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What next for Mbabazi?

By Andrew M. Mwenda

If Mbabazi plans to challenge Museveni for the presidency of Uganda, he has begun on a wrong footing

Since he was dropped from cabinet, speculation has been rife about what former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi is going to do. Will he challenge President Yoweri Museveni for the leadership of the NRM and/or the presidency of the country?

Let me be philosophical here. The American historian Will Durant said that philosophy is an attempt to develop a broader perspective on a subject. One can achieve that by studying “objects in space” (science) or “events in time” (history). Durant wanted to understand human nature. He understood that objects can be taken to a laboratory and tested. But human social behaviour can only be appreciated through the study of history. Durant called himself “a philosopher writing history.”

Many analysts of contemporary Uganda ignore this approach to explaining the character of Museveni and the NRM. The NRM is a revolutionary movement that came to power after five years of a protracted armed struggle. This struggle was based in the countryside and mobilised elites and ordinary masses to slowly build capacity to overthrow the government. Having captured power, it reshaped significant sections of the state, fusing the political and security functions. This way it restructured state-society relations in a way that allowed it to penetrate society deeply.


Indeed, to understand the character of the NRM, we need to look at other movements of its ilk that emerged in the 20th century in Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America. These include the Communist parties in North Korea, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, the former USSR, Cambodia and nationalist movements in Mozambique, Liberia, Angola, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Guinea Bissau, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Algeria. These movements tend to share certain characteristics.

In nearly all these cases, power is always centralised in the founding leader whose position is never contested: he is political leader, military strategist and philosopher. A personality cult develops around him creating the impression that succession will be difficult to organise. Often (except for Cuba where Fidel Castrol retired after 49 years in power), the founding leader dies in office. And in all these cases: Mozambique (Samora Machel), Angola (Agustino Neto), Ethiopia (Meles Zenawi), USSR (Joseph Stalin/Lenin), China (Mao Tse Tung), Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh) etc., there is always a peaceful transition. Often, after the death of the founding leader, leadership tends to shift from one strong man to collective rule.

Secondly, once these movements capture power they tend not to lose it – even when they suffer prolonged economy atrophy (Zimbabwe, North Korea, Cuba). Where they have lost it, it was due to external intervention (Vietnam invading Cambodia to remove the Khmer Rouge, ECOWAS invading Liberia to stop Charles Taylor and the Americans running the Sandinistas out of power in Nicaragua). In the USSR, the communist party dissolved itself. (The communist parties of Eastern Europe had been imposed on those countries by the USSR and retained power through its protection). In all these movements, there have been attempts to challenge the position of the founding leader without success except by assassination (Amilcar Cabral in Guinea Bissau, and even here his brother Raul took over).  Therefore, if you are Amama Mbabazi or even Kizza Besigye trying to challenge Museveni, you have to take into consideration these factors. Of course this does not mean that those fighting Museveni have no hope of success. There is a precedent in Guinea Bissau where the PAIGC lost power in 1999 but recaptured it in 2004; in Algeria when the FLN lost an election in 1990 but refused to relinquish power and the army (fused with the ruling party) took over; and in Nicaragua where the Sandinistas lost power for 16 years between 1990 and 2006. Besides, Museveni has presided over the most liberal government of all these movements, a factor that makes his system the most vulnerable to defeat from its opponents. However, those organising against Museveni have historically lacked a good appreciation of these challenges. Instead many opposition politicians and their pundits rely on their hopes rather than the concrete factors on the ground to make analysis of the situation. In so doing, they miss the core lessons of a successful strategy – whether it is in a military operation, a marketing plan, or a political campaign.

For example, a good military commander (or marketing or campaign manager) must have good intelligence based on accurate and correctly interpreted information. This allows you to develop a counter-plan that is realistic about your strength compared to that of the enemy. In strategy, they advise that you should never allow yourself to be fooled by your own prejudices about the enemy. The enemy could be smarter than you think. Museveni says this – quoting Mao – that you should despise the enemy strategically but take him seriously tactically.

For Mbabazi, an aspect of military strategy called “timing and surprise” has been missing. This refers to judging the right moment to strike and disguise the intention to attack. His plan (if he has any) was unearthed too early and now Museveni has all the time to neutralise him. Besigye was successful with this aspect in 2000 (when he announced his candidacy) and in 2005 (when he unexpectedly returned from exile). In both cases he achieved maximum tactical surprise against Museveni. It forced the President to panic and do all sorts of dirty things that only increased Besigye’s appeal.

The final aspect of a good military strategy is to exploit one’s advantage. For example, as the enemy advances he becomes vulnerable. When Museveni arrested Besigye in 2005, he created a hero and martyr out of him. When pro Museveni MPs moved to declare Museveni a sole presidential candidate of the NRM in Kyankwanzi in February, Mbabazi should not have signed the petition. Instead, he should have resigned saying this was an antidemocratic decision. He should have said the behaviour of MPs of the NRM caucus (itself not an official party organ) who were yelling at him had made it difficult for him to exercise his power as Prime Minister.

This would have given him the necessary credentials as someone who quit an office of power and privilege in defence of a governance principle. However, if it is true that Mbabazi wants to run for president, it seems his only objective is power, not public service. He has not voiced any disagreement with Museveni over policy or practice of governance. Holding other factors constant therefore, Mbabazi’s presidential bid is dead on arrival. It also shows that Mbabazi lacks a good grasp of what Will Durant called “events in time”.

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