Uganda: Museveni pulls an opposition leader into his fold

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Tuesday, 26 July 2022 12:02

Yoweri Kaguta Museveni,
Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, president of Uganda on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni has joined forces with the leader of the country's oldest political party in a power-transfer deal. But observers of the wily president are skeptical.

Last week, Museveni hosted Democratic Party (DP) leader Norbert Mao at State House in Entebbe for the signing of a cooperation agreement. The president went on to praise Mao for his “gesture of mature, foresighted and constructive politics.”

The next day, Museveni appointed Mao as minister of justice and constitutional affairs.

On paper, the agreement promises many things that Ugandans want for their politics, notably a structured dialogue leading to Uganda’s first peaceful transfer of power since independence. But few political analysts and opposition politicians take it seriously because Museveni has previously promised to hang up his boots — before reneging every time.

“Mao may have some illusions and hopes, but Museveni is a deceptive ruler. He has held the country captive, and he too is captive to his own lust for power,” says Moses Khisa, a political scientist affiliated with  North Carolina State University and think tanks in Kampala. “In substantive terms, there is nothing new in Mao’s defection to Museveni.”

When Museveni came to power in 1986, he was castigating leaders who overstay in power and promising to rule Uganda for just three years. Now in his 37th year in power, he holds the title of third-longest serving president on the continent after Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema and Cameroon’s Paul Biya.

During his time in office, he has dismembered the constitutions, removing the term and age limits that would have forced him to abandon power in 2005 and 2021, respectively.

Trust Museveni?

Museveni turns 78 years old in September. Key political questions in Uganda revolve around the transfer of power after he departs the scene: When will it come? In what form? And what will be its implications for the country?

Mao, an eloquent politician, has been on Uganda’s political scene for more than two decades. He presents himself as a man for the moment who will establish mechanisms for reconciliation, engage in a structured dialogue involving all political actors, and advance constitutional reforms that will ensure Museveni hands over power peacefully.

“It’s not an accident that I have been offered the docket of justice and constitutional affairs to lead that process,” Mao says. “The constitution has been dismembered. There is a need for somebody to patch it up. And somebody must do that job.”

Noting that many countries struggle after the departure of long-serving leaders, Mao says “we should do anything possible to ensure that Uganda survives Museveni.”

“We believe that Ugandans should see a peaceful transfer of power,” he says. “I don’t want the next president to jump over dead bodies when going to take the presidential oath.”

Another member of Mao’s Democratic Party will be appointed as junior minister while others will be given positions in government agencies and corporations, according to the agreement. Though it is the oldest party in the country, the DP has been at its weakest point in the past two years, having lost its bases of support in the central province of Buganda and the Catholic church.

Many DP legislators joined musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi (better know as Bobi Wine) last year when he challenged Museveni for the presidency. With Wine’s party holding most of the opposition seats in parliament, critics argue that Mao is at his weakest point and Museveni will “wheel him in a wheelbarrow to anywhere he wants” — a phrase once used by Mao to describe how Museveni treats opposition politicians who join his government.

Capturing the opposition

For as long as Museveni has been in power, he has denied opposition parties the space to organise and challenge him. From 1986 to 2006, opposition parties were banned even as the ruling National Resistance Movement operated just like a political party. After 2005, when a Ugandan court ordered the ban be lifted, Museveni focused on intimidating, harassing or cajoling opposition politicians into the ruling  party. In 2016, he promised to “wipe out the opposition completely.”

For those who are uncomfortable joining him officially, Museveni is said to accommodate them indirectly. However, many of those end up joining his government formally for the prospect of top government jobs.

The Speaker of Parliament, Anita Among, was not a member of the ruling party until 2020. First, she was a member of an opposition party, then became an independent legislator who was a constant guest of Museveni before officially joining his party. Likewise, Deputy Speaker Thomas Tayeebwa was once in the opposition.

Meanwhile Joyce Ssebugwawo, a high-ranking member of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), one of the main opposition parties in Uganda, was a surprise nominee for a ministerial position after the 2021 general elections. She took up the position.

Critics argue that Mao has been among those politicians indirectly in Museveni’s fold for a long time. He is the only leader of an opposition party to regularly meet with Museveni during meetings of party leaders. Other party leaders dismiss such encounters with the president as a waste of time.

Mao himself revealed that it took a year of back-and-forth conversation with Museveni before he formally accepted the ministerial position.

“There have been offers before. This was an offer I received in June last year,” he says.

Family business

Khisa dismisses as ludicrous Mao’s talk of a cooperation agreement distinguishing him from other opposition leaders who have joined Museveni.

“Museveni has no regard for written rules and agreements,” he tells The Africa Report, adding that the deal can never lead to a transition.

The name of Museveni’s son Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who is the commander of army land forces, features prominently in succession talks. His father allowed Kainerugaba to hold several birthday parties across the country for his 48th birthday in April that were widely viewed as the official launch of his political career.

Kristof Titeca, an associate professor at the University of Antwerp’s Institute of Development Policy who has written on transition politics in Uganda, says it’s hard to predict what Museveni’s reasoning is. Titeca argues that his son’s recent activities are a clear indication that the president could be probing his ability to take over.

“To the best of my analysis, what is happening now, and in the last months, is ‘testing waters’ — a tried-and-tested strategy from the Museveni playbook: launch an idea, however radical it is, and see how it is received,” he said.

Kainerugaba in February tweeted that “Mao is the most brilliant opposition leader IN Uganda today. He has presidential skills.” In April, Mao wrote two opinion articles in a local newspaper, one outlining Kainerugaba’s impressive military profile and another discussing prospects for his likely presidency.

“Muhoozi can use his influence in the military to get power,” Mao argued. But he added that the first son’s profile now extends beyond his military career.

“There’s a sense of urgency in the way he is cultivating a new profile as a politician and a diplomat,” Mao wrote. “One would be a fool to ignore this posture and the positioning it represents.”

As Mao rolls into Museveni’s fold, Ugandans will be watching closely to see whether he will support the likely transfer of power from Museveni to his son.

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