some of the new party members may want to avoid the criticism the last parliament faced and chart a new direction for the party.

But Museveni still has one vital tool; cabi­net jobs, for beating errant NRM MPs into the party line. When Museveni named his new cabinet recently, he deliberately left one ministerial post (State for East African Affairs) vacant. Prof. Mwambutsya says this was designed to keep MPs who were left out of cabinet hoping that any time they could be appointed to cabinet. If true, parliament’s rejection of four of his nomi­nees strengthened Museveni’s hand. He now has five ministerial jobs to dangle at MPs.

But buying peace with ministerial appointments might prove a nasty boo­by trap for Museveni, according to Prof. Olum. He says the appointment of Henry Banyenzaki, formerly a ‘rebel’ MP, into cabinet, for example, could provide impe­tus for more, not less, intra-party criticism within the NRM.

“It could also send the signal that oppos­ing the party from within pays,” says Olum.

That could explain why, despite their sometimes very public spats, Prime Minis­ter Mbabazi is courting the new kid in the House, Mohammed Nsereko. President Museveni might, in a desperate move to buy party unity, give Nsereko or any other NRM rebel, a ministerial job.

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