The long march of Museveni, the war president

Sunday August 08 2010

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni reviews a guard of honour of the first contingent of the African Union peacekeepers to be deployed to war-torn Somalia on March 1, 2007. Photo/AFP

In plotting the twin bomb attacks that killed over 80 people in the Ugandan capital on the night of July 11, the Somali Al Shabaab terrorist group may have inadvertently handed President Yoweri Museveni an opportunity to indulge his taste for military solutions.  

War and conflict have defined the career of the Ugandan leader, which could even be said to mirror that of the legendary Shaka Zulu.  

As a newly installed king, Shaka told his confidant Ngomane that though his subjects were celebrating his crowning, they did not know what the real Shaka was all about.

“Shaka wants war. And even when there are no wars, I will create them,” he told the bemused Ngomane.  

War and conquest were indeed to become the hallmark of Shaka’s reign, but so too were they his downfall.  

If the mostly youthful al Shabaab militia did not get watch the 1986 Shaka Zulu TV series, they should have done a Google check on Museveni’s war profile, or at least read his university thesis in which he argues after Frantz Fanon that violence is a legitimate means to bring about a revolutionary change in politics.


Al Shabaab has thus baited a man existentially comfortable with the use of force.  

Perhaps what makes Museveni such a warlike president has something to do with the timing of his birth.

Born around 1944 when World War II was coming to an end, he was aptly named Museveni (loosely: He of the Sevens — the “Sevens” being veterans who had served in the Seventh Battalion of the King’s African Rifles, who at the time were just returning home).   

In his youth, Museveni would lead “revolutionary” groups at the University of Dar es Salaam and later formed Fronasa [Front for National Salvation], which fought alongside Frelimo for the independence of Mozambique.

From that time onwards, Museveni became a “freedom fighter” within his own country and around the Great Lakes Region. 

No Museveni speech is complete without his remarking, “I have been a freedom fighter for 45 years.”

It has been one of his favourite lines this year, at various international fora, especially where representatives from the West are in attendance.  

Former president Milton Obote on the other hand often labelled Museveni a “warmonger.”

Every time Museveni’s National Resistance Army scored a victory against Obote’s army during the famous 1981-86 Luwero Triangle war, Obote would take to national radio and unleash vitriol at these “bandits” and “warmongers.”  

The “bandits” eventually brought down the chopper that was carrying Obote’s most trusted commander, Maj-Gen David Oyite Ojok, in 1983, setting off a chain of events that would lead to infighting among the army’s top brass and eventually a coup that ousted Obote in July 1985.

Uganda then came under the rule of the shortlived military junta led by Generals Tito Okello Lutwa and Bazilio Okelo until, in January 1986, Museveni’s shabbily dressed guerrillas shot their way into town and overran Kampala.  

Museveni by then had collected a new set of epithets from Lutwa, who called him a “snake” for “cheating” at warfare — Kenya’s president Moi had mediated a ceasefire deal but Museveni’s rebels continued to fight, advancing inexorably towards the capital.  

So, over nearly half a century during which the “freedom fighter” has transformed himself from “bandit” to “snake” and eventually to president, Museveni has never been one to shy away from an invitation to arms. 

Bad mistake

As he told a press conference in western Uganda a few days after Al Shabaab’s bomb attacks, it was “a very bad mistake on their part.

We shall go after these terrorists.” Of course, George Bush himself had borrowed that word from Museveni — the latter popularised the word “terrorists” in the 1990s in his reference to Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and the Allied Democratic Forces.

Now it was Museveni’s turn to call others names.

In fact, he went one better, and had a go at his predecessors, all the way from Obote through Idi Amin to Lutwa, calling them “swine.”

That was their reward for trying to discredit his war credentials. 

He did defeat the “swine,” having fought every single one of them from 1971, when he launched an unsuccessful attack from exile in Tanzania.

Backed by the Tanzanian army in 1979, Museveni and his guerrilla group sent Amin packing, only to return to the bush of Luwero in 1981, this time to fight Obote, who had stolen the December 1980 election.

Museveni’s pursuit of war eventually paid off when he came to power in January 1986.  

But the wars did not stop there. Northern and northeastern Uganda became war theatres.

