Mbabazi Row – Museveni Doing It the Obote Way

Although 1964 and 2014 are half a century apart, Ugandan politics, especially contestation at the highest level, does not seem to have changed much over the decades. Observers last week drew parallels between the present suspicions and tensions between the chairman and secretary general of the ruling NRM on the one hand, and another standoff fifty years ago, on the other.

In April, 1964, the then UPC leader and Prime Minister Apollo Milton Obote disagreed with his Secretary General John Kakonge. Their conflict escalated at UPC’s first delegates’ conference in Gulu. Obote, with other UPC leaders like Wilberforce Nadiope, Felix Onama and Peter Oola, plotted to stop Kakonge from retaining his position as secretary general of the party.

This group, which was majorly supported by rightists, backed the relatively unpopular Grace Ibingira. Kakonge enjoyed charismatic support from the pro-leftist faction, which was majorly backed by UPC’s youth wingers who included Dani Nabudere (RIP), Kintu-Musoke, Jaberi Bidandi-Ssali, Kirunda Kivejinja and Raiti Omongin.

Authors on this subject explain that the fight was sparked by ideological disagreement, although UPC ideologue Yoga Adhola argues that this was reminiscent of the struggle for national democratic liberation.

Ibingira beat Kakonge to the secretary generalship by only two votes. In his book, Imperialism and Revolution in Uganda, Prof Nabudere argues that Ibingira’s win was made possible by Obote’s manipulation of the process. He says that Kakonge’s popularity was a source of discomfort for many party “elders”, including Prime Minister Milton Obote.

Kakonge served as UPC secretary general from 1960 to 1964 and was responsible for building the UPC structures that helped the party win the 1962 general election.

Parallels with Gulu conference:

Fast forward to 2014 and the plot seems largely the same although the cast and subplots are different. Political experts, for instance, equate today’s Museveni to 1964’s Obote. Mbabazi, today’s secretary general of the ruling NRM, mirrors Kakonge, the 1964 secretary general of the ruling UPC. Museveni appears as suspicious of Mbabazi as Obote was of Kakonge.

Like Obote then, Museveni has utilised the party caucus to trim Mbabazi’s growing influence within the NRM structure.

“Even though the fight between Kakonge and Obote was basically ideological, there is a similarity in how he [Kakonge] was treated then and what happened to Mbabazi in Kyankwanzi,” Makerere University political historian Mwambutsya Ndebesa argues.

Obote sponsored the manipulation that finished his secretary general (Kakonge) and indeed stopped Kakonge from swaying the party to his side. Museveni, Ndebesa argues, has done a similar thing, sponsoring schemes likely to scuttle Mbabazi’s presidential ambitions.

Last month, during the NRM parliamentary caucus retreat at the National Leadership Institute-Kyankwanzi, MPs signed on to a resolution that backed Museveni’s sole party candidacy going into the 2016 general elections. The resolution gained currency after Museveni in a speech dropped hints that his secretary general was scheming politically against him.

Two weeks after Kyankwanzi, Museveni tabled intelligence briefs pinning Mbabazi’s wife Jacqueline for politically mobilising against him. Ndebesa argues that if internalised critically “you will see that Obote’s fear for Kakonge’s faction was the clique formation which he feared would pose a threat to his power consolidation.”

“Similarly Museveni sees that the so-called cliques in NRM pose a threat to his power consolidation,” he said.

Eventually, the Kakonge faction was expelled from UPC though Kakonge personally reverted back to government as a minister. Mbabazi has not been expelled by the NRM though there were muted calls for him to be dragged to the NRM’s disciplinary committee.

Museveni, through the NRM caucus, has created a buffer zone to Mbabazi’s influence as secretary general by assigning Richard Todwong, the minister without portfolio in charge of political mobilisation, to take over much of the NRM party’s administrative work, a role principally performed by Mbabazi as secretary general.

Predicting what will befall Mbabazi, Ndebesa says this is stretching the imagination beyond reach. However, he adds that if someone does look at the subsequent relationship between Obote and Ibingira as his new secretary general, it can help them read the road ahead.

