The friendship between President Museveni and his Bush War comrade John Patrick Amama Mbabazi has been profound of late.
“I am NRM [National Resistance Movement].
Those who thought that because I contested against our chairman that I left NRM are wrong because they do not know what they are talking about. Museveni and I, there are certain times we do not agree and it caused the other problems you witnessed in 2015. But me, I can never leave him. I have spent 50 years with Museveni in the struggle,” Mr Mbabazi said barely a week before the country held the January 14 elections.
Bruised and battered after the 2016 polls where he came third and scored 1.4 per cent, and unsuccessfully challenged the incumbent’s victory in the Supreme Court, Mr Mbabazi has been quietly attempting to repair ties with the President.
In August 2018, Mr Museveni alongside First Lady Janet Museveni attended the traditional marriage ceremony of Mr Mbabazi’s wife’s niece Bridgette Birungi to the son of South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa.
On January 22, 2020, Mr Mbabazi met the President at his farm in Kisozi, Gomba District and a fortnight later attended the Tarehe Sita celebrations at Nakaseke District, where he received a rousing welcome from senior army officers.
However, it is his recent covert duties that show that he has a role to play in the post-2021 presidential poll.
Highly placed sources reveal that on October 1, 2020, President Museveni summoned Uganda’s security chiefs for a meeting at State House, Entebbe to discuss the security situation in the country.
In attendance were the Chief of Defence Forces, Gen David Muhoozi, Inspector General of Police Martins Okoth-Ochola, Chief of Military Intelligence Maj Gen Abel Kandiho. Others were security minister Elly Tumwine, External Security Organisation chief Joseph Ocwet and Internal Security Organisation (ISO) boss Rtd Col Kaka Bagyenda.
This meeting sealed the fate of Kaka, who was sacked barely a week after and replaced by Lt Col Charles Oluka.
The surprise guest at the meeting was Mr Mbabazi. Among the sticky issues at the meeting was the practice of ISO detaining suspects in safe houses, which the President argued was an outdated practice that ought to stop. Mr Mbabazi reportedly told the meeting that safe houses are a stain on the national conscience and continue to dent the image of the regime.
As a vote of confidence, Mr Museveni then appointed Mr Mbabazi’s acolyte and former aide de camp, Maj Emmy Katabazi, to the coveted position of second deputy Director General of ISO.
Maj Katabazi was in November 2015 charged with absence without leave and conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline, contrary to section 148(1), 2(a), 178 (1) (2) and 5 (a) of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) Act.
He was set free in June 2016 after spending seven months in detention at Makindye Military Barracks.
But during the handover, Gen Tumwine refused to acknowledge the appointment of Maj Katabazi. This prompted the President to send a radio message to all army units confirming Maj Katabazi’s appointment.
As some of his proteges continue to return to influential positions, Mr Mbabazi will discover that a lot has changed, if he accepts to work with his Bush War comrade.
“While the one thing I predict is what I used to write about in the Sunday Monitor in 2015 after Amama Mbabazi announced his bid. I wrote in the Monitor using a computer analogy that he was the Operating System of the NRM ---if the movement [return] is underway, then he does seem that he remains a figure to reckon with,” argues Timothy Kalyegira, a journalist and researcher.
Mr Kalyegira argues that although Mr Mbabazi has been out of the limelight in the formal sense, ‘he remains more like what a Charles Njonjo was in Kenya--- the people who are not in office but nothing gets done without speaking to them.’
Mr Charles Njonjo, who is now 101 years of age, is the former powerful Attorney General and Constitutional Affairs minister under the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi governments.
He steered Kenya through its difficult transition after Kenyatta’s death in 1978 and helped ensure Daniel arap Moi’s ascension to the presidency after some politicians in Central Kenya rejected him.
So, what could be the driving force behind the return of Mr Mbabazi?
“Usually when state and bureaucracies are out under pressure as a result of an election outcome, there is a situation that brings out an emptiness, that emptiness breeds a feeling of response and the response could be on the extreme side, it could be mild or do nothing, usually states do not want to do nothing but in order for the bureaucracy to be seen to be in control, they make responses that paint a picture of being in control,” argues Mr Kisekka Ntale, a political science scholar.
