Kampala, Uganda | By Timothy Kalyegira | A recent political development in Uganda has caught the public’s attention, a development that will shape the tone and activities between now and the 2016 general election.
It is the political rivalry between President Yoweri Museveni and the Prime Minister and long-serving cabinet minister and NRM party heavyweight, Amama Mbabazi.
Since the NRM came to power, political analysts and news commentators did not give much weight to the offices of the Vice President and the Prime Minister. They knew that the real, effective power of state was in the hands of President Museveni.
The holder of the Vice Presidency or Premiership was viewed as a man or woman selected mainly as a symbolic gesture to important population, ethnic or religious constituencies in Uganda, be it the Catholic Church or Baganda, Basoga or Anglicans.
When these constituencies saw a “son of the soil” in that position — Samson Kisekka, Specioza Kazibwe, Gilbert Bukenya, Apollo Nsibambi, George Cosmas Adyebo, Kintu Musoke — it sent the message that their region or religion had been favoured by Museveni and by this, Museveni was usually able to win or maintain support among a large number of Ugandans who could not distinguish between symbol and substance.
Mbabazi, appointed in 2011, was the first person named to the position of Prime Minister since 1986 when the NRM came to power, who was different from his predecessors as Prime Minister or Vice President.
He was labeled by the media as a “super minister,” along with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sam Kutesa. They were termed this way because of the perception that they, unlike their cabinet colleagues, wielded the closest to substantive powers that it was possible for a minister to have in Museveni’s cabinet.
Mbabazi and Kutesa had clout in the government. They were wealthy. They were “untouchable,” as the description goes in Uganda. Even when corruption scandals would have their names at the centre, they would withstand the pressure and get re-appointed to the cabinet if they had been censored or remain in their position despite a public outcry for them to be dismissed.
In 2010, Mbabazi outmaneuvered rivals like Bukenya and Major-General Kahinda Otafiire to become the Secretary-General of the NRM party.
This party position, like most in the government and NRM, had largely been symbolic with the real powers as with all other things being in Museveni’s hands as party chairman.
Once President Museveni settled into his new term in 2011, speculation turned to the 2016 elections, whether he would run yet again and if not, if he planned to announce his son, Brig. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the Commander of the Special Forces Group in the army, as his successor.
The political talk in Uganda revolved around what came to be dubbed the “Muhoozi Project.”
Mbabazi as Prime Minister retained the military escorts he had as Minister for Security and apart from the image of him as a Prime Minister with more power and weight than his predecessors, he was not the focus of much public discussion.
In intelligence circles and at State House, however, there were initial reports in 2011 that Mbabazi might be quietly creating personal grassroots political support in parts of the country.
The way he managed to win the position of NRM Secretary-General in 2010 suggested that he had done so not because he was endorsed by Museveni but because he had used a personal network to build support.
In 2012, astute and well-informed political analysts and journalists with inside information occasionally pointed to this Mbabazi network, but for the time being it remained outside the public domain.
State House, the centre of Museveni’s political operations and intelligence-gathering came to see the true picture of what was unfolding late in 2013.
Finally in February 2014, State House decided it was time to act to curb this rising new challenge to Museveni. At an NRM retreat at the national leadership institute at Kyankwanzi to review the party’s programmes and political performance, the focus suddenly fell on Museveni as the party candidate for 2016.
A straw poll was called on Saturday February 15, 2014 to decide if this should so be. The assembled NRM Members of Parliament unanimously endorsed a Museveni bid for 2016 in this non-binding but still important gauge of his position in the party.
All eyes then turned to Mbabazi. Would he endorse Museveni, as his colleagues had done? When he added his signature to the list as number 202, cheers broke out at the retreat.
The next day’s newspaper headlines, February 16, reported that Mbabazi had endorsed Museveni as the sole NRM presidential candidate for 2016.
That was when some among the wider public started to sense something going on. What was so significant about Mbabazi endorsing Museveni, when 200 others had also done so? Was there any doubt that the NRM’s own Secretary-General would endorse the party Chairman?
Had Mbabazi been a last remaining obstacle to Museveni’s 2016 bid? What was happening within the NRM that the public did not know?
