President Yoweri Museveni’s recent statement in an interview with NTV Uganda that he will not be in office beyond the constitutional age limit of 75 years has kicked off a race to succeed the Ugandan leader, with frontrunners jockeying to win the big man’s backing.
But The EastAfrican understands that this race may well be already over.
Apparently, First Lady Janet Kataaha Museveni has emerged as the preferred successor to the president, with the full backing of her husband, who is also chairman of the ruling National Resistance Movement.
Senior security sources told The EastAfrican that the president dropped the name of his wife, who is also Ruhaama MP and Minister for Karamoja Affairs, a few weeks ago while meeting top army generals, who form a critical power base of the regime, and whose support will be key to whoever succeeds the incumbent.
The source added that the generals did not expect this twist in the succession saga.
“There was a loud silence in the room. Army chiefs were all in disbelief [that he could name his wife for successor]. I don’t know how it will end because they [generals] have remained quiet, instead of coming out in support of Mzee’s choice,” said the source.
Despite the army generals’ discomfort, Museveni’s long time rumoured favourite for successor, Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and now, the First Lady Janet, get a head start over all the other contenders, as Museveni has in the past publicly stated that Mbabazi is presidential material.
(Read: OBBO - His prestige lost, Museveni is trapped in the presidency)
In more recent times, however, Museveni has also publicly backed Vice President Edward Ssekandi, although analysts argue that the latter’s chances of heading the party and making it to State House are slim.
It is understood that the generals want one of their own, someone who fought in the bush war that brought the regime to power in 1986, which is why the choice of Mbabazi and Janet continues to baffle them. But in the wider scheme of things, Janet could yet turn out to be the compromise choice that ticks many boxes.
She would continue to bring in the women’s vote; she cuts a motherly figure and has long been close to the centre of power, with some of her protégés well placed in security circles — in the Uganda People’s Defence Forces, the police and the army’s elite Special Forces Group (SFG). Critically, the SFG is led by her son Col Muhoozi Kainerugaba, another possible heir to Museveni.
Indeed, a poll by Research World International released last week (See related story: Protests, defiance mean NRM must embark on reform) gave Janet an intriguing lead as the favoured successor above all other NRM frontrunners.
There are also opinion leaders in the party and government who would give their backing to the First Lady, notably senior presidential advisor on media and public relations John Nagenda, who has hinted in the past that of all the people in the NRM, only Janet has the guts to challenge and succeed Museveni, who has ruled Uganda for 26 years and counting.
‘It will be wise for him to leave’
Another party stalwart, Mike Mukula, (MP, Soroti Municipality) says that although he is not privy to any information about the president’s endorsement of Janet as his successor, it would still be wise for Museveni, who will be 73 in 2016, to leave.
“The president has said he will not be in office beyond the age of 75. In 2016, he will still be eligible. Would he want to go beyond 75? I don’t know, but it would be wise for him to step down at that point. As a leader of the party, I would not want anyone or anything to undermine the achievements of President Museveni because of serving in this office and capacity for too long,” said Mr Mukula.
Mr Mukula, who is also vice chairman of NRM for eastern Uganda, and chair of the Pan African Movement, is among those in the running to replace Museveni. He sees the president’s departure at the next election as the time for Uganda to usher in a smooth transition.
“The president has a chance to see a smooth and well managed transition. If my party and Uganda can keep up this momentum, it would be the best way to preserve what he has done for Uganda and the region,” Mr Mukula told The EastAfrican.
Yet the line-up of people who want Museveni’s seat remains incomplete.
Current Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga has gained popularity across the country with the manner in which she has steered the House in the one year of her tenure. She is seen as a rival to and critic of Prime Minister Mbabazi, whom she publicly accuses of failure to “bring any business to the House for the entire first six months” of the current session of parliament.
Although he downplays his popularity and rules himself out of contention, Gen Caleb Akandwanaho, aka Salim Saleh, who is Museveni’s younger brother, is always on the list of possible successors. The bush war hero told The EastAfrican that he is more concerned with ensuring food security for the country’s population, rather than succession, which is “a minor issue to be sorted within a party.”
So, what next for Museveni? If he left power, the Ugandan leader, who says he is still fighting for the transformation of the African continent, would need to find another role to employ himself in. Mr Mukula says Museveni could concentrate on the even bigger project of delivering the East African Community’s political federation, which is one of the ideas that have been discussed in some party circles.
“He should pursue that historical mission as Mwalimu Nyerere wished, and as embedded in the 10-point programme of the NRM. He could help the region make the transition to the EAC federation and I would support him on that front because among his peers, he is still a giant,” Mr Mukula said.
There have been women presidential candidates before — Beti Kamya in 2011 and Miria Obote in 2006 — but the NRM has presented only Museveni to contest the presidency. If Janet were to succeed Museveni, she would be the first female candidate fronted by the ruling party in Uganda’s entire electoral politics. Whether she would enjoy the full support of the party, or whether NRM would split into factions, remains to be seen.