After a storm of 16 tweets that threatened war on Uganda’s eastern neighbour Kenya, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni seemed to have had just enough headaches from his son, Lt-Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba.
So he sacked him from the position of Commander Land Forces but, in a surprise twist, promoted him to the highest military rank of Uganda’s armed forces – General.
It was unprecedented, needless to say, that unlike generals before him who’d waded into political commentary and were detained, charged at the Court Martial and kept away from both position and rank, Gen Muhoozi even got a prized apology issued on his behalf by the president to the Kenyan people.
But what is distinctive about Gen Muhoozi? Is it simply that he is the president’s blood? Does he represent a core part of Museveni’s rule and succession? Or is it, as some have pointed out, a case of a privileged, spoilt child?
It’s a complicated picture.
Politicians vs securocrats
In November 2020, smack in the heat of the presidential campaigns, the arrest of National Unity Platform leader Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine changed the nature of Uganda’s security forever.
President Museveni had toyed with political solutions to beat back the growing dissent, mostly in central Uganda. After a 36-year rule, the fatigue of supporting his National Resistance Movement (NRM) had started to show in Uganda’s population. In by-elections, voters punished the NRM for service delivery failures. Their candidates, for whom the president campaigned, were voted out. The winning trick for Bobi Wine was populism matched with a massive stoking of social anger.
Unable to fully understand the unfolding defeats, Museveni asked the party to “go to the ghetto” and sell its agenda. In a few months, it had scraped up new friends. Buchaman, a singing duo of Bobi Wine, came close; Catherine Kusasira, a musician, even got a job as a presidential adviser; Bebe Cool, a singing nemesis of Bobi Wine, became a prominent campaign figure for the NRM.
But the political dissent wasn’t abating. In the kitchen, security officials were mooting their own ideas. For one, many of them were uncomfortable with the rise and rise of Bobi Wine.
He had sailed through a by-election in Kyadondo East against the combined force of the NRM and the opposition Forum for Democratic Change. After a bitterly fought by-election in Arua, in the northwest, which the NRM lost to the opposition candidate Kassiano Wadri, Bobi got into the crosshairs of the securocrats.
He was accused of pelting the presidential convoy with stones and was arrested, tortured and dragged before a military court. Security officers told the court that guns had been found in his room, and an elaborate plan was laid out as part of evidence to pin him to a treason charge. The trial picked the eye of many international actors.
Muhoozi had been watching the events from the background. Then, only a special adviser to the president on special operations, he had limited scope. But his role in the country’s security was becoming more pronounced.
After the November 2020 riots, it wasn’t in contest where power lay in Uganda. The boots stepped out, and 54 people were shot and killed in a 47-minute army operation.
A snap reshuffle saw Muhoozi returned to the centre of Museveni’s rule as Commander of the Special Forces Command, an elite army set up to guard the president initially, but which morphed into the most tactical and fluid of Uganda’s different army sections.
Muhoozi and his friends in the army returned to command Uganda’s security infrastructure – the Late Lt-Gen Paul Lokech was at Police, Muhoozi at SFC and Maj-Gen Kayanja Muhanga as overall commander for Kampala.
That trio delivered what Museveni initially wanted of Kampala: A quiet, subdued and politically numb city.
But the ensuing headache is what Museveni wasn’t ready for.
The Rwanda problem
After crossing the border to Rwanda and meeting with President Paul Kagame, Muhoozi returned triumphant, ending a standoff that had seen the two countries’ borders closed for three years. He had cleared a mountain of errors committed by Ugandan security that had led to icy relations. He pushed for border reopening, and openly invited President Kagame to his 48th birthday.
To crown the moment, at his birthday celebration, he would secure a handshake between Museveni and Kagame, former bosom buddies, who had not spoken to each other for long.
But it’s at the height of this diplomatic win that Muhoozi muddied the waters. In a tweet in early April, he said the Rwandan army would be allowed into the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to help deal with the security crisis there. The tweet, which was fast-deleted, caused a stir in the Congolese parliament. Uganda had negotiated careful entry into the DRC for its “Operation Shujaa” to pursue Ugandan extremist Islamist group Allied Democratic Forces, and thereafter help construct roads. In terms of access, the Congolese army limited the UPDF’s operational area to a triangle in eastern DRC, and insisted that any or all operations would be carried out jointly with the government’s Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, FARDC. Uganda would seek, in that small triangle, to destroy ADF and FARDC would learn from them operational efficiency. The agreement was tabled before the DRC parliament after pressure from Congolese politicians. Uganda army's history in eastern DRC hadn’t all been pretty, having been accused of plundering the DRC in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and fined heavily for it. Their re-entry had to be carefully managed.
Museveni picked on a battle-tested soldier, and friend of Muhoozi, Maj-Gen Kayanja Muhanga to lead the operation. Muhoozi, as Commander of the Land Forces, would play a pivotal role in planning and co-ordination. The Congolese looked at Muhoozi as the commander and prosecutor of the war, and when his tweet announced that Rwandan forces would be granted access to the eastern DRC, even though it was only his opinion, it was hard to tell fact from opinion.
An agreement for Uganda to construct roads was retracted. A stormy parliamentary session in Kinshasa rebuked Muhoozi and asked that he be reprimanded.
Sources in Kampala say Museveni called Muhoozi for a dress-down on the tweets. Angry at the reprimand, Muhoozi tweeted in quick succession that he would quit the army and retire. Then, in 11 hours after that tweet, he deactivated his account. People familiar with this episode say Muhoozi was unhappy with his father.
In a more recent tweet, Muhoozi had given away bits and pieces of this troubled moment in which he wrote; “My father doesn’t drink… I drink and I have saved him many many times”.
Muhoozi had been, in that tweet, defending “perfectly capable people” who were victimised due to their drinking of alcohol. That tweet too, was deleted.
In comes Ethiopia
Museveni had steered clear of the Ethiopian conflict, choosing silence with the strategic aim of mediating the conflict between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal government in Addis Ababa and the rebel regional Tigray Peoples Liberation Front, TPLF. His son, on the other hand, was of a different mind, tweeting in November 2021, of support for the TPLF much to the horror of Uganda’s diplomats and Ethiopian government.
Abiy flew to Entebbe to insist on Uganda’s position being clear on the conflict. Ugandan diplomats sought to allay the concerns of Addis with limited success. Months later, this August, Muhoozi was sent, together with Uganda’s state minister for Foreign Affairs Okello Oryem – also a former first son – to Ethiopia to meet with PM Abiy. After the meetings, he tweeted that he was “optimistic” that an African solution would be found to an African problem, but remained adamant about deleting tweets in which he supported the TPLF.
Raymond Mujuni is a Ugandan investigative journalist and editor at Nation Media Group in Kampala.