As President Yoweri Museveni begins his 27th year in power, his warning that the army will take over his own elected government has added a new dimension to growing speculation about the deep internal rifts within both his ruling NRM party and the army.
Observers and political actors alike say this complex web of political jostling, grandstanding and now the army openly sniffing at power is directly linked to his long stay in power and his fear of transition.
Observers say that, over the years, the president has lost the aura and charm that captivated his admirers and won over his critics during his first decade in power, and replaced them with tough talk, incessant threats and sabre-rattling.
“The ability to listen, his modesty and his gift of persuasion, which were overriding characteristics of President Museveni at the beginning of his presidency, are no longer what define him today,” a retired professor of history told The EastAfrican.
“What is happening in the NRM is destabilising for the country. When the ruling party cannot organise itself, how can one expect others to? You get a sense there is a kind of vacuum in the country,” he added.
Two weeks ago at a party caucus retreat, Museveni warned the MPs in attendance that the military would not allow what he termed “confusion” in parliament to persist.
Invoking the army is a trick the president has perfected and fallen back on many times whenever he has faced a vigorous challenge.
The retreat came in the wake of the death of the 24-year-old legislator, Cerinah Nebanda, who, in spite of being a first term NRM MP, had quickly become an outspoken critic of the government’s excesses.
The cause of her death was hotly disputed by parliament and the state, which invited suspicion on itself by the way the police and the president rushed to intervene and assert that her death was drugs-related, even before investigations had been completed.
The retreat, then, was ostensibly to whip MPs into line as has happened at such retreats before.
But, perhaps more importantly this time, it was also to derail attempts by a section of MPs to recall parliament over what they saw as the president’s attacks on the independence of the legislature.
Museveni had warned of dire consequences if they insisted on recalling the House.
The clash over Nebanda’s death came just two weeks after the executive forced through the oil Bill that vested authority over oil matters in the minister of energy; a feature parliament had contested and actually struck out in preference for such absolute powers to be vested with the yet to be established petroleum authority.
The president’s warning followed similar statements by his Minister of Defence, Dr Crispus Kiyonga, to the parliamentary rules committee.
They were lent gravitas by the Chief of Defence Forces, General Aronda Nyakairima, who told reporters on Wednesday, January 23, that “the message was deliberately sent out” and that it “was well taken for those to who it was intended.”
If a military takeover were to happen, one scenario is that it would complete the rumoured transfer of power from President Museveni to his son Brig. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the head of the Special Forces Command, which wields great influence within the army.
The more worrisome scenario is the kind Mugisha Muntu, the former army commander, tried to paint for reporters on Thursday, January 24: A regression into turbulence that Uganda has endured for the most part of its postcolonial era, which would destroy all the country’s progress and its regional and international standing.
Mr Muntu said the president’s warning was intended “for purposes of intimidating parliament and intimidating the public so that everybody is gripped by fear and therefore, we cease to do what is right.”
Dr Zac Niringiye, a former chairperson of the National Governing Council of the African Peer Review Mechanism, thinks President Museveni should be held accountable for the “military intervention” talk.
“As a country, we need to find a way of asking him to clarify. To ask: Mr President were you serious? What did you mean? What is it that you describe as confusion that would precipitate the army intervening?” Dr Niringiye told The EastAfrican.
“Secondly, can he tell us the nature of that intervention? The country doesn’t need to be taken by surprise because this is our country, all of us. Ostensibly as an elected government, it behoves them to explain to the electorate these very strong statements rather than us speculating and imagining and hoping he said this, he didn’t say this, fearing this and the other,” added the former assistant bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Kampala.
Article 3 of Uganda’s Constitution prohibits any person or group of people from taking or retaining control of the government unless it is in accordance with the provisions set out in the Constitution.
“Any person who, singly or in concert with others, by any violent or unlawful means, suspends, overthrows, abrogates or amends this Constitution or any part of it or attempts to do such an act, commits the offence of treason and shall be punished according to law,” states Clause 2 of Article 3.
Clause 3 adds, “This Constitution shall not lose its force and effect even where its observance is interrupted by a government established by the force of arms; and in any case, as soon as the people recover their liberty, its observance shall be re-established.”
The clause goes on, “All persons who have taken part in any rebellion or other activity which resulted in the interruption of the observance shall be tried in accordance with this Constitution and other laws consistent with it.”
According to Peter Walubiri, a constitutional lawyer, there is a case to be made that the threats of a military takeover could amount to treasonous acts.
“You have to put these comments into context first. What prompted them? It is allegedly parliament playing bad politics. But what MPs were actually doing was to invoke articles in the Constitution that allow them to request a recall of parliament to discuss a certain matter, which is within their constitutional right,” Mr Walubiri told The EastAfrican.
“If they can’t do that and tomorrow they can’t pass the budget or any given law because they fear a military takeover, what will they have left to do? When one organ of government prevents another from playing its constitutional role, then you have subverted the constitutional order,” Mr Walubiri argued.