Mao to Museveni: Prepare for peaceful hand-over

Justice and Constintuional Affairs Minister Norbert Mao (right) and former Attorney  General Fred Ruhindi during the National Symposium on Transitional Justice in Kampala on February 20, 2024. PHOTO/SYLIVIA KATUSHABE. 

What you need to know:

  • The Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister says this is the only thing the President needs to do such that all the progress achieved over the last four decades does not go waste as it would in the event of a chaotic change of guard occurring again.

A cross-section of political observers yesterday welcomed a call by Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Norbert Mao asking President Museveni to prepare for a peaceful transition of power, or risk dragging the country back into the dark past of civil strife and political turmoil.

Opposition politicians, religious leaders and civil society actors all agreed Mr Mao was right when he warned that all the progress achieved over the last four decades would go to waste if a chaotic change of guard occurred again.
The President has been in office for 38 years, having shot his way into State House in January 1986 following a five-year bushwar which laid waste to much of central Uganda.

To stop that from happening again, the Cabinet minister said Mr Museveni owes it both to his legacy and the country to prepare for a peaceful hand-over to the next leader of Uganda.
Mr Mao yesterday said it is time for the country to discuss what has, at times, been the rather sensitive topic canvassing what a post-Museveni era should look like.

Nearly two years ago, the President had denied ever talking about the question of power transition with Mr Mao as part of a deal in which the Democratic Party (DP) leader signed a cooperation agreement with the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) on July 20, 2022. 
The President, in October of that year, told a local TV station that the agreement was one way of reducing the number of people opposed to the government and getting them to work together for the good of the country, not about power. 

“I want to make this clear, that political transition was not part of the cooperation agreement so whatever Mao says, [he] says it for his political interests,” Mr Museveni, who is a retired General in the army, said then.
Yesterday, State House echoed that position and appeared to downplay the call for a debate on how the change from Mr Museveni should be managed, saying Mr Mao has direct access to the President and can raise such issues directly with him or in Cabinet. 

But the Justice minister’s comments, made during the National Symposium on Transitional Justice at Golf Course Hotel in Kampala yesterday, seemed to breathe new life into longstanding demands by various political actors for a frank discussion about the country’s political future. 
“The government of Uganda, including the President, does not need to build another highway. He does not even need to build another bridge; he doesn’t even need to commission another industrial park, all he needs to do is to preside over a peaceful transition of power,” Mr Mao said.

These unusually forthright comments were greeted with both enthusiasm and a little cynicism. Some Opposition leaders, while agreeing with the minister, also pointed out that Mr Mao, previously considered a leading light of Opposition politics, betrayed the cause when he joined the government.

Mr Erias Lukwago, the Kampala City Lord Mayor, and interim leader of a splinter group of the Opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), told Monitor that what Mr Mao is talking about is correct, but it is the Opposition that is already leading the transition process.

“It is the reason we came up with the United Forces of Change [pressure group]. Ugandans who are opposed to the issue of succession, instead of fighting one another, should ally under one cause and advance the transition agenda,” he said.

“…we are fighting as a group to overthrow a government which wants to turn the country into a monarchy of the President being succeeded by the son and later the grandson…,” Mr Lukwago said. 
Across the city, his nemesis, Mr Patrick Amuriat Oboi, who leads the main FDC group in Najjanankumbi, said the biggest gift Mr Museveni can give the country, is to preside over a peaceful transition of power.
“What Mr Museveni has decided to ignore is that no one lasts forever and that a country is older than any of us and generations to come must find a peaceful country,” said.

Mr Oboi observed that “Museveni has been in power for almost 40 years and has dominated the political landscape but there is no evidence to show that he prepared anybody to take over from him yet every country, even if it is not Uganda, has a need for transition”.
The National Coordinator of the Alliance for National Transformation party, Ms Alice Alaso, observed that they have for a long time been reminding the President about this important matter since 2005 when he reportedly engineered the removal of term limits.

President Museveni. PHOTO/ FILE 

She noted that term and age limits were the checks that were provided by the Constitution to guarantee transition from Mr Museveni, or any other president to another person, and their removal in 2005 and 2017, respectively, through the amendments, was a great mistake, “because it was a recipe for instability in the country,”
“Now that Mao is a minister in his government, maybe he will listen to him because if he doesn’t, it will be very unfortunate for the country and his legacy as well,” Ms Alaso.
Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC)’s Secretary General Fred Ebil did not differ from his colleagues.

Mr Ebil is a leader in a party that has twice led Uganda under the late Apollo Milton Obote. In 1971, Obote was toppled in a coup which heralded the rise of dictator Idi Amin whose bloodthirsty eight-year reign is held responsible for the death of more than half a million people. 
After Amin was kicked out by a combined liberation force of Tanzania troops and Ugandan exiles, Obote returned and was re-elected in the controversial 1980 poll, which saw Mr Museveni launch a guerilla war in the bushes of Luweero. In 1985, the UPC government was again overthrown by the military. The Gen Tito Okello junta, which replaced him, was kicked out by Museveni’s guerilla National Resistance Army after barely six months in power.

