Last week, what was ostensibly a retreat at Kyankwanzi by the ruling NRM party to review its policies and performance turned into an impromptu annual delegates’ conference and party primary election. It also was, in a sense, a purge, by which the loyalty of party members was put once and for all to the test.
The two main national daily newspapers, the Daily Monitor and New Vision, on February 13 led with the headlines that the Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi had backed President Museveni as the party’s candidate for the 2016 general election. That was in itself both strange and revealing. Why should Mbabazi backing Museveni make such news? Was Mbabazi not expected to back Museveni?
This was the purpose of the Kyankwanzi meeting: a serious power struggle has been developing within the NRM and reported by several gossip newspapers, but at Kyankwanzi, it finally became public.
This power struggle is between two factions of the party, the first loyal to Museveni and the other to Mbabazi. It was the first clear indication that contrary to all outward appearances, Museveni no longer commands the near-total control over the NRM as he once did. The media correctly reported the Kyankwanzi meeting as being all about Mbabazi.
The NRM since its bitter delegates’ conference in August 2010 has become much like what we saw in Kenya after 1992 where a party called FORD was split into two, FORD-Kenya and FORD-Asili. In this instance, what Uganda has today is NRM-Museveni and NRM-Mbabazi. How did this come to be, when it was always assumed that Museveni has led the NRM practically unchallenged since early 1985, following the death of the NRM chairman Yusufu Lule?
Mbabazi – the NRM’s Paulo Muwanga
To answer this question, we must understand who Mbabazi is. In recent years, he has been the Secretary-General of the NRM and Prime Minister of Uganda. But there is much more to him than that. He has always wielded behind-the-scenes power that is hard to explain. His power goes beyond the office he holds at any one time. Who is Amama Mbabazi?
For many years since 1986, the Ugandan media and political commentators regarded Museveni as the number one political power in the country. At various times, Museveni’s brother Gen Salim Saleh, his childhood classmate the late Eriya Kategaya, at some point the Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa and even the First Lady Janet Museveni as the effective number two in Uganda’s pecking order of influence and power.
After the NRM seized state power in 1986, Mbabazi was named the Director-General of the External Security Organisation, Uganda’s foreign intelligence agency.
The Director-General of the Internal Security Organisation, Brig Jim Muhwezi, was always in the limelight, pictured at parties and public events. But Mbabazi was largely unknown to and unseen by the public. He later became the Minister of State for Defence but even then, was always in the shadows. It was only in the 2000s that Mbabazi became a well-known and visible public figure.
According to various sources, this is what makes Mbabazi so effective and now such a challenge to Museveni. He works best while working in the shadows.
Mbabazi is the man who handled the operations of Museveni’s FRONASA guerrilla group inside Uganda during the 1970s while Museveni was in Tanzania. And when Museveni started his 1980s guerrilla war and was at the front line, it was Mbabazi who set up and run the administrative structures and systems of the organisation that became known as the NRA/NRM.
Most Ugandans have the impression that Museveni was both the overall military commander of FRONASA and the NRA/NRM and their chief administrator. But it was Mbabazi who was the behind-the-scenes chief of staff, coordinating FRONASA activities in Uganda in the 1970s and the external wing of the NRM in the 1980s.
Most of the NRA’s diplomatic and media victories, such as bringing a freelance British journalist, William Pike, to visit the NRA camps in Luweero Triangle in September 1984 and give the rebels much-needed publicity in the West, were the work of Mbabazi.
This is what gives him much of his mysterious clout and arouses much resentment toward him among his colleagues, as some of the Daily Monitor “Bush War” series about the NRA war revealed.
To use a computer industry term, Amama Mbabazi set up the Windows and Android operating systems on which the NRM runs. That is why people like Mbabazi’s wife, Jacqueline and outspoken daughter Nina Mbabazi Rukikaire do not feel the awe and fear of Museveni that most other Ugandans feel. Their mentality is one of “we are the family that brought you, Museveni, to power”.
Mbabazi has always been a Paulo Muwanga – a civilian but who gravitates toward key military roles that nobody can quite explain. During the Moshi Unity Conference of March 1979, Muwanga was named the chairman of the Military Commission.