On the face of it, this was a traditional marriage (kuhingira) between former prime minister John Patrick Amama Mbabazi’s niece Bridget Birungi Rwakairu and Andile Ramaphosa, son of South African president Cyril Ramaphosa.
But away from public view, this union offered another political opportunity to advance efforts to restore a political marriage through which Uganda’s leadership once enjoyed unquestioned say over government.
It is said that Bridget and Andile, quite unwittingly, offered President Museveni a way to reach out to Mbabazi, his former ally, long-time comrade in arms and enforcer-in-chief.
Museveni was among the guests at the highly billed ceremony last Saturday, August 4 at Mbabazi’s Kampala residence in leafy and upscale Kololo. He arrived with his wife, Janet at about 1:30pm and sat through the function till 10pm when it ended. Uganda’s president sat at the same table with the Mbabazis, facing the in-laws. Little interaction was seen between Museveni and Mbabazi although the former premier frequently exchanged pleasantries with Janet.
Museveni and Mbabazi fell out in 2014 after the former premier developed presidential ambitions. To head him off, ruling party MPs were whipped into passing a resolution declaring Museveni as NRM’s sole presidential candidate for the 2016 elections. This was during a retreat at the National Leadership Institute in Kyankwanzi.
Later in the year, Mbabazi was sacked as prime minister and one year after, he was ultimately kicked out of government, ousted from the powerful position of NRM secretary general. The party constitution was quickly amended, placing the powers to appoint the secretariat leadership in the chairman’s (Museveni) hands.
Previously, the secretary general was elected at an NRM delegates’ conference. Mbabazi still went on to run for president as an independent but finished a distant third. He lodged an unsuccessful petition in the Supreme court contesting the 2016 election results before retreating from public life.
But now, knowledgeable sources say Mbabazi’s skills as an able administrator, accomplished workaholic bureaucrat and effective political operator are sorely missed by Museveni.
Unlike during Mbabazi’s time as leader of government business, today ministers publicly quarrel and insult each other. Party MPs have taken to holding Museveni at ransom – he cannot seem to get his political agenda through parliament without paying what looks like a hefty sweetener to his own MPs.
The chaotic run of things has infected the NRM secretariat where top officials are engaged in open warfare over resources and whatnot. Such unrest was unheard of under Mbabazi’s disciplinarian days.
And so, Museveni is reported to be making overtures to mend fences with Mbabazi. These efforts are said to have begun early last year but are yet to yield any fruits. The former premier is notorious for keeping his cards very close to the chest!
When the South African president flew in on Friday afternoon aboard a commercial South African Airways flight, he headed straight to State House Entebbe for a meeting with Museveni.
The Observer has heard that the Ramaphosa’s entry into Mbabazi’s family offered a new window of opportunity for Museveni. After all, the visiting president was a mutual acquaintance before the two men fell out.
On the sidelines of the Saturday merrymaking, The Observer learnt that Museveni had taken advantage of his trip to South Africa last week for the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) conference to draft Ramaphosa into his other plans.
The hope is that as an in-law, the unpredictable Mbabazi would be more agreeable to Ramaphosa as a mediator. Indeed, one member of the delegation which flew in for the kuhingira hinted that during the flight from Johannesburg the subject came up.
That flight had more than 100 people - Ramaphosa’s relatives, business and political associates.
The Observer saw one of these individuals whispering quite animatedly with Prime Minister Dr Ruhakana Rugunda last Saturday. Rugunda is friends with Mbabazi. They also come from the same part of the country which probably explains why he was chairman of the organising committee for Bridget’s give-away ceremonies.
The prime minister, more or less, confirmed what other sources had intimated about Ramaphosa’s silent role in trying to repair broken ties between Museveni and his erstwhile former ally.
“It is our prayer, they [Museveni and Mbabazi] surely need to reconcile,” Rugunda said when interviewed by The Observer on Saturday.
Rugunda, however, declined to respond to any questions related to the reconciliation process.
