M7 + 2016: the uncertain formula for Uganda’s succession

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ugandaThe 2016 elections in Uganda will be a testing time for the country, and the thorny question of succession has already begun to dominate the political landscape. In this post, Ben Obegi takes a look a recent developments and asks whether this political term might be Museveni’s last.

In Uganda, the question of who and what comes next after President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni (popularly referred to as M7 in East African media parlance) has long been considered taboo.

In the past, it has been hard to read the Ugandan succession plan. Just when the First Lady – Janet Museveni – was thought to be entertaining the idea of succeeding her husband, the President`s son, a Brigadier in the Ugandan People’s Defence Force, shot into the limelight. Close confidants and handlers of the president did all they could to stamp out rumours of a succession plot, but their protestations did more to confirm than to deny people’s suspicions.

The sun has certainly shone brightly on the president`s son, Brig. Muhoozi Kainerugaba. His meteoric rise through the army ranks has set Ugandan tongues wagging: how was he able to scale the pole so quickly when fellow officers have spent decades marking time in the barracks? Even with his family connections, his ascent seemed improbably fast. But it was not just the speed of his rise that caught people’s attention: His position as the head of a special army brigade that ensures the president’s security, brought Kainerugaba particularly close to the citadel of power.

Unsurprisingly, this has caused conflict within the UPDF. In a context where open debate has been off-limits, silence can mean a great deal. In recent months, the army’s ranks have been rocked with desertions. The army spokesperson, Major Felix Kulayge had previously stated that all was well in the barracks, but a list of deserters released by the army recently put paid to his claims. It revealed that 400 members of the Ugandan Patriotic Defence Force, including 37 members of the Presidential Guard, had deserted. Having conducted an investigation into the reasons behind these developments, Uganda’s leading independent newspaper, The Daily Monitor, claimed that although rank-and-file desertions were driven by low wages in the army, higher ranking desertions could be linked to direct grievances with Museveni and his son. More details about their grievances are likely to come out in debates surrounding the parliamentary inquiry that MPs are launching in response to the desertion list.

Meanwhile, some opponents within the army have become far more vocal. In what is seen as open rebellion against the Commander-in-Chief, Major David Sejusa, who is head of Uganda’s Internal Security, has taken a firm stand against Kainerugaba’s rise. So, when a letter appeared at the end of April in the Daily Monitor, claiming that there was a ‘so-called family project of holding on to power in perpetuity’ and a ‘plot’ to assassinate all who stood in its way, many suspected it had been penned by his hand. Unsurprisingly, the Government denied all knowledge of this plot, and subsequently shut down the Monitor’s printing press, website and radio stations for 11 days, on the pretext that they were preserving a crime scene. Sejusa himself was subjected to extensive police questioning on the basis that army members are not permitted to express partisan opinions. He has since fled the country, in order to escape arrest. Rumours that he was claiming asylum in Britain were denied by the British Consulate

The scale of the police’s reaction to his letter is testament to the political threat that Museveni feels this old ally, who fought with him in the 1980s, could pose. It would be a mistake, however, to think that Sejusa is a lone wolf: his stance is indicative of the frustration growing amongst older army leaders who feel that they are being pushed out by their younger counterparts, led by Kainerugaba. With reports that the country’s opposition are consciously courting ’emerging voices of reason, goodwill and progress’ within the police and army to aid them in the uphill battle against Museveni in 2016, this dissent may become very important politically.

And it is not just the army that are posing problems for Museveni. Unrest is also brewing within his own party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM). In April, four MPs were fired by the party. The charges against them included the forming of cliques and furthering intrigue within the NRM. However, this was only the beginning, not the end, of the political battle: Parliamentary speaker, Rebecca Kadaga, defied the NRM’s demand that their seats be deemed vacant. In response, Museveni himself has led a petition to the Constitutional Court to overturn her decision and secure their dismissal, whilst the party is trying to stir up opposition in the MP’s own constituencies.

Later in April, Former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya announced that he would run in the party’s primaries in 2016, if Museveni tries to go for another term. In the past, potential contenders for party president have failed to get approved by the Central Executive Committee (CEC), so Museveni has previously ‘won’ the title unopposed. There is no guarantee that Bukenya will clear the CEC hurdle this time around but, if he does not, he has promised to run the race as an independent candidate. Were Museveni’s opponents to rally around him, in addition to the strong base he has in Buganda and the Catholic community, he may well pose a considerable threat to Museveni.

For now, the situation seems uncertain. Museveni’s hold on the party and the country should not be underestimated and nor should the strength of the opposition be overestimated: even the four ‘rebel’ MPs dismissed from parliament continue to be internally divided. Nonetheless, resistance towards Museveni seems to be growing. Succession has proved to be a thorny problem in post-colonial Africa and one that has stalled democratic growth and political stability across the continent. All eyes will now be on Uganda to see how politics will develop on the road to 2016.

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