All indications are that President Museveni will play by a different script in the coming election cycle. In the past, he would leave everyone guessing on whether he would offer himself for re-election until just weeks to the campaigns.
This time round, however, his tacit approval of what happened during the retreat of the ruling party’s MPs at Kyankwanzi suggests that he does not intend to keep Ugandans guessing anymore; they better know right now that he will contest the 2016 election.
The full implications of the move by the MPs to propose Mr Museveni as the sole National Resistance Movement (NRM) presidential candidate in the next election will only be clear in the fullness of time.
A pronouncement by a section of NRM youths that the move was illegal and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi’s insistence that the party’s presidential candidate is still to be decided by the relevant organs of the party, suggests that the Kyankwanzi resolution could still be contested.
Observers have predicted for long that Mr Mbabazi could launch a presidential bid of his own and many still do not rule him out even after he signed the Kyankwanzi resolution that proposed Mr Museveni as the sole NRM presidential candidate.
This means that all the individuals currently being referred to as potent contenders for the presidency in the coming election are members of the ruling party.
Apart from Mr Museveni and Mr Mbabazi, former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya and Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga are also often mentioned. Prof Bukenya has vowed to take on Mr Museveni even if it means quitting the ruling party in search of another political vehicle.
But as the power game is fought out in the ruling party, Dr Kizza Besigye, Mr Museveni’s fiercest challenger in the past three elections, has said he will not contest in the next election because he sees it as pointless to stand against the incumbent.
Dr Besigye’s party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), which leads the opposition in Parliament by virtue of its numerical strength in the House, is still struggling to recover from the cracks that resulted from the election that replaced him as president. The other parties virtually pose no threat to write home about.
Under the circumstances, therefore, what options has the opposition against Mr Museveni?
But before we delve into the options for the opposition, it is worth paying attention to an observation suggested by Democratic Party president general Norbert Mao as to whether there is even such a thing as the opposition.
Mr Mao suggests that it would be erroneous to talk about the opposition as one united entity. “There are too many scattered goals in the opposition,” he says.
He says within the opposition are those “who can’t stand Museveni for one more day for whatever reason, there are those who are just fighting to see a change in the way the country is governed, and many other groups with all sorts of interests”.
Whereas the common aim of removing President Museveni binds together these groups in certain instances, Mr Mao says the unity is not always enduring. “The challenge for the opposition is to get the binding glue that will bring everybody together under the same umbrella,” he says.
The differences within the opposition are often worsened by differences in approach and infiltration by the ruling party, whether real or perceived.
A key procedural difference that has dogged the opposition in the recent past is on whether to concentrate on preparing for the next election or to take on Mr Museveni through protests.
This split was recently enlivened by Aruu County MP Odonga Otto as he protested his being dropped from chairing a parliamentary committee. Mr Otto castigated the administration of FDC president Mugisha Muntu’s “deliberate purging of activism oriented leaders”.
Mr Otto said that individuals like himself, shadow attorney general Abdu Katuntu and former Leader of the Opposition in Parliament Nandala Mafabi had been side-lined within the party in favour of those who do not favour activism as a method of work.
Maj Gen (rtd) Muntu has been talking up the need to “mobilise the (party’s) base” and prepare Ugandans for change from Mr Museveni as the election draws closer, although his approach to the mobilisation has been faulted by some within his party.
As the opposition bickers on the one hand, Mr Museveni is also ever willing to deepen the disagreements within the opposition ranks. Some time back, for instance, he said he “worked with” some of the opposition activists to break up the Walk-to-Work protests. There have also been reports that he has sanctioned a team to recruit opposition politicians into the NRM fold.
Boycott threats futile?
The result of all this is that opposition politicians are always on the lookout for possible infiltration by the ruling party and sometimes probably make much out of nothing.
They fear is that some of their colleagues are planted by the ruling party, which is sometimes true given that over time a number of opposition politicians have defected to NRM.
But it is also probable that some are wrongly suspected. The result is that the opposition is ruled by mistrust, something Mr Mao affirms.
And it is on the basis of this mistrust that the theory that the election boycott that has been suggested by some opposition politicians cannot work.
