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Elections to test Muhoozi relationship with Kagame

An MK political rally in Kapchorwa district in January. (COURTESY PHOTO)

How Rwanda’s support for Muhoozi could influence 2026 campaign

Kampala, Uganda | IAN KATUSIIME | Rwanda goes to the polls in 2024 with President Paul Kagame widely expected to stand in his fourth election. In that election, all eyes will be on a maverick Ugandan army officer, Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, and the lengths he will go to campaign for Kagame possibly expecting a reciprocal move two years later in the 2026 presidential election in Uganda.

Rwanda and Uganda have been a lightning rod in each other’s politics, especially around elections and over national security issues. But the 2024 presidential election in Rwanda and the 2026 one in Uganda come at a better time. There has been rapprochement between Presidents; Kagame and Museveni but especially between Kagame and Museveni’s son Muhoozi.

Muhoozi, Commander of the Land Forces in the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) from June 2021 to October 2022 has also used his high positions to drum up his presidential bid in Uganda and court the support of other leaders abroad, especially Kagame.

President Kagame hosted a birthday dinner for Gen. Muhoozi at his home in Gako, Rwanda in April in an event that pundits say gave Muhoozi’s presidential ambitions extra oomph in the last one year after he struck a relationship with Kagame.

Kagame’s praise of Muhoozi as a peacemaker between Uganda and Rwanda has won the latter plaudits in some sections of the Ugandan public and elevated his profile as a presidential candidate.

“We are friends and we are at peace thanks to General Muhoozi for your role in this and for your conviction,” Kagame said at the dinner.

Kagame and Muhoozi have now met five times since last year cementing a bond between a key leader in the region and one aspiring to take over in another country. Muhoozi’s delegation to Rwanda comprised ministers; Jim Muhwezi, Nobert Mao, MP Lillian Aber, journalist Andrew Mwenda, businesspersons and other individuals close to the First Son.

The improved ties seem to have hit a high point last year when President Kagame visited Uganda for the first time in four years to attend a dinner held for Muhoozi’s 48th birthday at State House Entebbe.

“Even what he is doing for him (Muhoozi) now; the birthday honours and how he is treated in Kigali is good for his campaign,” an insider in Muhoozi’s campaign said of how Kagame boosts Muhoozi. “Kagame is interested in the Muhoozi project because he would want a successor to Museveni who is friendly to Rwanda.”

Muhoozi and President Paul Kagame

Muhoozi, now a Special Presidential Advisor on Special Operations has not been shy about his admiration for Kagame whom he fondly refers to as “my uncle.”

Muhoozi has openly voiced support for Rwanda in regional conflagrations such as eastern DRC where fighting persists with some groups traditionally linked to Rwanda. When Muhoozi tweeted support for M23 last year at the height of intense fighting between the militia and the government of DRC, he drew the ire of the Congolese who for years have had fraught relations with Rwanda. M23 is a militia allegedly backed by Rwanda and is known for its brutality once it has a grievance.

Muhoozi has earned the “Tweeting General” moniker, firing off controversial tweets – in former U.S. President Donald Trump style – in support of Russia in its war on Ukraine, backing Tigrayan rebels in Ethiopia’s civil war and a shocking one even by his standards a tweet about invading Kenya.

But he has maintained a decidedly sober pro-Rwanda and pro-Kagame stance in his tweets. Although many Rwandans took umbrage at the way Muhoozi addressed their President on the social media site, some believe there is a method to the madness.

“There is Muhoozi the person, and there are Tweets of Muhoozi. I have not met him, but I have heard him speak, he sounds poised, articulate and brilliant – so already a statesman,” Gatete Nyiringabo Ruhumuliza, a lawyer and political analyst told The Independent in an email response to a question about the perceptions of Muhoozi in Rwanda as an interlocutor between the two countries.

“Obviously he needs better twitter advisors to shift his reputation of a comedian, to that of a statesman, but he’ll cross that bridge when he reaches it, Kampala youth still need the show, and he is giving them a hell of it!,” Ruhumuliza, also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR) said.

Ruhumuliza said Muhoozi, a former Commander of the Special Forces Command (SFC), remains an important political player in the region. “He has brokered peace where other eminent people, including Presidents Kenyatta of Kenya and Laurenco of Angola met some hurdles. If anything that is a true display of power.”

On whether Muhoozi’s running for president could complicate his diplomatic overtures between Rwanda and Uganda, Ruhumuliza said: “Him running for president is a self-fulfilling prophecy for two reasons: one; those who regard him highly in the region, do in that prospect. Two, he counts on regional clout to pose a compelling presidential bid to Ugandans.”

It is three years to the general election in Uganda and about two years to the campaign season but campaigns for Muhoozi’s MK Movement had long begun. They started shortly after the 2021 election with posters, billboards and his supporters populating Twitter with declarations and hashtags of him as a presidential candidate and possible successor to his father.

Developments since then have left NRA veterans, politicians, army officers and the public at large unsure about the prospects of a Muhoozi candidature since 78-year-old Museveni also has a camp insisting he will be on the ballot in 2026. Very few believe there can be a son versus father presidential contest, though.

