Two separate private visits to the Holy See by Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and Speaker Rebecca Kadaga have become the centrepiece of debate about the two politicians’ political ambitions in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections.
Some political pundits have suggested that the two politicians were in the Vatican not only to seek papal ‘blessings’ but also to widen their political appeal among Ugandan Catholics. The Kaberamaido MP, Dr Kenneth Omona, a strong President Museveni supporter, put an interesting spin to the visits.
“They are not going there for any blessings; they are courting the Catholic Church,” he told The Observer last December.
“The Catholic Church is well-organised and these two leaders have realised that they need to tap into this influential section of Ugandan voters, and perhaps join the rising club of influential lobbyists who gather every evening at the prestigious Pope Paul VI Memorial hotel (Ndeeba) to discuss matters of national interest,” he said.
On his part, Dr Sabiiti Makara of Makerere University believes the two politicians, who are Anglicans, went to the Pope “as a way of looking for political bases”.
Historically, Sabiiti explained, “the politics of Uganda has been entrenched in religion.”
Pictures of the Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi, and the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga, meeting Pope Benedict XVI, recently appeared in the Ugandan press. What was most striking about them was one coming immediately after the other. Sources close to Mbabazi have told us that the premier planned the papal visit three months ago, and that he personally combed Kampala’s shopping malls looking for a gift to deliver to the Pontiff.
Mbabazi officially went to Italy to woo investors but also found time to pay a courtesy visit to the Pope. Kadaga, on the other hand, planned her visit the night before her speech at the 7th Consultative Assembly of Parliamentarians for the International Criminal Court and the World Parliamentary Conference on Human Rights in Rome Italy on December 10.
Sources close to her have told us that she personally phoned the Ugandan ambassador to the Vatican inquiring whether she could meet the Pope one-on-one. The ambassador, sources say, informed her that it would not be possible given her short schedule in Italy.
Uganda’s ambassador to the Holy See, however, told Kadaga that she could exploit the December 12 holy mass that is usually attended by thousands of pilgrims inside St Peter’s Basilica; where the Pope meets high-profile figures from around the world after prayers.
We have been told that the Pope had to meet a group of bishops first, after which Kadaga, who was in the company of Rubabo MP Paula Turyahikayo, was ushered in for papal blessings. The visit lasted about two minutes, but that was enough time for some prayers and a photo-opportunity that speaks - like the old adage - a thousand words.
After the meeting, an overwhelmed Kadaga said: “I think this is a moment that cannot be repeated. We have been reading about him [Pope], hearing stories about St Peter’s Basilica but now we are here physically. I think it is something that I will remember all my life. It’s a great moment and I thank God for this opportunity.”
Although there are indications that President Museveni is still around, the rumour mill in the NRM party has it that Kadaga and Mbabazi are weighing the option of running for president in 2016 when President Museveni’s fourth term expires. Both principals, however, have not come out publicly to say they are interested in the top job.
In fact, as a way of dampening the rumours, Mbabazi this year told family members that he was ‘retiring’ from politics in 2016 (see: Mbabazi to quit in 2016).
Kadaga, on the other hand, says she has never mentioned it anywhere that she wants to be president, adding that it’s her supporters who keep nudging her on.
Kadaga’s star shone brighter when she dismissed Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s attack of Uganda’s human rights record in respect to sexual minorities.
Kadaga caused diplomatic stir when she pointedly reminded Baird that Uganda was neither a colony nor protectorate of Canada and as such her sovereignty, societal and cultural norms were to be respected. Since then, we understand that the inter-religious council is planning to meet Kadaga over the Anti-Homosexuality bill.
“We want to lobby her and make sure that this bill passes,” said a source from the inter-religious council.
So, why should these two politicians’ visit to the Holy See be such a big deal?
Catholics make a big portion of the electorate - 41.9% of the Ugandan population, according to the latest housing survey from Uganda Bureau of Statistics.