Museveni, often in military garb, would camp there for days fighting various rebel groups from the Uganda People’s Democratic Army to Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement to Kony’s LRA.

There were a few others in the north, central and western Uganda.

There is a pact that brings together some 11 countries of the Great Lakes Region — Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, DR Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Sudan, Uganda and Zambia.

A Ugandan Foreign Service officer once referred to Museveni as the Lord of the Great Lakes because he has fought or sponsored wars in nearly all these countries.  

Museveni backed the Rwanda war of 1990-94, and in 1996 sent troops into Congo without parliamentary approval.

Two years later, Uganda’s army returned to that country after the “Kisangani misadventure,” in which the country suffered heavy losses as its soldiers were killed in three bloody clashes with the Rwandan army.  

To pile more misery on the war president, a high-level report indicted senior army officers in the plunder of diamonds, coltan, timber and even Congolese women.

For its activities in the DRC, Uganda would also be handed a $10 billion reparations fine by the International Court of Justice in The Hague.  

Museveni’s army also fought in Sudan, backing the Sudan People’s Liberation Army before the latter signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with Khartoum in 2005.

Just one year into his reign, Museveni had picked a quarrel with Moi’s government and amassed troops at the border, ready to start shooting.

But he quickly realised it was foolhardy for landlocked Uganda to go to war with Kenya, the main route for Uganda’s trade with the outside world.  

Now come the July 11 “World Cup” bomb blasts, just seven months before Uganda’s next general election.

There has always been a thinking among Ugandans that in spite of the vote-stealing and raging corruption under his regime, President Museveni is the right man for the job when there are security concerns.

He himself likes to make a point of this, even where it is out of place; earlier this year, he wore army fatigues and clutched an AK47 to his chest while visiting landslide victims in eastern Uganda.  

At election time, he beats his opponents with a little stuffing of the ballot boxes here, a sprinkle of intimidation of voters there.

But the thing that actually makes Museveni tick is the guarantee he brings of “national security,” thanks to his war credentials.  

Before a major election, his PR machine goes to work to blackmail the voter with the spectre of war.

In 1996, his PR advisor John Nagenda brought out the Luwero war skulls and thrust them in voters’ faces.

The message was, “You should remember who will keep you safe from this sort of mayhem.”  

Five years later, Museveni ran his campaign on a military platform — he sought re-election to “professionalise the army”.

One of his ministers chipped in with a radio voice-over.

Every time it played, it sent shivers down the voter’s spine: Vote Museveni or risk a return to the wars of the past that will wipe out your children, your home, your savings...  

In 2006, Museveni spoke little about things military — there was no war on to speak of, with Kony hiding out somewhere in Garamba in Congo, and so the war card was not going to work.

Its absence had a noticeable effect, particularly in the Teso region that had voted for Museveni so often in the past; this time around, with no insecurity concerns hanging over them, they voted against him.

Museveni won the overall vote, but his political stock plummeted badly.  

That trend could be devastating in 2011. Can Museveni exploit Somalia and divert attention from his eroded popularity?

This has become a fertile ground for bloggers, arguing that Al Shabaab did Museveni a huge favour.

The blasts will now have the voters thinking once again who the guarantor of their security is.  

Some bloggers even allege that it is not beyond the regime to actually plot something like this.

In other words, it was about time his intelligence did something to show Ugandans what a Museveni-less Uganda would look like. 

War drums 

Museveni himself takes the blame for this second view.

The strategy that Frelimo executed to defeat the enemy informed Museveni’s strategy in Luwero against successive governments.

The rebels often dressed in the colours of UPC, the then ruling party, hurled grenades at vehicles and fuelled urban terrorism, before retreating to their hideouts.

These acts would then be blamed on the UPC.  

There are those who contest Museveni’s war credentials, saying he did not even once fire the gun during the bush war.

Brigadier Henry Tumukunde, once one of Museveni’s most trusted officers, told CBS radio in 2005 that Museveni has never done any military career course.

However, Tumukunde added, Museveni is a revolutionary fighter and war strategist. 

Museveni has now brought out the war drums on Al Shabaab, with the support of the African Union.

Opinion remains divided among

As one young woman said, “Until these bomb blasts, I had no idea that Uganda has soldiers in that place. After this, I don’t know what to say [about withdrawing them or deploying more].”