Recently I was visiting with Andrew Mwenda, the Strategy and Editorial Director of the Uganda current affairs magazine The Independent at his Butabika home, in Kampala’s suburbs, when he squeezed me for a favour.
He asked that I write about what I thought President Yoweri Museveni was trying to achieve with his “reconciliatory” actions towards several likely and unlikely people over the last seven months; specifically his burying the hatchet with once-bossom-ally-briefly-turned-rival Rwanda President Paul Kagame (“Burying the hatchet”, The Independent, July 14, 2012).
Museveni also made up with Chris Rwakasisi, former Uganda president Milton Obote II’s controversial minister whom the Museveni government jailed for over 20 years (“How Museveni forgave archrival Rwakasisi”, July 8, The Independent); and his surprise visit to Obote’s widow and former UPC leader and losing 2006 presidential candidate Mrs Miria Obote, (“Museveni’s visit to Miria Obote”, July 1, 2012, The Independent).
Among other people whom Museveni has visited and tried to make peace with, or probably actually made peace with, is Mzee Boniface Byanyima, the rigidly principled and stubborn elder of the Democratic Party, and father-in-law of the president’s bitterest rival, opposition FDC leader Dr Kizza Besigye.
Museveni’s relationship with the Byanyima family became truly the proverbial one of the ugliness of family fall-outs. Although he was raised in Byanyima’s household, the political recrimination that came to later mark relations between Museveni, Mzee Byanyima, his wife Gertrude, and their daughter Winnie was unnerving even by the worst comparisons of such feuds in history.
So what is my take on this Museveni? He is for sure going through something profound that is bringing out a side of him that we had rarely seen in public. For me, the most revealing signs of this came from a most unlikely source. In May I went to Mogadishu, the capital of war-torn Somalia. Upon return, I wrote an article about what I thought was the wonderful work being done by the Uganda People Defence Forces (UPDF) contingent in the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, AMISOM.
Very many people were therefore surprised when President Yoweri Museveni wrote a 3,330 strongly-worded rebuttal published in both Uganda’s to main dailies, New Vision and Daily Monitor, in which he put me down by name 33 times and denounced me in quite sharp language nearly 50 times.
It seemed like the heavens were going to come down on my head. However, as people were telling me that President Museveni was going to eat my liver for dinner the next time I set foot in Uganda (I have done so five times since that article and I still have my liver), I was fascinated by his article for other reasons. (The unedited article can be read here on NakedChiefs.com; “The Empire Strikes Back: President Museveni Fires Hot Shot At ‘NRM’ Enemy Over Somalia Report”, http://nakedchiefs.com/2012/05/09/the-empires-strikes-back-president-museveni-fires-back-at-nrm-enemy-over-somalia).
Few things Museveni has written lately have revealed so much. The only thing that I consider to have been strictly directed at me was actually quite conciliatory. For over 20 years, Museveni had referred to me as an “enemy of Uganda” (meaning he considered my writing treasonous, a serious crime indeed). Though many viewed his article as an angry attack, he actually downgraded my threat level, demoting me from an “enemy of Uganda” to an “enemy of the NRM”. With that I moved from a national threat, and was summarily dismissed as a minor irritant to his party.
More seriously, Museveni is not a fool, so it pays to note his words – even when they come across as incoherent and ill-tempered – when he sits down to write.
In that article, not only does he reveal many things, but also he actually offers many big olive branches.
He acknowledged the support that Tanzania’s Mwalimu Nyerere, Mozambique’s Samora Machel and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi gave to his (NRA/NRM) armed struggle. He also mentions, as far as I know for the first time, the help offered by Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda – the only man on that list who is still alive. It is significant, of course, that when Milton Obote, Museveni’s arch-foe fled after the second coup against him in 1985, he was given exile in Zambia by Kaunda.
Obote died in October 2005 in Zambia, and his body was returned home where he got a state funeral of sorts. My sense is that before his recent visit to Kololo to see Miria Obote, Museveni had in that article sought to tell Kaunda, who hosted her husband, that all was forgiven.
This burying of the hatchet, as The Independent calls it, continued.