The public soon got to know, as events began to move rapidly. An NRM parliamentary caucus was called at State House in Entebbe on Monday March 3 to further discuss Mbabazi. This time it was much like a Kangaroo Court hearing.
Several young NRM MPs and party officials rose before Museveni to denounce Mbabazi, who sat there listening. He was accused of dividing the party and secretly recruiting operatives and creating grassroots networks all over the country in preparation for his own shot at the presidency in 2016.
Secret recordings of Mbabazi’s wife, Jacqueline Ruhinda Mbabazi, meeting party youth and supervising their outreach to their local areas, were presented to the meeting.
It was announced on Tuesday March 4 that Mbabazi had been stripped of his powers as NRM Secretary-General, these powers given to the deputy Secretary-General Richard Todwong and as the media reported it, this was the final straw for Mbabazi.
This was it. His powers had been broken, his political career brought to an end. Once again, the cunning political operator Yoweri Museveni had won the day.
But in a stunning development on March 5, a statement from State House signed by Museveni dismissed as rumours the reports that Mbabazi had been sacked as Prime Minister or NRM Secretary-General.
The situation now became even more confusing. Had these reports been true or rumours as the president said? If they were rumours, why had news of Mbabazi’s sacking as Secretary-General been given with such confidence to the media to report and by whom?
If, on the other hand, the media with a variety of sources and reporters had got its facts right and a move at State House to censure Mbabazi had indeed taken place, why was the president suddenly reversing this NRM caucus decision?
The other question would be: had Museveni at the State House meeting really decided to get rid of Mbabazi by that public denouncement and it was Mbabazi’s supporters who decided to spread word of it to the media in order to embarrass Museveni and force him to reverse his decision?
Whatever the facts, from this point on the political situation in Ugandan began to unfold rapidly and was now unfolding much more publicly that at any time since the late 2005 drama involving the arrest of former presidential candidate Dr. Kiiza Besigye.
For the media, there was no longer any fear to publish details of the power struggle within the NRM out of fear of radio stations or newspapers being closed. The details were all out in the open for the public to see.
NRM youth activists loyal to Mbabazi rejected the Kyankwanzi endorsement of Museveni as illegal under the party constitution. The police started arresting some of these youth and charging them with terrorism.
Under ordinary circumstances, it should not be a political offence for a cabinet officer or prominent and long-serving public official to wish to seek the presidency. It certainly should not be treated either as treason or a crime in the law-enforcement sense.
Mbabazi appeared on the Capital FM talk show, the Capital Gang, on March 8th, as expected evaded all questions about his presidential ambitions or his wife’s active role in raising support for him.
He denounced the police for arresting youth who were simply freely expressing their political views.
Jacqueline Mbabazi in mid March issued a statement to major newspapers and condemned the “fascist” tendencies that she said had now appeared in the NRM.
Her sisters, Hope Mwesigye and Hope Ruhundi, insisted in separate public utterances that Amama Mbabazi had a right to seek the presidency in 2016 and in fact, was going to seek it.
Jacqueline Mbabazi’s confidence in blasting the party to which she belongs in the Women’s League suggested to many observers that she must be echoing the views of her husband, although he carefully spoke as if her views were hers alone.
Then came what is now known as the Kayihura Tapes. Recordings of the Inspector-General of Police, Gen. Kale Kayihura, debriefing agents formerly developing grassroots support for Amama Mbabazi leaked to the media.
From the discussion, it was clear that Kayihura was acting as a political operative of President Museveni, not the chief law enforcement officer of the government.
In those recordings, the public caught an even more firsthand and alarming glimpse into just how deep the intrigue, suspicious, double-dealing and fear has spread into the NRM.
The media speculation about Mbabazi as a “super minister” had finally been proved accurate. More accurate, if anything, than the media, political analysts and even State House had ever imagined.
It seemed as if there were two NRM governments in one, each trying to undermine the other.
The Minister of State Idah Nantaba speaking with contempt at the president who had appointed her. A one Muhoozi said to be dating the Luwero Woman MP Brenda Nabukenya, leading Catholic and Anglican clergymen said to be supporting Mbabazi’s presidential bid (although later denying it in a Sunday Monitor front-page story), Kayihura himself wondering who he is always at the centre of intrigue and much more.
