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.
During the second UPC government, Muwanga became Vice President and Minister of Defence, a powerful and almost untouchable figure in Uganda. In the same way, Mbabazi does not have obvious military training but somehow is named Director-General of the sensitive ESO, then Minister of State for Defence when Museveni was the head of state and Minister of Defence.
As all eyes focused on Salim Saleh, Kategaya, Kutesa and all sorts of possible successors to Museveni, and after 2000 when all Museveni’s attention was centred around a new and unexpected political threat called Colonel Kizza Besigye, Mbabazi was quietly building a parallel NRM within the NRM.
Mbabazi was the first man since the NRM’s rise to power in 1986 to create his own self-contained political system complete with political and intelligence operatives, with Mbabazi loyalists in key places in the civil service, news media, Uganda’s embassies abroad, the police, LC5 chairmen, RDCs and dozens of students getting scholarships from Mbabazi.
By the time Museveni only recently realised that his biggest challenger was not Besigye but Mbabazi, it was too late. There was a second NRM running Uganda.
In desperation, a move was made by State House to diffuse the Mbabazi problem by demanding that NRM ministers, MPs and party officials publicly state their stand at Kyankwanzi. What would be Mbabazi’s reaction? Mbabazi dully added his signature to the 200-strong roll call list of MPs backing Museveni’s 2016 presidential bid.
Museveni had hoped to call Mbabazi’s bluff. Instead Mbabazi called Museveni’s bluff with his own bluff, defeating the purpose of Museveni’s Kyankwanzi move. If Mbabazi has added his signature to the pro-Museveni list, how can Museveni then claim that Mbabazi is undermining him from within? What Mbabazi did at Kyankwanzi was what Museveni did by signing the 1985 Nairobi peace accord - bidding your time by going through the motions of something you do not intend to honour.
The next, more sensitive part is what Museveni can do about this new threat called the Mbabazi Project. He can sack him, but what if it causes a serious breakup of the NRM? There are a whole range of people, companies and interests whose income, tenders, student scholarships and chances in life depend on Mbabazi, people who would be driven to desperation if this lifeblood were to be cut off.
If four young NRM “rebel” MPs could withstand the pressure and intimidation of Museveni and the party machinery in 2013, just imagine how many more MPs, RDCs, civil servants, ambassadors, intelligence officers, Anglican Church dignitaries, civil society activists, journalists and other Mbabazi loyalists would rebel and openly call for the creation of a Kenya-type Orange coalition to challenge Museveni if he ever touched Mbabazi.
For example, in January the retired Judge George Kanyeihamba in his Sunday Monitor column wrote a defiant piece clearly in support of Mbabazi, telling readers of Bakiga solidarity when they are threatened and indirectly warning Museveni against any thought of tampering with Mbabazi.
It was obvious that Kanyeihamba had insider knowledge of a move to undercut Mbabazi’s powers, a move which came into the light at Kyankwanzi. To make matters worse for Museveni, Mbabazi appears to have the sympathetic ear of the Chinese government and, according to former ISO officer Charles Rwomushana appearing on NBS TV’s “Morning Breeze” breakfast show on February 12, a number of western powers.
Museveni finds himself stuck with a man he cannot purge without causing the entire NRM to break up, just as President Milton Obote in the 1980s found himself stuck with a Paulo Muwanga he could do nothing about. This, then, is the political crisis that faces Uganda today.
The 2016 election campaign started last week at Kyankwanzi. But this time, it will not be about the NRM versus the nominally main opposition party, the FDC, but rather the pro-Museveni NRM versus the real and main opposition party in Uganda today, which is the NRM-Mbabazi faction.
It is a repeat of the bitterness and split within the UPC 30 years ago in 1984, when a faction either loyal to Paulo Muwanga or manipulated by him took shape, festered on for months, eventually spread to the army, with Muwanga quietly urging on Tito and Bazillio Okello and all of this intrigue climaxing in the July 27, 1985 military coup.
The only historic role the FDC, UPC, DP and other parties can hope to play in 2016 is perhaps to deepen Museveni’s crisis by boycotting the election and leaving the NRM to tear itself apart as happened with the UPC in 1985.