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Rugunda Rising or falling?

By Andrew M. Mwenda

What does the appointment of internal affairs minister, Ruhakana Rugunda, as Uganda’s permanent representative at the United Nations imply? Some people believe that this is the beginning of the end of Rugunda’s long political career. Others insist this could mark his rise to a more prominent position in our nation’s politics. But what are the local and international issues that could have propelled Rugunda to the UN?

For starters, Rugunda has been the longest serving cabinet minister since President Yoweri Museveni came to power in January 1986. His appointment to the UN comes at a ministerial level, meaning that he will continue to be a member of cabinet. This unique feat, analysts say, has been because Rugunda has always played it safe by avoiding being party to major controversies.

But does his appointment to far away New York send him to ‘exile’ and thereby render him irrelevant to national politics?

Some observers say Rugunda could have been sent to the UN because he is politically expendable. He does not have a political constituency. This means he does not bring any followers with him and therefore has little political clout. Kabale Municipality which he presented in the mid to late 1990s was taken over by state minister for tourism, Sarapio Rukundo. Indeed, Rugunda’s detractors say that he has been in cabinet largely because of President Yoweri Museveni’s magnanimity. They add that he had increasingly become political baggage because such a cabinet job should have gone to a politician with a constituency among the Bakiga.

According to analysts, having two Bakiga politicians ‘ Rugunda and Finance minister Ezra Suruma ‘ not representing any constituency emasculates the president’s support base in Kigezi; that the president is rewarding people who do not bring him a political following. This, observers say, became glaring when some MPs sought to censure Museveni’s confidant, Security minister Amama Mbabazi. The president was shocked to find that the Kigezi parliamentary fraternity (with the exception of Mbabazi’s sister in-law, state minister for Local Government Hope Mwesigye) was hostile to Mbabazi, Rugunda and Suruma.

To bolster his standing among the Bakiga, observers say, Museveni needed Rugunda or Suruma or both out of cabinet to clear way for an elected MP from Kigezi. Suruma survived because Museven has few economists to run finance. But it was also because sacking Suruma now would appear like the president was bending to parliamentary pressure over Temangalo, an image Museveni would like to dispel.

‘Museveni has visited the region twice in the last three months and there was a lot of pressure on him to give cabinet jobs to elected officials who represent the feelings of people on the ground,’ one observer said.

‘Although the official announcement makes Rugunda’s job a cabinet level appointment reporting directly to the president, it does not change the fact that in diplomatic protocol, for example, Foreign minister Sam Kutesa will take precedence over Rugunda,’ an analyst said

If this analysis is true, this is not the first time Rugunda has suffered a demotion only to raise again. In 1994, he was transferred from being minister of Works, Transport and Communications and appointed minister of Foreign Affairs. But after the 1996 elections, he was given the insignificant ministry of Information before being appointed state minister for Foreign Affairs under Eriya Kategaya. ‘He was taken to almost deputise in a ministry he once headed,’ one observer said.

But Rugunda bounced back becoming minister for the presidency in 1999 before joining the ministry of Lands, Water and Environment and later that of Internal Affairs. ‘Rugunda has remained in cabinet for long because Museveni is not suspicious of him,’ a friend said, ‘Yet one cannot also say that Rugunda is Museveni’s confidante the way Mbabazi has been.’

Rugunda has been the face of the peace talks between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels led by Joseph Kony and the government of Uganda. His soft, sober and balanced approach to issues made him the darling of the diplomatic community but also created a lot of confidence in the talks. Some observers say that Rugunda’s transfer to the UN could be a sign the Museveni has lost patience with the talks and wants a resumption of war. But does this mean the president was dissatisfied with Rugunda’s performance? During Independence Day celebrations, Museveni seemed to attack Rugunda when he openly said he (Museveni) did not even know who appointed Rugunda to head the talks.

Yet Rugunda’s appointment may actually be a sign that his star is beginning to raise again. If Museveni wants a resumption of war with the LRA, he needs a believable person at the UN to defend his position. Given Rugunda’s role in the peace talks, he is the best suited cadre to argue the case that peace talks have failed and war is therefore justified.

Some observers say that with the election of Barack Obama as president of the US, Museveni is desperate to change his game plan with Washington. ‘Throughout his 23 years rule,’ one analyst said, ‘Museveni’s relationship with different US administrations has largely rotated around a security agenda ‘ whether it was fighting the war in Southern Sudan, Northern Uganda, Eastern Congo or Rwanda during the genocide.’

Looking at the way Obama has been positioning himself especially with his message of change, he may shift US policy with Africa away from an obsession with security, as the George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton and George Bush Jr. had all done, towards a governance agenda. If this happens, Museveni will find himself in a difficult position because his credentials in this area have deteriorated a lot since the early 2000s. With a presidency for life, corruption running through the roof and continued violent clampdown on the media and the opposition, Obama may be an unwelcome occupant of the White House in Museveni’s scheme of things.

Indeed, some analysts say we may see a more pro-democracy message from the United States to Africa under Obama. This is because being partly African and partly black, Obama does not suffer the kind of guilt conscious that white occupants of the White House did while dealing with Africa’s dictators. Some analysts believe that the president-elect ‘ if he chooses ‘ can tell off African leaders without fear of being accused of being a racist.

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