Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is widely expected to secure re-election in February but his ruling party appears more preoccupied by the rise to prominence of his son.
Speculation is rife that 36-year-old Lieutenant-colonel Muhoozi Kainerugaba has joined the growing list of African “first sons” being groomed for succession.
Analysts say the speculation is rattling the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party which is attempting to resolve dozens of disputed primary elections.
In the first round of voting, several ministers lost their primaries to rebellious spoilers and the party’s election chief has since been sacked.
“We have had to take radical decisions in order to give optimum candidates the chance to compete,” NRM Vice President Mike Mukula told AFP.
Challenging for presidency
Some NRM officials were furious, says one opposition leader, because Mr Museveni allowed them to be challenged, while challenging for the presidency has been strictly prohibited since he took power in 1986.
“Incumbents in every position were asking themselves, ‘why do you let people compete to throw us out when we can’t compete to throw out the head of state?” said Hussein Kyanjo, a leader of a four-party opposition coalition.
The fierce contest for NRM secretary general, a powerful position with control over party finances, was a thinly-veiled battle about presidential succession, according to analysts.
The poll featured Vice President Gilbert Bukenya against a minister who partly led the bush war that brought Museveni to power, and the incumbent, Amama Mbabazi.
In the run-up to the September vote, Kahinda Otafiire, the former bush war commander, said Mbabazi, “couldn’t mobilise a group of drunks in a pub.”
Mr Frederick Golooba-Mutebi of Kampala’s Makerere University, told AFP that for Otafiire and the vice president, the contest was partly about “the possibility of succeeding Museveni.”
Mr Mbabazi trounced his opponents because, Mr Mutebi argues, the president counts him as an ally on succession and is open to idea of the first son taking power.
“Amama Mbabazi is a yes man. He has always been very, very loyal to the president,” Mr Mutebi explained.
Lt-Col Kainerugaba is influential — he commands the special forces that control his father’s security and the country’s oil fields — but reclusive, unlike his father, who relishes large crowds and media attention.
In a rare interview last year, Lt-Col Kainerugaba told a local magazine that he may one day “develop new ambitions” beyond his current post as head of the army’s special forces unit, but did not speculate about a political future.
Mr Kyanjo, also the opposition defence critic in parliament, said Kainerugaba’s meteoric rise through the military reveals his father’s succession plans.
“There is this talk of professionalising the army, but this is what is happening: the president’s son... leads a brigade that guards his father,” Mr Kyanjo explained.
Kainerugaba trained at elite military colleges in the United States and Britain and has a prominent role in the ongoing hunt for Lord’s Resistance Army rebels.
No one else
“Succession has to be about (Kainerugaba) and no one else,” Angelo Izama, a Uganda expert at Stanford University told AFP. Mr Izama argued that the first son’s succession is inevitable because potential challengers have been tainted by scandals or marginalised by Museveni.
“The plan will succeed because there is no political centre for those who oppose it,” he said.
Museveni is running for re-election in a vote scheduled for February 18.
Since he claims he does not know exactly when he was born, constitutional age limits do not block him from running again in 2016.
Meanwhile, there is little hope of punishing those responsible for a 25-million-dollar corruption scandal, among them Mr Mbabazi. Mr Mbabazi was late Thursday cleared by parliament of wrongdoing in connection with Uganda’s hosting of the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) when millions of dollars went missing.
Mr Mbabazi, widely considered Uganda’s second most powerful politician after President Museveni, was exonerated by a parliament dominated by ruling party lawmakers.
“Apparently we did six months of gruelling work for nothing,” Charles Okello-Oduman, the opposition’s budget expert, told AFP.