Uganda: Is the First Lady flying above the vice president?

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Friday, 23 September 2022 09:08

Uganda's first lady Janet Kataha Museveni with her husband President Yoweri Museveni, attend his inauguration ceremony in the capital Kampala, Uganda on 12 May 2016. (AP Photo/Stephen Wandera, File)

Jessica Alupo, the vice president of Uganda, is ideally a representative of the power that comes with the presidency. However, the structure of power in Uganda has left the vice president taking assignment from the first lady. And, analysts say, any political transition in Uganda will follow a similar path.

Ugandan First Lady and Minister of Education and Sports Janet Kataha Museveni forced her way into politics in 2006 as a member of parliament, something that President Yoweri Museveni and other high-ranking members of the ruling party never supported. She became a junior minister three years later.

Politics is a path she never thought she would take, Janet wrote in her memoir, My Life’s Journey. “Of all things I thought I would ever do in my life, getting into active politics was never on my list,” she wrote. Janet, who is a devoted Christian, attributed her her change of mind to calling from God. ‘The idea seemed ludicrous,’ she wrote.

Janet is ranked 10th on the order of precedence as per Uganda’s constitution and eight steps below the vice president, who is second to the president. But in recent months, the vice president has been representing the first lady at events, the most recent being when Alupo represented Janet in Israel at a graduation ceremony of Ugandan students whose education was sponsored by the Israeli government.  Neither the president’s nor the vice president’s spokespeople responded to questions.

In July, the vice president also represented the first lady at a launch of Uganda’s anti-corruption campaign. At the end of last year, she drove 340km north of Kampala to pay a courtesy visit to Museveni’s young brother, General Caleb Akandwanaho Salim Saleh, whose influence can be equated to that of the president.

Some political observers think Alupo is trying to win the first lady as an ally in her battle to become the political kingpin of her home region, eastern Uganda. Her immediate competitor is the current speaker of parliament, Anita Among, whose political fortune grew rapidly earlier this year after the death of the speaker. Until last year, the speaker did not hold an influential position, but Among’s rise has changed this.

Female bonding?

Political analyst Yusuf Sserunkuma tells The Africa Report that, being a woman: “It’s highly likely that her (the vice president) and the first lady are on very good talking terms as opposed to [the] previous vice president, who was a male. That creates a bond between them.”

The current situation was never the case with previous vice presidents. The story of the first lady seemingly wielding more power than the vice president began with the way Museveni structured his cabinet after last year’s election: he dropped many senior politicians and replaced them with juniors.

For instance, between 2016 and 2021, Alupo was neither a cabinet minister nor a member of parliament. She had been defeated in the 2015 election and Museveni dropped her from the portfolio of minister of education and sports.

The current Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja also previously occupied a junior position. Before her appointment in June 2021, she had served as the state minister for just two years. And before that 2019 appointment, she was only a member of parliament.

Clash with MPs

As the education minister, Janet was supposed to meet members of parliament to chart a way on reopening schools. Ordinarily, members of parliament invite ministers to sectoral committees for briefings and even grilling. Instead, it was the first lady who was inviting them to state house.

Entry into state house requires Covid-19 testing and adherence to security precautions. The choice of venue triggered an uproar from opposition legislators. The meeting was shifted to another venue and the speaker of parliament assured members of parliament that he would attend and chair the meeting, but it was called off at short notice.

Extended family business

That power lies in the hands of Museveni’s family in Uganda is not a surprise. What many people, including government officials, marvel about in hushed voices is the magnitude of the power they wield.

The Ugandan shadow state network is largely curated by the first family, which derives its power from the president.

In a recent report entitled The Shadow State in Africa, which focused on Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Democratic Republic of Congo, Nic Cheeseman and other academics and researchers described Uganda’s shadow state as a network of individuals – mostly first family members and their close associates – who control the country’s economic and political power.

“The Ugandan shadow state network is largely curated by the first family, which derives its power from the president,” the authors noted. ‘The image of a monarchy, with a strong military influence, has been used to describe the near absolute control over the state and vital sectors of the economy held by Museveni and his extended family.’

‘De facto vice president’

General Salim Saleh, who fought with his older brother in the 1981 to 1986 bush war that brought Museveni to power, is seen as the de facto vice president by some political observers. Others call him co-president. He is the co-ordinator of Operation Wealth Creation, an intervention whose aim is to champion economic transformation. It is run under the army.

Saleh reportedly has a substantial influence in appointment of ministers and high-ranking public servants, as well as in the army. A former chairperson of Uganda Airline Board, who was quizzed by army officials from the Saleh-led entity before being shown exit door, recently described it as “the de facto government” while appearing before a parliamentary committee.

Possible successor

The president’s son, Lieutenant General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the commander of the land forces of the army, is also influential. As early as the mid-1990s, Muhoozi was recruiting peers into the army. On several occasions, he has gone past the confines of army decorum by discussing foreign policy on social media and holding countrywide birthday parties.

Muhoozi’s name is the only one mentioned in the discussion of a possible Museveni successor. His birthday parties, held in April and May this year, were viewed as a declaration of presidential ambitions. Museveni has thanked Ugandans who “showed love” to his son.

Odrek Rwabwogo, an in-law to Museveni holding a title of senior presidential advisor, recently assumed a role promoting trade in Uganda, a function that is supposed to be implemented by ministry of trade. His office has been holding trade missions in the region.

Sserunkuma equates Uganda’s power structure to a family business. “You need to understand Uganda as a family business. Most likely, if you have Museveni as the CEO, human resources is going to be his wife. If Museveni is at the top, the wife follows, his children and in-laws come next,” he says.

What of the transition?

With Museveni in power for 36 years, the key question is how will the country transition past his era. Cheeseman tells The Africa Report that Uganda’s shadow state increases the risk that the transition will be governed by informal personal networks. “It increases the barriers to a genuine transfer of power outside of the control of the wider Museveni family and political alliance,” he says.

The implication of a shadow state means, Sserunkuma says, that Uganda’s transition is not going to be enshrined in the constitution. “If you think about transition depending on how power is distributed, it will fall in the first family. You will either have Salim Saleh, Janet Museveni, Muhoozi or Rwabwogo as president,” he says.

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