By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi
Former VP faces historic test over calls to challenge Museveni
Usually, when President Yoweri Museveni schedules a meeting with any power base from Buganda, speculation ratchets. So when he called a hurried meeting with Buganda Caucus MPs on Aug.1, pundits saw a fence-mending overture from Museveni to representatives of the single most powerful political and economic ethnic group.
Events took a nasty turn, however, when Museveni’s former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya, joined the acid-tongued opposition MP Betty Nambooze and renegade NRM MP, Mohammad Nsereko, to announce publicly that they were boycotting it.
“I cannot go to a meeting simply to take tea,” Bukenya sneered, “Anyone who wants to meet me these days must give me an agenda.”
As if on cue, when the Buganda MPs led by Godfrey Kiwanda (Mityana North), entered State House, they handed Museveni a tough statement detailing demands about the Kasubi tombs.
Unknown to them, the kingdom prime minister, Katikkiro John Baptist Walusimbi, had just left a meeting with Museveni at which the President had handed-over a Shs 2 billion government contribution to the fundraising to rebuild the Kasubi Royal Tombs that burnt down in early 2010.
Not surprisingly, Museveni cut the meeting short. His excuse was that he was tired, having jetted in from Angola the same day. Surprisingly, he even withdrew a document he had given the MPs detailing his plan to defuse the perennial tension between his government and the Buganda kingdom administration. Museveni promised the MPs another meeting on an unnamed date.
Since then several questions have been asked: Why was Museveni keen on holding a meeting on short notice even amidst objections by some of his would-be guests? Why didn’t he inform the MPs of the planned handover of the government’s contribution for the reconstruction of the Kasubi Tombs? What did he intend to achieve?
No one is buying into Museveni’s excuse that the meeting could not go ahead because he was tired and his presentation had errors. Most likely, he was rankled by the obvious ignorance of the MPs in the meeting, and the boldness of the boycotters; especially Bukenya.
The 2016 factor
It is no secret that Museveni’s opponents are nudging Bukenya to challenge him in the 2016 elections.
In fact, when Nambooze, who is the Buganda MPs Caucus vice chairperson, was recently asked about the possibility of a Bukenya candidature, her reply was cryptic.
“So what if we are preparing one of our own to become president,” she said, “we cannot keep apologising for being Baganda.”
The question that remains is whether Bukenya can bite the bullet. There is no smart money on a Bukenya candidature. But if it happens, which is a capital IF, it could cause major problems for Museveni. And he knows it.
In the last three elections, many Mengo power brokers have backed opposition leader Kizza Besigye, but failed to woo the Baganda away from Museveni. In the 2011 election, Museveni took 63% of votes in Buganda against Besigye’s 32%. In 2001, Museveni he had polled 65% and 60% in 2006.
Besigye probably received the heaviest support from Mengo loyalists in the last election, with former Buganda Katikkiro Mulwanyammuli Ssemogerere leading the Mengo-leaning grouping Ssuubi 2011 to campaign for Besigye. But his support in Buganda in 2011 declined by seven percentage points from 39% in 2006, convincing some that Mengo’s bark cannot translate into a bite.
Earlier, in 2001, a group of Mengo ministers including current FDC vice chairperson for Buganda Joyce Ssebuggwawo, Ssewava Sserubiri and the late Kamala Kanamwangi, had openly campaigned for Besigye.
In 2006, then Katikkiro Dan Muliika openly criticised Museveni and was deemed to have backed Besigye, Museveni still defeated them.
Since then the argument has been that Mengo’s endorsement cannot work miracles for a non-Muganda candidate.
The argument for a strong Muganda candidate has been gaining traction in the belief that Baganda would probably vote against Museveni if they believe one of their own is likely to win. If that happens and Baganda vote as an ethnic block, it could spoil the party for Museveni. In the 2011 election, valid votes from Buganda totalled 2,141,895 out of a national total of 7,938,212, accounting for 27% of the national vote. No candidate can ignore that.
That is why Bukenya’s every move is being watched closely. He seems to have had a make-over, especially rooted in mobilising Buganda.
Less than a year ago, in October 2011, Bukenya was a corruption suspect in Luzira Prison and he had been thrown out of parliament, with court having found that he bribed voters.
He has since had the corruption charges – which he called politicking – quashed and he is the only NRM MP out of seven to have won a by-election after he expressly blocked Museveni from being on the stump with him.
