My good friend, Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi, the editor of Mainstream Uganda, in an April 12 article, put it almost bluntly that Democratic Party (DP) president general Norbert Mao is politically gone.
Mukiibi in his article, Mao ’traffic jam’, and a career that stalled, wrote that after 30 years in national politics, Mao will almost in all probability be written off.
Mukiibi didn’t say exactly when, but said the chance for Mao leading the country had largely been blocked as Mao has gotten stuck in Museveni’s 36 years of political jam.
Mukiibi also saw little chance of Mao rebranding himself to recreate the sensation he once enjoyed across Uganda.
But Mao shocked the country on July 20 when he signed a surprise deal to join Museveni in government.
Mao was then quickly appointed minister a day after and passed as fit for the job by Parliament only two days later.
But Mao’s critics have dismissed his deal with President Museveni as worth only the weight of paper on which the contract was inked.
Rolling empty barrel to NRM?
In a biting tweet on the issue, political commentator, Timothy Kalyegira, said “Mao was exhausted politically; he adds nothing to the NRM. DP was eaten up by the [National Unity Platform] NUP, and becoming a minister is really Mao’s semi-retirement.”
But Mao at his maiden press conference dismissed the criticisms and insisted he is not rolling an empty barrel into the NRM cooperation.
His confidante, Simon Opoka, calls the deal the stuff that only the New DP could dare to dream and attain, “without losing its identity and brand.”
Opoka also submits that their deal squarely positions Mao in the succession queue.
“State power experience is a factor in one’s success to make it as president of Uganda,” he asserts.
But Opoka, who is a member of the DP national executive committee, goes one bit better and sees in Mao the next president of Uganda in an inclusive government.
Could this be a passing ecstasy or a peep into the unspoken terms of the Mao-Museveni deal?
No doubt, Mao has a wide national fan base, but this is dotted and often melts away whenever Mao retreats to his fractured DP shell. His Buganda base, the old DP backbone, has been broken by the exodus to NUP, by 9 notable former DP block members.
Among them are MPs Betty Namboze Bakireke of Mukono Municipality, Medard Lubega Segona (Busiro East County), Mathias Mpuuga (Masaka Municipality), and Mwanga Kivumbi of Butambala County.
This flight of former DP devotees has largely left Mao as a crown prince without a realm.
But does Mao realize this dilemma?
Again, Opoka says those escapees now in FDC, NUP, SDP, and NRMO are “political scavengers” who should shut up or promote their own selfish agenda wherever they are.
“We, DP, slept too long with treacherous ‘friends,’” he says.
Shaking off DP fence-sitters
Mao too remains unfazed by the runaways and says: “I have not come here [into the cooperation] to lament, I’m facing forward.”
Nevertheless, Mao’s confidante, Simon Opoka, concedes that the deal was a tough decision calculated to discomfort many.
“We decided on the most divisive and radical issue to shake [off] those on the fence! We shall build from there, based on true first-choice believers [in Mao’s DP leadership] – no matter their numbers.”
Opoka also admits that their move, which they purposed to regain experience in statecraft, has “calculated risks.”
Indeed, what is undisputed is that Mao has sparked off a disruptive explosion in the NRM, the opposition, and his own DP.
But what could have pushed Mao to dive into bed with the NRM?
Mao brashly says his move is strategic and hinged on one of DP’s three cardinal goals.
He lists one of them as sharing power with any government in power (AGIP); in this case, the NRM.
“Uganda is in transition, and the transition has started. DP has applied the shock [and awe] doctrine … [and those outside the DP-NRM ring should] deal with it or see how to benefit from it,” he assures.
Mao also warns that by the time others wake up to the import of his deal, the transition will have been sealed. Could this also infer that the transition is fixed and it won’t matter now if other players are excluded?
Opoka seems to provide the answer. “Get it, the next president of Uganda shall come from one that has served in Uganda government between 1986 and 2026.”
Here emerges a shrewd DP that is excited to exploit hidden opportunities that its Opposition peers have shunned. But what does Mao carry into the deal for himself, DP, and NRM?
Mutation of Mao
In Acholi, his backyard, Mao walks into the cooperation hot on the heels of emotions following the deaths of Lt Gen Paul Lokech and Parliament Speaker Jacob Oulanyah.
This vacuum in government positions Mao as one of the look-to political leaders.
And this is not lost on Opoka, who sees an “overwhelming and emotional support for Mao.”
