The plans for President Museveni to quit in 2006 had been infused as a campaign pledge in the National Resistance Movement (NRM) manifesto.
People familiar with the matter say it was as a result of pressure exerted by his former physician Dr Kizza Besigye who had broken ranks with the system earlier in 1999 after authoring a missive detailing how the President had betrayed the ideals that inspired the 1981-86 rebel war against the Milton Obote II government.
In 2001, barely after Mr Museveni faced his fiercest challenge to his presidency by Besigye who rode on the wave of Reform Agenda, the President invited his erstwhile ally Libya’s president Muammar Gaddafi at his swearing-in ceremony at Kololo Independence Grounds.
Two major events have since taken place after this event. Ten years later, Gaddafi dejected and isolated, was hunted down by western powers and killed in the punishing desert of Sirte.
On May 12, and 20 years later, Mr Museveni, who had a notoriously-fickle alliance with the deceased Libyan leader, was being sworn in at the hallowed grounds of Kololo to commence another term that would bring him closer to Gaddafi’s 42 years in power.
But 18 years ago, Mr Museveni seriously considered quitting as a president that he appointed his surrogates to travel to Tanzania and South Africa to study their succession models and use the playbook to ostensibly usher in the country’s first peaceful handover of power.
Highly-placed sources reveal that in 2002, the President called a meeting in which he gave a team of trusted lieutenants this duty.
He indicated to them that time was running out and it was about time to commence building the blocks to ensure a smooth transition.
The task was to study how the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa and Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) in Tanzania executed orderly successions.
“It was exciting to hear this, so we immediately embarked on the assignment,” the official speaking anonymously recounted.
CCM and ANC remain two dominant political parties to-date. The other is True Wing Party of Liberia. In Tanzania, President Julius Nyerere had in 1985 tapped his vice Ali Hassan Mwinyi as his successor who remained in the shadows as party chairperson during which course he privately crusaded for future presidents Benjamin Mkapa and Jakaya Kikwete.
In South Africa, President Nelson Mandela ruled for one term and passed the mantle to Thabo Mbeki. Since then, power has remained in the hands of the ANC as Jacob Zuma passed the baton to Cyril Ramaphosa.
The team presented its report to the President in December 2002. During discussions with the President, some officials mulled the idea to fire then vice-president Specioza Wandira so that the position could be occupied by a likely successor.
The likely successor was then supposed to be apprenticed into statecraft and sold to foreign powers ahead of 2006. The team also studied the hybrid model next door in Kenya.
President Daniel arap Moi, who had taken over following Jomo Kenyatta’s death in August 1978, had turned out a thorn in the flesh of Kenyans but was constitutionally negotiated out of power in 2002. Under the deal, he received immunity from prosecution while out of office.
The surprise came in March 2003. Movement MPs had convened for their annual ritual—gathering at the National leadership Institute in Kyankwanzi (NALI)—during which high on the agenda was the presentation of the report by the National Political Commissar, Dr Crispus Kiyonga, on whether the country should revert to a multiparty system of governance.
A day in politics is a lifetime
“It was there that I first saw his (Museveni’s) true colours,” the official recollected. On the last day of the retreat, the official further recounted that the President remarked: “What is this paper constraint in the Constitution that some cannot stand again?”
“The framers of the 1995 Constitution deliberately lodged two safety valves—term limits and age limit—to ensure that the country registers a peaceful transfer of power, and which many hoped to see in their lifetime,” the official said.
The new Constitution was drawn and promulgated in September 1995 with specific Article 105 (2) setting two terms for the incoming president. A year later in 1996 President Museveni, subjected himself to the first democratically held election, since Uganda’s independence, to test-drive the Constitution. He won the polls with 74 per cent.
“Now hearing the President call them paper constraints; my mind immediately drifted to what Besigye had warned the country about but we were blind to see,” the official said.
Former presidential candidate, Maj Gen (Rtd) Mugisha Muntu, who joined the rebel war in 1981 and was a member of East African Legislative Assembly in 2004, recounted to this newspaper that what everyone did not know was that a small team had been sent out to the districts to popularise the idea (removing the term limits).
“We had not been alerted that we were going to discuss term limits—even us who were at the highest national council level. So on the last day of the meeting the issue was brought up, and group after group kept favouring it,” Gen Muntu recounted.
“I think we had about 90 people speaking without a break and none of them ever told him (the president) not to remove the term limits. I remember putting up my hand and told him but sir you have only heard from one side, to which he asked; is there another view? Six of us put up our hands and defended that the Constitution should not be touched, but I suppose it was too late.”
Mr Muntu added: “We implored him to look at South Africa or even Tanzania where liberation parties have remained strong, but at that moment he had backing of the larger group. I am sure today if you looked for all those who supported the removal of the term limits some might be regretting but does it matter now.”
Among the group of six who were against the removal of term limits was the former Speaker of Parliament and National Political Commissar under the Movement system, James Wapakhabulo, who was among the framers of the new 1995 Constitution, and minister of Foreign Affairs at the time.
Wapa, as he was popularly known, was touted as a possible successor to Museveni as he won many admirers across the political aisle as Speaker of the Sixth Parliament. But as a way of clipping his wings, he was dropped as Speaker and handed ‘a poisoned chalice’ as National Political Commissar, an amorphous title that rendered him irrelevant.
