After nearly eight years as NRM secretary general, Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi has agreed to leave the second most influential position in the ruling party.
Highly-placed sources have told The Observer that Mbabazi recently met President Museveni, the party chairman, at State House Entebbe, and agreed to step aside. This is the latest development in what is turning out to be a delicate relationship between the President and Mbabazi, a man who once alluded to a queue in the Museveni succession race.
That time Mbabazi's statement was read to mean that he was higher up in that queue than Dr Kizza Besigye, who went on to found the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC).
Since then, however, there have been reports of a rift between Museveni and Mbabazi because of the latter's perceived presidential ambitions. This development, sources say, cannot be unrelated to that relationship.
"He [Premier] amicably agreed to cede the seat and concentrate on service delivery," an insider source revealed today.
The resignation is yet to be officially communicated and it is not clear who would replace Mbabazi or whether another delegates' conference would have to be called to elect his successor. Earlier, both the National Executive Committee (NEC) and the NRM parliamentary caucus had adopted a resolution urging Mbabazi to step down.
Barely two weeks to the 2010 delegates' conference that elected him for a second term, NEC passed a resolution barring whoever was elected SG from taking a cabinet job. It was agreed that the SG would use all his/her energies to build and consolidate a robust grassroots network.
And barely six months after Museveni appointed Mbabazi Prime Minister, Dokolo MP Felix Okot Ogong, in another NEC meeting, reminded the President of the earlier understanding that the SG would not hold a cabinet position. Responding to Okot Ogong, Museveni invited Mbabazi to explain his position on the matter.
"Let him come to the microphone and tell us what his position is," Museveni reportedly said.
Mbabazi then agreed to relinquish the party position and remain premier. But not before raising some legal hurdles. He argued, for instance, that his resignation would be legally flawed and in conflict with the NRM party constitution. Other sources told us that at the recent NRM retreat in Kyankwanzi, Museveni agreed with MPs that Mbabazi's heavy workload as Prime Minister could not allow him to function efficiently as secretary general.
It followed debate on party discipline in which some MPs, notably, Theodore Ssekikubo (Lwemiyaga), were accused of disregarding party positions in Parliament. Ssekikubo reportedly told the retreat that it was unfair to accuse him and other MPs of being 'rebels' whereas some party officials had also ignored recommendations by the Central Executive Committee (CEC).
Ssekikubo said Mbabazi had refused to relinquish the position of secretary general despite a resolution by CEC that an SG could, at most, hold a less demanding ministerial portfolio.
"Your Excellency, is this not indiscipline?" Ssekikubo reportedly said.
According to our sources, Museveni said the issue of replacing Mbabazi as secretary general would be addressed soon.
"Before this year ends we are going to organise a delegates' conference to elect a secretary general," Museveni reportedly said.
Information minister and NRM publicist Mary Karooro Okurut and her deputy Ofwono Opondo both told The Observer today that it would be premature to comment. They said they had not been informed of any new developments. However, some of Mbabazi's supporters remain unconvinced that he should relinquish the job, arguing that other CEC members like Speaker Rebecca Kadaga (NRM second deputy chairperson), and Dorothy Hyuha, Uganda's envoy to Tanzania (NRM deputy Secretary General), continue to hold two jobs.
Some party insiders believe that Mbabazi's decision to step aside will rob Museveni of one of the longest-serving loyalists in the inner sanctum and a politician inherently linked to the President's survival strategy. For 40 years, Mbabazi has executed a number of the President's sensitive assignments. The President reportedly told his ministers that for all the time he has worked with Mbabazi, since 1974, the man from Kinkizi has never disappointed him.
"He has always handled sensitive issues in areas of security, legal issues and diplomacy. He is clean and I have never found him wanting," Museveni argued during a cabinet meeting in 2012.
Yet other NRM sources argue that by resigning, Mbabazi has poured unction on the troubled waters and sent out a message that he is not attempting to build a powerbase to succeed Museveni. A senior lecturer in Political Science at Makerere University, Dr Sabiiti Makara, also believes the high-octane succession politics is playing out.
"When [James] Wapakhabulo [former speaker] shone in Parliament, he was put on the wayside. It's a way of cowing him [Mbabazi] out of his ambitions; his appetite will have to be tamed," Makara argues.
Political historian Mwambutsya Ndebesa agrees with this Machiavellian conspiracy.
"When you rise nearest to power, you must fall. Museveni does not want a threat," Ndebesa says.
Some analysts point to the appointment of Richard Todwong as minister without portfolio in charge of mobilization to show that the President has already moved to set up a parallel party mobilization machine.
Latent power struggle
Sources familiar with the ruling party affairs have revealed that Museveni is concerned with what he sees as attempts by Mbabazi to build a powerbase in the run up to the 2016 elections. The President is understood to be actively trying to clip Mbabazi's wings while continuing to benefit from his steely management skills.
At a recent party held to celebrate the appointment of the minister for the Presidency, Frank Tumwebaze, at Protea hotel, Mbabazi again hinted at retirement. Earlier on, The Observer reported about a family meeting where it was resolved that Mbabazi should retire from the rough and tumble of elective politics in 2016.
Sources within the establishment confirm that there are undercurrents that have strained the relationship between Museveni and his once-upon-a-time trusted colleague. Many point to an NRM caucus meeting at State House Entebbe, which took place in June, when the president berated Mbabazi and Speaker Rebecca Kadaga over the chaotic election of the speaker of the East African Legislative Assembly. It was also perhaps the first time Museveni was criticising Mbabazi openly.
Although Museveni called another meeting a week later, at his country home in Rwakitura, where he appeared less abrasive, some insiders believe the point had already been made. Museveni, in another veiled swipe at Mbabazi, following successive by-election losses, said NRM needed a fulltime secretary general to run the affairs of the party.