“That begs the question what and who should be in charge? At every end of every election cycle, that team is expected. “How is the team going to look like? What is emerging is Amama is likely to be part of the team. If Amama is brought back into the fold it’s not news, what role is he going to play is the major question?” asks Mr Ntale.
Mr Ntale says if Mr Mbabazi is to return to the fold, ‘he comes to reinforce the fault-lines, which are evidenced in the application of statecraft, it gives support to the diplomatic front.’
An exponent of statecraft, Mr Mbabazi returns at the time the President’s halo continues to diminish in the West and among the league of civilised nations. Mr Mbabazi has, according to sources, met a number of envoys from the West recently to repair cracks emerging in the ties between Uganda and its erstwhile allies.
The West and elections
The United States government on Tuesday called for “independent, credible, impartial and thorough” investigations into alleged irregularities in Uganda’s presidential elections.
Washington also wants members of State security services probed for alleged abuses against Opposition candidates and civil society.
Mr Ned Price, the US Department of State spokesperson, said Uganda’s January 14 elections were “marred by election irregularities and abuses by government’s security services.”
On February 11, the European Parliament adopted a resolution deploring the January 14 elections which they called neither democratic nor transparent.
They condemned the excessive use of force by the police and armed forces during the election and their growing interference in political affairs.
The condemnation was at the height of kidnaps of youth who are largely supporters of former presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, who scored 35.8 per cent of the vote and came second in the polls.
In response, the President, while meeting European Union (EU) envoys led by their head of the delegation, Ambassador Attilio Pacifici, implored the west to respect the sovereignty of African governments.
“By involving yourselves in matters that you don’t understand, even if you do understand, you should not get involved because this kind of misconduct can lead to many serious consequences and suffering of the people like it happened in some African countries,” Mr Museveni said.
With the Libyan experience and its attendant problems after the Nato-led annihilation of Muammar Gadaffi, still fresh in the memories of diplomats, the west has adopted a cautious approach in dealing with regime change across Africa.
The Western powers have been notoriously fickle towards their approach with Uganda where the incumbent has for large spells been their point-man in the volatile Great Lakes region and Horn of Africa enclave.
On December 7, 2020, President Museveni met a delegation of US and UK envoys who sought his opinion over the South Sudan conflict.
However, the voices of criticism from western capitals were amplified shortly after the January 14 election.
In turn, the Kampala regime has adopted countervailing measures seeking alliances with the Eastern bloc of countries such as China and Russia as a repudiation of the ‘neo-colonial agenda’ pursued by western powers.
Mr Kalyegira argues that until the Arua violence in August 2018 when Mr Kyagulanyi and some of his supporters were badly beaten, the West was indifferent to human rights abuses.
“I don’t know it was the arrest of human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo that briefly removed Bobi Wine from the front and centre of western interests because of the pet subject of the gay community, there has been the steady chorus of criticism on the attacks of people power and Bobi Wine, the conduct of the election, it’s been a build-up since December, with the call for cuts and aid by the EU and the increasing talk of travel bans and sanctions on select members by security services.”
To observers, the West appears to be conflicted with how to deal with the Kampala government which remains vital to its interests in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa.
But Mr Kalyegira says the two peaks of Museveni’s friendship with the West are in the past.
“The RPF, an offshoot of NRA, which took over power in Rwanda and the combined forces of Rwanda and Uganda which, removed Mobutu Sese Seko made Museveni kingmaker,” Kalyegira says.
Mr Kalyegira adds that the second peak, which made the President indispensable was when the ‘Union of Islamic Courts in December 2006 took power in Mogadishu, [Museveni] sends troops to Somalia.’
Citing the raging civil war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, which has sucked in the neighbouring state of Eritrea, Mr Kalyegira says Mr Museveni’s ability to play the role of arbiter today is constrained.
“A government [Ethiopian] delegation came to see Museveni to use his reputation to smoother over the tension but he couldn’t pull it off. The war has raged on, showing you the limited role of Museveni,” argues Mr Kalyegira.
But as Ethiopia, a major ally of the West in the Horn of Africa convulses in this conflict whose end is not in sight, the West could remain fixated with Museveni as their consistent ally in the Horn of Africa against a stubborn enemy, the al-Shaabab.
The view among foreign policy wonks is that Kenya, which could fill the void must navigate the 2022 polls first pitting an alliance crafted around the dynastic families of Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga and Gideon Moi against William Ruto.
