If it is true that while he is still alive and energetic, Gen Y.K. Museveni would want to author a political transition that introduces his son Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba as president of Uganda, then it speaks to the lessons that Museveni has learnt from the post-Mugabe transition in Zimbabwe.
Although the Kainerugaba crusade popularly dubbed the Muhoozi project might be as old as a decade ago, its recent vigorous promotion is a product of Museveni’s critical analysis of the post-Mugabe transition. Whereas most analysts have always argued that Museveni has never thought about the question of transition, the fact is that the question of transition has lived rent-free in Museveni’s almost-half-century rule.
His bush war comrades have overtime thrust him under intense pressure to leave power in vain. The struggle over transition has forced most of Museveni’s comrades into the political opposition. Despite his insistence that he still has stamina, Museveni’s refusal to leave power has mostly been for the fear of the unknown. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe always faced the same fear. To navigate the fear for the unknown, Mugabe felt that a friendly transition would be one that introduces the wife as president.
Unfortunately for Mugabe, the wife was unpopular both within the ruling ZANU-PF party and the Zimbabwean public. Despite being forced to resign as president, Mugabe’s successors were mostly his comrades. Would Mugabe’s comrades be kind to him? Mugabe’s hope for a more compassionate transition was frustrated and his comrades betrayed him to death. What has Museveni learnt from the post-Mugabe transition in Zimbabwe?
Museveni’s lesson must have come from sustained philosophical questions to himself; can my son betray me when I am out of power? His conclusive answer has been a big No! Museveni’s answer was the same conclusion Mugabe arrived at over his wife as a successor. But is my son popular? Museveni has continued to wonder. It is not only Museveni’s self-reassuring choice of a successor but also critical inquiry into his successor’s popularity that has given us the unprecedented MK@48 birthday celebrations.
Museveni wants to test the son’s popularity both within the ruling NRM party and the entire Ugandan population. Muhoozi has also given his father an impression that he is a favourite not only within the Ugandan public but also the East African Community. Muhoozi’s ability to successfully invite President Paul Kagame of Rwanda to a mere birthday dinner must have now created an enduring impression on the father.
The massive countrywide birthday celebrations are an icing to the cake. The MK@48 birthday celebrations have thus rapidly turned into a manifesto launch. Both the NRM party members and the Ugandan opposition have been taken by a storm. The struggle has been hijacked! While many of the elite promoters of Team MK continue to deny that the recent flurry around the first son is not related to his presidential ambitions, the young general himself has highlighted his presidential intent.
How can we make sense of the ongoing quasi-presidential campaign?
The bitter lesson we learn from the Muhoozi Project is that in contexts where the outgoing state president has a conflicted legacy, we as society must give him assurances of safety once out of power. If Museveni has to worry about the International Criminal Court (ICC) after he has left power, why do we expect him to hand over power in a non-compromised fashion?
Whenever our postcolonial leaders shall imagine handing over political power to democratic institutions as equivalent to signing death sentences for themselves, the result shall be more blatant political gimmicks. Unless we are ready for a conversation on the guarantee of Museveni’s courteous survival after he has left power, we might well have to prepare for Muhoozi’s presidency.
The author is a PhD Fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR).