Military coup? In Uganda? That’s a tautology, surely

Saturday January 26 2013


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

On November 21 last year, several former high-ranking military and intelligence chiefs were arrested in Khartoum, for allegedly plotting a coup against Sudanese President Lieutenant General Omar al-Bashir. 

Last Monday, mutinous Eritrean soldiers stormed the Information Ministry and briefly took control of state-run television.

They had only enough time to demand for some good things — like the release of Eritrea’s record number of political prisoners — before troops loyal to President Isaias Afewerki snuffed out the putsch.

In Uganda, there has been no coup attempt, but a lot of talk about it. Minister of Defence Crispus Kiyonga told a parliamentary committee if politicians continue to misbehave, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) would be tempted to intervene and take power.

A few days later, another General, President Yoweri Museveni, allegedly told a retreat of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) that if MPs didn’t stop causing hell, the UPDF could step in.

But the turning point came last Wednesday when Army Commander Gen Aronda Nyakairima jumped into the fray.

Asked at a press conference about all the talk about coups, Aronda suggested the message by Museveni and Kiyonga had been “deliberately sent out.”

“I can’t do more than what they [Museveni and Kiyonga] said. The message was well taken for those to who it was intended. Stand warned. Stand advised. Should you not change course, other things will be brought into play,” he said.

Aronda has one thing that Museveni and Kiyonga don’t. He is scrupulous, and weighs his words carefully. For him to say what he did suggested that the coup idea was not idle talk.

What makes it even stranger is that, like in Eritrea and Sudan, the NRM is a military party. Not only is Museveni a General, he still wears his military uniform and occasionally totes an AK47 around, but there are special seats in parliament preserved for the army.

And the most powerful organ in the country is not parliament or the Cabinet; it is the UPDF High Command — chaired by Gen Museveni.

A military takeover would essentially be a Museveni-against-Museveni coup.

The coup issue has been brought to a head by a rebellion in the NRM-dominated Parliament. During the debate on the oil Bill, there were chaotic scenes as MPs opposed a proposal to give the minister power to do oil deals as he wished without parliamentary or other scrutiny.

Oil has become the new political battlefield, and the fight is getting ugly. In that regard, the coup threats are partly a food fight.

Still, should the worst come to pass, Uganda would become East Africa’s political leper. By end of the week, the UPDF tried to limit the damage and walked back Aronda’s remarks, but it is a troubling enough sign of how deep the country’s underlying political crisis is, that Museveni and Aronda could even dare mention the “c” word.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @cobbo3