Diplomat-at-large: Is Muhoozi his own man?

Monday January 31 2022
Lt-Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba.

Lt-Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba has taken on the role of special envoy. PHOTO | AFP


Lt-General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, senior presidential adviser on Special Operations and Commander of Land Forces of the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), has been busy.

He has taken on the role of special envoy, flying out for official assignments with heads of state and government in the region. His most recent — and perhaps most important — outing was to Kigali on January 22, when he met with Rwandan President Paul Kagame for talks that seem to herald rapprochement between the two countries.

The EAC partner states have been at loggerheads for the past three years over allegations of harassment, detention, torture and deportation of Rwandans in Uganda, Kampala’s support of Rwandan dissidents, and espionage.

Uganda has denied these claims and a closure of the common border at Gatuna/ Katuna has frustrated the EAC Common Market, making countries seek new trading partners and reroute their exports and imports from the port of Mombasa to Dar es Salaam.

While the details of the Kigali meeting remain scanty, the fruits of the discussions seem to be discernible a week on. Rwanda has agreed to reopen the common border. On Friday, Kigali announced January 31 as the opening day, as both countries continue to work on the outstanding issues that led to its closure in February 2019.

A few days after the Kigali meeting, Uganda conducted a mini reshuffle of its intelligence bureau, removing Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) head Maj-Gen Abel Kandiho, whom Kigali has accused of being behind the torture of Rwandans.


Thawing relations

While there has been no official confirmation that this was one of the key demands by Rwanda, it appears that the changes in the CMI have helped thaw relations.

In a recent interview with The Africa Report, President Kagame seemed to acknowledge the significance of Gen Muhoozi’s intervention in reviving Uganda-Rwanda relations.

“Some people are satisfied with official photos and see it as an end in itself. This is not my case. I appreciate the words of President Museveni’s son, but I hope that we can go beyond that and come up with concrete solutions,” he said.

On his return home, Lt-Gen Muhoozi brought Special Forces Command Private Ronald Arinda back to Uganda. He had been detained in Rwanda for entering the country “without permission” last November.

Then on January 25, Maj-Gen Kandiho was transferred to Juba to head the South Sudan Security Monitoring Mechanism, a move that was welcomed by Kigali, according to media reports. He was replaced by Maj-Gen James Birungi, who had been on a special assignment to monitor the guarantors of the South Sudan peace process.

Analysts say the removal of Maj-Gen Kandiho after the meetings in Kigali between President Kagame and President Museveni’s envoys Adonia Ayebare and Lt-Gen Muhoozi have raised hopes that Kampala is ceding ground on the conditions that Rwanda had tabled before bilateral relations can be restored.

The Rwandan leader first met with Mr Ayebare, who is also Uganda’s Permanent Representative to the UN, on January 17, and delivered a special message from President Museveni. Then on January 22, President Kagame received Lt-Gen Muhoozi at Urugwiro Village in Kigali.

The Presidency in Kigali termed the meeting as “cordial, productive and forward-looking in discussions about Rwanda’s concerns and practical steps needed to restore the relations between Rwanda and Uganda”.

Charm offensive

Former permanent secretary in Uganda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs James Mugume said Lt-Gen Muhoozi’s diplomatic charm offensive carries more significance because of his access to the Ugandan leader.

“He can deliver a message unfiltered, and President Kagame receives it, trusting that this is the president’s son,” Mr Mugume said.

Both countries are led by army veterans: One who stopped the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994 and the other who shot his way to power, defeating Milton Obote and his Uganda National Liberation Army in 1986. But, although they have a connection from those bush war years, their recent relations have been lukewarm, affecting transport and trade between the two EAC partners. In spite of the capitals being just 500km apart, people travelling between them are better off flying across the borders.

Lt-Gen Muhoozi’s presence in Kigali evoked the old sentiments, with his tweets referring to President Kagame as family, indeed, “uncle”.

Andrew Mwenda, a Ugandan commentator and publisher, says he knows no one in Uganda “who could be the best envoy to President Paul Kagame and meaningfully discuss the issues between Kigali and Kampala other than my brother [Muhoozi].

By looking up to President Kagame as a mentor and hero, it could build optimism that may end the tensions, Mr Mwenda said on his Twitter page.

“I have been alive long enough to know that Uganda and Rwanda are one country,” he said, referring to the fact that the countries have close cultural ties and a history of wars that brought them closer.

“In exile in the 1980s, me and my family [sic] were also called ‘Rwandans’. Only enemies would fight our unity. Let us resolve these small problems quickly and move forward together as always!” the general tweeted.

Parallel diplomacy

Lt-Gen Muhoozi has had commentators debating whether he is engaging in parallel diplomacy. His assignments have gone beyond Rwanda.

Recently he visited Kenya — twice in four months — and Somalia, where he spoke with Ugandan troops under the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom). He held talks with Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble.

Seen by some as heir apparent to President Museveni’s political estate, these trips could benefit him in the future should he go into politics.

Earlier this month, he accompanied Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on an inspection tour of crucial Northern Corridor infrastructure projects, the Naivasha Inland Container Depot in the Central Rift region, the Kisumu shipyard and the new Mbita bridge in Homa Bay County, western Kenya.

“I thank my great big brother, President Uhuru Kenyatta, for inviting me to my second home Kenya to join him in the inauguration of the Inland Container Depot in Naivasha,” the general said on his Twitter handle. “A strong East Africa is the only way to go.”

In his region-trotting, Lt Gen Muhoozi is learning from the “elders” while taking an active role in the integration agenda.

He is rarely outspoken, but has been vocal about regional politics in what is considered crawling out of his father’s shadow.

Succession talk

But, within President Museveni’s inner circle is a potential rival, his brother-in-law Odrek Rwabwogo, who has previously taken a shot at a strategic position in the ruling National Resistance Movement party top organ.

“Like a human cell, a political party has connected issues much like a human being. If you continue to provoke its members by pushing narrow succession agendas, you will generate backlash that could reverse the party fortunes. I am warning people who are doing this to STOP,” Mr Rwabwogo tweeted after Muhoozi’s Kigali visit.

Sources say that Mr Rwabwogo, a businessman and husband of President Museveni’s daughter Patience, was referring to officials within the ruling party as well as youth and operatives who have been promoting the Muhoozi brand for the 2026 elections.

Mr Rwabwogo did not respond to our calls. His handlers said he “has no interest in commenting”.

Parliament last week questioned his diplomatic activities as well as political utterances on his Twitter handle, terming it unbecoming of a serving soldier.

But the Army was quick to defend him.

“He is a presidential adviser, which gives him additional roles,” said UPDF Joint Chief of Staff Maj-Gen Leopold Kyanda.