Former Uganda prime minister Amama Mbabazi has warned that his country’s ruling party could split if his move to challenge President Yoweri Museveni for the NRM chairmanship and presidential nomination is marred by irregularities.
In an interview with the BBC last week, part of which was only made public on Monday, Mr Mbabazi warned that he would reconsider his options if the process is not free, fair and transparent.
“The options are that those that don’t believe in democracy go on their own way and those of us who are democratic continue on our path of democracy,” he said.
His statement was the clearest indication that he would consider taking on Mr Museveni in a national electoral contest outside the party.
Mr Mbabazi’s decision to challenge President Museveni in the 2016 election has breathed life into a political race that many considered a dead only a few weeks ago.
Mr Mbabazi was sacked as Prime Minister last September and then shunted out of his job as Secretary-General of NRM party in December for showing too much ambition.
Speculation over his next move has dominated political debate in Uganda since.
One option — to launch a new political party — requires time and money and for allies to openly show their support and risk losing their elected seats or jobs.
Throwing his lot in with the Opposition was not without its problems: many veteran opposition politicians remain critical of Mr Mbabazi and his role in government.
With retired Maj-Gen Mugisha Muntu preparing for his first presidential contest as leader of FDC — the largest opposition party — there have been questions about where Mr Mbabazi would fit in the opposition.
In the end, he has chosen the hardest of options — to take on President Museveni from within NRM. President Museveni has been in power for 30 years.
ADVANTAGES OF INCUMBENCY
Mr Mbabazi’s move is a bold gamble.
Four elections and three decades in power feeding off the state has grown the NRM into a giant political crocodile. It spends a lot of time indolently basking in the sun of past achievements but remains a dangerous political animal, capable of dismembering rivals with a quick snap of its jaws — as Mr Mbabazi discovered last year.
It is also capable of sinking its sharp teeth into an electoral district then twisting and turning until it tears off enough votes, as it did in breaking the opposition grip in northern Uganda.
Apart from its majority in Parliament where it has 259 out of the 365 competitive seats, the NRM enjoys other advantages of incumbency, including the use of public facilities and officials in advancing its agenda. Party meetings routinely take place at State House and many public officers routinely act like party cadres.
So dominant is NRM relative to the poor, weak and divided opposition parties, in many parts of the country the party primaries for its parliamentary candidates are more hotly contested than the main elections. Independent candidates, most of whom defied the party after losing in NRM primaries, are the second-largest party in Parliament with 43 seats, compared to FDC’s 36.
Winning the NRM party nomination is a giant stride to the presidency and it is President Museveni’s grip on the party and, by extension, the country that Mr Mbabazi’s candidature now threatens.
“In NRM we have never had real competition for the leadership of the party, for the chairman or for president,” Mr Mbabazi told the BBC. “We have not had it so this is the first time it is going to happen. So I can understand the apprehension people have but everything has a beginning and for me I am not worried.”
The former PM’s candidature potentially raises three dimensions to the upcoming election in Uganda.
Mr Mbabazi has hinted on a bi-partisan, wider political settlement with rivals. His camp was represented at the launch of The Democratic Alliance, a coalition of opposition parties, and he told the BBC he was talking to its members.
“I have no problem with them,” he said.
Critics say this is evidence that he wants to divide NRM. However, others said that after four winner-takes-it-all elections it might be time to build bridges.