The firing of Uganda’s Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, which has pitched the country into another spell of political uncertainty, highlights the power of perpetual incumbency, and with it, the utility of presidential term limits.
As a newly emerging oil producer, Uganda’s version of stability, anchored on the near 30-rule of President Yoweri Museveni, must be distinguished from other types of political longevity. Its architecture is no longer dependent on effective hierarchies of a political movement (the NRM) – which the President and others built in the late 70’s and used to take power in 1986.
Neither is it held together by an efficient state bureaucracy. Investors in Uganda’s energy and oil sector, dominated by Chinese interests, discover this the hard way: No power is more important than the Presidency.
Like other emerging oil producers caught in-between the turbulence of post-independence coups and civil wars, and the emerging democratic institutions of the post-cold war era, new forms of organization of power have formed underneath the shelter of regular elections and international conferences. Uganda’s so-called “˜hybrid system’ that is neither fully democratic nor autocratic is one such example.
Everyday decisions are checked against the interest or will of the president or his trusted aides, most times informally. Access to his favour has created a vibrant lobbying industry amongst insiders and family members, sowing confusion in the official government.
Billions of dollars worth of contracts sit in a state of uncertainty as hopeful investors work the corridors of power, wining and dining real and potential interlocutors, buying cars and offering trips to up-market holiday destinations. The losers take to the courts, using official rules to better their fortunes. Newspaper editors have all but scrapped the headline “˜Another Government Scandal’.
The departure of Mbabazi, NRM’s “˜bureaucrat-in-chief’, as Prime Minister and Leader of Government Business, will likely add to the uncertainty. New sets of contacts are required, new patrons sought and a new network will emerge.
The Ugandan story has been one of the slow whittling away of any one single hierarchy of power: state, party and army. In its place, the Ugandan political family is a bifurcated assemblage of increasingly smaller groups orbiting around the presidency – a situation often described as a “dominant-leader political settlement” (by Professor Samuel Hickey and others.)
Even if the ideological inclination of the NRM is to achieve the sort of success that China’s Communist party or, to a lesser extent, its African cousins, like South Africa’s ANC have managed, its politics remain counterintuitive.
In the present term of office, President Museveni’s 4th as an elected leader, the longer-lasting effects of this political system are coming home to roost – not least the exit of Mr. Mbabazi. Many observers had long-expected the former Prime Minister to be dumped, for the simple reason that his reported presidential ambitions ran run-counter to the logic of a single-leader formulation and exercise of power under President Museveni.
However dated the concern about a post-Museveni world may seem, the real question is whether the rivalry between the President and his ex-Prime Minister is bad for business. It has also prompted, yet again, questions about the sort of political transition that could happen here under the shadow of a much anticipated oil economy.
Analysis of Mr. Mbabazi’s firing has unsurprisingly focused on the effect it may have on his ethnic group, the Bakiga, and his own access to various political constituencies, and what their response may be if they are not absorbed into the President’s sphere of influence. But smarter folks are setting their clocks to run down to March 2015 when, if Mr Mbabazi is not dead, in jail, exile or reconciled with the President, he has one shot at challenging Museveni at the delegates conference of the NRM. That’s if he remains in the party.
Supporters of Museveni have argued that the exit of his powerful rival will help quiet the coalitions the President manages – making the political system more stable and predictable with him at the helm, unchallenged. It’s this view that also claims the benefit of Museveni contemplating a successor or succession process without having to look over his shoulder.
This view however, gives too much credence to the “˜who’ in the situation and not the “˜what’. In the long run, the risks that Uganda runs are the fragile and dispersed coalitions, which determine how power is produced and exercised. Shocks to the system, like the ex-Prime Minister’s exit, become significant events not because the system cannot overcome them, but because it’s innately weak.
Increasingly now, the public sphere is awash with calls for the military to take the lead in managing not just security but the economy. Military advisors are already out in force in the rural areas having assumed control over the country’s signature agricultural improvement program.
The borrowing of the military’s more intact hierarchy ahead of a general election also suggests that the NRM party and its structures will be less important to the outcome of the election itself, further removing the political organization, already fragile, for some kind of alternative built around army volunteers.
Constitutional reforms, prepared by the government (until recently by Mr. Mbabazi) will likely skip the question of term limits. Leaked drafts give the President more power over Parliament and the Judiciary as well as the security sector. For now, the power struggle at the center may be over, but real reform is still years away.
Angelo Izama is a Ugandan journalist and former OSI Fellow. He is working on a book manuscript on the politics of Uganda’s newly discovered oil resources.