Did the media frenzy over the recent decision by the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) Caucus to endorse President Yoweri Museveni as its “unopposed” candidate for the 2016 elections miss anything?
Most of the attention focused on what seemed a deft move to freeze out possible NRM rivals, especially Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi.
However, of the last four elections - 1996, 2001, 2006, and 2011 - this is the earliest Museveni has moved to put a lock on the candidature of his party. This time, two years early. In the past, the NRM has tended to keep this decision for October-November, four to five months ahead of the elections traditionally held in February.
So why has Museveni moved so early? One view is that he wanted to avoid a repeat of Kizza Besigye’s 2000 “October surprise”. The election that followed in February 2001 was the nastiest and most shameful of the Museveni era. The Museveni camp panicked, and didn’t have enough time to organise and push back the Besigye wave. Therefore, it did it the old fashioned way – it beat down voters, and rigged the poll.
But then, one could ask, why didn’t Museveni jump very early for 2006 and 2011? The answer is probably that the President feels the same vulnerability with 2016 approaching, as he did in late 2000. He will be seeking a seventh term (two of them unelected), and if his party is not weary of him, sections of the country are.
This unusual early claim on NRM flag bearer status does a couple of things. It avoids abrupt and sharp reaction by business. One calculation must be that over the next two years, the country and international investors will have acclimatised to the prospect of another five years of Museveni and made the necessary adjustments.
Secondly, going by the monies he is dishing out, the President is obviously flash with cash. His opponents, if they want to have a realistic shot at the elections, will have to launch early too. Because he has the deeper pockets, Museveni will bankrupt any rival campaign that tries to go head to head with him.
Yet, there is a part of me that thinks that there has to be more behind this unusual move. One thing to look out for is how Museveni will seek to define his last years. His own party is moribund. As writer Joachim Buwembo noted in his column this week in the regional weekly, The East African, there have been no Local Council (LC) elections in 14 years. The lower LC structures were how NRM watered its grassroots.
To wade through the last years, Museveni will probably try to find vitality from crafting a “transition”/national unity government. I expect that factions of the post-Besigye Forum for Democratic Change and the Democratic Party, out in the cold for so long, might well be open to doing a deal. Two years gives Museveni enough time to craft something.
But also, there is a sense in which his move sought to affect regional politics. It is significant that the Caucus decision came just as international pressure was building against the UPDF’s intervention in the South Sudan crisis to back president Salva Kiir.
Kampala would have understood that, despite its chest thumping, it had to withdraw. One way to ensure that Kiir does not lose out in any international settlement was for his main military backer, Museveni, to signal to the world that he is not leaving power soon.
Secondly, there is Rwanda. If President Paul Kagame goes by the constitution, he will step down from power in 2017. He has said he will, but there are people in his ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front who want him to stay. Will he amend the constitution and stay, or pack his bags and leave?
Word has it that Museveni would like Kagame to stay put. Kagame is the only leader in the region who has a direct military and historical link to him. Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete too has some connection to him. He was in-charge of Tanzania’s military intelligence in Uganda during and immediately after the 1979 Tanzania People’s Defence Forces-led war against Idi Amin.
But Kikwete is most definitely leaving office at the end of 2016. Because of its genocide history, Rwanda needs greater predictability than Uganda. So if it is to change the constitution, it has to do so over the next two years. So could Museveni’s early move be a ruse to force Kigali’s hand?
The flip side in all this is that unlike Besigye who had three months to put up a campaign against the Museveni machine in 2001 (and even a shorter period in 2006), now Museveni has given his adversaries two years to prepare. This is not over by any means.
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