Politics turns friends into enemies, and the UPC into allies…

In politics, there are no permanent friends or enemies only permanent interests.

Two Ugandans politicians, incumbent President Yoweri Museveni aka M7 and one of his two key rivals, former prime minister John Patrick Amama Mbabazi aka JPAM, have helped illustrate the truth of this dictum by the things they have said and done in recent days.

During his maiden campaign rally in the oil-rich region of Hoima, JPAM accused President Museveni of clinging to power. He spiced up his critique with an armour-piercing jibe about how leaders who overstay in power do so because they have failed to groom successors. He then made a solemn promise to the crowd that had turned out to listen to him: If elected president, he will oversee the restoration of term limits in the Constitution.

Coming from JPAM, the remarks take some digesting. Only Ugandans who were not yet born at the time and those who were sleeping and continue to do so do not know about the critical role this same Mbabazi played in engineering the removal of term limits from the Constitution 10 years ago, thereby opening the way for his former mentor and friend to stay in power indefinitely (provided Ugandans keep voting for him.)

Only they would be unaware of the ejection from the NRM of senior cadres who, believing that what Mbabazi and other Museveni diehards at the time were doing was ill-aised, were thrown out in a campaign that, in Luganda, the country’s main language, came to be known as “tubejjeko” (let’s get rid of them).

And of course this is the same Mbabazi who plotted with and served Museveni loyally for well over three decades during which he rose to the premiership and to the then more powerful position of NRM secretary-general. At some point, he even went by the moniker “super minister,” because he held several important portfolios simultaneously.

People who know Mbabazi will credit his rise and the trust that once underlay his relationship with Museveni to his sobriety, legendary capacity for getting things done, and ability to keep secrets, unlike fun-loving and boozy colleagues who sometimes become veritable leaking vessels.

Commentators have been quick to dismiss Mbabazi’s newfound love for term limits. They argue that it stems not from conversion to the belief that they are sacrosanct, but from feeling let down by his former friend — who apparently promised he would step down and make way for him in at the expiry of his current term in 2016.

These claims may or may not be true. What is beyond doubt, however, is that the friendship that once made both men speak about each other in mutually admiring tones is verily dead, the victim of each man’s determination to pursue his individual interests.

And while Mbabazi was busy at it, Museveni too was doing his bit to help us understand how in politics interests have no respect for friendship or enmity.

For many years now, Museveni has built his political career partly on denigrating Uganda’s former ruling party, the Uganda People’s Congress, its leadership, and its members and supporters. First, the UPC is the political party that presided over a good deal of the political mayhem Museveni was able to take aantage of to seize power nearly 30 years ago.

And it is for stopping it and preventing it from reoccurring that many Ugandans continue to feel eternally grateful to him and to vote for him blindly, as some critics would have it. Museveni is not the kind of person to hold back from insulting whomever he feels like insulting. Where UPC and its leaders are concerned, however, he has usually been at his most unrestrained and least presidential.

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Recently, though, news began to emerge that, as Amama Mbabazi and Kizza Besigye threaten to bite a huge chunk out of his traditional stronghold of western Uganda where the three men were born, Museveni has decided to turn to UPC for help.

The hope is that UPC will help rally support for him from its much-diminished but still sizeable constituencies in the greater north, especially the hitherto impregnable Lango sub-region.

It gets better the UPC faction he has chosen to cultivate is the one led by none other than Jimmy Akena, son of the late president Apollo Milton Obote, the man for whom, before he died, Museveni used to reserve the most colourful and venomous of his verbal attacks.

And apparently the UPC crowd, which is known to have regarded him with a mixture of dread and hostility, is more than happy to help him defeat the very people who helped him wrest power from them and consign them to 30 years of life in the political wilderness.

There are unsubstantiated rumours about colossal sums of money changing hands. True or not, at least the former enemies are now friends. That is politics at its very “best.”

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: fgmutebi@yahoo.com