Senior NRM officials believed President Museveni was “too tired” to seek re-election in 2011 and started jostling over who would succeed him, new secret American cables released by the Wikileaks website show.
In a late 2009 cable to Washington, D.C., the US ambassador to Uganda, Jerry Lanier, highlighted a succession battle within the top echelons of the NRM party shared with the embassy in Kampala by Nina Mbabazi, a party cadre and daughter to Security Minister and NRM party secretary general Amama Mbabazi.
“Nina said there are ‘indications’ Museveni is tired and looking for a trustworthy successor to run in his place in 2011 and that her father is the most likely candidate,” the cable says, reflecting a discussion between Mbabazi’s daughter and Aaron Sampson, the political officer at the US embassy.
Mbabazi’s daughter had, at the time of the discussion, just concluded conducting research on the voter register on behalf of NRM and President Museveni, who offered $50,000 or about Shs100 million then for the exercise.
According to the cable, she told the US official that Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa was not a “serious contender” to succeed Museveni but was working to “sabotage the Mbabazis because he knows his fortunes will decline should Mbabazi ever take over”.
The NRM cadre said Mr Kutesa and Amelia Kyambadde, who was then the principal private secretary to the President, were conspiring to thwart her access to Mr Museveni and block her report which found, among other things, 7,000 ghost voters on the Electoral Commission register in Mr Kutesa’s Mawogola constituency in Ssembabule District.
Nina Mbabazi told the US officials that rampant corruption had seriously weakened the NRM and that her father had, during a tour of the country, been “shocked to discover villagers willing to support the NRM but not Museveni” – a distinction they had not made before.
The US officials did not appear to believe that Mr Museveni, who was announced winner of the election last month, was considering standing down and indicated so in the cable to Washington.
The cable, however, offers a rare glimpse into the power play at the top of the NRM where the succession question has never been publicly discussed.
In a telephone interview with this newspaper yesterday, Ms Nina Mbabazi confirmed speaking to Mr Sampson at a dinner but denied discussing a row between her father and Mr Kutesa over succeeding President Museveni as reported in the cable.
“We discussed loosely during cocktails and I never said that (Kutesa is sabotaging Mbabazi to succeed Museveni),” she said.
“They put the question of infighting (in the NRM party) to me and I said I could not comment. That report is full of inaccuracies and those things they are writing that I said are not true.”
When Ms Mbabazi’s claims in the cable were put to her last night, Ms Kyambadde said: “I have no idea about that. Ask her; she will give you more information if she is the complainant”.
Ms Joann Lockard, the public affairs officer at the US Mission in Kampala, said they would not to comment on any contents of diplomat memos publicised by the whistleblower website, Wikileaks.
We were unable to reach Mr Kutesa for comment by press time yesterday.
The subject of Mr Museveni’s succession, about which the President too has been ambiguous, has been long a contentious and near-taboo issue for party members to debate.
In 2000, Mr Mbabazi accused Dr Kizza Besigye of “jumping the [succession] queue” when he unexpectedly declared his candidature for the 2001 presidential elections. It was widely believed that Mr Mbabazi considered himself ahead of Dr Besigye in the succession queue.
As Secretary General and a close confidant to the President, Mr Mbabazi is widely listed as a potential successor but the thoughts shared by his daughter in the cable show how the road to succeeding Museveni will be fraught with many obstacles and competing interests.
Nina Mbabazi’s research, which this newspaper published in October 2009, showed that the national voter’s register contained anywhere between 500,000 to a million ghost voters alongside thousands of “phantom” polling stations and she told the US officials the EC would be disbanded for being pro-opposition.
When this newspaper published that report, top NRM officials, including party Chief Whip Daudi Migereko, publicly disowned it and the EC remained unchanged, despite widespread calls for reform and allegations of pro-government bias by the opposition.
Although some of her predictions did not come to pass, Ms Nina Mbabazi clearly had the ear of the President. In a March 7 article in the government-run New Vision, President Museveni attributed his victory in last month’s poll partly to activism by the young blood, among them Ms Nina Mbabazi, and their accurate findings.
“These young people are really thorough,” Mr Museveni wrote. “They remind me of our young days in FRONASA, USARF, etc. They leave nothing to chance.”