Ethiopia – Uganda: Why Abiy rolled out the red carpet for ‘critic’ Muhoozi

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Monday, 29 August 2022 12:26

Muhoozi Kainerugaba and his delegation with Ethiopia's PM Abiy Ahmed (photo twitter: @mkainerugaba)

Lieutenant General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the commander of land forces of Uganda army and son of President Museveni, has been a longtime friend of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s enemies: Egypt and the Tigray. The latter are embroiled in a war with the federal government of Ethiopia led by Abiy, so when the Ethiopian PM invited Muhoozi to Addis Ababa, many eyebrows were raised.

Abiy invited Muhoozi to Addis Ababa, who arrived in the Ethiopian capital on Sunday 21 August and capped his visit by holding a meeting with the PM on Wednesday 24 August.

However, unlike previous visits to friends like Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, this time Muhoozi was accompanied by Okello Oryem (state minister for foreign affairs) and Joseph Ocwet (the director for External Security Organisation -ESO), an indication that it was more than a visit to a ‘brother’  – a term he began using to refer to Ethiopia’s prime minister.

Okello Oryem tells The Africa Report that the visit focused on the future rather than the past. “We can dwell on the past forever but we cannot change anything. That is history,” he says. “We made it clear to the leadership that we are here to engage on moving forward, how to consolidate our historical relationship and how to deal with future relationships without mistakes.”

From a tweet to silent fall out

It started in November last year when Muhoozi, who has shown disregard for diplomacy ethos, expressed support – on Twitter – for Tigray rebels, urging them to listen to his father, Museveni. He also accused the Ethiopian army of raping women in Tigray.

“I urge my great and brave brothers in the Tigrayan Defence Forces to listen to the words of General Yoweri Museveni! I am as angry as you and I support your cause. Those who raped our Tigrayan sisters and killed our brothers must be punished!” Muhoozi said on Twitter, although the tweets were later deleted. “Our great Tigrayan brothers and sisters cannot be defeated. They have an unconquerable spirit!”

This was the time that Tigray rebels were advancing – having reached about 200 miles from the capital city – and many analysts had started predicting the fall of Addis Ababa. Ethiopia never took Muhoozi tweets lightly as they led to a couple of engagements between the two countries. The tweets also became a harbinger for suspicion, in Addis Ababa, that Kampala was indeed supporting Tigray.

It didn’t take long for this suspicion to gain traction in Ethiopia. At the end of April, rumours started spreading on social media that thousands of Tigray rebels were being trained in Uganda. As a result, Uganda’s defence minister flew to Addis Ababa – in May – for a meeting with his counterparts to dispel the rumours. More meetings were held in June between senior army officials of the two countries to discuss the allegations and strengthen defence ties. Muhoozi did not attend any of these meetings.

Earlier in September of 2021, Muhoozi  – who was fond of churning out tweets that have touched on the nerves of foreign relations – described Egyptians and Ugandans as ‘brothers’. “If anybody thinks of fighting Egypt, he should know he will be fighting Uganda as well,” he said on Twitter. Egypt and Ethiopia are arch-rivals. Ethiopia has accused Sisi’s government of offering financial and military support to Tigray.

In March this year, Muhoozi flew to Egypt for a five-day visit following Sisi’s invitation. Muhoozi toured several military installations, met with Sisi and on return, described Egypt-Uganda relations as “very strong and unbreakable”.

The Muhoozi-Sisi friendship goes back a decade ago when he took a six-month course at the prestigious Egypt military academy. That is when the duo first met. At the time, Sisi was director of military intelligence in the Egyptian army.

Engaging with Ethiopia

Muhoozi first had direct engagement with Ethiopian officials at the start of this year. He met the Ethiopia ambassador to Kampala in January. In a tweet, he described the engagement, which focused on the historical relationship between the two countries and ways of resolving the Tigray conflict, as frank and friendly.

It was during the visit to Addis Ababa that Muhoozi met several government officials. He met military chiefs who took him on a tour of several military facilities. Muhoozi also visited the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in the company of Ethiopia’s director of General National Intelligence Security Services and minister of defence. When he met Abiy, he was in the company of the team he travelled with from Uganda.

“We believe in African solutions to African problems. I’m optimistic about a resolution of the Ethiopian conflict. Godbless Africa!” he said on Twitter after the meeting on 24 August. The previous night, fighting resumed between Ethiopia’s federal army and the Tigray army.

Oryem tells The Africa Report that when they met Abiy, he reminded them of the historical relationship between the two countries. Abiy told the Muhoozi delegation that he visited Uganda immediately after being appointed and has continued visiting Uganda to seek Museveni’s wise counsel on several issues, including the Tigray war.

Oryem adds that the Uganda delegation told their Ethiopian counterparts that Kampala has worked deliberately to solve the misunderstanding between the two countries, and will continue promoting true friendship. “The prime minister accepted that we are true friends and therefore, he will not dwell on the past. That is why he never commented on the tweets from day one,” says Oryem.

Accusations upon return

Muhoozi and his team flew back to Kampala on Wednesday evening. In the wee hours of the night, he tweeted of being falsely accused by people he didn’t mention.

“I was wrongly accused, very wrongly accused before a very high body! Let my accusers and their backers accuse me before the Ugandan people!,” he said on Twitter. “Is it right for a man to be falsely accused of a crime with no evidence?” By Thursday morning, the tweets had been deleted. It’s not clear whether it was in reference to the Ethiopia issue.

Although Museveni has rebuked Muhoozi in private for the way he uses social media, he continues to back him in public, especially on his diplomatic engagements. In a recent BBC interview, Museveni said: “He is doing his work at the right time, making a contribution.”

“He is one of the earliest kadogos [child soldiers] of the revolution. He has those linkages and it’s good for him to use them for the good of the country,” he said.

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