By Andrew M. Mwenda
Inside look at how Museveni launched fight with former PM
The first indication that something unusual was happening at State House Entebbe was when President Yoweri Museveni on Wednesday Sept. 17 ended his meetings unusually early. The President retired for a quiet dinner with the First Lady, Mrs Janet Museveni. Sources tell The Independent that as they sat over a meal of beef, bananas, vegetables, and yoghurt, the President broke the silence: I have decided to end all this confusion about Mbabazi, the president reportedly said. The First Lady nodded in agreement. She was the first person to know of this development.
Mbabazi (or at least his wife Jacqueline Mbabazi) and his sister-in-law, Hope Mwesigye, have had a frosty relationship with Janet Museveni, a matter made worse by postings by Mbabazi’s daughter, Nina Rukikaire, on her Facebook page.
Since The Independent broke the story of a major rift between Museveni and Mbabazi on December 14, 2013, rumours have been rife of what it is all about.
Conspiracy theorists argued that there was a hidden plan by the President and the prime minister to fool the public. Even after Mbabazi was ambushed and humiliated in Kyankwazi; even after his wife gave an interview to Sunday Monitor newspaper where she criticized the NRM as being full of fascists, people wondered why the president was not firing Mbabazi.
Museveni had now decided he needed to tackle Mbabazi early in his search for a seventh term of office, the fifth elective one.
For almost a year, police and intelligence services have been providing information to the President that Mbabazi, who is also secretary general of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), has been mobilising members at the grassroots in order to run for president as well. Equally, many NRM mobilisers and sympathisers have been telling the president to come clear on Mbabazi because they are confused. They claim that Mbabazi’s people tell them that this mobilisation is sanctioned and supported by Museveni.
Those who know him well say that whenever Museveni faces an opponent, his immediate weapon of first choice is not to confront them directly. The President prefers to go around them first in a vast pincer movement – a kind of double envelopment strategy as military strategists could call it.
Thus since reports of Mbabazi’s 2016 presidential ambitions began, initially as a trickle and later as a flood, Museveni began a long strategy of neutralising them even before deciding to fire the prime minister. Since January, the president has been moving from district to district, getting a feel of the group, meeting old friends, and distributing favours.
Mbabazi had been alleged to have accumulated and hoarded a lot of money for his alleged presidential bid. So the first task of the president was to neutralise him economically. First, his bank, National Bank of Commerce, was closed by the central bank under conditions many say were irregular. Then every company that was alleged to be associated with Mbabazi and/or people associated with the prime minister began losing government tenders. Businessmen began lining up at State House to clear the air that they were not having any business links with Mbabazi.
With the economic stranglehold over Mbabazi’s alleged businesses tightened, Museveni moved to counter-mobilise youth across the country. In this endeavor, he has been greatly helped by the Inspector General of Police, Kale Kayihura, and the Permanent Secretary in the ministry of Gender and Labour, the tireless Pius Bigirimana. Across the country, programs to find jobs for youth were created through a massive mobilisation agenda. Then the president went on a diplomatic offensive to demonstrate (but not explain) that Mbabazi was not his chosen successor among close allies of the NRM.
With the army secured after the escape of former coordinator of intelligence services, Gen. David Sejusa aka Tinyefuza, and now after the veterans had been secured under Saleh, it was time for Museveni to make his final move on Mbabazi.
Early the next morning, Thursday Sept.18, the president read his security briefs, had a few meetings and prepared fly to Gulu to preside over the re-burial of former Inspector General of Police, Erinayo Oryema, who was allegedly murdered by former president Idi Amin in 1977.
The President, who had donned his general’s uniform, held a scheduled meeting with Uganda Peoples’ Defense Forces (UPDF) veterans led by his brother, Gen. Caleb Akandwanaho aka Salim Saleh.
The official aim of the meeting was to hand over a significant share of the work currently being done by the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) to the veterans. The veterans, the president said, were not necessarily going to do agricultural advisory work. Rather their job was to help farmers increase household incomes by assisting them to get involved in commercial agriculture. The effort was going to be nationwide.
Unofficially, by mandating UPDF veterans with the task of helping increase farmers’ incomes, Museveni hits several birds with one stone. First, he creates activities to keep the veterans busy and therefore helping them out of boredom that could easily been exploited by his opponents seeking political advantage like Mbabazi and others.
Secondly, he creates a source of income for many of his soldiers who have not been gainfully employed and he organises a disciplined force to politically mobilise peasants (who constitute nearly 70 percent of the electorate) on his side by distributing to them state largesse.
And finally, he has a nationwide army of ex-servicemen and women, directly under the command and control of his trusted brother, to do the work.
Therefore, although it looked routine and ordinary, the meeting of Museveni and UPDF veterans was in effect the official launch of President Museveni’s bid for reelection in 2016.
In all this, Museveni is convinced that the UPDF is the most reformed and therefore the most effective state institution in Uganda today, a view he had shared with Western diplomats who had earlier called on him at his country home in Rwakitura on Sept.14. It was also the day he had a family function to celebrate his 70th birthday.
