In 2003, I received a visitor from Uganda, a cabinet minister in the government of President Museveni, on a mission to woo me back to the National Resistance Movement (NRM.) After the usual nice words about our historical bond in “the struggle”, my visitor got to the point of his brief.
“We want you back in the Movement,” he pleaded. “Very many of us agree with your views about the derailment of the NRM, but we can only change it from within.” I had heard that one many times before, so my response was fast and firm.
The NRM was dead, I told him. I had left it because it lacked even the rudiments of democracy, notwithstanding the cosmetic elections and rhetoric. I refused to belong to a party that was nothing but a vehicle for sustaining a monarch in power.
I was certain that President Museveni would change the Constitution to lift the presidential term limits, I told him. “Oh no, we shall not allow that!” my friend declared. “There is absolutely no way that will happen. That is why we need you back in the NRM. We need all hands on board.”
My visitor left Canada empty handed, though I assured him that he could count on my support for any efforts to democratise his party. Though I had no doubt that we would soon witness sycophantic displays of blind loyalty, complete with demands for constitutional amendments “in the interests of the people”, I was certain that my visitor would not be among the praise singers. Perhaps he would stand his ground. At worst he would remain silent.
The “Kisanja” (Third Term) campaign was launched before the end of that year. Among the earliest public advocates for this betrayal was my friend – he who had looked me in the eye and assured me on that Toronto afternoon that he would give everything to stop such shenanigans. Kampala papers quoted him saying that Museveni “deserved a bonus term because he had performed well.” The term limits were removed in 2005. The rest is history.
That history consumed very many of those who championed the Kisanja project, including my friend. Museveni, one of the smartest and shrewdest politicians of the age, unleashed his Machiavellian arsenal on the men and women whose public support he knew to be hypocritical and simply self-serving.
One victim was Dr Gilbert Balibaseka Bukenya, his vice-president who had alleged in an interview with the Daily Monitor in 2005 that the regime in which he was the nominal number two was “run by a Mafia clique” that was bent on bringing him down. Bukenya had also hinted that President Museveni’s wealth should be probed by the IGG, just as his own holdings were being subjected to questions.
As expected, Dr Bukenya promptly called a press conference in which he vehemently denied saying what he had said days earlier. It was a drowning man gasping for breath, for his fate was already sealed. His problem was not what he had said, but the knowledge that he “had presidential ambitions,” an unforgivable crime in the NRM.
Museveni, not one to rush to act against his prey, lined up his weapons against Bukenya, saving him for the kill at a time of his choosing. In a country where the allegedly corrupt are protected, retained, promoted and glorified, the vice-president would be the exception. He was accused of corrupt conduct during the preparations for CHOGM in 2007.
Having damaged him in the court of public opinion, Museveni played defense attorney for Bukenya, a ploy designed to buy time to ensure that whatever constituency the vice president enjoyed would be persuaded to abandon him.
Meanwhile, the pretense that there was democracy in the NRM continued even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In a party with some very formidable men and women, not one soul was willing to commit social and economic suicide by challenging the ruler.
Not that there was nobody interested. Just that it would have been the height of foolishness to even encompass to imagine being president of the Republic of Uganda. The fate of those who had dared to politically challenge the ruler was still fresh in the minds of all pretenders to the throne. After Museveni was unanimously “re-elected” as his party’s flag bearer in 2011, Bukenya worked overtime to canvass for votes on behalf of his boss. After winning re-election to State House, Museveni promptly dumped Bukenya from the vice-presidency.
Within weeks, charges of abuse of office were laid against him. Then Museveni declared that the corruption charges against Bukenya “had no merit.” Five months later, the former vice president was thrown in jail on charges of abuse of office. His political career now in shreds, Bukenya was soon set free. Machiavelli was envious.
Over the years, Gen Museveni has thrown similar duplicitous strategies against potential challengers, outfoxing them, fatally wounding some and reducing others to whiners and half-hearted “loyalists” too timid to walk away from the NRM. However, that may be about to change.
To be continued………….