The ex-official further indicated that the late Wapakhabulo—who died weeks later after the retreat—had even proposed a middle ground; some modifications to the removal of term limits. He argued that we cannot remove term limits and jump into multi-party politics at the same time as it was risky.
“I recall Wapakabulo arguing that we remove term limits for a limited time only for President Museveni to prepare a transition.”
Gen Muntu said: “Mr Museveni did not want that idea; he did not want it to look like it was favouring him. He wants to maintain a facade that there is a democratic dispensation; that whatever is being done is a general rule. He always wants to make it seem like there is democracy.”
Last week on Wednesday, President Museveni, who is 76 years, was sworn in for another five-year term in office.
During his speech, the President spoke at length about a host of subjects, including extolling his government’s democratic credentials as “incomparable to many democratic structures in the world”, and also chastised the West for meddling in African affairs.
The subject matter of a peaceful transfer of power is one he has avoided publicly for a very long time.
‘Ugandans still want me’
In December 2014 while appearing on the radio talk show-Capital Gang, Mr Museveni relied on dexterity to argue that each time he seeks to go home, Ugandans keep voting him back thus denying him the opportunity to retire.
“You have heard them, singing tajakugenda tajakugenda (he won’t go). So if Ugandans really were like Ssemujju [Nganda, Kyaddondo East MP who was on the show as well], I would be happy to retire because I am not lacking where to retire. I am a member of my party and I do what my party wants,” he added.
While on a re-election campaign trail, the President told a January 9, 2016 press conference in Ntungamo District that he cannot leave power when all that he planted is starting to bear “fruits.”
A few months earlier he had said he cannot hand over power to wolves [Opposition]—“people without vision” and further accused the Opposition of being after “my oil”—the current stock tank of 6.5 billion oil reserves in mid-western Uganda.
And with the recent signing off of the key agreements for commercialisation of the proposed East African Crude Oil Pipeline to take the oil to the international market, the earliest in 2025, a year after the 2026 General Election, one analyst speaking anonymously said “if that succeeds then he might not go.”
“He is getting arrogant at the West—people he has kept on pleasing to stay in power for all this long—every other day. If he can do that without oil money how more intransigent will he get?”
The Former Inspector General of Government and Ruhama Member of Parliament, Mr Augustine Ruzindana, told Daily Monitor in an interview that the talk on the transition is now a tired subject and the country should now be discussing how to free itself from polarisation.
“In 1986 we were in transition for four years. Then we asked another four years to allow the Constitution making process; the Constitution was clear on the transition with those two clauses. We then went into official roles when we were young, now we are expired,” Mr Ruzindana said.
He added: “What we should be asking is how we move forward in a way that maintains stability of the country: How do we move forward without doubling the frustration among certain levels of the population; the people in power need to reflect on this.”
Like many other actors, Mr Ruzindana revealed he believed the 2001-2006 term would be President Museveni’s last on the basis on the term limits, and further described the ongoing polarisation is mainly economic—with the high youth unemployment and related frustration—which is expressed politically.
“We need to find ways of bringing down the pressure that has been building over the years, and when you keep putting a lid here and there—the things we read in the press especially how security is reacting—you are not addressing the problem. We need a national consultative process on how to go forward,” he added.
Moving the country forward
Gen Muntu, however, argues that President Museveni is not interested in any form of genuine dialogue, after mastering “the art of deception and manipulation” and “succeeding at disempowering people and breaking their spirit to the point of selling their vote for just Shs1,000.”
“And then you hear him talk about African strength,” Gen Muntu said. “We have to keep on organising. Those who want change have to keep organising for it. I don’t think the exit of Gen Museveni should be our headache anymore. At times people are bothered by the length of time, but his exit is inevitable. What should be our headache is the possibility that with his exit we remain intact.”
When asked whether polls can deliver change, Gen Muntu who came in fourth position in the just-concluded elections said, “it is challenging but very possible.”
“People lose hope easily, and then there are others who don’t want to make sacrifice. And Gen Museveni is different from past leaders; he is crafty at manipulating, and knows when to use carrot and stick,” he added.
In this sixth term, President Museveni campaigned on the slogan of securing the future of Ugandans.
As he embarks on his next term, Mr Museveni will need to navigate a number of sticky issues amongst which are accusations of gross human rights abuses largely targeting Bobi Wine’s supporters, rising youth unemployment that has created a groundswell of resentment, institutionalised corruption and a bloated bureaucracy.
But he also appears determined to polish the image of government in the West, which has relied on him as its point man in the volatile Great Lakes region.
Government recently engaged a foreign lobby group—Mercury International UK Limited to improve its image on the international scene.
Over the last 35 years in power, the President has pledged to retire. After his National Resistance Army toppled the Tito Okello junta in 1986, he promised to handover to a civilian government after four years—in 1989.
In May 2012 during an interview on NTV’s flagship political talk show-On the Spot, he told the host, Patrick Kamara, that he would not support the lifting of the age limit provision in the Constitution because after 75 years, a leader has mellowed and cannot undertake vigorous tasks.