Kampala Central MP Muhammad Nsereko, who rooted for Bukenya in the re-election campaign on radio, urged the former VP not to stand for parliament again in 2016 but to vie for the presidency. Nsereko, the NRM chairperson for Kampala Central, is one of a group of NRM MPs who say Museveni should retire in 2016. And some of them want Bukenya to take his place.
An NRM MP who requested anonymity said Bukenya’s candidature in 2016 would be “the perfect challenge to Museveni’s power”. He says Museveni has been winning in Buganda because he has not got a serious Muganda challenger since DP’s Paul Ssemogerere stood in 1996. Then, the MP says, Museveni was still “very popular but Ssemogerere tried”. The MP adds that even if Bukenya does not win in the whole of Uganda, “his extra votes in Buganda can supplement (the opposition’s)”.
The MP said if he were in the former VP’s strategy room, he would advise Bukenya to declare his intention to challenge Museveni for the chairmanship of NRM and the presidency, knowing full well that the party’s organs would not allow him. After being blocked by whatever machinations, Bukenya would run as an independent presidential candidate “fighting for the Movement’s original ideals”. That would move his campaign beyond Buganda. It would become national. The other option would be to wait until the last minute before declaring his intention to stand. Besigye surprised Museveni in the same way in 2001.
Amidst such sentiments, when Buganda Caucus MPs held a retreat at Bukenya’s plush Katomi Kingdom Hotel in Garuga on the breezy waters of Lake Victoria, suspicion of his ambitions intensified. At the time, Nambooze said people were reading “too much into nothing”.
But two weeks before the failed Museveni meeting, when Kabaka Ronald Mutebi had marked his 19th coronation anniversary on July 31, Bukenya had led the region’s MPs in the most powerful show of Ganda-nationalism in recent times.
Unlike in the past, Bukenya led a raft of Buganda MPs to prostrate in a renewed vow of allegiance to the Kabaka accompanied by tumultuous applause from an excited crowd that braved heavy rain. Bukenya had been deeply involved in the preparations, supervising the erecting of shades and contributing “generously”. The celebrations were at Sentema in his constituency and when he stepped on the lectern as host, Bukenya worked the crowd with powerful demands for the return of “Ebyaffe” (a carry-all term for all Buganda’s demands including the famous 9000 square miles of land that were confiscated by the central government).
Standing a few yards from a beaming Kabaka Mutebi and flanked by a number of Buganda MPs, Bukenya said Buganda must be granted its demand for a federal status, which he said is different from the government’s proposed Regional Tier.
He also scorned calls for talks between the central government and Mengo, which he said had not produced results for a long time.
Bukenya is a political eel, and those familiar with his antics are always cautious about drawing conclusions about him from such statements.
The respected political scientists, Prof. Sallie Simba of Makerere University, for one, is alone in seeing a “consistent thread” running through Bukenya’s actions regarding Buganda, even when he was VP.
Bukenya was appointed VP in 2003, in what insiders say, was a deal cut between Museveni, then-Catholic leader Cardinal Emmanuel Wamala, and the Mengo establishment. In the run-up to the 2001 presidential elections, it is whispered, then-army Col. Kizza Besigye made a surprise announcement in 2000 that he would be challenging Museveni.
Museveni countered Besigye’s gambit by reportedly promising the Catholic Church that he would pave way for a Catholic successor if they backed him against Besigye.
The Catholic leaders were concerned that despite the Catholics being the biggest religious group in Uganda (44% according to the 2002 census), they have never produced a president since independence.
A senior NRM member who did not want to discuss Bukenya’s possible candidature on the record because he feared he would be “misunderstood”, Bukenya could have leaned towards Mengo because “he knew that was partly why he was appointed VP and it was the same reason he would probably be retained.”
Prof. Simba agrees but sees Bukenya’s determined attempt at the time to cultivate the Buganda and Catholic constituencies as his way of preparing to ascend to the presidency and not merely a survival strategy.
In any case, the understanding was that Museveni was grooming Bukenya for the top job.
As VP, Bukenya referred to himself as Mahogany, the hard tree that would not be cut down. He also adopted a comic camouflage and took to mimicking President Museveni in speech, gesture, and dress.
But that did not fool anyone. The former dean of the national school of human medicine, with foxy cunning was cultivating his own base, seeking basic military skills and later enrolling his son Bryan, who later died in a motor accident, into the military.
