President Museveni’s refusal to stand down after almost thirty years in power has exacerbated tensions within the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM). Aspiring political leaders are frustrated that their own ambitions are being blocked by Museveni’s determination to stand again in 2016. Having removed term-limits in 2005, the president has already gone on to serve ten more years that the previous constitution allowed. Now, President Museveni has moved to reconcile with some of the leaders that he previously alienated in a bid to maintain the unity of the NRM.
One of the more prominent leaders to let his disappointment be known in recent years is Amama Mbabazi, a long-serving NRM minister and the president’s former confidant. Despite appointing Mbabazi as his Prime Minister in 2011, Musveni became increasingly fearful that his former ally planned to challenge him for the presidency. In response, sacked Mbabazi in September 2014, denying him a public profile and access to state funds.
Recently, however, it has been reported that President Museveni has become increasingly worried that if Mbabazi decides to contest the election outside of the NRM it could split the ruling party, leaving Museveni more vulnerable to defeat. In early May, the president thus initiated a fresh dialogue designed to persuade the former prime minister to abandon his presidential ambitions. According to The Observer [Kampala] newspaper, Museveni has proposed a power-sharing model in which Mbabazi would be guaranteed the vice presidency and “a shot at the presidency in 2021, the year in which President Museveni has promised to retire.”
The proposals included a promise to change article 108 of the constitution to upgrade the position of vice president to that of deputy president, with expanded executive powers, along the lines of the Kenyan model. However, Mbabazi is understandably wary of accepting such a deal, because he has no way of ensuring that the president will keep his word – and Museveni has broken similar deals in the past. According to local reports, Mbabazi informed the president that “The deal would be okay but you’ll still retain the powers to sack” – meaning that even if Museveni kept his word and made him a deputy president, he would still serve at the presidents pleasure.
It is not yet clear whether a second proposal, which would see Mbabazi rejoin the NRM in return for being allowed to contest primary elections for the right to be the party’s candidate in the 2016 contest, will be more successful. It is thought that this option is more appealing to the former prime minister, but that he remains concerned that the primaries would be rigged in favour of the incumbent. There is also the small matter of the fact that the NRM has already officially endorsed Museveni’s candidacy, and previously resolved that the president should be relieved of the need to contest party primaries.
Despite the ongoing uncertainty, the government is already in campaign mode, and the Ugandan media has been ordered to increase its coverage of the president. In a thinly-veiled attempt at intimidation, the Uganda Communications Commission, a state-controlled regulator, informed domestic broadcasters that they are subject to “licensing conditions issued by the commission, whereby all broadcast stations are expected to provide live coverage of major national events and addresses [by the president]”. According to the Commission, such coverage will be closely monitored, and “non-compliant stations will be penalised”.
However, such stories have not always played to Museveni’s advantage. In June 2014, NTV Uganda, a television station owned by the Nation Media Group, was shut down after it showed footage of the president sleeping during a session of parliament. According to NRM spokespersons, the president was meditating and not sleeping and so the coverage was misleading. As a result, they temporarily suspended NTV’s coverage of the president, accusing the broadcaster of a “lack of professionalism and biased coverage”.
More confrontations between the government, the media, and the opposition, are likely as the polls near.