2016 project takes shape as President checks Mbabazi power
For a few months now, Ugandans have been wondering whether the reported friction between President Yoweri Museveni and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi was really serious. The Observer can now report that despite fervent denials from the eloquent prime minister, who is also secretary general of the ruling NRM, all is not well between the two men. And if the prime minister thinks there is no problem, it could only be because he has not noticed it.
Well-informed sources conversant with affairs of the ruling party tell us that Museveni is genuinely concerned about what he sees as attempts by Mbabazi to build his powerbase as attention turns to the 2016 presidential elections.
Museveni wants to retain control of ‘Project 2016’ by running for a 5th term – or at least (should he, for some unforeseeable reason, be unable to return) by influencing who succeeds him. Consequently, he is understood to be actively trying to clip Mbabazi’s wings, while continuing to benefit from his steely management of government business.
It is understood that the recent appointment of John Nasasira as General Duties minister in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) is part of the grand scheme of the 2016 project – specifically meant to blunt Mbabazi’s growing clout. In this matrix, it is expected that Nasasira, a member of the closely-knit ruling party politburo, would take away chunks of power from the powerful prime minister.
Observers also say that Museveni no longer assigns Mbabazi any high-profile roles and prefers the less ambitious Vice President Edward Ssekandi. In July, for instance, it was Ssekandi who represented Museveni at the 50th anniversary of Burundi – for long the only country to send troops to shore up the UPDF in Somalia. Ssekandi has also been to launch the Kaiso Tonya road works in Hoima and the new power line from Kawanda to Masaka.
While we could not independently verify the link between these and the Mbabazi-Museveni tensions, sources within the establishment confirm that there are undercurrents that have strained the relationship between Museveni and his once-upon-a-time most trusted colleague. Many point to an NRM caucus meeting at State House, Entebbe, which took place in June, when the President berated Mbabazi and the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, to prove that things are no longer at ease. It was also perhaps the first time Museveni was criticizing Mbabazi openly.
Among other things, Museveni said: “[Eriya] Kategaya is more senior than Mbabazi and Kadaga when it comes to regional matters.” Kategaya is the second deputy premier and minister for East African Community Affairs.
Although he later called another meeting a week later, at his country home in Rwakitura, where he appeared remorseful, some insiders believe this was Museveni at his tactical best: he made his point, and then sought to calm tensions.
“Why did he have to criticize them in the open and praise Kategaya who betrayed him and joined FDC at one time? It more than meets the eye,” said a well-placed source in the ruling party.
Museveni, in another veiled swipe at Mbabazi, following successive by-election losses, said the NRM needed a fulltime secretary general to run the affairs of the party. This is different from the past, when Museveni conveniently glossed over the issue of Mbabazi being both prime minister and NRM secretary general. He now not only entertains delegations demanding Mbabazi’s replacement, he actually promises to do something about it.
Mbabazi is a dapper, meticulous and canny political operator and is amongst the last breed of Museveni’s NRM bush-struggle acolytes, who, until suspicions surfaced recently, executed most of the President’s sensitive duties. Back in October 2011, Museveni came to Mbabazi’s defence when MPs demanded he steps aside because of allegations of bribery over oil contracts.
“People who are pushing Mbabazi to step down basing on WikiLeaks are not after Mbabazi, but after Museveni. They want to use WikiLeaks to remove me. Mbabazi is going nowhere and Museveni is going nowhere,” Museveni said during a cabinet meeting.
He reportedly told his ministers that for all the time he has worked with Mbabazi, since 1974, the man from Kinkizi in Kanungu district has never disappointed him.
“He has always handled sensitive issues in areas of security, legal issues and diplomacy. He is clean and I have never found him wanting,” Museveni insisted.
So, what could have gone wrong to shatter an intimacy that lasted just under four decades? A senior lecturer in Political Science at Makerere University, Dr Sabiiti Makara, believes it is the toxic succession politics that is playing out.
“When Wapa (former Speaker, the late James Wapakhabulo) shone in Parliament, he was put on the wayside. It’s a way of cowing him (Mbabazi) out of his ambitions; his appetite will have to be tamed,” Makara opines.
