Museveni’s shift to inexperienced cadres exposes NRM cracks

Monday September 14 2020

President Museveni marches with his supporters at the NRM offices at Kyadondo Road in Kampala after being nominated as presidential flag bearer of the party in the 2016 General Election. PHOTOS | FILE

By Irene Abalo Otto

Some observers argue that as President Museveni clings to power, he cut loose Bush War comrades whom he perceived as too critical of his governance style in favour of pliant cadres. 
Among those dropped included Col (Rtd) Kizza Besigye, who served as National Political Commissar, Gen (Rtd) Mugisha Muntu, the former army commander, former premier Amama Mbabazi, the late Eriya Kategaya, who was first deputy Premier and Local Government minister Jaberi Bidandi Ssali. 
These were regime cadres who put in place a semblance of organisational discipline, which polished the image of the regime in the region and in the sphere of civilised nations, argue political pundits and researchers.  
“When you stay in office for very long, like we have had the case of NRM and President Museveni at the helm of it is that progressively, both intelligence and the people around you begin to manage your expectations by telling you what they think you want to hear rather than the actual truth,” Mr Leonard Okello, a civil society activist, who runs the Uhuru Institute for Social Development, says.
After sacking some old guards, he at one time described as bicycle spokes that are easy to replace, the President hired low-ranking surrogates. 
Like shoots of a plant, these young turks were eager to ascend to the top at the cost of indulging the puppet master’s impulse.
“They cannot tell the emperor that you need to dress up, you are actually naked. Everybody begins to play safe and play the eating game rather than saying, we have a problem here now, if it continues, it is likely to create for us this other problem,” argues Mr Okello. 
To create another fallacy, Mr Museveni appointed hundreds of presidential advisers to fit his clientele-patronage schemes as a researcher, Mr Yusuf Serunkuma Kajura, says these appointments ‘are merely symbolic.’ 
“I think from 2001, it is all Museveni. When you read [Miria] Matembe’s book, she talks about how Mr Museveni says ‘what type of politics do these people know’. He has so many advisers... All Mr Museveni’s advisers meet him at functions and even there, it is him who advises them. It is like a sole candidate’s party,” Mr Serunkuma says. 
It is to what some observers claim culminated in the unprecedented mess as the party held its primaries to elect flag-bearers, allowing those who were not in the party register to vote where voters lined up behind aspirants.
In the conventional wisdom of the organisers of this election, this would control the spread of Covid-19. 
But with the hindsight, the old method of casting a ballot, if regulated, could have offered a safer method to combat the spread of the virus. 
For commentators such as Mr Serunkuma and Mr Okello, there is a chance that the old guard could have put in place a safety net during the primaries to control the Covid-19 pandemic. 
But many cadres who could have offered better leadership skills during the Covid-19 crisis were either jettisoned or silenced. 
Among the list of departed cadres include those who resisted the lifting of the presidential term limits at the National Leadership Institute), Kyankwanzi in 2003 was Mr Bidandi Ssali , previously a close confidant of the President. 
He had just led a campaign to have the President re-elected in 2001 on the premise that this would be his last term. 
During the 2001 polls, Mr Museveni faced off with Col Besigye who had rode on the wave of discontent against what he termed as dictatorial tendencies emerging in the NRM, which he articulated in a document he authored in 1999. 
Mr Serunkuma says Mr Museveni lost many of his comrades he had closely worked with between 2001 and 2010. 
“It is in that decade that he [Museveni] came to life as an autocrat who wasn’t about to leave.”
Mr Timothy Kalyegira, a journalist, says had Mr Museveni left early as had been anticipated by the transitional broad-based government, he would have been revered like ‘Thomas Sankara, the slain charismatic Burkina Faso leader or South Africa’s anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.’
“Eventually, it was as they say in the National Geographic Wildlife documentary, this [the president] is the Alpha Male. With hindsight; with his family essentially in very high places in government; with him overstaying; with the Constitution amended in 2005 shamelessly and two years ago; all along it was meant to remove the farmer and replace him with animals like in Animal Farm,” Mr Kalyegira says.
