Uganda: Rebels with a cause

Posted: March 5, 2012 in Development, Economy, Politics
Tags: , , , , , ,

ImageThe latest intake of MPs from Museveni’s party is causing ructions over oil and corruption as jockeying starts for the presidential succession

A group of truculent members of parliament in the governing National Resistance Movement has forced ministers to resign and is obliging President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni to contemplate sacking most of his cabinet. This is unlikely to include his near untouchable comrade-in-arms, Prime Minister John Patrick Amama Mbabazi. In the absence of effective constitutional opposition, the NRM has become the most important check on President Museveni’s government. The young MPs are joining forces with some senior party members to challenge Museveni’s policies and his appointments.

Museveni’s authority is being challenged as never before. A year after his overwhelming election victory, he is said to be planning a fresh start to placate the troublesome MPs. The NRM rebels’ willingness to confront their leader goes beyond the usual jockeying for position. Over 60% of MPs are newcomers who won their seats in the elections in February 2011. They believe they have the right to be heard after winning competitive and expensive primary elections for NRM candidacies. There is a more assertive mood in the political class. Politicians and activists argue heatedly over the government’s management of the oil sector.

After over a year’s delay, Ireland’s Tullow Oil won a production licence for the Kingfisher field on Lake Albert on 8 February. This is despite a parliamentary petition to halt all deals, including Tullow’s, until new legislation is in place (see Box, All go for Tullow). ‘Oil is an emotive, nationalist issue,’ an analyst in Kampala told us. ‘It’s making it harder to push people down the government line.’

A political crisis is still in full flow. Six cabinet ministers have been forced to resign in the last five months, while ten positions remain vacant. This includes Foreign Minister Sam Kahamba Kutesa, who ‘stepped aside’ in December to face corruption charges related to the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government affair (AC Vol 52 No 21, Oil in troubled waters). The latest ministers to go, on 16 February, are the Minister of Gender and Social Affairs, Syda Namirembe Bbumba, and the Minister for General Duties in the Office of the Prime Minister, Edward Khiddu Makubuya, after the Public Accounts Committee accused them of approving ‘excess compensation’ payments to companies owned by an NRM Executive Committee member and key party-benefactor Hassan Basajjabalaba.

Nearly 200 NRM MPs signed a petition calling for Bbumba and Makubuya to resign over the 142 billion Ugandan shilling (US$70 million) payments. That left State House with little option. Both ministers denied wrongdoing but the scandal tarnishes the President’s reputation. Museveni admits he issued orders for Basajjabalaba’s companies to be rewarded for construction work in Kampala that wasn’t done. But he denies authorising payments on such a scale.

The ministerial departures may have wider significance. The resignation letter from Bbumba, who was Finance Minister at the time of the payments, pointedly referred to her influential Baganda family’s military service. This is a coded criticism of Museveni for abandoning her while protecting his fellow Banyankole westerners in power.

At the same time, NRM ‘historicals’ (veterans of the 1981-86 guerrilla war), such as the Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister, Major General (Retired) Kahinda Otafiire, are showing their anger at Museveni’s perceived favouritism towards Amama Mbabazi. Hidden tensions are surfacing, some relating to ethnic loyalties and rival families. Former Vice-President Gilbert Bukenya, back in Parliament after the humiliation of a night in gaol on corruption charges, went on television to defend Bbumba. ‘Don’t be fooled that this is about corruption,’ he said. ‘It’s about finishing the Baganda off.’

Museveni’s problems have escalated since October, when independent Western Uganda Youth MP Gerald Karuhanga tabled bank documents in Parliament purporting to show corrupt payments by Tullow Oil to Kutesa and Internal Affairs Minister Hilary Onek in 2010.

MPs have called on Mbabazi to defend himself against allegations, in a United States diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, that he benefited from a relationship with Italian oil company ENI. The documents first appeared in 2010 via a South African intermediary with the apparent intention of derailing Tullow’s buy-out of Heritage Oil’s licences (AC Vol 51 No 23, Oil to play for). At the time, ENI had been hoping to enter the market via a deal with Tony Buckingham’s Heritage but it lost out. We hear experts are in South Africa investigating the history of the forgeries.

All of those accused of accepting bribes deny wrongdoing. But the allegations have poisoned the atmosphere in the NRM as factions assert themselves. The position of Wilfred Niwagaba, 40, a lawyer in his second term, is typical of Parliament’s new generation. ‘The old party structures don’t work any more,’ he said. ‘The question is, “Will the NRM survive the end of Museveni?’” Niwagaba and fellow NRM rebel Theodore Ssekikubo, a long-standing rival of ousted Foreign Minister Kutesa and advocate of transparency in the oil industry, have been mobilising the new MPs at informal meetings and proposing motions criticising ministers.

New Kampala MP Muhammad Nsereko is influential. Speaker Rebecca Kadaga has been an independent bulwark against pressure from the executive. New independents, who beat off challenges from rivals within the NRM to win their seats in 2011, such as Gerald Karuhanga, are willing to make cross-party alliances.

Museveni was on the verge of pacifying the core of 50 malcontents last year when the oil bribery allegations surfaced. Since then, his enforcers have tried to bring them into line at party caucuses and ideological seminars. For the new intake, talks on ‘deepening ideological consciousness for better service delivery’ are an embarrassing throwback to the NRM’s military past. Claiming more pressing engagements, Ssekikubo and others boycotted a January ‘retreat’. ‘Being a troublemaker is still a career move,’ said one sceptical former NRM MP. ‘It often leads Museveni to take notice and bring you inside his circle.’ Critics say that’s why Karuhanga made the claims about Tullow: to get a safe seat at the next elections.Source Africa Confidential

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