For a party that has been in power for 26 years, the succession race in the NRM has become a seething, stimulating mixture of conspiratorial intrigue, nitpicking and factual games.
Political historian Mwambustya Ndebesa concurs with this Machiavellian conspiracy.
“When you rise nearest to power, you must fall. Museveni does not want a threat,” Ndebesa says.
However, while recently appearing on Capital FM’s political talk-show Capital Gang, Mbabazi said: “It is not true that there is a fallout between me and my leader, President Museveni. I have nothing like a plan to stand for president in 2016”.
Although the ruling party deputy spokesperson, Ofwono Opondo, does not want to call it a fallout, he says Mbabazi reneged on the deal to step down as secretary general if he were appointed prime minister.
“The National Executive Committee (NEC) did pass a resolution in 2010 that anyone appointed to the job of secretary general should not hold any other office. Unfortunately, Museveni nominated him. Mbabazi himself told the caucus that he would stand down. A year and a half down the road, he is still around and Museveni cannot sack him because he was legally elected,” Opondo observed.
He added: “The President has spoken and Mbabazi has also spoken. [The President] did not say NRM is losing because of Mbabazi, but because the party needs a fulltime secretariat”.
Museveni also told the NRM caucus that replacing Mbabazi as secretary general without holding a delegates’ conference would be unconstitutional. So, could Opondo be right? Could this be a storm in a tea cup? NRM historical Magode Ikuya certainly thinks so. He retorts that “even lovers, quarrel. I don’t read too much into this fallout”.
One thing that some NRM members are taking seriously, though, is that the office of the secretary general has been handicapped.
“Because Mbabazi has not been at the secretariat, a lot of things have been left undone, including political mobilization, arbitration, research and reconciliation,” Opondo notes.
To cure the crisis at the NRM secretariat, Opondo says, Richard Todwong, who was appointed minister without Portfolio in charge of political mobilization, “has been brought in to do the work of secretary general”. It is not clear yet how Todwong will execute his duties without necessarily clashing with Mbabazi, or whether his appointment is to render the office of secretary general a lame-duck.
Opondo, however, categorically dismissed suggestions that Mbabazi has been relying on the grassroots network to build a powerbase ahead of 2016.
“It’s people in FDC like [Abdul] Katuntu peddling that; it’s their version. What is the powerbase of Mbabazi? Any politician can have a sort of powerbase. However, Mbabazi’s powerbase is part of Museveni’s. I don’t think Mbabazi is very ambitious. The weaknesses of NRM are beyond him as an individual,” Opondo says.
A source close to the establishment, who did not want to speak on record, argues that, “the undercurrents and the suspicions are a result of the realignment toward 2016 and beyond. Mbabazi is suspected of having [presidential] ambitions for 2016; he is a target and it has created friction.”
The source, however, believes Mbabazi’s commitment to the party is unequivocal.
Like Museveni, Mbabazi is a hostage to certain powers that are trying to secure their future, says the source. “There is a camp that believes Mbabazi should replace Museveni and this process is beyond his control.” The source says if there is a fallout, Museveni can only emerge stronger because he has the capacity to dismantle networks and protégés.
“We have seen it in the past. When [Museveni] fell out with the bush war comrades, he remained supreme. You may recall that when Bidandi [Ssali] was Local Government minister, there was an assumption that he was so powerful, but look at what eventually happened when he left…”
Ndebesa believes the debate about whether or not Mbabazi has fallen out with his master is based on a false premise.
“I don’t want to believe that Mbabazi is so powerful. He holds more formal powers than informal powers and it is people with informal powers that hold real power,” Ndebesa posits.
He adds that the most powerful instrument of the regime is the UPDF High Command. “It is a political dilemma, not a military dilemma, yet it is the military that is the locus of power. So, the President can deal with that appropriately.”
Ndebesa cites the Nyekundiire (volunteers), an enterprise of inner-circle cadres as yet another informal group that wields a lot of leverage. Driven by a sense of gratitude, the group, which consists of Museveni’s relatives and in-laws, played an instrumental role in his re-election. But talk of a strained relationship cannot be wished away. It continues to stick out like a sore thumb, as the ruling party hurtles down on a dicey path towards the 2016 election.
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