2021 when Uganda goes to the next polls, President Yoweri Museveni will be 77 years. At the next polls in 2026, he will be 82 years and possibly one of the oldest state leaders in Africa and the world.
Despite such clear indicators, the President’s ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party appears determined not to talk about succession or life without Museveni at the helm of the party and country.
“There are no discussions in the party on who should succeed President Yoweri Museveni,” said the NRM Secretary General Kasule Lumumba recently when cornered by journalists.
“The NRM Central Executive Committee-CEC; the top party organ has never discussed succession,” she added. The question is why?
According to politicians from opposition parties, it could be that the NRM is planning to spring a surprise constitutional amendment as early as this April.
While Museveni does not appear to have serious challengers ahead of 2021 and 2026 appears far off, insiders say he is already planning ahead.
The plan, according to those knowledgeable about the inner workings of the NRM, Museveni’s handlers intend to eliminate presidential elections and instead have the party with the majority in parliament select the president. The idea is to save an ageing Museveni from a grueling election campaign.
With a near-70 percent majority, the ruling NRM and its chairman Museveni would be the immediate beneficiaries. The ruling party would easily retain power and Museveni who by that time will be too old to campaign would just stay in office.
But when opposition politicians publicly spoke about such plans in January this year, the NRM dismissed the same as mere speculation. Of course such NRM denials do not mean it will not happen. The plot to remove the constitutional 75-year age-limit to allow President Museveni to run again started as a rumour, was dismissed by NRM, but was eventually pushed through parliament by Museveni.
It is not unusual for ageing leaders to adopt coping strategies that ensure they stay in power.
The 93-year old Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain in April 2018 allowed her son and heir apparent, Prince Charles, to take over the grueling role of leader of the Commonwealth.
Africa’s oldest leader, 87-year old President Paul Biya of Cameroon has been dubbed an “absentee president” because he rules through the prime minister and spends most of his time in Geneva, Switzerland.
The oldest person to ever head an African state, the late President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, before he was removed in 1994 at the age of 97 had left the country in the hands of his companion Cecilia Tamanda Kadzamira.
Museveni is comparatively young. But the cross country electoral campaign, which is already underway – two years before the election in 2021 – can be draining.
As a result, even though President Museveni still appears stronger than his challengers, observers say that more than ever a conversation about his successor –meaning someone clearly designated from within his circle succeeding him or a transition – meaning a switch to any leader other than him – is unavoidable and must be planned for.
In 2017, Workers MP Sam Lyomoki even came up with “The Museveni Succession, Transition and Immunities Bill, 2017” saying he wanted to ensure smooth transition of power.
This planning is critical because Uganda does not appear to even have a proper succession plan in case of an emergency. The constitutional provisions have never been tested and the only precedents are too diabolical to think about – another military takeover.
Between Muhoozi and Salim Saleh
In the past, whenever talk of succession or transition has arisen, political punditry has focused on four areas; members of Museveni’s family, top members of the NRM party, top generals in the army, and finally an opposition politician.
Currently, however, talk of succession or transition is easily dismissed because Museveni either appears too strong or the would-be successors appear too weak.
Within President Museveni’s family, possible successors have been seen as his wife, Janet Museveni, son Lt.Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, and brother Gen. Caleb Akandwanaho aka Salim Saleh.
By 2026, however, Janet and Saleh will be 77 and 66 years respectively. While they are all popular amongst supporters of the ruling party; a combination of the Museveni brand fatigue (he will have spent over 40 years in power) and their age could make either Janet Museveni or Salim Saleh hard to sell as successors.
Gen. Kainerugaba, who will be 51-years old, is a different proposition. He could also face the challenge of the Museveni fatigue but he would offer youthful hope. He could also have the backing of the army.
Looking and finding a Museveni successor within the ruling NRM party is more complex. Gone are the days when one could point at a raft of pretenders to the throne; from then-powerful `super minister’ Amama Mbabazi, former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya, and even former VP Speciosa Kazibwe. Today, VP Edward Ssekandi and Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda cut an indifferent figure. That could be a survival strategy but none has a clear political base. Speaker Rebecca Kadaga is an ambitious possibility. Significantly, however, Ssekandi is older than Museveni and will be 84, Rugunda 78, and Kadaga 69.
Kadaga has been mentioned as a favourite among voters—in a 2014 opinion poll, 25 per cent said they would vote her if she stood against Museveni. In that poll, Kadaga performed better than opposition leaders Kizza Besigye, Gen Mugisha Muntu, Bukenya, Mbabazi and former UPC leader Olara Otunnu.
While Kadaga managed 25 per cent in a contest with Museveni, Besigye only managed 22%, Muntu only 19%, Bukenya the same, Mbabazi 18%, Mao 19%, and Otunnu 18%.
But Kadaga’s popularity had largely soared because of how she had steered the ninth parliament in the two years to the poll.
In 2011, she acted firmly when she led parliament to lock out some of Museveni’s nominees for ministerial positions. She presided over parliament during the oil debate in which some of Museveni’s ministers almost got censured. The climax of her popularity came in 2013 when she lashed out at a Canadian Foreign Minister about homosexuality.
Then Prime Minister Mbabazi in 2012 told a high level NRM meeting that Kadaga, an NRM vice chairperson was building a power base for her presidential ambitions.
