NEWS Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni. In recent months, Museveni has been taking care of neglected business in the neighbourhood. Photo/PHOEBE OKALL By Julius Barigaba, Christine Mungai and Joseph Mwamunyange Posted Sunday, October 9 2011 at 13:36 IN SUMMARY Some observers said Museveni's tete-a-tete with Kikwete was easily one of the most bizarre the Ugandan leader has had with any Head of State because aides did not sit in to take notes, and the presidential press unit photographers were allowed in to take a couple of shots, before being told to leave the big men to themselves. President Yoweri Museveni last week flew into Dar es Salaam for a one-day private visit ith his Tanzanian counterpart Jakaya Kikwete, setting off a flurry of speculation about why the Uganda president is so restless these days. Some observers said Museveni's tete-a-tete with Kikwete was easily one of the most bizarre the Ugandan leader has had with any Head of State because aides did not sit in to take notes, and the presidential press unit photographers were allowed in to take a couple of shots, before being told to leave the big men to themselves. Museveni's press secretary Tamale Mirundi told The EastAfrican, "This was a private visit; the president did not want the media giving publicity to things that have not yet matured." However, the visit comes on the heels of another one Museveni made to India a few days that was again billed as "private" and led to speculation that even made it to the floor of parliament that the Ugandan leader, after nearly 30 years in power, was feeling the strain of power and losing his grip. Yet that would be naïve, for even when his actions look irrational to outsiders, there is method in most of what Museveni does. The Uganda economy is hurting. While that is much the same story elsewhere in the world, Museveni has always been able to overcome criticism of his political highhandedness and corruption in his government because he delivered on the economy for years. As he faces the beginning of his last years in power, Museveni is focusing on his legacy and possibly his succession as well. Both will be easier if he can put the economy on a recovery path, which in turn means he must fix some of the things that have burdened the country's economy in recent years - crumbling infrastructure; the high costs of exporting and importing goods; and the slow pace at which East African regional integration has delivered significant benefits to Uganda's economy. An exiting Museveni needs to be able to be seen as relevant by other East African leaders. If he is perceived as a lame duck and regional leaders begin waiting on his successor, he will be seriously weakened at home. Unsurprisingly, in recent months, Museveni has been taking care of neglected business in the neighbourhood. He overcame his suspicion of the Rwanda leadership that arose from the clashes over influence in eastern DRC by visiting with President Paul Kagame, and invited Eritrea's Isaias Afewerki, a leader he viciously criticised as the backer of Islamic extremist militias in Somalia, to Kampala - where the two men hugged and proclaimed they had made up. "He has obviously been trying to mend fences. He visited Kagame after a long time, and followed that up with an invitation to Afewerki to Kampala recently. In meeting Kikwete privately, Museveni is trying to clear the bushes around his house," said Ugandan legislator Hussein Kyanjo. The issues Museveni discussed with Kikwete remain secret as neither leader issued a press statement after their meeting. However, reports later emerged that during the talks the two had agreed to expedite the construction of Tanga-Musoma railway line. This came as a surprise to long-time watchers of Tanzania-Uganda relations, because the Tanga-Musoma railway line, and the Dar es Salaam port are among those issues that are discussed with drama between the two countries every few years. There are usually launch ceremonies, lots of press coverage, and nothing comes of it. As early as 1998, when there seemed to be no end to the money that donors were willing to pour into infrastructure in Uganda, both the Ugandan and international media reported in December that plans to develop Tanga into a larger port dedicated mainly to Uganda's seaborne trade had been shelved, although at that time it was due to the failure by Tanzania to secure funding for the project. The project was conceived at a time of heightened political mistrust between Kenya and Uganda during president Daniel arap Moi's Kanu regime, and Museveni believed it to be a viable alternative to Mombasa. This time, there are again some who argue that given the fallout of the December 2007-January 2008 post-election violence in Kenya, Museveni is trying to open a reliable southern route to the Coast, to avoid the recurrence of the damage to the Uganda economy witnessed four years ago. Kenya, the EAC partner