So the big Uganda story of the last few weeks has been how the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) Caucus staged an ambush, and seemingly locked Prime Minister and party Secretary-General Amama Mbabazi out of the race as its candidate in 2016.
And this it did by adopting a resolution endorsing President Yoweri Museveni as the NRM (presumably) unopposed candidate. Museveni will be going for a seventh term (two of them unelected), and if the elections and his victory come to pass, he would start out on a 35-year stretch in power, the longest in both Uganda’s and eastern African history.
This whole episode tells volumes about both NRM and Museveni’s politics, but perhaps even more so about the dilemma the country faces about its future leadership.
First, it was school boyish. Mbabazi was in attendance, and he was pushed in a corner: to openly defy Museveni and the party and refuse to sign the Museveni-for-2016 petition, or do so and basically give up his claim to the throne. This is like a little boy spitting on the bun, hoping that his friends will be disgusted and leave him to eat it all alone, or they can choose to eat it and look greedy and be shamed.
Secondly, the petition itself was a political mugging. Its sponsors say it was never their intention to push it forward, but during the meeting, pro-Mbabazi MPs started rooting for him, so they got ‘annoyed’ and forced the issue.
Now some of Mbabazi’s secretary general roles were taken away from him by the President because it was too much work for one man, and given to minister Without Portfolio Richard Todwong.
True, Mbabazi is unnervingly abstemious, proud and has pushy relatives. But the near-hysteria that has built around him, and the sense that even Museveni is afraid of him, is puzzling. The man does not have green horns.
The irony of recent events is that it has actually helped Mbabazi a great deal. They have definitely forced a re-evaluation of him and made him larger than he is. A shrewd politician, it seems Museveni understands this and has moved to play down the idea that there is plotting against Mbabazi.
Right now, because Mbabazi did not pick up his marbles and quit the NRM in a huff in the face of the humiliations he was subjected to, he has been left looking like the only grown up in the NRM house. The scuffle has allowed him to look presidential
Now with Museveni going for an unprecedented seventh term, one would have expected that his camp would figure that he needs a greater dose of legitimacy. One way to do that would be to allow the party to have its first serious contest for its leadership…let Mbabazi stand, but ensure that he is defeated (fairly or by fiddling as the NRM is wont to do).
But it seems Museveni and NRM are too terrified to take that risk. We are seeing what one could call the “Besigyefication of Mbabazi”. This is the phenomenon where former opposition Forum Democratic Change (FDC) leader Dr Kizza Besigye was treated as the only threat to Museveni. In campaigns, Museveni would attack him and ignore the other candidates. Other politicians could stage Walt-to-Work protests, but Besigye could not. A police post was built at his gate to control his movements. Other opposition leaders could do what they wanted, not Besigye.
Why the fear of Mbabazi? It’s because Museveni has “overstayed” in power, some could argue. There is one view that holds - that Museveni stopped leading in 2001. Since then, he has only been lingering, staying in power because he has nowhere else to go, not because he still has transformative potential. He himself has not helped, as he did on one occasion, when he ridiculed those who think they can chase him from the presidency “like a chicken thief”. But even a chicken thief (indeed, especially a chicken thief), usually goes home.
Because Museveni has lingered, it seems we have reached a point where, as long as there is a different bottom sitting in the State House, fine. The country can worry about whether its owner is a good leader later.
This growing anyone-but-Museveni mood is not bad for the President, though. For example, I believe, it makes it easier for his son, Commander of the Special Forces Command, Brig Muhoozi Kainerugaba to succeed him because, well, he is not his father. But it also lowers the barrier, reducing the resentment against Mbabazi, and making him more acceptable as president than just a year ago.
If he can just bite his lip, tighten his groin, and keep his cool, he might yet have the last laugh. If not that, at least now the commentaries that will be written about him in future, might be kinder.
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