In challenging Museveni, Mbabazi may have made his boldest political move ever but equally the most fatal one
On Monday Amama Mbabazi declared his intentions to challenge President Yoweri Museveni for the leadership of the NRM and the country. The message launching his campaign was the most mature. He did not make scathing personal attacks on Museveni, accusing him of being a despot and of destroying the country. Instead he positioned his bid as a contest over the country’s future rather than a quarrel over its past. He acknowledged the achievements Uganda has registered over the last 50 years. His message was contrary to the militant and vitriolic rancour his daughters and in-laws have been spewing on social media.
So one hopes the NRM and Museveni will not drag Mbabazi into the mud to humiliate him but instead exercise the same maturity and civility. Yet this hope may be unfulfilled. Mbabazi has been Museveni’s closest confidant. He has been his director of external intelligence, his minister of Defence, minister of Justice and Attorney General, minister of Foreign Affairs, minister of Security, prime minister and secretary general of the ruling party. He is also the one person Museveni used to lend the presidential jet. Museveni will feel a deep sense of betrayal at Mbabazi for daring challenge him.
Now, the president’s handlers will read Museveni’s mood and therefore seek to humiliate Mbabazi in order to please their boss – well knowing that in whipping Mbabazi, they are nursing an inner emotional injury in the president. It is thus unlikely that Museveni’s and NRM’s response to the Mbabazi challenge can be civil. In any case, the dynamics of our politics make political success dependant on bare-knuckled tactics. If these tactics were not a tried and tested instrument of political success, it is very likely Museveni/NRM would not be employing them in every election.
So, is Mbabazi ready to suffer the humiliation, beatings, imprisonment and harassment that he, together with Museveni, previously used against Kizza Besigye? Is Mbabazi the politician who will go to a “kafunda” for lunch with ordinary citizens? Can he stand being bundled onto a pick-up truck by police like a chicken thief, teargased, and physically assaulted? Will he accept to spend nights in police cells? Based on experience and observation, Mbabazi does not strike one as such a politician. He seems too elitist and arrogant to be a populist.
In many ways Mbabazi seems to be the kind of politician who emerges within a ruling party as a chosen successor to a retiring president rather than a radical opposition politician who challenges the status quo and pays the price for it. He has spent too much time inside the state to cope with the rigours of opposition politics. Because of his long and wide aforementioned experience in statecraft, and given his individual skills as an administrator, Mbabazi can make a good president. But he does not strike one as a man who can make a good opposition presidential candidate.
Therefore, while this may be Mbabazi’s boldest political move ever, it may equally be the most fatal to his political career. Mbabazi has always been Museveni’s man. But can Mbabazi succeed as his own man? Can his brand succeed independently of Museveni’s patronage? Mbabazi’s political profile has always been like an ivy creeper leaning on an oak, the oak being Museveni. Now that the ivy creeper has been separated from its oak, won’t it collapse completely? In any case, it will be very difficult for Mbabazi to separate his personal reputation from all the ills of the Museveni administration he now plans to fight.
Mbabazi’s launch of the bid for the presidency lacked imagination in time and in strategic positioning. The best time for him to declare his intentions to run for the presidency was in Kyankwanzi last year when the NRM parliamentary caucus declared Museveni a sole presidential candidate. He should have resigned as Prime Minister and even [may be] as secretary general of the NRM. This would have struck the metal when it was still hot. He would have shown that he sacrificed privilege in defence of democratic ideals. Instead, he acquiesced to the resolution by signing it. Even when NRM called a delegates conference last December and blatantly amended the constitution to remove democratic elections, Mbabazi made no move.
Having lost all these opportunities, Mbabazi’s attempt to launch the campaign with a mass rally and a series of demonstrations across a number of towns was thwarted by the ever-vigilant Kale Kayihura and his police. So he launched his presidential bid on social media such and YouTube whose audience is small and composed largely of elitist noise-makers who do not even vote. In terms of style and presentation, his campaign materials are excellent. One wonders whether they make sense to 70% of Ugandan voters who are semi-literate peasants in rural areas.
Outside of NRM, Mbabazi’s hope therefore is that he gets chosen by the coalition of the opposition as their presidential candidate. But this proposition is wrought with many pitfalls. It is not clear that in a head-to-head contest for the hearts and minds of the opposition, Mbabazi can beat Besigye for this slot. Even if he did, it is unlikely that Besigye will accept Mbabazi to lead the opposition. Even if Besigye was willing to accept Mbabazi’s leadership, it is unlikely Besigye’s supporters can accept Mbabazi’s leadership especially given that for very many years Mbabazi was one with Museveni in suppressing the voice of the opposition.
This is made worse by the fact that the selection of Mbabazi as the opposition coalition’s presidential candidate would render Besigye obscure. This is because with Mbabazi in the lead, Besigye cannot be his vice presidential running mate as the two come from the same area – the old Rukungiri – itself the original home of Museveni. Hence the likely vice presidential running mate for the opposition coalition would be former vice president Gilbert Bukenya. He will bring the Catholic and Baganda vote to the ticket. But Mbabazi and Bukenya don’t see eye to eye.
It is true that Mbabazi may bring campaign experience, money and international diplomatic support to the opposition. However, he will water down their posture before the wider voting public because he has been Museveni’s right hand man in whatever criticism the opposition may want to make against the president. And the opposition needs some moral high ground to distinguish itself from Museveni. Mbabazi is likely to bring too little too late to the fortunes of the opposition coalition.