By Elias Biryabarema
KAMPALA (Reuters) - Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has replaced his prime minister, the government said in a statement on Friday, removing a former ally some analysts had seen as a potential contender for the top job.
Amama Mbabazi, a lawyer, had enjoyed a close relationship with Uganda's veteran leader but ties between the two became strained recently, with Museveni accusing Mbabazi of taking decisions in the ruling party without consulting him.
Museveni named and Health Minister Ruhakana Rugunda to replace Mbabazi, the statement said, appointing a politician who is one of the longest-serving ministers under Museveni and viewed as a loyal supporter of the president.
Mbabazi had not said if he wanted to run in the 2016 presidential race, when Museveni is widely expected to seek to extend his 28-year rule. The president, one of Africa's longest serving leaders, has also not stated his intentions.
But a power struggle had emerged in recent years between Museveni and Mbabazi, who also holds the post of secretary-general of the ruling National Resistance Movement. He was widely viewed as a "king-maker" in Museveni's administration.
"He is testing Mbabazi," said Nicholas Opio, a rights lawyer and analyst. "Will he remain loyal and accept a humble position of a mere secretary general or is he now going to openly declare his presidential ambitions so that he can be confronted as an opponent?"
Museveni has swept previous votes, but opponents have previously criticized the conduct of the polls.
Lawmakers from the National Resistance Movement passed a resolution in February saying the president should remain the party's sole presidential candidate, a move analysts said it appeared in part aimed at blocking any bid by Mbabazi.
Mbabazi did not comment on his plans but his wife, Jacqueline Mbabazi, also a senior figure in the party, had criticized the resolution, saying it was illegal since the legislators had no powers to impose a candidate on the party.
She told Uganda's Daily Monitor newspaper that it “exposed fascist tendencies" in the party and “what is obvious is that Hon. Mbabazi is a target of orchestrated cliques and groups.”
Uganda's government spokesman Ofwono Opondo said Mbabazi might have been removed from his post for political reasons.
"Way back in 2011 at the time of appointing Amama Mbabazi it was agreed... that once he’s confirmed as prime minister he would relinquish the job of secretary general. Since that time, he has been taking us in circles, so that must have informed the decision to drop him," Opondo told Reuters.
(Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Edmund Blair and Tom Heneghan)