By Andrew M. Mwenda
State House insiders describe how President is strategising to deal with First Lady’s growing political appeal
President Yoweri Museveni’s cabinet reshuffle announced on February 17 has been the most revealing of his politics. Mr Museveni appointed his wife, Mrs Janet Museveni, state minister for Karamoja. By this single action, political commentators say, Museveni may have surpassed the excesses of the worst of Africa’s despots of old.
But we need to look deeper. Why did the president appoint his wife to cabinet? Is this a reward for her loyalty to him over the years? Is he positioning her in the line of possible political succession? Is the president trying to increase the role of his family in the governance of Uganda?
Persons close to the Museveni family and NRM insiders believe that the main reason has to do with fear, real or imagined, that the president has developed for the First Lady.
Mrs Museveni, sources say, has been growing critical of her husband and sometimes doing so in public. For example, the First Lady and her daughters did not want Museveni to run for president in 2001 arguing that they had sacrificed enough for the country. Museveni overruled them. When he began his project to amend the constitution and remove term limits in 2003, sources say, the First Lady and the First Daughters were initially opposed to the idea. Again, Museveni prevailed.
Then in 2005, Mrs Museveni decided to seek a parliamentary seat. Analysts argued then that she and her children had either given in to his political ambitions or had finally come to love the benefits that flow from his presidency.
Meanwhile at State House, Museveni thought Janet becoming an MP was a bad idea and after a lot of argument, subjected the decision to a vote within the family. The results: four to two in favour of her running for Ruhama constituency! Museveni and son Muhozi Keinerugaba voted against Mrs Museveni’s decision to contest while Mrs Museveni along with daughters Natasha Karugire, Patience Rwabwogo and Diana Kamuntu all voted for her to contest.
Museveni later called a meeting of NRM leaders to resolve the problem. In his introductory remarks, he told the puzzled leaders that he had tried without success to dissuade his wife from running for parliament. Now he wanted the leaders of the party to be involved in the decision. All of them, with the exception of Security minister, Amama Mbabazi, supported the wife’s choice.
Against this background, observers believe that Mrs Museveni’s decision to seek a parliamentary seat was aimed at challenging her husband, not then incumbent Ruhama MP, Augustine Ruzindana.
Apparently, the First Lady wanted to walk out of her husband’s shadow and establish her independence on the political scene. Some people close to her say Mrs Museveni has always wanted an active political role. That even as early as 1986, she wanted some mainstream political role. Museveni refused to provide it. With the support of some NRM leaders, she launched UWESO (Uganda Women’s Efforts to Save Orphans), an NGO she had began while a refugee in Sweden. Immediately, this made her virtually the leader of the women’s movement in Uganda.
Some of the historical NRM leaders The Independent talked to claim that the president wanted to reduce his wife’s prominence in the women’s movement. Some think it was for fear of creating a political rival out of his wife. Yet others say that at the time, Museveni was still clear-headed and was genuinely afraid of being seen to practise nepotism. He appointed Mrs Joyce Mpanga minister for Gender, to create a leader of the women’s movement at cabinet level. Some NRM insiders say Mrs Museveni saw this as a direct affront to her since Mrs Mpanga would now stand above her in the women’s movement. She sulked, but only privately.
However, insiders say, when Mrs Museveni finally ran for Parliament, Museveni remained unhappy. Rather than fight the wife directly, he sought to use subterranean measures. Informed sources say that Museveni’s strategy was to indirectly cause Janet’s loss in Ruhama. How?
The major sticking point in the political contests in Ankole is religion. During the primaries in Ntungamo district, all candidates for the NRM were Protestants. The only exception was the race for Woman MP where Beatrice Rwakimari, a Catholic, went neck and neck with Naome Kabasharira, a Protestant. Sources close to Mrs Museveni claimed that the president indirectly supported Kabasharira against Rwakimari. There is no evidence to support this claim, but it was common talk in Ntungamo.
Analysts say that if Kabasharira won, then the Catholics in Ntungamo would realise that they will have no MP on the NRM ticket in the entire district. The only serious Catholic MP in the race would be FDC’s Augustine Ruzindana who was running against Mrs Museveni. The calculation was that in seeking to get at least one Catholic MP, it was likely the voters in Ruhama would throw in their lot with Ruzindana against the First Lady. As it turned out, this did not work. But Mrs Museveni camp remained angry at the president.
Some people close to the president have sometimes argued that the First Lady has political ambitions. They claim that some influential historicals in both the army and politics are supporting Mrs Museveni for the presidency. They may have been mere rumours, observers say, but it is something that has been variously discussed in the corridors of power. One of the politicians accused of propping Mrs Museveni’s political ambitions is Jim Muhwezi, the embattled former Museveni confidant and minister of Health. Museveni seems to have bought the Muhwezi-link claim.
