Winnie Byanyima vs. Janet Museveni: Can Uganda be led by these two women?

Winnie Byanyima vs. Janet Museveni: Can Uganda be led by these two women?
Winnie Byanyima (L) and Janet Museveni (R).

Several weeks ago when the President of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party, Dr. Kizza Besigye, announced that he would stand down from the party’s presidency in 2014, a rumour started in Kampala that Besigye might be taking this action in order to maneouvre for his wife Winnie Byanyima to stand and succeed him.

Besigye dismissed the rumour , which has since died down.

Before that, there had been a rumour dating back to about 2004 that the First Lady and now Minister for Karamoja Affairs, Janet Museveni, nursed a secret ambition to one day become president of Uganda.

This rumour gained some weight when in November 2005 she announced that she would contest the parliamentary seat of Ruhaama County in Ntungamo district in western Uganda.

In the minds of many political observers and journalists there sits this question of what would happen should either Janet Museveni or Winnie Byanyima, or both, were to one day be elected in an open vote and become the presidents of their respective political parties.

That even the possibility of Uganda’s two main political parties being led by spouses of their current leaders is one to think about, says how much President Yoweri Museveni and Dr. Kizza Besigye have come to dominate the Ugandan political landscape.

Added to this the way Miria Obote succeeded her deceased husband Milton Obote as President of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) party in 2005, also demonstrates that dynastic politics runs through Uganda — and it is not by any means peculiar to Uganda.

In much of southeast Asia and the Indian sub-continent, the idea of political party in these democracies running in the family has been established since the 1960s.

In the Philippines Corazon Aquino, widow of the assassinated opposition leader Benigno Aquino, rose to the presidency in 1986 atop a wave of sympathy. Benhazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Indira Gandhi of India were elected party leaders in the footsteps of their fathers.

In France, Marie LePen recently succeeded her father Jean Marie LePen as leader of the ultra right-wing National Front party and in 2008, Hillary Clinton came close to becoming the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, the same party that her husband Bill Clinton twice led to election victory in 1992 and 1996.

In that sense, it would not be the most unusual occurrence in Uganda if either Janet Museveni or Winnie Byanyima were to rise to the top of their respective political parties.

A few things should be borne in mind.

While Yoweri Museveni started his political career around 1971 and Janet Museveni only became politically active, in the sense of seeking elective office, in late 2005, Winnie Byanyima was politically active well before her husband Kizza Besigye.

She was elected the Mbarara Municipality delegate to the Constituent Assembly in 1994 and was later a substantive Member of Parliament (as opposed to Women Member of Parliament). If fact, from the standpoint of national name recognition, many would argue that Byanyima became a household name before Besigye.

The case for Byanyima one day rightfully becoming President of the FDC is much stronger and easier to make than that of Janet Museveni one day becoming Chairman/Chairwoman of the NRM.

The only complication would be the very spectre of these two women heading these two parties. It would create an amusing, intriguing and keenly followed human interest story that would drown out the political facts. The reasons date back to Museveni’s earliest days in power and even before.

It has to do with personal relationships between these actors.

It is one of the most open and best-known of Uganda’s political secrets that Byanyima, daughter of Museveni’s high school teacher Boniface Byanyima, was also once Museveni’s lover or mistress. At the time the NRA seized Kampala in 1986 and for a few weeks after that, Byanyima lived at State House as Uganda’s new, de facto First Lady.

She only left State House after certain senior NRM officials and religious figures intervened and Janet Museveni came to Uganda from Sweden.

One of the most curious things is, for example, how similar Byanyima’s and Janet Museveni’s voices sound. The same softness, the same pitch, hiss in the way they pronounce the letter “s” and the same Kinyankore-ish accent.

Whether that is what attracted Museveni to them both, only he knows.

Later, Byanyima was to get married to a senior army officer called Colonel Kizza Besigye who, as fate would have it, would go on to launch a presidential bid in 2000 and then for the next 12 years become the biggest and most persistent political challenge and threat that Museveni had faced in his entire political career.

This odd combination of Janet-Winnie/Yoweri-Kizza has been the unstated force behind much of the political drama in Uganda since early 2001.

During the 2001 presidential campaign, the country sensed an unusual degree of bitterness in President Museveni toward Besigye. Those who argue that the 2001 election was rigged for Museveni, even if they don’t have a trace of evidence, certainly have a valid argument.

With Besigye having taken Museveni’s Winnie and married her in 1998, how was Museveni ever under any circumstances going to permit Besigye to now take both his Winnie and his very office? It was obvious that even if it had to come down to rigging or the Chairman of the Electoral Commission, Aziz Kasujja being put at gun point and made to announce Museveni winner, so be it.

Besigye’s challenge to Museveni in 2001 was too personal for Museveni — or most men, for that matter — to take it lying down.

So if Winnie Byanyima and Janet Museveni were to ever end up heading their respective parties and were to come to a head-to-head battle on the campaign trail for the Ugandan presidency, not only would this drama become the butt of endless jokes and knowing smiles, it would take on a ferocity that would go well beyond politics.

No matter how much the two women were to claim that their respective campaigns are not about them but “for the good of the country”, most people would find this amusing and beg to differ.

It would be great fun for the media and public to take a ringside seat and watch these two women fight it out on the political platform.

Every radio and television interview, or almost every one, would ask the same question: Is this really a political campaign or a settling of long-standing scores?

Having seen how the personal ego clash between Museveni and Besigye has brought Ugandan to an impasse, it just might be better for the nation that it does not see a second, much more intensely personal round of this drama played out by these leaders’ spouses.

By Timothy Kalyegira