Rwanda, Uganda intrigue

President Kagame’s fortunes in the 2024 Rwanda elections are not as cloudy as the prospects for Muhoozi and his father, Museveni in 2026 in Uganda. This is partly the reason citizens of both countries are closely watching Kagame. With his hold on power in Kigali firmly secured, who will Kagame support if the chips are down between Museveni and Muhoozi?

“Senior officers in the Rwandan army always look at Uganda as a home going back from the days of the NRA liberation war to their own liberation after,” said a Ugandan who has worked in Rwanda but preferred to remain anonymous, when asked to comment on what Muhoozi’s closeness to Kagame portends for the former’s stab at the presidency.

Uganda’s 2001 and 2006 elections, where retired UPDF Col. Kiiza Besigye took on President Museveni had some whispers of Rwandan involvement. In 2001 there were allegations that Rwanda funded Kizza Besigye’s campaign against Museveni and Museveni made a direct appeal to Rwanda not to support any presidential candidate in Uganda. The tension led Uganda to declare Rwanda a hostile nation.

The two nations were still reeling from their infamous clashes in neighbouring DRC where their armies exchanged fire in the battles of Kisangani. The renegade Ugandan army officers, Colonels Samson Mande and Anthony Kyakabale who fled Uganda and declared war on Museveni’s government went through Rwanda.

A good number of the army officers from either side had established bonds as guerillas during the Luweero bush war but their joint offensive efforts in DRC severely tested this brotherhood. Their loyalties were to different states with competing interests, fueling mutual suspicion. A good number of Ugandan troops died in the clashes and for some observers, the relationship has never recovered.

It was through the same intrigue that in Mach 2018, President Museveni fired Gen. Kale Kayihura as Inspector General of Police (IGP) following allegations that he was a Rwandan asset. Kayihura was accused of repatriating Rwandan dissidents and the most notable case was that of Joel Mutabazi, a former bodyguard to President Kagame.

While IGP, Kayihura amassed so much power attracting the envy of many who believed he had greater ambitions. He was arrested in June 2018 and arraigned in the General Court Martial on charges of failing to protecting war materials among other charges.

The former police chief has undergone penance in the last few years and there have been calls from Muhoozi urging Museveni to pardon his former right hand man.

In April, Kayihura and Muhoozi met in Kabale at an event to celebrate the re-opening of the Gatuna border to Uganda in 2022. Rwanda closed its border to Uganda in 2019 at the height of its animosity with its northern neighbour.

Intelligence wars

Since 2018, Ugandan security agencies; UPDF, CMI, ISO and to some extent the Police were said to be on a Rwanda crackdown on the lookout for suspected Rwandan spies and agents in the country. “CMI has been detaining Rwandan nationals in illegal facilities, torturing and deporting them to Rwanda. CMI accuses these people of spying but has never produced them before courts of law. Neither has Uganda complained to Rwanda about this,” journalist Andrew Mwenda wrote in 2019 as the two nations traded accusations of subterfuge, infiltration and harassment of citizens.

On the other hand, Rwandan security agents were also involved in incidents of arresting and shooting Ugandan nationals who dared to cross into Rwandan territory at the border.

Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) has been at the centre of Uganda-Rwanda relations in the past. In 2011, after Presidents Museveni and Kagame had a high profile reconciliation in Rwanda involving their families and cabinet ministers, there were significant changes in Uganda’s security apparatus.

At the time, Lt. Col. Muhoozi, head of the SFC, also played a role as one of the intermediaries between his father and Kagame. It was months after the presidential election and whiffs of Uganda Rwanda intrigue could still be smelt in the air.

With the detente involving Kagame gifting Museveni cows at his countryside home in Muhazi, the two reset their relations. Then CMI boss Brig. Fred Mugira was replaced. It was agreed as a tradeoff to normalise relations after a series of counter intelligence operations from either country strained ties. Fast forward; after Muhoozi’s trip to Kigali in January 2022 led to the border reopening, the thawing of relations claimed another CMI chief; Maj. Gen Abel Kandiho.

Muhoozi’s rise through the ranks from SFC Commander to being atop the UPDF Land Forces has put him in influential positions where some of the confrontations with Rwanda have played out. As Ugandan and Rwandan security and intelligence officials engaged in bellicose behavior, Muhoozi is said to have remained indifferent if not unconvinced as the two nations came perilously close to armed conflict.

Through his tweets, Muhoozi hoped to cultivate Rwanda as an ally–singing praises of Kagame and extolling the virtues of Ugandan and Rwandan armies. He also went an extra step of warning Rwandan dissidents like Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa to steer clear of Uganda.

Kayumba went into exile in South Africa in 2010 and is one of the founders of the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) alongside other former top Rwandan government officials who fell out with Kagame.

As he eyes the Ugandan presidency, Muhoozi remains under scrutiny for presiding over an army that has carried out abductions, violent arrests, torture, and killings of hundreds of Ugandans who are opposed to his father’s rule.

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