Since he was thrown out of Museveni's government, former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya has increasingly become his own man.
He openly criticises a government he once fiercely defended; he no longer looks and acts like his former boss; and he is a staunch defender of the interests of Buganda kingdom.
Bukenya is now faced with a defining political decision: he is considering joining the Democratic Party with a view to being its presidential candidate in 2016. The Observer has learnt that DP officials are courting Bukenya with the intention of electing him their party's flag bearer in the 2016 presidential elections.
The move, insiders believe, would be a novel way of reviving and strengthening a party that has lost its political spark in recent years. Sources told The Observer that formal and informal "talks" have been on-going for the last two years to lure the former DP member back to his "home" after serving in the NRM government for 15 years. Norbert Mao, the DP President General, confirmed having participated in the talks.
"When he was arrested and taken to Luzira [in October 2011] we went there and tried to convince him to run on a DP ticket [in the Busiro North by-elections]. But he snubbed us and went back to NRM," Mao said.
"But there are informal efforts [to lure Bukenya] by a few people which efforts are healthy," said Mao, who now wants the opposition to field one joint candidate in 2016.
DP's efforts are led by Buikwe South MP, Lulume Bayigga, and Wakiso LC-V Chairman, Matia Bwanika, both close confidantes of Bukenya's. Bukenya has reportedly told the duo that he might run for president in 2016, but is yet to choose a ticket.
"He knows that it will be difficult to seek the office using the banner of NRM," one source told us.
Bayigga confirmed talking to Bukenya when contacted at the weekend but declined to divulge details. When The Observer contacted the VP on his known phone number for a comment, the person who picked first said: "No, I have not had any talks to join DP." But surprisingly, he quickly added: "By the way, do you know who you are speaking to...I'm called Kalema."
But Kalema sounded so much like the former VP.
Since his brief incarceration in 2011 over the botched handling of the procurement of VIP cars for the 2007 CHOGM - which he took to be political persecution - Bukenya has been critical of NRM. It is understood he toyed with the idea of forming a pressure group that would metamorphose into a political party, but later abandoned the idea after realising the enormity of the resources required to run a successful political organisation.
That is when the prospect of furthering his political ambitions in DP, a more established organisation, looked plausible. Bukenya has reportedly asked DP officials to give him more time to think about the idea. Such a move would call for some political calculations on Bukenya's part. Crossing to DP before the 2016 elections would cost him his parliamentary seat, setting the stage for by-elections. He is unlikely to take that road.
Sources told us that Bukenya is also wary of the reaction of the NRM, specifically President Museveni. Mao said if Bukenya were to join DP, he should not expect any favours. He added that Bukenya should not join DP with the sole aim of using it as a vehicle to high political office while caring less about strengthening it.
"...I believe there would be people supportive of his candidature. But he will have to compete first for any position. If he is elected he will be the flag bearer," Mao said.
Reports about the possibility of Bukenya rejoining DP could not have come at a better time; the party is enjoying a mini revival in its traditional base of Buganda. Out of the five parliamentary by-elections held in Buganda so far, DP has won four (in Luwero, Butambala, Bukoto South and Entebbe Municipality), the only exception being Busiro North, won by Bukenya.
Since he was dropped as VP, Bukenya has been trying to consolidate significant political bases in Buganda and the Catholic Church. By adding DP, which has traditionally been associated with Buganda and Catholicism, Bukenya would be making an important political statement. However, the former Vice President would have to overcome the general perception that he lacks the political nous and spine to take on Museveni.
In 2005, after The Monitor published an interview in which he claimed there was a 'mafia' group in government plotting to pull him down, Bukenya buckled under pressure and denied ever making such remarks. Later in 2009, when there were reports that Museveni was moving to isolate him, he told some sections of the media that he was planning to retire from politics before the end of the year, but went back on his word.
Bukenya is also accused of orchestrating the 2005 constitution amendment that enabled President Museveni to seek a third and fourth term in office, while claiming that the President was the only man with a vision to lead Uganda. Dr Sabiiti Makara, a political science lecturer at Makerere University, believes there is nothing significant that Bukenya would add to DP.
"In my view Bukenya will bring more confusion to DP. He is ageing and I do not think he has any new ideas that can help DP," Makara said.
Since he was dropped from cabinet in May 2011, Bukenya has been critical of and estranged from NRM. Early this year, Bukenya was among the NRM MPs who signed a petition seeking to recall the House for a special session to discuss the standoff between the executive and the legislature--to the chagrin of Museveni.
Bukenya has also not attended any NRM caucus meetings or the retreats at the National Leadership Institute in Kyankwanzi. His sudden transformation from an avid defender of NRM to a radical critic has alarmed some people in the NRM and the Chief Whip, Justine Lumumba, has tried to meet Bukenya--to hear his grievances -- but without any success.
The latest attempt was on February 9 when she tried, in vain, to get him to attend a meeting in which Museveni wanted to talk to the NRM MPs who signed the petition to recall the House. Bukenya was lured to the NRM fold by the late James Wapakhabulo, the former minister of Foreign Affairs, and Parliament Speaker. The two had met in Papua New Guinea in the early 1980s where they both worked.
In 1996, when Bukenya was elected MP for Busiro North, Wapakhabulo arranged for him to meet Museveni. One year into Parliament, he was elected chairman of the Movement Caucus and shortly after, Museveni appointed him minister of state for Trade and Industry. After the 2001 elections, he was appointed minister for the Presidency and two years later, in 2003, he became Vice President.
His dismissal from cabinet and consequent incarceration in Luzira in 2011 appeared to have dealt a fatal blow to his reported presidential ambitions, but joining DP would bring a new twist to the political career of a man who once described himself as political mahogany - difficult to fell.