“My son, there are several other issues for you to write about, leave the process to go on...if I were you, I would concentrate on the speeches of His Excellency President Museveni and Hon Amama Mbabazi,” Rugunda told this writer.
Museveni was the first to speak but steered clear of his post-2014 relationship with Mbabazi, preferring to speak at length about how they got together in 1974 after a disastrous 1972 attack on dictator Idi Amin’s government.
Mbabazi and Justice Minister Kahinda Otafiire were among those Museveni recruited into his Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) after the 1972 defeat. Mbabazi and Otafiire, Museveni said, were to build new internal networks after Rugunda and others fled into exile after being exposed by the fateful attack.
Museveni also spoke about Ramaphosa whom he came to know in the late 1990s. At the time, Ramaphosa had come to Uganda as part of a group of high-powered businessmen leading the MTN telecommunications bid to invest in the country.
“He was part of the team that brought the first mobile phones to Uganda. Someone came to me with akabiriiti; a small gadget, the size of a matchbox, saying I could use it to talk to Nelson Mandela, I said, you are joking, they tried it and it worked. Ramaphosa was part of that team. I later found out that he is a sharp businessman and freedom fighter,” Museveni said.
On the second visit, Ramaphosa became Museveni’s customer, buying from his farm 43 long-horned Ankole cows with which he has established two farms, one in Kenya and another in South Africa.
Ramaphosa said he first discussed Andile’s marriage with Mbabazi’s niece during the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London. Speaking after the two presidents, Mbabazi said the wedding was a reunion of former comrades, some of whom he had neither met nor spoken to for a while.
Given the reported reconciliation propositioning taking place behind the curtain, it was not surprising when Mbabazi immediately launched into politics.
“I am not going [back to] government and I am not thinking of doing so at all, but I told the president that my relationship with Rugunda is strong, so strong that even when he (Rugunda) voted against me, I will not allow that to affect my relationship with him,” Mbabazi said.
He said the same of Museveni.
“We may disagree politically; you may champion a different political line but for me, the life-long associations I have had will not be broken,” Mbabazi said.
In January 2017, The Observer reported that Museveni was trying to reach out to Mbabazi through his eldest daughter, Rachel Kiconco. (See: Mbabazi, family split over Museveni talks, The Observer, January 6, 2017).
Following Museveni’s engagement with Kiconco, he reportedly asked Rugunda, his younger brother Gen Salim Saleh, and Archbishop Stanley Ntagali to further explore avenues for rapprochement.
It was only Saleh who missed last Saturday’s kuhingira although he telephoned Mbabazi to express his regrets at not being able to attend the function. Mbabazi said he had invited all living former FRONASA fighters. While organisers had asked journalists not to drag political undertones into their reporting on this social function, it became inevitable for the politics to take centre stage.
Politicians from across the political divide were on the guest list. Notable among the guests were NRM vice chairman Alhajji Moses Kigongo, former minister, turned NRM critic Miria Matembe, former army commander and former FDC president Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, FDC chairman Wasswa Biriggwa, regime critic and former Kampala assistant bishop Dr Zac Niringiye and Busiro East MP Medard Lubega Sseggona.
Buganda Kingdom Katikkiro Charles Peter Mayiga and one of his deputies Apollo Nelson Makubuya, Buganda kingdom’s minister for Local Government and Attorney General David Mpanga, Prince Kassim Nakibinge Kakungulu and former Katikkiro Joseph Mulwanyammuli Ssemwogerere represented the Mengo establishment.
US ambassador Deborah Malac led the team of diplomats at the event that also attracted a number of businessmen and industrialists such as Sudhir Ruparelia, the Madhvanis and Mukwanos, among others.
During a break in happy proceedings last Saturday, Mbabazi stood up and led the Ugandan businessmen to make acquaintances with the South African president. This rather smooth and pointed display of political clout was typical Mbabazi in action. To the watchers, it further confirmed why they want him back.