DON'T MISS : Talking Africa Podcast – Mozambique's insurgency: After Palma, what comes next?

Uganda: ‘I’m not a greedy person. I don’t have money like those other leaders’ says Salim Saleh

By Patrick Smith
Posted on Friday, 28 May 2021 17:33, updated on Sunday, 30 May 2021 18:59

Salim Saleh
Salim Saleh, a retired Ugandan military officer and brother of President Yoweri Museveni. (Photo: Facebook)

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni may be a household name, but Salim Saleh has been there all along advising his older brother on military matters within his capacity as a retired army officer, while building a name for himself in business.

A phone alarm rings and with military precision, Lieutenant General Salim Saleh logs onto the video conference call scheduled for the top of the hour.

Sporting an open-necked, blue checked shirt, and cradling a large mug of coffee, Gen Saleh is ready for combat, but he assures me its of the verbal kind. Today it’s more about being a ‘gentleman farmer’ than a security hegemon.

Saleh was speaking from his house in Gulu, the city in Northern Uganda that became the epicentre of the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency, three decades ago. Now he is leading a national project there to boost coffee production.

East African coffee thrives, thanks to a combination to rich soils, benign climate and local farming expertise.

To mark the occasion, I brewed a pot of coffee with beans from the grassy slopes of the Rwenzori mountains that straddle Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In demand in Europe and the United States, these light fragrant beans are shipped from both countries. Another reason to find a way to cooperate in the regional economy.

Not your regular businessman

Two points dominate Saleh’s biography. His older brother is Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, to whom he has been a long-time advisor on all matters military. The second point is more contentious. Saleh is widely said to be one of Uganda’s richest businessmen with interests in gold and private security companies, as well as extensive land holdings.

Cue for the first rebuttal. All that, insists Saleh, is a gross exaggeration. “For starters, I’m not a greedy person. I don’t have money like all those other leaders .. who keep money abroad. I don’t have a foreign account. My account in Uganda is overdrawn…”

A polite chuckle hangs in the air for a few moments, on both ends of the line.

Saleh is not your regular businessman. He left school at 16 to join a rebel group that was fighting Idi Amin’s regime in the late 1970s.

An amalgam of Marxist intellectuals and ardent nationalists, the rebels were based in neighbouring Tanzania and led by Museveni. When the rebels sent him to Mozambique for military training, Caleb Akandwanaho adopted the nom de guerre Salim Saleh.

After a decade of guerrilla fighting against Amin and his military successors, the rebels of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) launched their final assault on Kampala in January 1986, bringing Museveni to power.

It was Saleh who commanded that NRM operation, further binding the siblings together. Political power has reinforced the familial ties.

Relations with the DRC

After a couple of years as commander of the National Resistance Army, Saleh returned to the field, leading the fight against sundry insurgents in the north, some backed by Amin’s erstwhile allies, some by Sudan’s Islamist regime under Omar el Bashir.

Then in Uganda’s alliance with regional allies to oust Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo, Saleh again emerged as a key player. This time in a less flattering light. He was named in a UN experts’ report as one of an “elite network” of military officers and businessmen involved in the gold trade in the DRC.

“All the threats we are faced … are mainly to do with unemployment, poverty, climate change… the security around us, not within us.”

Not so, says Saleh. “It looks as if I own companies there… when I don’t have a single company there.” He adds that he has barely set foot in the country despite his role as point man for all matters Congo. “Before the insecurity, Eastern DRC was our major trading partner. There is a lot of business going on between Uganda and DRC but not managed by me.”

Those claims of commercial-military operations formed the basis of Kinshasa’s demand at the International Court of Justice for $4.3bn in reparations against Uganda for illicit gold exports. The case is still trundling through the ICJ system with a judgement due in November.

What are the chances that Kinshasa will win its claim? “Zero in my opinion, zero,” says Saleh. Relations between the two countries might be on the up. In April, Uganda offered to send its soldiers over the border to help the DRC government with security on its eastern flank. Military cooperation might encourage a legal settlement, or trigger new ructions.

Saleh was at the heart of that triangular relationship between the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda. He was close to the early leaders of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, including its charismatic founder Fred Rwigywema.

Regional security credentials

The rift between Rwanda and Uganda is yet to heal fully after their two armies clashed in Kisangani two decades ago. There are also limits to it, says Saleh. “Our disagreements with Rwanda will not lead to war.”

It was the Museveni-Saleh regional security playbook, that Rwanda followed and then challenged, that led to the flare-ups. Uganda sent soldiers into Somalia as part of the African Union’s peacekeeping effort, burnishing its regional security credentials.

Saleh’s private security company Saracen sends security guards to Somalia as well as to some Gulf States. He and his brother have been close to the leaders in South Sudan but powerless to prevent the recurring clashes between the two main factions there.

After he retired as Lieutenant General in 2005, Saleh stayed on as security advisor to Museveni and as peripatetic businessman. Now his focus is the political economy. “Between 2003 and 2005 we carried out a defence review and we determined that with 15 years out of the 134 threats facing the country, only four would be of a military nature.”

“All the threats we are faced [with]… are mainly to do with unemployment, poverty, climate change… the security around us, not within us.”

Opposition youth groups

For the NRM, it seems the political expression of these threats is National Unity Platform’s Bobi Wine, the presidential challenger to Museveni in the disputed February elections who won 37% of the votes.

“The young people in Uganda have spoken, they have not been in politics a long time but the success they have achieved is phenomenal.” After the security crackdown for Mueseveni’s inauguration, Saleh offers a minimalist olive branch.

“All we are asking them is to institutionalise their capacity, go into parliament where they have got a huge representation …. Let them exercise that mandate that they have been given by their fellow youth to bring up issues for discussion and execution.”

How could that work after months of violence before the elections, then multiple reports of abduction and torture by security agents? “You have been talking about violence, but violence is a two-way traffic. If they are violent, the state will be violent. If they are non-violent the state will not be violent.”

This line of response has failed to convince US Secretary of State Antony Blinken who, alongside the European Union, imposed visa restrictions on senior officials in Kampala.

“Ugandan security forces were responsible for the deaths and injuries of dozens of innocent bystanders and opposition supporters,” said Blinken.

Seen as one of the more accessible leaders, Saleh’s calls for a closer working relationship with the opposition youth groups have found few takers amid the jockeying for power after the election. Some see it as a blatant bid to co-opt, perhaps to divide, the growing ranks of youthful dissidents.

“The generational divide has been hyped up….if you look at all the managers of the entities… in charge of corporations and organisations, they’re aged between 35-45.” Saleh detects more scepticism. “No we’re almost out. My generation is almost out.”

On his way to the metaphorical exit, Saleh offers another message to Bobi Wine, whom he used to meet informally. “He should discipline himself …there is a budget for the leader of the opposition. If he manages that he can project the youth agenda.”

Then in case that seems too indulgent, the General qualifies himself, “…although we the NRM are already handling the youth agenda.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options