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Family rule in Uganda

By The Independent Team

How Museveni’s ‘clan’ runs the government

In his inaugural address as professor of history at Makerere University on June 18, 1986, the highly respected Ugandan historian, Samwiri Karugire, spelt out the problems of Africa. In a lecture titled ‘Wind of Change or Merely Change in the Wind? African Polities since Independence,’ Karugire said the biggest ills of our continent are ‘numbing corruption and nepotism.’

‘It is because of these gross malfeasances,’ Karugire reasoned, ‘that our rulers become insecure in their sumptuous offices and therefore they must surround themselves with their own relatives with whom, of course, they loot the national treasury.’

Quoting journalist David Lamb, Karugire said: ‘The slain President William Tolbert of Liberia, when he was president of that country, made his brother Frank, president of the senate; another brother Stephen minister of finance; his sister Lucia was appointed mayor of the city of Bentol; one of his sons Ambassador at Large, his daughter Wilhemina presidential physician; his niece Tula, presidential dietician; his three nephews respectively, assistant minister for presidential affairs, agricultural attach in Rome and vice governor of the national bank; his four sons in-law respectively, minister of defence, deputy minister of works, commissioner for immigration and board member for Air Liberia. One brother-in-law was appointed to the senate, another as ambassador to Guinea and yet another as mayor of the capital city, Monrovia.’

Tolbert was behaving like African despots of his time like Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko of then Zaire, Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, Omar Bongo of Gabon, Gnasingbe Eyadema of Togo, Obiang Ngwena of Equatorial Guinea, etc. So has Uganda gone through a wind of change or a mere change in the wind in regard to these African political practices? If he were still alive today, what would Karugire say about President Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda especially given that his son, Edwin Karugire, is married to first daughter, Natasha?

Anatomy of family rule

Previously a critic of political patrimony, there is growing concern even among those closest to him that Museveni is treading the long trodden path that Karugire condemned 23 years ago. For example, Museveni has appointed his wife, Mrs Janet Museveni, as state minister for Karamoja; his brother, Gen. Salim Saleh, formerly a minister of state for micro finance, as Senior Presidential Advisor on defence, a job at the same rank as a cabinet minister; his brother-in-law, Sam Kutesa, minister of foreign affairs; his son, Muhozi Keinerugaba, commander of the Special Forces, his daughter Natasha Karugire, Private Secretary to the president in charge of Household.

Museveni has also appointed his nephew, Joseph Ekwau (son of his younger sister Violet Kajubiri), Private Secretary to the President in charge of Medical Services (HIV//AIDS); his sister Miriam Karugaba as Administrator at State House (she is semi-literate) and her husband (therefore Museveni’s brother-in-law), Jimmy Karugaba, as Officer in Charge (OC) of the Accounts Department at State House. Museveni has also appointed his sister-in-law, Jolly Sabune, Executive Director of Cotton Development Authority, his niece-in-law, Hope Nyakairu, Undersecretary for Administration and Finance at State House, his cousin Bright Rwamirama, State Minister for Animal Husbandry, his other cousin, Faith Katana Mirembe, Assistant Private Secretary in charge of Education and Social Services and Justus Karuhanga, Private Secretary to the President in charge of Legal Affairs who is a nephew to Mrs Museveni.

There is no doubt that people like Saleh and Kutesa merit their positions. Saleh is a war hero who distinguished himself as a brilliant and brave rebel commander while Kutesa is one of the veteran politicians on Uganda’s political scene. But equally Uganda has many competent people who can perform their roles. If the president sought to avoid being accused of nepotism, there was enough talent to choose from to make public appointments.

Many observers say that increasing family influence in government has gone hand in hand with the informalisation of power. Thus, although formal authority is vested in official institutions, effective power is wielded by this informal clique of family and kin. The official structure presents a semblance of national ethno-regional and religious diversity to win the regime legitimacy. The informal but highly powerful structure of the closest of the president’s family and kin is the ‘real’ government.

Replicating Africa’s curse

Apparently, this reflects the shift of attention from the promise of ‘fundamental change’ to the slogan of ‘no change’ that has become the rallying cry of regime functionaries. The informalisation of power in Uganda echoes other African countries. One example is Donor Cruise O’Brien’s 1975 book on politics in Senegal: Saints and Politicians. According to O’Brien, politics in Senegal is organised through factions, otherwise called ‘clans.’ But the clan in Senegalese politics is not defined by kinship although that may exist and help reinforce political solidarity within a given political group.