Highly placed sources say that Museveni thought that Muhwezi had personal political ambitions of his own and was seeking to promote them using the First lady. Some informers told the president that Muhwezi was busy campaigning for Mrs Museveni in Ntungamo. Yet, the main person behind Janet’s campaign was Bob Kabonero, a brother to Susan Muhwezi, wife of Muhwezi. Sources say Museveni misunderstood Kabonero’s support of the First Lady to be the hidden hand of Muhwezi.
So during the campaign, the president telephoned Muhwezi with a strong warning: “Get out of Ntungamo politics”. Muhwezi was shocked and told the president that he had not been in Ntungamo; he was fighting for his own political life in Rukungiri. Muhwezi later shared his concerns with his friends inside and outside NRM. Given the reach of The Independent, it is unlikely that any information shared among more than four persons in this country would escape our antenna.
Mrs Museveni won and immediately she came to parliament, her critics began to speak again. According to sources, chief among Mrs Museveni’s antagonists has been the president’s Principal Private Secretary (PPS), Amelia Kyambadde. Persons closely associated with Kyambadde began to spread a rumour that instead of sticking to her constituency, Mrs Museveni was visiting other districts “ Mbale, Masaka, Karamoja region and others. Was she trying to build a national constituency? What for?
Then Mrs Museveni attended a national conference organised by leaders of the Born-Again churches. According to State House insiders, it was later claimed that pastors had given her lists of their followers“ a seven million strong group. The Born-Again churches have structures spread out across the nation and therefore form a formidable voting-block if they were to put this infrastructure at the service of politics. The pro-Mrs Museveni faction began openly discussing her potential as a presidential candidate while her enemies began claiming that she was building the momentum to run against her husband.
Meanwhile, in early 2007, Museveni was pursuing Muhwezi over GAVI funds. The president was openly saying he was going to fight corruption and leave no stone unturned. When he arrested Muhwezi for alleged corruption, all his daughters rushed to Luzira Prison to visit him. The public wondered how the First Daughters were showing solidarity with a person their father had thrown in jail. Did they act this way because they thought Muhwezi was being persecuted for his perceived support of their mother?
About the same time, reports spread that there was a bid to arrest the First Lady for complicity in the GAVI funds scandal. UWESO had actually taken GAVI money and its accountability is questionable, thus making a prosecution likely. Observers claimed that government could not directly prosecute the First Lady through the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) lest it appears the president had sanctioned it. It was claimed that someone at State House had contacted lawyers of Kizza Besigye requesting them to initiate a private prosecution of Mrs Museveni so that the whole affair looks like it is driven by the opposition.
To make matters worse, Museveni published an angry article in Sunday Vision where he claimed to have always had an organisation called Restrain Relatives Resistance Movement (RRRM). In the article, the president threatened to arrest any relative who would get involved in affairs of the state. This seemed to confirm reports that there was a plot to arrest the First Lady. During this period, frantic telephone calls were exchanged between pro-Mrs Museveni lawyers in Kampala and members of the First Family including Muhoozi and son-in-law, Edwin Karugire, to establish the facts of the case. Was the threat real or was it one of Kampala’s many rumours? We may never know. But, sources say, the First Lady’s children took it seriously.
It is alleged that during these tensions, Muhoozi tended to side with his mother. Some NRM insiders claim that this made Museveni uncomfortable with the First Son. According to analysts, it may have been the major reason why Muhoozi was sent for a military course in the United States in mid 2007“ to get him out of Uganda as the conflict was being resolved. Often, Museveni sends people on military courses abroad when he wants them out of the way. Was this true with Muhoozi in 2007?
Meanwhile, in May 2007, Mrs Museveni called an unusual press conference. Sources say she wanted to speak out openly about GAVI funds and attempts by “certain quarters” to frame her. However, State House sources say Museveni personally warned her against the idea. She remained obstinate. Just minutes before the press conference was scheduled to begin, it was cancelled. Again, State House sources say the president personally ordered electricity to be shut down at the venue, giving his wife a strong signal of his personal disapproval with her press conference.
Mrs Museveni may have then cooled down from her heightened agitation, sources say, but she was not done with her disapproval of many aspects of her husband’s politics. At parliament, she became the voice of those who felt ignored and sidelined. She shared the concerns of NRM MPs who felt many things were going wrong within the party. Some say this is because of her personal rivalry with Mbabazi “ the all-powerful Secretary General of the NRM and a close Museveni confidant who does not hesitate to criticise her. However, others say she genuinely believes that the party is getting out of touch with the reality.
On several occasions, especially in the NRM caucus meetings, she has spoken out openly against wrong things happening in the government. For example, immediately after the 2006 elections, some NRM MPs wrote a paper titled: “Confronting NRM Challenges: A Case for the 2006 Elections.” The paper argued that the party had internal weaknesses which were making it lose support across the country. When they presented it to the NRM Caucus, Mbabazi and Museveni opposed it strongly.
At this point, Mrs Museveni took to the floor. She said she was happy it had been brought forth by young MPs. “It should have been the first discussion NRM should have had after the elections,” she said. Museveni, sources said, listened and watched her intently as she spoke. After her speech, he softened his stance on the dissenting MPs.