“Museveni is capable of creating his own opposition,” says Mr Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a political historian at Makerere University. Mr Mwambutsya gives the example of the referendum on political systems in 2000, where Mr Museveni is thought to have “planted” individuals to campaign for the multi-party system as Mr Museveni campaigned for what was called the Movement system of government.
The traditional agitators for the opening of the political space had boycotted the referendum, arguing that to participate in the exercise would be to legitimise a vote on the inalienable right to associate. The Movement won overwhelmingly.
The argument against boycotting elections was also made in the run up to the last election as some politicians, chiefly UPC president Olara Otunnu, pondered a boycott.
Dr Besigye, who had previously threatened to boycott the election if there were no reforms, changed his mind and participated in the election, arguing that, “There will be no election without us.”
He hoped to “overwhelm the rigging machinery and win”. He, of course, did not win and he has vowed never to participate in an election “organised by Museveni and Kiggundu [Badru, Electoral Commission chief]”.
The key argument in favour of a boycott is that Mr Museveni’s rule would be de-legitimised if his traditional opponents keep off the election and let him virtually run against himself.
The opposition recently presented proposals for electoral reforms and put what UPC vice president Joseph Bbosa calls a “sunset clause”; they want a response by end of April.
But not even Mr Bbosa, who has in the past advocated a boycott, is willing to say what the opposition will do in case the set date comes and there is no response.
Sections of the opposition seem to be taking seriously the suggestion by the exiled General David Sejusa that a former senior army officer is being supported by Mr Museveni as a possible presidential candidate in the event that the opposition boycotts the election.
They may not want to let Mr Museveni run against himself in the next election.
Can the Opposition rally around the politically homeless?
If boycotting is not an option for the opposition, the question then arises as to who will then lead the way against Mr Museveni. Dr Besigye has disqualified himself but he can probably still change his mind.
Excepting Dr Besigye, other possible candidates include Gen Muntu, Mr Mao, Mr Otunnu and probably Mr Mafabi or Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago. The list can perhaps grow longer, but the challenge remains one – none of them appears to have a potent enough national stature to galvanise the country against Mr Museveni.
None of the above, perhaps, has more potential than Prof Bukenya and Mr Mbabazi to trouble Mr Museveni at an election. There is a “big” challenge, however, according to Mr Ndebesa.
Even if either Mr Mbabazi or Prof Bukenya were to drop out of NRM and seek alliance with the opposition, some within the opposition would perhaps not trust him.
It is also debatable whether those who have consistently voted against Mr Museveni would vote for either Mr Bukenya or Mr Mbabazi – two people who were particularly pivotal in the move to remove presidential term limits and let Mr Museveni stay on beyond 2006.
As early as 1996, when Mr Museveni was deemed to be much more popular, DP’s Paul Ssemogerere still managed to garner just over 22 per cent of the votes cast. Many of these people probably voted for Dr Besigye going forward and it can be argued that since they voted for a man who had worked with Mr Museveni before, they would have no problems voting for another.
It would be an “intriguing” spectacle, Mr Ndebesa reckons, if either Mr Mbabazi or Prof Bukenya runs against Mr Museveni while there is another candidate sponsored by the traditional opposition. Mr Mao already offers a sampler of the arguments the traditional opposition to President Museveni would use, namely that the newcomers are just disgruntled and are not necessarily motivated by improving Uganda.
There are some newcomers within the opposition, however, who will argue that even when they were in the ruling party, they were motivated by different things from merely wealth and power. One of them is Lwemiyaga County MP Theodore Ssekikubo, who is now politically homeless having been expelled from the ruling party due to his critical stance.
Mr Ssekikubo had a lot of trouble with Mr Mbabazi in the NRM and he sounds happy that Mr Museveni and Mr Mbabazi do not seem to get along well anymore.
“We saw it (Mr Mbabazi’s fallout with Mr Museveni) coming. It is only Mbabazi who was duped into thinking that he would ride the tiger. He has now ended up in the tiger’s belly,” Mr Ssekikubo said.
This is just further evidence of disagreements between Mr Museveni’s opponents and it is not clear whether and how they will be resolved.
What is clear, however, is that they are running out of time while Mr Museveni seems bent on clearing the last hurdles to launching himself into the fifth election campaign during his presidency.