KAMPALA, Uganda – The party of Uganda's long-serving ruler appears to have split up into rival factions jostling for power in anticipation of the president's possible exit, officials and analysts said Wednesday. They predicted an all-out power struggle that could pit the country's prime minister against its first lady.
President Yoweri Museveni called an emergency meeting of top party officials on Tuesday after his party's defeat last week in a parliamentary by-election widely seen as a test of his popularity a year after he won re-election. The loss came despite Museveni's physical presence in the contested region of western Uganda, historically his core base.
Museveni, a former bush fighter who captured power by force in 1986, has not said if he will run again when his current term expires in 2016, although some party officials believe he is considering retirement in the face of growing opposition to his rule. Museveni, who is 68 according to his official biography, recently said he would quit power by the time he reaches his mid-70s, setting off loud speculation across Uganda about his likely successor.
There appear to be two top contenders waiting in the wings: First lady Janet Museveni, an ambitious minister believed by some to be Museveni's favored successor; and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, a seasoned politician who has made it clear he wishes to be the next president.
Parliamentarian David Bahati, the ruling party's chief whip, denied his organization had splintered into two camps, saying they were merely going through a "critical debate" that will leave the party stronger.
Uganda's political scene is driven largely by men who dominate their organizations and who can seem more popular than their ideas. Museveni's aides have built his appeal around the notion that he saved Uganda from cruel dictators, an image that traditionally resonates in villages such as the one where his party was defeated last week. The loss, seen by many analysts as a sign of Museveni's fading luster, appears to have opened up new fault lines delineated by ambitious politicians building their own power bases.
"The problem is the people who have personalized the party and want to own everything," said Okot Ogong, a party member and lawmaker with a reputation for independence, without mentioning names. "They feel that they are more important than the party."
Museveni has long been accused of practicing nepotism, having once given his brother and then his wife Cabinet positions. His son, an army colonel, heads the Ugandan military's most elite unit and is in charge of his father's security detail.
These choices suggest, according to some analysts, that Museveni may choose a close relative as his successor, a decision that would disappoint politicians who have spent years positioning themselves for the job. They include Mbabazi, the corruption-tainted prime minister once praised by Museveni, as well as Rebecca Kadaga, the popular speaker of Uganda's parliament.
Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a professor of political history at Uganda's Makerere University, said Museveni would never consider politicians such as Kadaga and Mbabazi as possible successors because they may end up being independent.
"I suspect the son," Ndebesa said, talking about Museveni's possible choice. "Not even the mother."
Barnabas Tinkasimire, a lawmaker with the ruling party who once predicted that the power struggles would "get bloody," said calls for Museveni's exit were getting bolder.
"His time is finished," Tinkasimire said. "We in the party are telling Museveni to go and retire and look after his cattle and grandchildren."