What is clear now is that the NRM is facing an internal crisis and revolt of the kind that can only lead to a breakup of the party. This is not the usual infighting for offices and parliamentary seats like what Ugandans witnessed during the party’s election primaries in 2010 at Namboole stadium.
This is now at a more serious level, involving senior security and police officers, with fear of murder and assassination of concern to the operatives switching sides or reporting on their former faction.
When trust and loyalty breaks down at the level of the army or state security agencies, the only outcome in a typical African country can be a coup, as happened in Uganda in 1971 and 1985 or an all-out rebellion ,as took place in South Sudan in late 2013.
The political situation in Uganda today resembles that in 1985 when the UPC, despite outward appearances, was a deeply divided party and the intrigues later spread to the army.
Two UPC factions, one loyal to President Milton Obote and his powerful Vice President and former Chairman of the Military Commission, were vying for power ahead of the scheduled 1985 general election.
Muwanga was the most powerful Vice Preisdent Uganda had had until that point in the early 1980s. Previous Vice Presidents like William Nadiope and John Babiiha in the 1960s were respected but did not wield much power.
President Idi Amin’s Vice President Gen. Mustapha Adrisi had a little more say in the government than Nadiope or Babiiha was still overshadowed by far, by Amin.
Muwanga had the “untouchable” power that Mbabazi has today. This power was best seen in Museveni’s moves to trim Mbabazi’s powers but at the end of the day, the president unable to do so.
Muwanga, having led Uganda for most of 1980 and under his hand the 1980 elections were organized, felt demoted to a lesser office when Obote appointed him Vice President in December 1980.
Mbabazi, as he has said, was part and parcel of the FRONASA organization led by Museveni in the 1970s that fought Amin. He later played a prominent role in the formation of the NRM’s external wing in 1981 in Nairobi and when the NRM came to power, he was Director-General of the External Security Organization (ESO), the agency in charge of gathering foreign intelligence.
Mbabazi as a person is said to be one of the most organized and hardworking in the NRM party and cabinet, good at handling information, organizing people and groups of people and detailed paper work.
As a senior NRM official, these skills have been an asset to the party, but now with presidential ambitions of his own, they are a serious threat to Museveni’s own ambitions for 2016 and beyond.
Why is it so difficult for Museveni to simply sack Mbabazi or even have him arrested, is something puzzling many Ugandans.
The answer takes back to the above: Mbabazi is a major political force, has created a countrywide political network loyal to him which, if Museveni attempts to break it up can easily lead to a collapse of the NRM.
Mbabazi, as his jobs as former ESO director-general, Minister of State for Defence, Minister of Defence and Minister of Security show, is also a man with some of the deepest and perhaps darkest state secrets in his mind.
State House is probably aware that he has the kind of information that can destroy Museveni or if it cannot destroy Museveni, can be used to further divide and sow intrigue in the NRM to the point of paralyzing it.
Some sources say the Kayihura Tapes were leaked by the Mbabazi camp to send a signal to State House that if it has chosen to fight Mbabazi using underhand methods, his network can also use the same intrigue on its own terms and at its own timing.
Mbabazi has, since the March 3 State House meeting gone on to project even more clout. He now holds weekly media briefings, his press unit sends out press releases to media houses and journalists, in the same way the State House press unit does.
Jacqueline Mbabazi has not stopped speaking defiantly and so the assumption can be that Mbabazi’s 2016 presidential bid is still on. Where this points to is to increasing intrigue at the highest levels of the NRM government in 2014 and 2015.
The actors involved are too much at the centre for the centre to be able to hold any longer in the way it has done since 1986.
State House and the pro-Museveni camp will either have to deal a brutal blow to Mbabazi and hope the fallout does not create an armed rebellion or inside sabotage by the Mbabazi camp; or when the time is right, Mbabazi will have to officially announce his presidential bid, resign from the government and start campaigning for 2016.
Mbabazi’s resignation would ease the tension within the NRM and his continued stay in the party or government, with intrigue so deep right now runs the risk of the national situation exploding until, as it was in 1985, things fall apart before the elections are even held.