How Kale Kayihura became victim of his success, power and geopolitics

Saturday June 23 2018

President Yoweri Museveni decorates the then Inspector General of Police Gen Kale Kayihura during Uganda's Independence Day fete on October 9, 2016. For as long as Museveni protected him, Kayihura breathed easily. The president was his first and last line of defence. PHOTO | MONITOR | NMG


Former Inspector General of Police, Kale Kayihura, was the longest servicing officer in a top and sensitive security position under President Yoweri Museveni. He must have done a great job otherwise he would not have lasted as long as he did.

Why then has he fallen out of favour so ignominiously and ended up in jail accused of murder?

To answer this vexing question, we need to understand President Museveni’s political calculus. He has lasted in power for 32 years by strategy not luck. He always selects the “right people” for sensitive security positions and puts in place the right monitoring measures to ensure first, they hold his enemies/opponents at bay and second, that they themselves cannot overthrow him.

Kayihura was the most tenacious warrior against President Museveni’s opponents and equally the least ambitious for the presidency. This combination made him a darling of the president.

Previous Ugandan leaders had failed to hold power for this long, their average tenure from independence to 1986 being 2.5 years in large part because they failed to appreciate the dynamics of survival.

President Museveni has done 32 years because he understands power better. He has cushioned himself against any unanticipated power-grab via a popular insurrection, armed insurgency, a foreign invasion, a military coup or electoral defeat by his keenness to protect himself against the most unlikely events.


Although the president fired Kayihura amid allegations of increasing criminality in the country, it seems far-fetched to ascribe this as the reason. True there is a lot of criminality in the country and inside the Uganda Police. But this is not new in Uganda or unusual in any police force, even in rich nations.

Second, popular sentiments about criminality have never been sufficient for President Museveni to fire a loyal aide and even accuse him of murder. In any case, criminals were operating inside the Uganda Police long before Kayihura came in. Just read the report of the Justice Julia Sebutinde commission.

It therefore seems that the decisive point of firing Kayihura was political i.e. a conviction by President Museveni that his IGP had a) ambitions of becoming president; b) was using police structures to promote this goal; c) the plot was aided by political structures across the country d) (and most dangerously), all this had the backing of a foreign power.

President Museveni is always careful in his public pronouncements not to accuse foreign powers of meddling in Uganda’s affairs. But he has been unusually vocal in saying police had been infiltrated by criminals — and then adds “and foreigners.”

Now last year senior police officers close to Kayihura were charged in the military court martial for working with Kigali to kidnap and abduct Rwandan refugees from Uganda.

Many officials of the Uganda police have told me that Kayihura helped Kigali conduct these operations. I have asked them to give me evidence of this in vain. I am aware there was an understanding between Uganda and Rwanda to exchange criminals through Interpol although the two countries do not have an extradition treaty.

Kampala officially and legally handed over nine people to Kigali, who handed over 26 people. Indeed, Kampala has not officially (or informally) complained to Kigali about this.

Yet the accusation that Kayihura was working with Kigali to kidnap Rwandan refugees in Uganda could be a disguised form of another accusation i.e. that the IGP was working with Kigali to do this.

The philosophy

Second, given Kayihura’s known loyalty to his boss, why would President Museveni believe such a claim? Here we need to understand the president’s psychology. It seems the danger detection mechanism in the president’s brain is always on a hair trigger. It is fine-tuned to maximise survival, not factual accuracy.

This behaviour is found in antelopes. If the grass shakes, the antelope runs. When one antelope runs, all others run — whether they have seen the grass shaking or not. Why? The grass could be shaking because of wind — or because there is a lion.

If it is just wind, the antelope that ran away can always return and eat the grass. But assuming there was a lion? The antelope that did not run gets eaten. Therefore the logic is to always run upon the slightest shake in the grass or upon seeing others run.

