There is a tendency in Uganda, to personalise matters. Instead of looking at the causes of events and analysing any underlying trends, we are content to focus on the transient and the trivial. The coverage and debate over the slow dismantling of “Super Minister” Amama Mbabazi over the last few months has not bucked that tendency.
In trivial mode, expect to read a lot about how Mbabazi has been destroyed by the master he has served so diligently, in rebellion and in government, over the last 40 years.
There will be biographies recycled or rewritten with things inserted or removed depending on the standpoint of author and the political point that they wish to make.
We shall read transcripts of tapped telephone conversations between Mbabazi or his family members and sundry political operators, who must now be quaking in their boots. Analysts shall point out the bitter irony of the fact that Mbabazi, the minister who introduced and defended the phone tapping Bill in Parliament, has been the first public victim of the phone taps. Others will marvel at fate’s twisted sense of humour, noting that Mbabazi’s stay in Parliament now depends on the Supreme Court overturning the ruling of the Constitutional Court in the case of the four “Rebel MPs” - the ruling that Mbabazi actively sought and celebrated as Secretary General of the National Resistance Movement only a few weeks ago.
But this is not about Mbabazi or his wife, Jacqueline, any more than 2001 was about Kizza Besigye or his wife Winnie Byanyima. For better or for worse, it is really about Uganda. The spotlight must, therefore, be focused on the nefarious underlying trend that this struggle for the soul of the NRM reveals. In my view this saga begs a very simple question.
Can Uganda be the peaceful, just, free and democratic country that we all want it to be if aspiration to the presidency, has come to be considered a crime and/or a threat to national security?
The Constitution provides that all the people of Uganda shall have access to leadership positions at all levels, subject only to the provisions of the Constitution. This means that each and every Ugandan is entitled to aspire to serve in any leadership position provided they are not disqualified by the Constitution.
On paper this means that aspiration to the presidency is not a crime. Depending on the holder, such the aspiration may be: misguided; ill-judged; uninformed; poorly timed; petty; vain; greedy; or a waste of time, but it is never, in and of itself, a crime.
That’s the position on paper, but in reality things are worryingly different. When Dr Besigye expressed an aspiration to lead this country, his political opponents poured scorn and ridicule on his stated ambition. But they did not stop at this.
Massive state resources were ploughed into the campaign in favour of incumbent General Yoweri Museveni and security and law enforcement organs were all mobilised to the effort to stop Besigye.
The deployment of trumped up criminal charges and the brutalisation of Dr Besigye, his family and supporters over the last 13 years are well known and do not need restatement here but at the end of the day, his only real crime has been his stated aspiration for the presidency.
People who witnessed what happened to Dr Besigye and others might have formed the view that it is wrong to aspire for the presidency from outside the NRM. Therefore, some like, former vice president Gilbert Bukenya and Capt Mike Mukula decided to nurture their presidential ambitions from within the NRM.
This is not only legal but also politically acceptable in a free and democratic society. It is the reason why party constitutions provide for primary elections. Prof Bukenya and Capt Mukula were soon disabused of this illusion. Not only did they lose their political appointments, which was fair enough, criminal charges suddenly appeared followed by stints in Luzira Prison – Bukenya on remand for charges that have since mysteriously disappeared and Mukula upon a flawed conviction that was overturned on appeal.
Now that Mbabazi has disclosed an aspiration for the presidency he is being denounced before the Parliamentary Caucus as having committed crimes. His phones are being tapped, a procedure which is legally reserved for use against criminals and terrorists.
It is not a surprise, therefore, that some people are predicting that it will not be long before Mbabazi not only loses his political appointment but also swaps his customary yellow ties for the bright yellow pyjama-like uniform of Luzira Maximum Security Prison.
It is very sad that we have failed to cultivate a culture of agreeable political disagreement and maintained a militaristic stance that takes all opponents to be enemies that must be crushed.
The criminalisation of aspiration to the presidency, does not just lead to the humiliation and harassment of aspirants. It sends a broader signal that peaceful change is impossible and as John F. Kennedy said, “if you make peace impossible, you make violent change inevitable”.