Mr Ebil took the view that Mr Museveni is best placed to oversee peaceful political transition in Uganda, “because he is the most experienced leader in the country, who has been there since the 1960s and has witnessed the ups and downs of politics in Uganda”.
Museveni, Ebil said, “has seen us going down to authoritarian regimes like Idi Amin and also he has seen democracy at its best during the post-independence government”.
Waxing philosophical, Mr Daudi Kabanda, the deputy spokesperson of the recently formed Patriotic League of Uganda (PLU), a political outfit led by the president’s son, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, said people write their wills when still alive so that when one dies, they live their homes organised.
Mr Kabanda said the President should, therefore, use this chance when still alive to prepare his departure and prepare someone who can continue with his achievements, and of his NRM. 

Though still a serving a soldier, and, therefore, barred from indulging in partisan politics, Gen Muhoozi has been actively promoting his self-declared candidature for election as president first through the so-called MK Movement, and now PLU – activities which regime critics say are part of Mr Museveni’s suspected plan for succession as opposed to democratic political transition.

Ms Charity Ahimbisibwe, the executive director of the Electoral Law and Governance Institute, agreed with Mr Mao’s fears that the country could again be plunged into crisis. She said a committee for transition must be formed through constitutional bodies like the Judicial Service Commission to ensure a democratic change of guard.
Among the several proposals in the long-standing transition debate, the Opposition has called for wide-ranging electoral and constitutional reforms informed by the 2016 Supreme Court decision in former prime minister Amama Mbabazi’s presidential election petition. 

The Opposition has faulted the government for deliberately delaying to table these reforms that would go some way in ensuring free and fair elections.
Rounding off the reaction to Mr Mao’s comments, Mr Joshua Kitakule, the secretary general of the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, called for a national dialogue as a platform bringing people from different political, social and cultural shades “to talk about the Uganda we want”.
“And that Uganda we want will include issues of governance, economy. We should not narrow it to just transition. We need a broader discussion about the Uganda we want, not just narrowed down to governance issues,” he said.

State House speaks 
Deputy presidential press secretary Faruk Kirunda yesterday said the matter of managing transition in Uganda is a bit of a redundant discussion. 
He noted that it is clearly spelt out in the Constitution how to go about it so Ugandans shouldn’t be anxious about it. 
“If the government in place loses elections, the winning party takes over, simple! Just because President Museveni hasn’t lost any election and, therefore, has no need to transfer instruments of power to someone else doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. The President has never said he can’t hand over when it’s time,” he said.
“Hon Mao, as a minister, moreover in charge of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, is well placed to raise these issues in Cabinet and other relevant fora for discussion and adoption in case there is something new that hasn’t been previously considered or foreseen.”

An abridged version of Mr Mao’s speech delivered at the National Symposium on Transitional Justice held at the Golf Course Hotel in Kampala.

“The government of Uganda where it is, including … President [Museveni], does not need to build another highway. He (Museveni) doesn’t even need to build another bridge, he doesn’t even need to commission another industrial park, all he needs to do is to preside over a peaceful transition of power.
That will compensate for all the uncompleted factories, all [the] uncompleted roads and so on. To me, that was my motivation to be part of the government.

It is the most important reason why I accepted [to take up a Cabinet slot]. So, transitional justice, national dialogue, national reconciliation, [and] constitutional reforms [that] we are talking about, all those are part of that package of surviving power. Winning power seems to me to be easier than surviving power – at least from my reading of history. 

So, this was supposed to be a keynote (address) and I hope I have said the real note because I could have pretended and made a nice bureaucratic speech written for me by my people [bureaucrats] who are very well educated. I hope I have given you the desire to fight for the future of Uganda. 
They say, ‘you can take a horse to the water [point], but can’t force it to drink’. I said, ‘no, I can take a horse to the water [point] and force it to drink’. How? I give it salt. So, my purpose this morning was to give you enough salt so that you desire what Dr Zahara [Nampewo] said and also [what Oscar] Kihika said about Uganda. 

But how many people strongly desire Uganda to the extent of not fearing losing their jobs, not fearing losing whatever property that they have, and not even fearing losing their lives? I hope some of you are in that league. Because if you are not in that league, then somehow you will get a [tele]phone call, and you back down and say, ‘this Norbert Mao and his thing; talking a lot about this and that’ … 

In all this, the international community is very critical. These members of the international community know a lot about our countries, sometimes even more than us. So, I am very pleased that you are in the room. The beauty is that you are not just friends of the government; you are friends of Uganda. 
The government is a representative and that gives you the privilege of talking perhaps confidentially when you meet at your level with our President and other government officials about how to get things done. 
I want to end on a note of optimism: the time is ripe for transitional justice in Uganda and this symposium is, but one step, in restarting a conversation that has been going on before…”