Uganda: Museveni retires Bush War comrades, promotes son

By Musinguzi Blanshe

Posted on Thursday, 8 July 2021 16:36
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni on 11 February 2020 (AP Photo/John Muchucha, File)

The camaraderie between Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and those that fought alongside him during the Bush War of 1981-1986 always ensured that the top positions of the army went to those comrades – until now. That top role has been given to his son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba.

General Elly Tumwine was not an ordinary soldier during the Bush War that brought Museveni to power. On the morning of 6 February 1981, when Museveni’s rebel group of 42 members attacked the Kabamba military barracks with 27 guns – located about 120 miles south of Kampala – Tumwine fired the first bullet, marking start of the war.

“At exactly 8am, our vehicle parked at the quarter guards [of Kabamba],” Museveni wrote in his memoir, Sowing the Mustard Seed. “I was in the back of the lorry because being well known, I couldn’t sit in front. I would expose the whole operation. I heard a small car zoom past the lorry, unfortunately, I heard a gun shot outside the lorry at the quarter guard. The gun shot had apparently been fired by Elly Tumwine.”

In the broader scheme of things, Tumwine is largely irrelevant and inconsequential

Tumwiine went on to serve as army member of parliament from 1986 to May 2021, minister for security (2018-2021) and army commander during the early years of Museveni’s government. But Tumwine, along with other senior Bush War fighters, such as Lieutenant Gen. Ivan Koreta and Major Gen. Pecos Kutesa, were faced with a new situation this year in March. They were either not nominated to participate in the army election or were defeated.

So when Museveni shuffled the top brass of the army a few weeks later on 24 June, appointing his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba as commander of land forces, none of Museveni’s old comrades received a position.

It is the first time the Ugandan army is not led by the soldiers who fought alongside Museveni in the bush. Analysts say that Museveni is now placing a premium on loyalty.

Prepare for power transfer

As Tumwine handed over the ministry of security office on 23 June to Jim Muhwezi – one of the few senior bush fighters still holding a cabinet position – he used the occasion to make a crucial statement. “I think the best advice we can give him [Museveni] is to prepare for a smooth transition.”

Now a presidential adviser, a sort of inconsequential title Museveni confers to former ministers, Tumwine said: “You know it should be our duty to save him from being ngamba nyenka [someone who speaks alone and doesn’t consult] … we should save him from the disease diagnosed by political scientists and political psychologists that is called hubris syndrome.”

Museveni, who has been in power for 35 years and won a new term in January, is not a stranger to calls to retire. But they only come from the opposition, including his former Bush War comrades who began decamping from the ruling party in 1999.

Museveni made dozens of promises that he was about to retire, including a famous interview in 2012 when argued that beyond the age of 75, leaders lose their focus. “I think if you want very active leaders it is good to have ones below the age of 75.”

‘Sheer brilliance’

But it is too late for Bush War comrades like Tumwine to speak out against Museveni, says Moses Khisa, a political scientist.

All along, this group believed that Museveni should have given way, but they continued telling us that it’s right for him to stay because they were holding positions and benefiting.

“They had the chance to do that in the past. Matters are now in the hands of other people,” Khisa adds. “In the broader scheme of things, Tumwine is largely irrelevant and inconsequential.”

It is an argument also made by Kizza Besigye, the first of Museveni’s Bush War allies to challenge him in presidential elections. “It’s 30 years late, even then, this may mark the end of your new role [as presidential advisor],” Besigye said.

Khisa adds that the fact Museveni has outlasted almost all his comrades is indicative of his “sheer brilliance and ability to navigate the murky world of politics and state power.”

The downfall of the Bush War team

The slow but steady disintegration of the Bush War team can be traced back to 1990.

  1. The groups of Rwandan refugees led by Fred Rwigyema and Paul Kagame left in 1990. Both Kagame and Rwigyema were part of the rebels that launched Uganda’s 1981 liberation war. They held senior positions in the army when Museveni captured power.
  2. Kizza Besigye left the Museveni government in 1999 and challenged him in presidential elections four times, from 2000 to 2016.
  3. Several Bush War comrades broke ranks with Museveni in 2003 when it became clear that he wanted to remove term limits from the constitution. It is this group that joined Besigye in founding the Forum for Democratic Change, which was the dominant opposition party from 2005 to 2020.

Other senior army officials who broke ranks with Museveni include:

  • Gen. David Sejusa who in 2012 claimed that the President was grooming his son Muhoozi for the presidency. Sejusa said that soldiers opposed to the President’s son taking over were on an assassination list. Sejusa openly expressed political ambitions but has not been retired from the army.
  • Both Lt. Gen. Henry Tumukunde and Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu – a former army commander who also left in 2003 – ran in the 2021 presidential election.

It is Museveni and his younger brother, General Salim Saleh, a powerful player behind the scenes, who have the most influence over the planned succession.

Did Mseveni let the cat out of the bag?

In May, Museveni stunned Ugandans when he revealed that he had been talking with his children about setting up the Descendants’ Resistance Army (DRA), an organisation that would incorporate children of former fighters, who could take over senior government positions.

“I have been discussing with my children, who are now senior adults, the timeliness of creating the DRA to take forward the work of the original National Resistance Army of their parents,” Museveni said.

These people, Museveni argued “are people who work for passion, not money” and can consequently fight corruption. And as his son Muhoozi occupies the third most important office in the army, all eyes will be on the President to see whether he will elevate him further to head the army or give him a cabinet post.

According to precedent, army officers who have occupied the position Museveni’s son is currently in get promoted to army head or are appointed to political positions, mostly in the cabinet. Nevertheless, apart from his son Muhoozi, none of Museveni’s children occupy a government post.

Mwambutsya Ndebeesa, a political historian at Makerere University, argues that the promotion of Museveni’s son may not work out well.

“He is creating a class of nobles. I predict it will be disastrous. It might be the basis around which some political and social consciousness might arise to resist this political inequality.”

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