Final parting of ways as Mbabazi gives up on NRM

From one window of Amama Mbabazi’s 12th floor office in Kampala’s central business district, one can see, to the north, the forlorn and weather beaten Postel Building, where he once held court in the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party’s Secretariat, and in the Office of the Prime Minister.

To the south, newer and gleaming in the hot, humid Ugandan capital, are the Chinese-built twin towers near the colonial-era Parliament building.

If Mbabazi wins the presidential election next year, his next office might be in the twin towers. While that would be a short step away from his current office, it would be a giant leap for a man who has launched a hostile bid for the presidency after three decades of what appeared to be unquestioning loyalty.

Mr Mbabazi is difficult to read or decipher. He speaks in a slow, deliberate monotone, his voice revealing little emotion as the words slide forth, one ice-cube at a time.

For instance, the former prime minister signed a parliamentary caucus resolution — admittedly under duress — endorsing President Yoweri Museveni as the sole candidate of the NRM party, and vowed not to challenge his former ally if the incumbent was on the ballot. Yet his presidential announcement in early July was, for many months, the worst kept secret in Ugandan politics.

“Some look at ambition in a negative sense, that ambition is bad,” Mr Mbabazi says in an interview.

“I have always said that yes, when you have ambition, you can use wrong methods to achieve your ambition but ambition itself is positive.”

READ: Mbabazi to run for president as independent candidate

The president subscribes to the view, widely held within the NRM, that the latter used his former position as secretary-general to quietly build a power base within the party.

Mr Mbabazi disagrees: “I think we have reached a stage and a time for change, to give Uganda something it has never had — a peaceful transition of power. My coming up now to offer myself to lead as president, is actually to lead this transition, from our generation of leadership, to the next generation.”

Mr Mbabazi says his presidential ambitions emerged “not long ago” and are “more recent” but the discussion on transition goes back a decade, when he oversaw the country’s return to multiparty elections, a concession made more palatable to members of the no-party “Movement System” by the sweetener of the removal of presidential term limits from the constitution. 

“This is something I have discussed with the president, even before I was appointed prime minister,” he says.

“The next transition is of leadership itself under multipartyism whoever wins, I know that NRM is the strong party in Uganda. Whatever the outcome of the democratic process, the outcome [should be] peaceful.”

A popular story in the corridors of power in Uganda speaks of a deal, apparently struck between the two men in which President Museveni would back Mr Mbabazi as his successor, in reward for three decades of loyalty. President Museveni has not publicly spoken on the matter and while Mr Mbabazi confirms reaching some kind of understanding, he is reluctant to discuss it openly.

So, is President Museveni’s decision to seek a fifth elected term (and seventh overall) in disregard of some position earlier agreed upon with Mr Mbabazi?

“I wouldn’t like to go into that, Daniel, because that is something we discussed I don’t want to turn it into an issue,” he says, his voice finally betraying the slightest tinge of emotion, but in the same, practiced, careful manner.

“He has every right to offer himself like I do, like any other citizen who qualifies does, so it doesn’t matter because if he thinks he has the energy and he still has something to offer Uganda then I welcome his decision to continue.”

Mr Mbabazi’s next sentence, that all he wants is to have the contest “achieved through a democratic process within NRM itself” adds to the confusion and frustration many friends and foes feel about his insistence, until this week, to pursue his ambition within the ruling party.

By the time of the interview Mr Mbabazi had been pushed out of his post in the party, seen rules thrown up to stop his candidature, been subjected to public attacks and humiliation by party officials and employees, including having the water bills at his private residence published on social media platforms.

Yet, in the interview, he continued to speak of the NRM in progressive terms as a party of “reformers.” Even when it is pointed out that his complaints about the NRM are similar to those raised by Kizza Besigye 15 years ago, the former PM says he aised the retired colonel that the issues could be managed within the party, not outside it.

Part of Mr Mbabazi’s reluctance to part ways with the NRM is obviously pragmatic for it is in its structures, littered across the country, that the former secretary general built his network of supporters.

The true extent of such support is hard to estimate. Privately, however, stories of Mr Mbabazi’s quiet mobilisation take on an almost legendary status, with the recent appointment, to the Cabinet, of one veteran politician from the west of the country put down by sources familiar with the matter due to his alleged secret consultations with people close to Mbabazi.

The NRM network across the country is a formidable, entrenched political asset. Elected local councillors have been in office for more than a decade and many are opinion leaders capable of influencing public opinion.

However, some of the affinity to the party must surely be emotional. A founding member and one of the earliest members of its earlier iteration, the Front for National Salvation (Fronasa), Mr Mbabazi has defended NRM to the end, even when it was clear that the party he helped build, and the cadres he had recruited to it had chosen the safety of the status quo over the uncertain high-risks of reform.

By the time Mr Mbabazi issued his statement on Friday indicating he would seek the presidency as an independent candidate, he was like a spurned lover who continued to wave in the distance, long after the train, and his political paramour had disappeared.

One possible positive outcome of the clarity forced upon the political landscape by Friday’s decision is that, unshackled from the strictures of the NRM, Mr Mbabazi can finally begin to give more detail about his agenda and his policy positions.

Although he issued an eight-point agenda when he declared his candidature, Mr Mbabazi has, up until now, refused to discuss any of his policy positions. He describes himself as a modern candidate and although he is often punching away at his iPad, or following discussions on Twitter (where he has more than 94,000 followers), his views on how to build a country “ready for the 21st century” remain unclear.

What is clear, however, is what Mr Mbabazi believes is Uganda’s problem. “Clinging to power for very long,” he says, after a moment’s pause. He then reels off a list of governance deficits in the country, patronage, bribery, and so on, before adding, with a discernable sigh: “Success without a successor is actually failure.”

One of the few policy positions Mr Mbabazi speaks about openly these days is the question of term limits, whose lifting from the Ugandan Constitution he spearheaded in 2005, paving the way for the man he now seeks to replace to remain in office.

“I still stand by the reasons that were aanced then,” hesays, “but with recent experience in Uganda, I have come to examine in greater detail that idea of choice itself because choice has to be looked at in the context of political environment in the society where you are applying it.

If you have a situation where there is intimidation by the use of state machinery, where there is bribery by leaders, where patronage is the system of accessibility to public services, where people live under grinding poverty, then you come to the conclusion that people in those circumstances are not able to make rational choices.

They are not even exactly conscious of their rights because choice means you are aware of your rights and you are pushing for your rights as an individual.”

‘Has the personal relationship with Mr Museveni broken down?’

“No, not to my knowledge. I was in State House last night”

‘You weren’t there to have a cup of tea you were summoned’

“I wouldn’t say it has broken down but it is under strain.”

‘That must be very disappointing.’

“Of course. I never expected this to happen.”

With that and a firm handshake, Mr Mbabazi retires to his private office to prepare for the next interview.

On Friday, President Museveni, makes a triumphant march to the party head office to pick his nomination forms. Mr Mbabazi holds a press event at his home to formally wave the white flag of surrender from the NRM process, but not the party or the contest.