If Kenya were a human being, its identical twin — particularly in how its government is run — would be Uganda. Most times, the shape of corruption in the two countries is impossible to tell apart. As a people, Kenyans and Ugandans, as citizens of the two most open East African nations, generally get each other on most counts.
A large section of Uganda’s chattering classes is nearly as obsessed as the Kenyans with the Kenyan succession battle (real and imagined) between the President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto camps, Opposition leader Raila Odinga’s place at the political high table after the March 2018 ‘handshake’ with Uhuru, and the mysterious creature called Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) that’s getting many people’s knickers in a twist.
Ugandans, and one suspects other East Africans, are fascinated by all the games around the Kenyan succession because most of their leaders don’t have to resort to subterfuge to hobble an ambitious deputy. The complication for the Kenyan president is that he is elected on a joint ticket with his deputy. The deputy, therefore, has his own little clout, handed to him by voters.
In most of the rest of East Africa, the VP or prime minister is little more than the president’s servant, handpicked by him. The Big Man doesn’t need to resort to the dark arts to disable them; he can fire him via a tweet. And he can be crude and brutal if he chose. South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir sent his soldiers to take out his deputy Riek Machar, who escaped into the tall grass.
In 2014, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni dispatched Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, also ruling National Resistance party secretary-general, dramatically. A historical figure in the NRM, former securocrat and considered the party’s most competent and ruthless operative, it’s widely reported that after the 2011 elections Museveni promised Mbabazi his support to take over from him as he would step down.
As the next election in 2016 approached, Museveni grew ever fonder of the presidency, and organised a remarkable takedown of Mbabazi. He even had the rules of the party changed so he could personally appoint officials, to avoid Mbabazi being re-elected secretary-general in an insurgent floor move.
Edward Sekandi, an elderly, low-key, civilised lawyer given to ill-fitting suits, has been VP since 2011 and has had the least troublesome tenure. He has invented the high art of the invisible vice-presidency. Ask as many people as you can on Kampala streets anything he’s said or a major event he presided over and you will draw only blank stares.
But it has served him well; in a few days, he will be the longest-serving VP under Museveni, who is remained unchanged at the top for a record 34 years and is gearing up for an eighth bite at the apple in 2021.
Beyond the novelty of the sheer drama of Kenyan politics, the current succession presents a major geopolitical uncertainty for some Ugandan circles.
Right now, Ruto seems to have a good track with the regime in Kampala. He is a regular visitor to the Ugandan capital. Last year, Uganda’s Makerere University, East Africa’s oldest, announced it was to set up a William Ruto African Leadership Institute, kicking off a storm.
Uhuru, who was backed heavily by Museveni in the 2013 election, and who comes from a family with interests in milk just like Museveni (the two are reportedly doing dairy business together), is well liked in Ugandan officialdom. His bromance with Raila has introduced a wrinkle in this fairyland, because Museveni and his entourage have had very uneasy with the ODM leader, and the Ugandan president has inveighed in sectarian terms against him.
But it is not ethnic bias at play, rather Raila is perhaps the only leader of a major party in the region whom Museveni sees himself having an ideological contest with.
There is a lot of discussion whether Raila will run or not in 2022. However, even if he doesn’t, if a BBI candidate emerges and triumphs, among other things he/she will likely take a more strident line as president on issues like the Kenyan tennis court-sized Migingo island, with which Museveni has a strange fixation.
And because Raila is possibly the closest regional friend to Tanzania’s hidebound President John Magufuli, a government in which he has clout after 2022, means Museveni will be encircled by a Rwanda with which Kampala has extremely frosty relations; a Kenya government which might look for payback; a Tanzania in bed with Nairobi, with only South Sudan as a non-threat. But a Nairobi government in which Raila and his allies can tilt the scales, would likely get South Sudan to shift its posture.
So, if you have any special insights on BBI politics, head to Kampala. You will be in for a lot of free meals and drinks.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the Wall of Great Africans and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com. @cobbo3