However, he says the President deserves credit for his ability to outsmart his rivals.  “You can imagine Mr Mbabazi thinking that he is next in the queue.”
As the likes of Mr Mbabazi were being ousted, the number of competent cadres, who previously worked as trouble-shooters, continued to diminish. This loss in merit-based skills cuts across civil service, the army and politics. 
For instance, the army, which occupies the super-structure of governance, lost some of its smartest officers to sensitive roles in politics on behalf of the regime.
For instance,  Lt Gen (Rtd) Henry Tumukunde, then a spy chief played a key role in the re-election of the President in 2001 so was the late Noble Mayombo in 2006.
Perhaps the most difficult election President Museveni navigated was against Col Besigye, who exploited a groundswell of resentment against the lifting of presidential term limits.
At the peak of these officers’ careers, the President was able to navigate some of the most delicate geo-political conflicts and insurgencies. 
At the top of these conflicts was a confrontation with Sudan, which spruced up Joseph Kony and his followers and provided intelligence to the Allied Democratic Forces, to set up bases in Buseruka, Hoima District in the early 1990s. 
This was meant to sabotage Uganda’s plans to start oil exploration.
These officers were also involved in Uganda’s battles in the DR Congo against Mobutu Ssese Tseko, Kisangani battles and the offshoot cloak and dagger games with the Kigali regime.
But Mr Kalyegira believes that the NRM has always projected a charade of democracy from its first day in office and as the gloss began wearing off, things fell apart. 
“The conventional view is that after 24 years of the dark days of Idi Amin and Milton Obote, Uganda comes out of the dark age and goes into a period of enlightenment, Uganda’s second birth is 1986, these ideologues, Marxists but if you look at the documentary evidence and DP publications like Citizen from day one, the looting commences,”  he says. 
Mr Kalyegira argues that to be able to create this fallacy, the party crafted a deceptive media image it sold to the Western powers. 
“Their mastery (NRM) of the relationship with the Western world that started in 1984, getting the Western world to believe that they are the clean leadership, they are the intelligent, educated people in contrast with the thugs of the Uganda National Liberation Army and so on was the greatest triumph,” he says.
Mr Kalyegira says the ‘cunning’ regime in 1986 relied on deception as its highly educated cadres appeared to espouse civility than illiterate officers such as Idi Amin, Mustafa Adrisi and Bazilio Okello who served in previous regimes. 
“The NRM people spoke good English and espoused the dreams of democracy, everybody rallied behind Mr Museveni except a few people until 1994, there was a lot of goodwill,” says Mr Serunkuma.
The President today can rely on a few cadres with intellectual rigour and ability to project and articulate the vision of the regime. 
For instance, the senior presidential adviser in charge of special duties, Mr David Mafabi, is one of the few articulate cadres. 
But with the numbers diminishing, the President is overstretched as he attempts to fix the problems in his party. 
As he grows older and lacks youthful vigour, his ability to put out emerging fires in every pocket of the country could diminish. 
Mr Museveni will be seeking to extend his stay in power for nearly four decades in the next General Election barely a few months from now. 
Some of his critics claim that without his comrades to appraise him, it has been easier for an imperial presidency to appoint relatives in coveted positions. 
But as the President reclines in his seat at the end of a long tiring day, he will nostalgically look at the good old days when he had a sea of smart cadres to find answers to the country’s problems.

Election disputes  
Only last week, Mr Museveni held a series of meetings to address disputes in Sembabule, Kiruhura and Kazo districts. 
Mr Leonard Okello says: “We need to sort it now like this so that tomorrow we get better. Because of the situation, the pressure of responsibility then narrows down to the centre who is the person of the President.”
One of those disputes involves his family: the Mawogola North NRM primaries in the flashpoint Sembabule. The race, which was suspended, pits the President’s brother, Mr Aine Kaguta, against his daughter-in law, Ms Shartsis Musherure. 
“It is that decade that he even appoints his wife as a minister, he is promoting many of his closest relatives and clansmen in the top positions in the military and in many ministerial positions, its at that time that he comes full circle as a monarch of some sort, and I think that in that decade people realise that Mr Museveni will not leave through elections,” Mr Yusuf Serunkuma says.