For the first time, Museveni acknowledges unequivocally that “(DR Congo, then Zaire, dictator Sese Seko) Mobutu was defeated by the RPA (Rwanda Patriotic Army)”. This blew me away because, for several reasons, the Congo fall-out between Rwanda and Uganda that led to two wars between the two countries in eastern DRC around Kisangani, is partly traceable to a long interview that President Paul Kagame gave to The Washington Post in 1998, I believe, in which he said the unsayable – that it was Rwanda that kicked out Mobutu, and suggested all other countries were in DRC as bridesmaids to Kigali.
Uganda felt irreparably belittled by a Rwanda that it still viewed then as a junior partner, a regime it helped install in power. It says something for Museveni to accept Kagame’s view now, a matter that has been in contest since 1998.
I had suggested in my article that in Mogadishu, the UPDF had finally developed some smart urban warfare skills. Museveni wanted to disabuse me of my ignorance, but he seized the opportunity to acknowledge a very long list of his rebel-day’s National Resistance Army (NRA bush commanders in three paragraphs, many of whom he has skipped over even in his book, “Sowing The Mustard Seed”. I will quote at some length to make the point:
“Besides, this is not the first time NRA/UPDF is fighting in the built up areas. Obbo needs to be reminded that Kampala is a city. How was it captured in 1986? 1st battalion, under Mugisha, assaulted Lubiri, Bakuli, Kampala Road and Radio Uganda, 3rd battalion, under Lumumba, was my tactical reserve in the battle for Kampala.
“11th battalion, under Chefe Ali, assaulted Nansana, Makerere, Wandegeya and, eventually, Summit View. 7th battalion, under Kyaligonza, assaulted Ndeeba and it took a whole day to capture Makindye barracks. 5th battalion, under Kashillingi blocked Entebbe Road at Kisubi. The Entebbe UNLA group, however, broke through the Kashillingi force because of some mistakes he had made in deployment.
“The UNLA group was 900 strong. I deployed my tactical Reserve, 3rd battalion, under Saleh and Lumumba, who stopped them at Zana. The whole group surrendered at 2100 hours. 13th battalion, under Ivan Koreta, blocked Bombo road. A special battalion, under Jet Mwebaze, captured Bwaise after clearing Sentema.
“Both the 19th battalion, under Peter Kerim and the 15th battalion, under Samson Monday [Mande] were on the Western axis under Tinyefuuza. 21st battalion and 9th battalion, under Benon Tumukunde and Kihanda respectively, were part of my strategic Reserve”.
This reads like a list of medal honorees on [UPDF] Heroes Day, but it goes deeper. Samson Mande, it will be noted, is in exile. He has been accused of being the commander of the People’s Redemption Army (PRA), a rebel group allegedly formed after the 2001 election fiasco that pitted Museveni in a monumentally nasty contest with Besigye. The government also alleged that Besigye was actually the RPA leader.
Why would Museveni recognise Mande’s role today? Equally significant, is that – at least as far as I have read – Museveni also acknowledged Gen. [David] Sejusa Tinyefuza’s role for the first time in something he has written. The common view, for which I don’t have independent proof, is that Tinyefuza, who was quite stubborn in the bush war and spent as much time in the field fighting as in an underground bamboo prison for “insubordination”, was edited out of “Sowing the Mustard Seed” last minute. Again, Museveni – while firmly giving himself credit for leading the bush war – took opportunity in the article to divide the glory among other commanders he had blanked out until two months ago.
I will pick one more point from the article. Museveni wrote:
“Otherwise, with enough means, we encircle the enemy on four sides to fight decisive battles of annihilation. It is not correct to say that no African Army has ever done this. The TPDF [Tanzania People’s Defence Forces], in our fight with Amin [in late 1978/79] was, mainly, using encirclement.
“That is how we captured Gayaza hill on the 26th of February, 1979, under General Mayunga. That is how Entebbe town was captured by General Maarwa. He blocked the Libyans from retreating from Entebbe, at Bwebajja. That is why that area is called Kilibya. Very many Libyan APCs were destroyed there and prisoners taken.
“That is how Brigades 208, 207 and 201 of TPDF destroyed the Palestinian Force that had come to support Amin at Lukaya. Maarwa, coming from Kanoni, Kabulasoke, encircled them at the Equator while they were busy fighting 201 Brigade which was coming from Lukaya”.
One of the first acts of the Museveni government when it came in 1986 was to scrap April 11, which used to be “Liberation Day” to mark the day on April 11, 1979, when the TPDF and a motley of Ugandan exile groups including Museveni’s Front for National Salvation (FRONASA), defeated Amin.