Indeed, in March 2012, outspoken Kabale priest Fr. Gaetano Batanyenda publicly endorsed her to become Uganda’s first woman President.
But since she got a new term as Speaker of Parliament in 2016, she has focused on her parliamentary work and not showed any enthusiasm for the highest office.
The Bobi Wine factor
Within the opposition, potential contenders, Kizza Besigye, will in 2026 be 69, Norbert Mao 59, Mugisha Muntu 67 and Kyadondo East legislator Kyagulanyi Sentamu aka Bobi Wine 44.
In this group, Besigye has challenged Museveni the most times —the next election will be his fifth if he contests. Muntu and Mao, however, feel that this is their chance.
They also have to contend with Bobi Wine, who despite only recently arriving on the political scene, appears the most popular opposition politician going by both international and local attention.
But aware of how entrenched Museveni is, the three—Muntu, Mao, and Bobi Wine—appear to be planning to be testing out the possibility of fielding one candidate. The challenge they face is that they all see this as their turn.
Mao has said that the north is tired of endlessly voting for the south. Muntu’s exit of FDC was a clear indicator he was tired of waiting in Besigye’s shadow—his supporters say he is the best candidate; that he can unite both the opposition and moderates within the NRM, and are banking on this. Bobi Wine says it time for his generation.
Signs that Bobi Wine could face stiff resistance from the establishment can be found in the comments of senior officials in Museveni’s government.
“If you surrender government to small boys like Bobi Wine, you would declare the entire country a national emergency in a period of six months,” Justice Minister Gen. Kahinda Otafiire recently said.
Former coordinator of Intelligence Services, Gen. David Sejusa also jumped in.
“The Military formation of Uganda I know currently would not allow the civilian likes of Bobi Wine as their Commander-In-Chief,” Sejusa reportedly said, “Museveni positioned their mind in a way they can only accommodate a president with a strong military background or a known political veteran.”
To make a point about the stake the military has in Uganda’s politics, while campaigning for the 2016 elections, Museveni said that with the army, there is no way he would leave Uganda in the hands of “wolves”. He was referring to his challengers in the opposition.
The current highest level of leadership in the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) is in the mid-50s and will be in their early 60’s by 2026.
It is also difficult to look into the crystal ball of the military because President Museveni routinely promotes, shuffles, and retires them. The UPDF strategic force today appears to be in the Gen. Muhoozi cohort, most of who are between the ranks of Brigadier and Colonel. Following normal career paths, these will be the major generals, and lieutenant generals of 2026. Prominent names of today such as Lt. Generals Charles Lutaaya, Joseph Musanyufu, Peter Elwelu, Lakara Nakibus, Prossy Nalweyiso, John Mugume and Pecos Kutesa could either have retired or slowed down. Their positions will have been taken over by the likes of current major generals; Sabiiti Muzeyi, Leopold Kyanda, Don Nabasa, Joram Tumwine and more.
This list is big.
While many of them have tended not to make political statements, they have acted.
Indeed, the military today has permanent representation in parliament, heads the police, deploys heavily during elections, protects all the key strategic installations, and has `attaches’ or spies in key ministries, among others.
Museveni has also deployed military doctors to replace striking doctors, has commanded military operatives to raid parliament and forcefully ejected legislators opposed to his quest to lift the constitutional age limit, and has made the intelligence arm of the military—the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI)—the most dominant security agency.
Apart from this, the army has in the past sprung some of the biggest challengers of Museveni.
Retired Col. Kizza Besigye was a Museveni confidant for 19 years until he rebelled in 1999. At the time he rebelled, Besigye was a Senior Military Adviser to the Ministry of Defence. He has since, as the flag-bearer of the biggest opposition party, challenged Museveni at the polls thrice.
Col. Besigye’s successor as president of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party, Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu, was an army commander under Museveni for nine years.
Another soldier, Gen. David Sejusa aka Tinyefuza sparked excitement with his 2012 letters and particularly the last one warning of a plan to eliminate those against the Muhoozi project. At the time he fled into exile in London, he was a member of the army High Command, the army’s top governing body, a Senior Presidential Advisor on defence, and the coordinator of Military Intelligence. Capt. Ruhinda Maguru, a former Aide-de-Camp to Museveni has twice challenged him for leadership within the ruling NRM party. The other high ranking retired army officer, Maj.Gen. Benon Biraaro challenged Museveni in the 2016 elections.
Interestingly, all eight governments in Uganda, except two, since independence in 1962 have been over-thrown in a military coup. This has made Uganda the most coup-prone country in the region; with an average of a coup for every six years, before Museveni came to power in a coup in 1986.
Currently, Museveni does not see the army as threat. A few years ago while addressing a judges’ conference in Entebbe, Museveni scoffed at “idiots” who say that the NRM government can be overthrown by arms.
“Some of these people are just idiots…” the president said, “They just go around that they want to overthrow the Uganda government, Uganda government to overthrow it? You don’t know what you are talking about…the NRM government to overthrow it with arms…but that is our speciality.”
While Museveni appears in charge now, by the time he is in his 80s the situation might be different. It is not impossible to see how that could force the army to intervene.
In Zimbabwe, with Robert Mugabe seen as seen as a senile at 93, his once-trusted army commander, Gen. Constatino Chiwenga, turned against him.