state that is Uganda's main transit route, goes to the polls next year. There could be a common thread linking the political to the economic. Next year could produce election hiccups in Kenya again. However, even if that were to happen, like 2008 it would not be permanent. The more permanent outcome of Kenya 2012 could be a leader who doesn't care much for the ageing Museveni as a regional political elder, and who is less inclined to be helpful than President Mwai Kibaki. Kenya, like Tanzania, has moved on infrastructure at a pace that has largely left Kampala looking sluggish over the years, although corruption and the distraction of internal and regional wars in Kampala are to equally blame. This is a good time to bring up the Tanga port issue, because it has the potential to get Kenya to move more quickly on other critical infrastructure like the railway, which has been bogged down by local politics at the Coast. Indeed, fixing the port of Mombasa is one strategic issue that lies at the heart of Kampala's national interest. In a report issued in June 2010, the World Bank demonstrated how delays at the port, multiple police roadblocks and inefficient border crossing points translated into significantly high costs of doing business in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The World Bank estimated that it takes 20 days for a container cargo to get through from Mombasa to Nairobi. The same journey takes 22 days to Kampala and 24 days to Kigali. A study by CPCS Transcom published this June and sponsored by USAid established that road transport costs and indirect costs of port delays account for 35 and 42 per cent of the cost of importation of transit cargo through Kenya by road. In uncertain times like now, when the region is facing an exchange-rate crisis, this situation quickly fires up inflation, which in Uganda's case currently stands at 25 per cent. Uganda is the biggest regional customer for the port of Mombasa, accounting for 80 per cent of cargo. Tanzania, DR Congo and Rwanda account for five per cent each and Sudan 3.5 per cent. This year, Museveni faced a major political problem during the Walk to Work protests arising out of inflation and a currency crisis that could largely be traced to the inefficiency of the Mombasa port. It forced Museveni to make a private trip to Nairobi to discuss the issue with President Kibaki. "This issue has come up at EAC Heads of States Summit level," said David Nalo, Kenya's Permanent Secretary of EAC Affairs. "Our neighbours have been complaining that they cannot see significant progress on the ground when it comes to these non-tariff barriers to trade at a time when they are looking to be globally competitive." Mr Nalo said it was time Kenya started acting as a big brother "who is the greatest beneficiary of regional trade, and who should bear the greatest responsibility to reform." He added that Museveni's visit to Kikwete could have been "deliberately designed to irritate Kenyans into action on the issue of the Mombasa port; there is certainly justification for it." Mr Nalo said Kenya needs to urgently reflect on the strategic interests of each of its neighbouring countries and work toward helping them to promote these interests as opposed to cultivating a "fertile ground for discontent." Transporting goods from Mombasa through the Northern Corridor remains cheaper and relatively efficient compared with the alternative Central Corridor route from Dar es Saalam that Museveni is proposing. Constructing the Central Corridor will cost around $3 billion. It may be a pipe dream, but could be what is required to force Kenya to take political action towards fixing its port. And Kikwete, who has never been a member of the Museveni fan club, will nevertheless realise that with the promise of riches from Uganda's recently found, supposedly fabulous oilfields, the country that transports it would benefit greatly. Most of the businesses in Kenya that could benefit from Uganda's oil are supposedly sympathetic to Kibaki, so if nothing else, Kibaki too is more likely to break the deadlock and help Museveni. If these things come together in the next few months, a Museveni who can point to either Tanzania or Kenya - preferably both - finally working on long-talked-about infrastructure, will have his hand strengthened. And if Afewerki were to reward him by reining in the militants in Somalia, where Uganda troops form the bulk of the AU peacekeeping force Amisom, and Kagame is a little more deferential to him in future, Museveni would be in a good position to manage his last years in power and his exit. However, to do he would need to bring a level of cohesion to his ruling NRM that is sorely lacking, and restore his credibility by acting on corruption, nepotism, and widespread incompetence and neglect by his government. On past form, that would be a tough call. But the pursuit of a legacy can transform many an African strongman.