During another caucus meeting, she openly attacked the minister for transport and works John Nasasira citing the bad state of roads in the country as evidence of failure to deliver services to the people. Even as early as January 2009 when Museveni met Kigezi-Ankole MPs at Rwakitura, Mrs Museveni complained that Nasasira had gone to her constituency to officiate at a road opening ceremony without inviting her. She also said the road had been badly done. “I have been in the NGO world doing work,” she said,”and did not know that politics involves so much dishonesty and trickery.” The president kept quiet.
Even throughout her stay in parliament, she has not been enthusiastic about supporting NRM for the sake of it. When she speaks, which she rarely does, she is passionate about issues she cares about and tends to speak objectively rather than as a partisan. This has not gone unnoticed by the ever paranoid Museveni and his hatchet men.
During the NRM caucus meeting at State House in November 3, 2008, the president literally bulldozed all NRM MPs to exonerate Mbabazi for his role in the NSSF-Temangalo saga. When all was lost, the First Lady stood up and gave an impassioned speech. She said she was at pains to accept the minority report. She said as a born-again Christian, “I cannot live in peace if I do not tell the truth.” Speaking directly to Mbabazi, she said that for the sake of all the sacrifices he has made for Uganda, “why don’t you return NSSF money and take back your land or own up to the responsibility and resign?” She got wild cheers and a standing ovation.
The mood in the meeting changed, and Museveni intervened very fast saying “This is not a family position.” The president said: “Hon. Janet has not read the reports fully because she has been in Ruhama.” She shook her head in defiant disapproval and the MPs noticed. But finally, Museveni overruled everyone and Mbabazi was let off the hook. Some analysts say her appointment may be aimed at showing that there has been some reconciliation between her and Mbabazi.
Immediately after the meeting at State House where Mbabazi was saved from possible censure, his group held a celebration party at Parliamentary Canteen. During the party, then state minister for local government and sister in-law to Mbabazi, Hope Mwesigye, launched a vitriolic attack on Mrs Museveni. â€œDoes she think being a First Lady is a permanent job or a professional career?â€ Mrs Mwesigye is quoted as having said.
According to sources, Mrs Museveni was informed about this and complained to the husband. Later in December when the president hosted a Christmas party for NRM MPs at State House Entebbe, the President, the First Lady, Mbabazi and Kigongo sat together at the high table. According to sources, Mrs Museveni asked Mbabazi why Mwesigye had attacked her with such vitriol.
“I can understand if it was your wife Jacqueline,” Mrs Museveni is said to have told Mbabazi, “But does Hope not separate our views as leaders from our personalities?” Museveni, it is said, had been angry with Mrs Mwesigye and called her for a meeting with the First Lady at State House. Sources say that Mrs Mwesigye denied attacking Mrs Museveni.
Some analysts say that since Museveni promoted Mwesigye to full cabinet status, it was important to give the First Lady a ministerial appointment as a gesture of reconciliation. However, others say if that is the case, then the president has snubbed the First Lady because she now joins cabinet at a junior level while Mrs Mwesigye is at senior level. Indeed, others say, Karamoja is a ministry with a shoe-string budget that was rejected by Tom Butiime. Appointing her to such an obscure ministry, observers say, shows that the president wanted her in cabinet but did not want to give her actual power.
Some observers close to State House say that there is information to the effect that Kyambadde wants to run for parliament. If she wins, sources say, it is very likely that she will be appointed minister in charge of the presidency. Analysts who know him well say the president could have appointed the First lady to cabinet in order to forestall her opposition to Kyambadde’s appointment in the future.
Whatever can be said about Mrs Museveni, she has become an important political figure inside NRM. By speaking on the side of the marginalised, observers say, she has either intentionally or unintentionally made herself the rallying point of many dissenting voices in an increasingly fractious party. With this background, analysts say, it is possible Museveni appointed her to cabinet largely to silence her, for as a cabinet minister she will be bound by collective responsibility.
In doing this, the president will also have quietened the voices of those NRM insiders who wanted to rally around her increasingly dissenting voice. Those who know him say Museveni is a master of using formal institutions to stifle internal dissent. Thus, if there is an issue he knows the First Lady will oppose, he will first take it to cabinet and seek its approval. Once cabinet sanctions it, observers say, the president will literally have at least neutralised the First lady’s public dissent.
Mrs Museveni certainly has political ambitions. Some say she has even contemplated running for president even if it means running against her husband. However, many other close observers say that Mrs Museveni understands her husband very well and the length he is willing to go to cling to power. She knows the costs he can impose on her if she attempted to contest against him and she is not willing to take herself and her children through such trauma.
Whatever her motives, people close to the First Lady say that her time at parliament has enriched her knowledge of the political problems of Uganda and she has come to feel them deeply. She has won the admiration and loyalty of many MPs who have complained to her. Wherever her appointment takes her, Mrs Museveni will remain intriguing.