The NRM was angry because if felt that Tanzania’s support for Obote enabled UPC to rig the election of December 1980, and without its support in 1981 and 1982, the Obote regime would not have survived to 1985. It is partly petty anger that Liberation Day was scrapped. However, in terms of the political narrative, the NRM wanted its triumph to be the only liberation. There could be no other.
While variously Museveni has acknowledged the TPDF, he had never, again as far as I have read, publicly specifically commended the courage of individual Tanzanian commanders like Maarwa. While we have been one happy family in the East African Community, Tanzania never could quite forgive or fully accept Museveni because it felt, just like Museveni felt in the past with Kagame, that he had pooh poohed their sacrifice. I am sure Tanzania did not miss that offering.
Clearly, then, Museveni is evolving in what one might call a “serial reconciler”, whether he means it or is being cynical does not matter for now. In all these cases, however, he is making up with individuals, like a man compensating personal injuries, and battling to heal a troubled soul.
He is not reconciling NRM with his current biggest opposition headache, Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) or UPC. He is making good with Miria Obote, who was the last woman to cook for him in 1972 and 1978 when he visited their home in Tanzania during their days of exile, before he went off to war.
He is not arranging a big sleep-in between Rwanda’s ruling RPF and the NRM. However, he and his family are visiting, hugging, and exchanging cattle with his bush buddy Kagame.
I think in all these things, we are seeing the emerging shape of how Museveni wants to shape his legacy. It also could be his way of telling us that he sees the clock ticking, the light being switched off slowly on his rule; that his time of leaving the stage is now approaching.
He is smart enough to realise that with the time left, he has few options in shaping his legacy in any other way – or at least his last years, which is what most people will remember (Obote’s story teaches us that).
Look at Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki, an aloof man who shuns the limelight, he was plunged into a crisis with the controversial election of December 2007 that flung the country into its worst political violence ever. Kibaki does not have the back-slapping charm and wise cracking of Museveni, so he could not overcome his crisis with charisma.
He decided to be “The Infrastructure President”. His government had been spending money on infrastructure from when he took power from 2003. But post-election in 2008 he ramped things up. Between 2003 and 2011, Kenya had spent on roads, fibre optic cables, airports modernisation, more than Kenya Shs1 trillion.
That is more than the country had spent in all the 30 years before 2003 combined. The products of this are the widest highways in East Africa, and that Kenya is now referred to internationally as the “Silicon Savannah” because of the way the technology aspects of this Shs28 trillion has driven innovation.
Then, to ice the cake, he threw his weight into a new constitution, which Kenya had tried and failed to get for 25 years. Among other things, it has the most progressive Bill of Rights in Africa, by far. As a result, today a few are shy to talk about the 2007 election debacle.
The farewell parties for Kibaki have already begun. When he leaves in March next year, there will be tears in Kenya. Museveni surely must have taken note. But he can’t do a new constitution, and because he has been trapped by his own patronage politics, cannot reform the economy or drown Uganda in new infrastructure investment. Despite a very productive first 15 years in power, Museveni’s last 11 years have been largely a shambles. Most of the roads that were rebuilt in those early years, have become a shocking patch of impossible potholes. Hospitals and health centres are either closed, or are collapsing.
However, Museveni can still shape his legacy as a man who did the honourable thing by his friends and people who helped him. The man who reached out and rebuilt bridges, a gentleman former rebel leader who rediscovered his honour before the curtains came down. The kind of bloke who offers you reason not to give up on the humanity of the men of power. In other words, Museveni might be schmoozing with old foes and kissing and making up with people he threw under the bus in the past, like Mzee Byanyima, so that we can be remembered as the kind of person he himself used to speak about in the early years of his presidency – a good man. Even if he fails, it will not be denied that he tried.
He will not be the first African ruler to do this. This was a method much favoured by the African chiefs of old. Thus a man who views himself as a visionary and a moderniser, finds that to salvage his legacy, he has to fall back on some of the tactics of the strongmen from Africa past – some of who he despises deeply.
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Also published the Uganda-published current affairs magazine The Independent: http://www.independent.co.ug/column/comment/6220-behind-musevenis-political-kissing-and-makeup-a-president-searches-for-his-legacy