After the meeting with the veterans, the President met with the acting NRM Secretary General also Minister without Portfolio, Richard Todwong; the Minister for the Presidency, Frank Tumwebaze; the Minister for Information, Rose Namayanja and senior political advisors, Moses Byaruhanga and David Mafabi. From all these people and many others, the president has been hearing but keeping quiet about stories of Mbabazi’s alleged ambitions to run for the presidency in 2016.
Finally, before departure, the President moved to tackle the final hitch – Amama Mbabazi. He personally wrote, using a pen, the draft of his now famous letter firing Mbabazi as Prime Minister and appointing Mbabazi’s best friend and Minister of Health, Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, in his stead. Although the letter was phrased in a language not consistent with the constitution, NRM insiders were to call the decision to replace Mbabazi with Rugunda, “a stroke of political genius”.
The letter was brief and did not pass through the hands of the legal department – and for a reason: the president needed to sign it urgently because after the ceremony in Gulu he was flying to the United States – first to Texas and later to New York for the United Nations General Assembly.
The letter informed the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, that the President had decided to appoint Rugunda Prime Minister with “immediate effect” but adding that: “I hereby forward the names and curriculum vitae of Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda to you for the required parliamentary approval.” But how could Rugunda’s appointment be with “immediate effect” before parliamentary approval? Legally, the president is supposed to nominate someone who is then approved by parliament after which his appointment would take “effect.”
Legal niceties aside, Mbabazi’s fall brought to an end speculation of what was actually happening inside the NRM.
Mbabazi’s firing came at the end of a long process in which Museveni secured “his flank” as they say in military strategy. But it also came at the tail-end of many accumulated accusations against the prime minister. For example, he was accused of retaining control over the secretariat staff while undermining Todwong in order to promote his presidential ambitions. Todwong had even recommended a complete overhaul of the secretariat if the President were to have effective control over the party. He had told the President that nearly all staff at the party headquarters had been appointed by and were therefore loyal to Mbabazi, a factor that made his (Tadwong’s) work difficult.
It is possible that the president did not believe many of the allegations against Mbabazi. However, he could not continue to deflect pressure from his supporters to take action against his erstwhile ally. Take for example youthful Members of Parliament (MPs) who moved a motion to have Museveni as the sole presidential candidate at at the ruling party retreat in Kyankwazi in March. Many of them alleged that Mbabazi was funding rivals to run against them come party primaries only ten months away. They appealed to the president for help saying Mbabazi was seeking to destroy them politically because of their open support for his (the President’s) candidature.
Some ministers were constantly going to the president complaining that Mbabazi was using his position as prime minister to disfavor colleagues in cabinet whom he suspected of being loyal to the President. They claimed that during cabinet meetings chaired by the prime minister, ministers suspected of not supporting Mbabazi would not be picked to speak and their ministerial statements would be shelved. The president rarely attends cabinet as does the vice president, a situation that had given Mbabazi legroom to consolidate his position. Perhaps the last straw that broke the camel’s back was the appearance of T-shirts and posters of Mbabazi’s presidential bid. On September 8th, the president personally called Mbabazi and asked him about the posters and T-shirts to which, sources say, the prime minister denied involvement. According to reliable sources, Mbabazi told Museveni that the posters doing the rounds on social media had been photo-shopped.
Later, when some youths were seen wearing the T-Shirts at Namboole Stadium where Mbabazi was the chief guest during the Uganda-Guinea match on Sept. 10, Mbabazi claimed they had been printed by some of his overzealous supporters without his encouragement, consent or knowledge. Mbabazi also reasoned that the T-shirts may have been printed by his adversaries to put him at loggerheads with President Museveni. When the president shared Mbabazi’s defense with the First Lady, Mrs. Museveni is said to have asked: “Why doesn’t he distance himself from them.”
The Kigezi solution
Some NRM insiders say Museveni delayed to fire Mbabazi because he did not want to be predictable. At a time when everyone expected the President to fire his prime minister, some close associates of the President say that is when Museveni was less likely to take such action. But, as the President procrastination to fire Mbabazi went from three months to nine, people began speculating and developing conspiracy theories that there may be a deal between the two NRM leaders. The alleged rift, some conspiracy theorists argued, was a smokescreen. It is at this point when everyone least expected the president to fire his prime minister that Museveni actually fired Mbabazi.
But there was concern within Museveni’s circles that firing Mbabazi may create for him sympathy among the Bakiga, the prime minister’s ethnic group which is also the fifth largest tribe in Uganda and a core of Museveni support in the West. To overcome such an eventuality, the president appointed Mbabazi’s close friend and senior politician from Kigezi, Ruhakana Rugunda. This political choice, analysts say, has the potential to keep Bakiga firmly in Museveni’s corner (because what they lost with the right hand has been given back to them using the left hand). This also denies Mbabazi any sympathy in Kigezi that would have been vital for an ethnic support base for him.
Now that Mbabazi is out of cabinet, what is he likely to do? This will be the first time Mbabazi has been out of a government job since the NRM came to power in 1986. Were his alleged presidential ambitions real? If yes, won’t throwing him out of cabinet now leave him free to pursue them with a free hand? If Mbabazi announced that he wants to seek the chairmanship of the NRM, what would Museveni do? And regardless of Museveni’s reaction, what would be its political ramifications?