This Bukenya was a far cry from the one whom the late former speaker of parliament, James Wapakhabulo, described as mildly ambitious. As chairperson of the Movement Caucus up to 2000, Bukenya’s naivety appeared to be confirmed when he tried to let Besigye present a dossier titled “An insider’s view of how the Movement lost the broad base” that contained stinging criticism of Museveni’s rule.
Bukenya was blocked from having the document discussed by the caucus and Besigye eventually publicised it, leading to calls for his arraignment before the military court martial since he was still a serving military officer. For his naivety, Bukenya was rewarded with a promotion to junior minister of Trade.
When Museveni courted him as minister for the Presidency and later made him VP, Bukenya’s cards were that he was not thought to be very ambitious and was unschooled in the craft of politics. Bukenya proved to be an astute and ambitious politician. Whenever Museveni looked to fire him, Bukenya emerged with a new thunder stroke from his powerbase, Buganda.
In 2008 he published his autobiography, Through Intricate Corridors to Power, a title that made some people, probably including Museveni himself, uncomfortable.
At the time Buganda was leading a big national fight against amendments to the land law that had been proposed in 2007. Tensions were high. Museveni had called Kabaka Mutebi to discuss the issue but the kabaka had refused to take Museveni’s calls. Infuriated, Museveni had just asked NRM members to make a choice between being “national leaders or clan leaders”. Amidst this tension, Bukenya invited the Kabaka to launch his book and addressed the Kabaka as “my best friend”.
On page 46 of the book, he wrote: “I belong to and also head the trunk clan lineage (omutuba) of Balibaseka of Bukoma in Mpigi district. I am a direct descendant of the family (olujja) of my great grandfather Kagugube. I was enthroned with the bark cloth which is the original dress of the Baganda, and I am really proud to be so deeply rooted in Buganda.”
Over this period, however, Museveni received dossier upon dossier of Bukenya’s attempts to mobilise Catholic priests, senior Baganda in the army and the rest of Buganda and Uganda.
As the anti-Bukenya campaign intensified, the senior NRM member we referred to earlier puts it, Bukenya seems to have resolved to “die fighting” since he feared Museveni would sack him soon.
To hit back at his opponents, Bukenya told the then Daily Monitor Managing Director Conrad Nkutu in a 2005 interview that a “mafia” in the government was bent on destroying him.
In characteristic style, after crisis meetings at State House with Museveni, then Defence Minister Amama Mbabazi, Prime Minister Apolo Nsibambi and Attorney General Kidhu Makubuya, Bukenya denied comments he had made to Nkutu. But the record stood and many observers believe Bukenya revelations managed to “tie” Museveni’s hands from sacking him for some time.
But the hammer finally fell acrimoniously in May last year. Museveni, those close to him say, usually drops only those with no political capital, lest they turn against him. Did he misread Bukenya?
The counter attack
Bukenya appears to thrive on concealment of any presidential ambitions. When we put the question to him for this story, he said it would be best if he explained it in an interview. When we scheduled an interview, he failed to meet us. Nothing unusual there; you never know anything for sure with Bukenya. In fact, even if he said he would stand, you would never be sure until his name was on the ballot, and the votes had been counted. Could he, knowing that Museveni fears any challenge to his power, just wants to unsettle his former boss?
So far Museveni has dealt with Bukenya in typical fashion; he ensured Bukenya’s successor, Edward Ssekandi, is also a Catholic and a Muganda.
He also extended conciliatory gestures like siding with him when Bukenya faced corruption charges. The case was dropped at Museveni’s insistence. However, attitude could change if Bukenya throws his hat in the ring. They could get ugly if Museveni plucks other cases, including findings by then-IGG Jotham Tumwesigye that in the late 1990s, Bukenya had stolen money from Makerere University Faculty of Medicine of which he was dean before he joined politics in 1996. Bukenya’s appointment as minister and later vice president at one time looked endangered by these allegations. When Museveni asked Bukenya about it before appointing him vice president, sources tell us, he told him that he refunded the money.
If Bukenya runs for president, he will be sure that these allegations will be used against him.
The campaign for the man who likes his suits dark and slightly oversize will possibly not be difficult because he is already well-known in some parts of Uganda as ‘upland rice VP”. But to be a historic figure, as they say, one must make history. Bukenya will become the first former Ugandan VP to challenge his former boss if he chooses to. But would his closeness to Mengo enable him to wrest the Baganda away from Museveni?