As far as political counter-attacks go, President Museveni’s stunning box-to-box effort at Kyankwanzi this week ranks up there among the best. The decision by NRM party MPs to endorse him as their sole candidate for the 2016 elections was so calculating that it is a reminder of how much Museveni learnt from Milton Obote, his ‘frenemy’.
President Museveni had conceded an own-goal several months ago during a party Central Executive Committee meeting when he attempted to dislodge Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, seen as a potential rival, from either his Cabinet post or his party position as secretary general. He was stunned by the level of support the PM received from the members, as well as calls by a few bold attendees for him to also choose between the presidency and the party chairmanship.
Museveni rarely commits the same error twice. So although the matter was set aside then, plotting the comeback resumed almost immediately. It has involved, among other moves, weeding out or shunting aside officials seen as pro-Mbabazi. It also involved a carefully timed magazine article that was used to pick up “political chatter” and measure the public mood of a potential Mbabazi candidature.
The decision to raise the matter at a caucus meeting, rather than one of the formal party organ meetings was the equivalent of taking a free kick quickly before the opponents reassemble before the ball. The Monitor reported that MPs were asked to stand up and sing and then, at the end, those opposed to Museveni’s candidature told to sit down. That, in football terms, is the equivalent of an attacking player blocking a defender while the one with the ball bears down on goal.
As Team Machiavelli wheeled away to celebrate its last-minute goal, the opposing players were forced to applaud a strike stunning in its execution, savage in its potential impact on their promotion hopes. From the text of the resolution – sent out in the same font typeface preferred by State House – to the choirmasters handpicked from across the region, this was a bloodless coup planned and executed with military precision.
The official resolution says the move to endorse Museveni as a sole candidate without internal competition is in response to “personal scheming” and the need to put party interest above that of individuals. This is obviously good for Museveni but is it good for the NRM?
The party has never had a genuinely competitive contest for its top position. Despite its rhetoric, it has put the individual interest of its incumbent leader ahead of the rejuvenating benefits of an internal contest. This political blackjack with loaded dice might help the NRM attain its short-term objective of retaining power but what impact will the Rwakitura Roulette have on the party’s long-term future? How will the NRM’s court jesters select their leaders when the ‘Founding Father of the Revolution’ fires his last shot and goes to push up daisies?
The election is two years away and there could still be some twists in the tail. For NRM and Museveni, however, this is the way things have always worked. When Kizza Besigye declared his candidature for the 2001 elections, individual merit was still in play. Yet Museveni accused Besigye of “having imposed himself on the Movement following clandestine, conspiratorial consultations” with Movement officials.
“Why,” Museveni asked, didn’t Besigye “extend these consultations to include everybody so that the Movement moves as a solid body with either Besigye or anybody else that would be more appropriate than the incumbent?”
As it turned out, “party cohesion” triumphed over “individual merit” and Museveni took the Movement endorsement unopposed. The more things change, the more things remain the same.