Ugandan politics: history on repeat

2014-03-01 11.15.32

On Saturday, March 1, Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi (@AmamaMbabazi) held his occasional tweetup, #askthePM. It was the best attended tweetup to date, with virtually all local media represented. And there was was plenty to discuss.

The primary topics included Uganda’s recently passed Anti-Homosexuality and Anti-Pornography laws, as well as party politics within the ruling party, National Resistance Movement. The Observer has captured much of the verbatim proceedings, so I won’t repeat them here. Instead, I’ll offer some thoughts on what Saturday’s discussion says about the current state of Ugandan politics. In short, we are watching history on repeat.

Recent events and Mbabazi’s comments suggest the younger generation of the NRM – amongst those most active in supporting the Anti-Homosexuality Bill – may be out of step with long-time cadres. Or rather, NRM youngsters (relative term, here) comprise an unwieldy arm that may wittingly or unwittingly push the party, once again, into some awkward contortions.

Mbabazi, like Museveni previously, suggested that he had never supported the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. He thought the new bill was redundant, since homosexuality was effectively banned in the existing penal code, thanks to British colonial laws. Further, unlike many Ugandan politicians (and pastors), Mbabazi said that homosexuality was not “un-African,” and has “always been here.” He contended that in Africa sexuality is a private affair, suggesting it should be left that way, with consenting adults left to do as they please.

Mbabazi’s comments, together with the reassuring statement from longtime NRM cadre and health minister Ruhakana Rugunda that, “All people whether they are sexual orientation as gays or otherwise are at complete liberty to get full treatment and to give full disclosure to their doctors and nurses,” suggest that the older generation of the NRM was caught flat footed by the speed at which the bill moved between December 2013 and February 2014. Younger MPs battling in a fiercely competitive electoral environment with no “historical” basis on which to draw support pulled it instead from populist, if draconian, legislation, and dragged everyone else along for the ride. It did not help that President Obama’s statement may have forced Museveni into a corner from which he had to come out and fight, ultimately signing the bill he had opposed not long before.

Flat-footedness and youthful scheming may have been a running theme for the month of February, and extended to Kyankwanzi, where Youth MP Evelyn Anite brought forward a resolution proposing President Museveni stand unopposed as the party president in 2016. Mbabazi contended that the position of the caucus, for which Anite is the spokesperson, was merely an opinion. But the consequences of this “opinion” cannot be so easily dismissed.  Anite’s proposal harkens back to another made by a young woman MP a decade ago. In 2002, then woman MP for Adjumani, Jessica Eriyo, made a motion to remove term limits at the meeting of the party’s (then, Movement’s) National Executive Council. The motion, like Anite’s proposal, took many by surprise, but its consequences were profound. History has a funny way of repeating itself, many times over in the case of Museveni’s candidacy.

And so here we are. The prime minister, who could have carried the torch, is taking fire, again, and MPs too young to remember any other president angle for his good favor, and their political careers.

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