When I was young and intelligent, I used to denounce President Museveni for this behaviour. As I have grown old and stupid, I have come to appreciate how vital it is to retain power in a poorly institutionalised country. It is the cushion against coups that had made Uganda ungovernable.

Look how Kayihura was fired to see this philosophy at work.

Whenever President Museveni wants to get rid of a failing security chief, he just fires them. For Kayihura, the process was protracted, lasting almost six months. First, the president deployed officers from the Special Forces Command to sit inside police headquarters and understudy how Kayihura runs the show. He then sent the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence and Military Police to conduct investigations and arrests, literally making the IGP impotent.


Then there came the process of demonisation: Police officers close to Kayihura were arrested and charged with conspiring with Kigali to kidnap and abduct Rwandan refugees.

This was followed by a spate of highly publicised murders and kidnappings. Then accusations of police infiltration by criminals were carefully planted in media, with criminals appearing on television to “confess” their “collaboration” with the police.

There followed an orchestrated process of breaking up of political structures Kayihura had built, especially Boda Boda 2010.

Although these structures were built with the active support and participation of the president, now they were labelled “criminal outfits”. During the breakup of Boda Boda 2010, “protesters” carried placards depicting the president as their “liberator” from the tyranny of this group.

Ugandan journalists pride themselves for being independent, and genuinely believe this delusion. But in the case of the fall of Kayihura, they missed the story of the orchestrated plan to neutralise him politically. Instead their biases against him and the police were exploited to maximum advantage to promote a political cause they were not part of.

Some of the allegations against Kayihura were not entirely false. He spent too much time fighting President Museveni’s political opponents thereby paying less attention to crime.

His compulsive tendency to keep shifting police officers undermined certain aspects of institutional memory and development. Yet overall, I think he was a transformational figure who had a great impact on the police, making it a preeminent institution in our national life. His effectiveness won him the president’s trust and support but equally the anger of many outside the system and the envy of many inside it.

It is obvious that Kayihura served Museveni well otherwise the president would not have rewarded him with a long tenure. Yet he has been kicked out as a villain, not a hero. Why? His enemies inside the system eventually triumphed in large part because relations between Kampala and Kigali became frosty.

Kayihura is an ethnic Munyarwanda. In the struggle for favour inside President Museveni’s security apparatus, his ethnicity always made him vulnerable to accusations of disloyalty. He once told me that whenever Uganda and Rwanda quarrel, he becomes a victim: Kampala accuses him of being a mole, Kigali of being a traitor. His only line of defence was Museveni, something that made him fanatically loyal to the president.


Thus whenever Kigali needed something from Kampala that had to be handled by him, Kayihura was always alert to ensure he did not act in a manner that could be misunderstood. For example, there were Rwandan dissidents who had escaped to Uganda and were placed in detention by police.

Some were genocidaires, others military officers. Kigali wanted them repatriated. Kayihura resisted, to the chagrin of many in Kigali who found him uncooperative. It is ironic that he is now being accused of doing what he consistently refused to do – help Rwanda get its dissidents.

Observing him over the years, I realised that his identity as an ethnic Munyarwanda weighed heavily on him. He seemed to be under constant pressure to prove his loyalty to Uganda, something that pained me.

In fact of all the people inside President Museveni’s inner circle I have dealt with, Kayihura was the one most willing to die for the president. I always felt this was reward for the trust Museveni had shown in him in spite of all the ethnic backbiting and mudslinging he suffered inside the system.

Thus, for as long as Museveni protected him, Kayihura breathed easily. The president was his first and last line of defence. That is how vulnerable I felt he was.

Kayihura’s nightmare scenario was President Museveni withdrawing this protection. Such an act would leave him exposed to the wolves inside the system and they were anxious to devour him with relish. When it finally happened, Kayihura must have been devastated.

Therefore, whatever his misdeeds (which were many) it was ethnicity not his actions, that became his undoing.

Andrew Mwenda is the founder of The Independent, a current affairs magazine in Uganda.