Updated: February 12, 2014 at 7:03 am
KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Uganda's ruling party chose the country's long-serving president to be its unopposed candidate for elections in 2016, eliminating the potential challenge of internal rivals who could threaten the leader's nearly 30-year grip on power.
A statement late Tuesday from the ruling party, whose senior officials have been holding a retreat, said President Yoweri Museveni remains the party's "driver" and that "anybody else can wait." The statement slammed Museveni's rivals as a danger to "party cohesion" and urged them to "shelve" their presidential hopes for the sake of party unity, without naming them.
The decision to back Museveni is the culmination of months of an apparent power struggle between the president and his ambitious premier who once was one of his closest allies. As secretary-general of the ruling party, Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi's influence is only eclipsed by Museveni.
Museveni, who took power by force in 1986 following a guerrilla war, is now expected to run again in 2016 when his current term expires. But he faces pressure within and outside his party to preside over the country's first peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1962. A seasoned politician who has held senior government posts over the years, Mbabazi is seen by his supporters as a viable alternative to Museveni.
It now appears Museveni's allies are trying to remove any threat posed by Mbabazi, one of at least three senior party officials frequently mentioned as potential Museveni rivals in upcoming elections. At the ongoing retreat, ruling party members were asked to sign a resolution endorsing Museveni as the only one qualified to lead the party. More than 200 officials — including Mbabazi —signed the petition, according to a copy of the document released by the ruling party. That resolution is expected to be later ratified by a larger meeting of ruling party members.
"We are safer with a driver who has not only demonstrated ability as the founding leader of the revolution that liberated Uganda but also managed to keep the country together, given its turbulent political history," the petition said. "This driver is none other than President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni."
Some analysts predict Mbabazi may lead a splinter faction within the party if he is ousted from his post as premier.
Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a professor of political history at Uganda's Makerere University, said the unexpected move to endorse Museveni as sole candidate was "orchestrated to frustrate all possible contenders" for the presidency. That decision now silences internal debate about Museveni's possible successor, he said.
Mbabazi was cited in a letter written last year by a Ugandan military general who warned that high-ranking Ugandan officials who opposed the political rise of Museveni's son could be targeted for assassination. Gen. David Sejusa, who is now exiled in London, has since launched a political party opposed to what he says is Museveni's increasingly authoritarian rule.
Museveni has denied he is grooming his son, an army brigadier who heads the country's special forces, to replace him as president.