In sum, Mao’s entry into Cabinet soothes the region and offers Mao goodwill, at least in the short-run.
Nonetheless, this will depend on how Mao handles his four years of contractual marriage to the NRM.
But there is a reality check for Mao too.
As Mukiibi has indicated, Mao is no longer the young man he once was. And Mao has said as much when he confessed his deal was to create a better future, not for himself, neither for Museveni, but for his children and their children; the bazukuulu or likwayo.
Mao has realized that his former branding as a young man is no longer tenable with other fresher and charismatic leaders as NUP’s leader Bobi Wine emerging to wipe off his youthful shine.
Mao had, in the 2011 contest, framed his race for the presidency as running for the future of Uganda.
At the time, he was lined up against his seniors Museveni, Olara-Otunnu, and Dr Kizza Besigye.
Mao had come second after Museveni, but Mao now realizes he is no longer second-best option.
He is also up against the music, drinks-and-food partying generation, who are pushing rival crown prince, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba. The First Son’s fanatic fans are placing him right at the lead of elbowing for Museveni succession.
Given all these, could have Mao seen his chances waning and was pressured to squat under the transition table?
Or could it be that Museveni, the alpha male of Uganda’s politics, is facing the inevitable loss of grip on power and is angling for a moderate and reliable ally to safeguard his legacy?
Indeed, on these schemes, First Son Muhoozi and Mao have exchanged pleasantries on social media.
Whatever the calculations are, no one can guarantee the unintended consequences of these schemes, both within and outside of NRM ranks.
Mao’s peep into 2026
Nevertheless, Mao is brimming with optimism that his deal with Museveni will create a new Uganda, with DP leaders lined up to midwife the process.
Mao also openly declares that in 2026, Uganda will witness formation of an all-party unity government.
He also says 2031 will have free space for all parties to campaign and deliver peaceful, free, fair, transparent and verifiable poll results. What a rosy picture!
But Mao pleads for time and says he should be given the benefit of the doubt for being optimistic.
But there’s a dilemma for Mao too.
Will self-assured Mao win cross-party consensus on the touchy issue of national dialogue, freeing democratic space, and creating a levelled playing field for all political parties?
And just how well will Mao handle the hot issue of presidential transition?
Luckily, Mao says these issues were core to pushing him into signing a deal with President Museveni.
Whether his arguments will charm his new-found admirers, DP base, his fans and the Opposition, is yet to be seen. But what is clear is that Mao, for now, cannot be said to have any rock-hard backyard.
Troubled party base, backyards
Back home, some leaders have already dismissed Mao’s move; among them former leader of opposition, Prof Ogenga Latigo, sitting MPs MP Okin-Ojara of Chua West, and Kilak North MP Gilbert Olanya.
Within Buganda, some DP legislators have denounced his move, although Mao says what his MPs say in private is at variance with their public outbursts.
Similarly, Mao’s exit from the Opposition has forced a seeming end of feuds between Uganda’s two big Opposition parties – the FDC and NUP. Last week, both leaders and teams joined up to rally support for FDC candidate in the Soroti City East parliamentary bye-election.
It remains to be seen whether this FDC-NUP alliance will toughen to offer a harder push to see off Museveni before he fosters any transition on his own terms.
But Mao is no pushover as he has proven through the decades.
First, Mao has scored a spectacular and surprise goal with a neat pass, not by his partners, but by his opponent, Museveni. Second, Mao is a brand and once it has moved, it may also affect the FDC and NUP brand positioning.
But Mao also needs to recognize that for him to negotiate real power, his sprinkled fanbases can never substitute a solid party base, and one or two solid regional or ethno-majority bases as has been enjoyed by Museveni, Besigye and now Bobi Wine.
Why Mao is not Raila
In sum, Mao and fans cannot compare his handshake with Museveni to that between former Kenyan premier Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta.
First, the Kenyan handshake was more or less between equals with each party carrying into the handshake huge support bases behind them.
Uhuru had Jubilee, his party base, but he also had a vast sway over the ethno-majority of Mount Kenya, and incumbent regime machinery at his command.
Similarly, Raila had his fanatic ODM party base and solid Nyanza and extensive support from Western and Coastal provinces.
But the same cannot be said of the weakly-welded Museveni-Mao joinery.
For now, the never say die Mao carries only his head and quick wits to the NRM and needs to speedily retreat to rebuild and consolidate his DP party base, and regional backyards for any real weight in negotiating national leadership.