“The Obote-Kakonge disagreement was more ideological and Kakonge was not ambitious as such like it is between Museveni and Mbabazi. So, the latter can be related with the relationship between Obote and Ibingira,” he said.

State machinery:

By supporting Ibingira, an elitist and pro-monarchist, Obote thought that it was a better bet for his power consolidation since for the secretary general role, he needed someone who was not popular amongst the common people.

Similarly, in 2005, Museveni also supported the choice of Mbabazi, an unpopular elitist as his choice for secretary general. Mbabazi’s contenders included Dr Crispus Kiyonga and Maj Gen Kahinda Otafiire who apparently appealed to the grassroots supporters.

After the 1964 Obote- Kakonge fight, Ibingira continued to serve as UPC secretary general and minister until 1966 when his relationship with Obote soured when the Ibingira became more influential within the UPC party structures.

It is no wonder that he together with four other ministers were arrested. These ministers were Balaki Kirya, David Lumu, George Magezi and Mathias Ngobi. “Ibingira had a lot of support from the pro-monarchy group that crossed from Kabaka Yekka and by that time Obote realised he had a power structure entrenched within the state machinery,” Ndebesa argues. According to historic facts, it is documented that Ibingira influenced the appointment of his cronies as ministers and top government positions.

Relatedly, Mbabazi has served as NRM secretary general since 2005 and currently it is believed that he has gained more influence not only within the NRM structure but in the state machinery as well. “He utilised the state machinery to set up the NRM structures with individuals who owe a lot of allegiance to him,” Charles Rwomushana, a former intelligence officer told The Observer recently.

How will it end?

While establishing the structure that was favourable to him, Ibingira was plotting to take over the UPC chairmanship from Obote. And this plot was to materialise at the scheduled UPC delegates’ conference. If Ibingira was to be elected at that conference as UPC chairperson, he was obviously going to take over the premiership from Obote.

However, it has been said that when Obote became privy to this move, he successfully hatched a plan that stopped the delegates’ conference from taking place. Apparently, this did not stop Ibingira from plotting against Obote and it is said that Ibingira’s group alternatively planned to topple Obote, though Obote countered it through a constitutional revolution and ordered the arrest of Ibingira’s group together with other ministers.

The infrastructure that Obote sponsored through Ibingira, to control his opponents, was eventually used against him (Ibingira). Among these include the Detention Without Trial Act, a law under which Ibingira was charged as the first political victim.

Similarly, the infrastructure that Museveni sponsored through Mbabazi, to whip the dissenters within NRM, has been used by the pro-Museveni group to counter Mbabazi’s alleged plot.

Among these include the Interception of Communications Act, a law Mbabazi pushed as then minister of Security. It is believed that intelligence tapped his communication using this same law.

Analyzing what is likely to happen between Museveni and Mbabazi, Ndebesa says it is not impossible to predict what is likely to happen between the two.

“This business of ring-fencing the highest political post ends in a political crisis like what happened in the 1960s and this will not be different from what is likely to happen to Uganda if there is no clear transitional process,” he said.

Prof Joe Oloka-Onyango, a constitutional law lecturer at Makerere University, concurs with Ndebesa that indeed the only difference between the Obote government and Museveni’s rule is their approach.

“Obote was a little civil compared to Museveni’s military approach to each and every affair in society. And this is not good for our country. In fact, we are experiencing a military dictatorship only masked under a constitution,” he said.

However, Bukoto South MP Mathias Nsubuga recently told The Observer that the rope pulling in the NRM is likely to end like in the 1964-67 events that ended in a military coup.

“It is history repeating itself because when you look at the ongoing disagreements in NRM, and make a flashback at 1964 when [Milton] Obote disagreed with the secretary general of his party [UPC, John Kakonge], then the 1967 suspension of elections, you wonder what Museveni is up to he is preparing this country for a military coup,” Nsubuga argues.

Source : The Observer

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