But Mr Kalyegira says with the just-concluded polls where the President had his lowest score of 58 per cent and lost in the Central region, which is the heartbeat of the country, the writing is on the wall.
What is expected of Mbabazi
“Now that the Western media and political pressure is piling up and then as a stop gap measure he might reluctantly bring back somebody that is acceptable to NRM as Amama Mbabazi, to deal with the crisis within the NRM, help stabilise the ruling party and if he is acceptable to the West, he becomes the Thabo Mbeki [former South African president],” argues Kalyegira who says this may not be the case as the President’s speech shortly after the Electoral Commission announced him the winner in the presidential poll, showed that he could still be interested to run in the 2026 polls.
Mr Kalyegira says Mr Mbabazi must reach out to the West and should try to craft a bi-partisan agenda, which is woven into a transitional agenda.
But what is the pragmatism of such a transitional government?
Mr Kisekka Ntale, a political science scholar, says if Mr Mbabazi were to return to government, he should pursue a bipartisan agenda.
With Mr Kyagulanyi scoring 35.8 per cent and the Opposition doyen, Kizza Besigye who scored 37 per cent and 35.4 per cent in the 2006 and 2016 polls respectively, a transition could be incomplete without these two leaders.
But Mr Ntale says the bi-partisan agenda is complicated because ‘our politics is not issue-based but activist politics.’ He argues that whereas activist politics could lead to pressure for change, ‘the challenge is it does bring the progressive rigidity in perception of issues.’
He says Opposition politicians who may embrace the transition could be treated with suspicion by their supporters.
“We should take a bipartisan route, it means that parties both from the ruling strand and Opposition strand are built on points of convergence but because our politics is anchored on the activist foundation those in opposition become vulnerable because our politics has been constructed on extremes,” Mr Ntale says.
Ups and downs in Uganda-EU relations
The European Union (EU) officially established diplomatic ties with Uganda in 1975. The top diplomatic representative of the 27-member bloc to Uganda is the head of delegation, currently Ambassador Attilio Pacifici.
Only 10 EU member states have embassies in Uganda. The two sides maintain cordial relations ranging from political, economic and technical cooperation. Nearly half-a-dozen of its member states, alongside the UK that exited the bloc at the end of January last year, have pooled roughly Shs2.5 billion under the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF) mainly to bankroll the civil society and handful of government agencies.
The EU remains Uganda’s main export market with 26 per cent of total exports, mainly food and live plants/animals, crude materials, among others. On average Uganda exports $60.7m (Shs267b) to the bloc.
In terms of foreign direct investment, EU inflows into Uganda hit $1.337b (Shs5.9trillion) in 2018 up from $543.9m (Shs2.3t) in 2010.
Although diplomatic relations between Uganda and EU can largely be described as smooth, there have been jarring episodes.
For instance, Uganda in 2013 kicked out the then head of EU Delegation in Uganda Roberto Ridolfi after he criticised alleged plans at the time by President Museveni to be succeeded by his son, Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba
This notwithstanding, the bloc and Kampala exhibited demonstrable cooperation on security matters.
France, an EU member, has over the years trained Uganda troops in mountain warfare while the EU, alongside other development partners, is picking the bills of Ugandan troops deployed to fight the al-Shabaab in Somalia under the African Union Peace-keeping Mission in Somalia.
But the relations began a downward spiral towards the campaigns for last month’s general election, which the EU decided not to monitor on grounds that Uganda government had declined to implement reforms the EU Election Observer Mission recommended in past elections.
During vote canvassing and after the ballot, President Museveni, who sought re-election on the ticket of NRM, characterised his main challenger Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, founder of NUP, as a foreign agent. He never named the individual actors from the West that he accused of paying Mr Kyagulanyi to do their bidding.
After securing victory in the polls, which Bobi Wine is challenging at the Supreme Court, Mr Museveni ordered the Finance minister Matia Kasaija to “immediately suspend” operations of DGF, claiming it was operating without government knowledge and oversight. The minister has stayed implementation of the directive, pending ongoing diplomatic engagement.
In his February 11 speech about the security situation in Uganda, the EU High Representative Joseph Borrell said Uganda’s January 14 vote lacked transparency, citing heavy militarisation and repression of the Opposition, the reason for Mr Kuteesa’s response asking the EU to back off.