Instead, O’Brien writes, ‘the clan’ is basically a ‘political faction operating within the institutions of the state and the governing party; it exists above all to promote the interests of its members through political competition, and its first unifying principle is the prospect of material rewards of political success. Political office and the spoils of office are the very definition of success: loot is the clanic totem.’ Sounds like Uganda today?

In his 1979 article The Administration of Underdevelopment, David Gould revealed a similar practice in Mobutu’s Zaire. He argued that power was organised at the very top around a ‘presidential clique.’ This was composed mainly of about 50 of the president’s ‘closest kinsmen’ whom Mobutu trusted. They occupied the most sensitive and lucrative positions of state like ‘head of the Judiciary Council, Secret Police, Interior Ministry, President’s Office and so on.’ In his last days, Mobutu’s son Nzanga was a presidential advisor while another, Kongolo, was commander of the dreaded Special Presidential Division (DSP).

Next to the kinsmen/women, Gould revealed, was the ‘presidential brotherhood’! Though not from the president’s ethnic group, their positions depended on their personal ties with Mobutu and his clique. Is Uganda’s power structure moving towards Mobutu’s Zaire? It already has; our equivalent of the brotherhood would include people like Security Minister, Amama Mbabazi. So much is the level of patrimony in Museveni’s presidency that many Ugandans wonder how a man who publicly despised Mobutu and that generation of African dictators could have so easily gone the same way; the way none of his predecessors Milton Obote or Idi Amin can be accused of having gone.

Why family rule?

For Dr Oloka Onyango, a Makerere University lecturer and head of the Human Rights and Peace Centre (HURIPEC), the signs were always there from the very beginning that this is the way it would be.

‘Museveni’s policy has always been to construct personal rule, not institutional rule. He has destroyed all institutions. And you could see this from the very beginning,’ Dr Oloka told The Independent, adding; ‘This is the trajectory he took from 1989 ‘ consolidation and marginalisation. So when you take that course, you have very few options especially in the new international setting i.e. who can best insulate you from the International Criminal Court (ICC) if not family [son and brother].

Oloka said that the problems former Zambian President, Frederick Chiluba has faced at the hands of his successor and presumed protg, Levy Mwanawasa and problems former Malawian President Bakili Muluzi is facing at the hands of his chosen successor, Bingu wa Mutharika mean you cannot trust your successor except family. ‘There are very few Moi-like successors,’ Oloka said, ‘So you rely on those who have 150% loyalty and these are blood relatives. For Museveni, there are only two people he can trust ‘ Saleh and his son Muhoozi.’

Indeed this is a view shared more or less by Charles Onyango-Obbo, a senior Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi and probably the country’s foremost political commentator. ‘One reason Museveni ended up with so many relatives in key security positions, is that fairly early in his presidency he sought to entrench his power by limiting the independent growth of his party, the NRM, and to dismantle the institutions of state (which he had, admittedly, helped rebuild considerably because he needed them for the reconstruction effort in his first 10 years in power). But one can never govern without organised institutions, and a force you can rely on to counter challenges to your authority. That is how, among other reasons, the security forces became the bedrock of Museveni’s power,’ Obbo told The Independent in a telephone interview from Nairobi.

Like his erstwhile colleagues, the military has inevitably been the focus of Museveni’s patrimony. According to a survey carried out by The Independent last year and published in its Issue 4 (Jan. 25 ‘ Feb. 7, 2008), 74 per cent of the 23 top command positions in the ‘national’ army, Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), are held by officers from Museveni’s western region. Other regions like Buganda (central) hold 17 per cent, the north 9 per cent and the east zero per cent! All the five full generals in the UPDF ‘ Yoweri Museveni, David Tinyefuza, Elly Tumwine, Salim Saleh and Aronda Nyakairima are from the president’s sub-ethnic group, the Bahima.

While the president has often attributed this imbalance to historical circumstances of his NRA rebellions that started with mostly his tribesmen, pundits say almost 40 years since he started his struggle in 1971 should have been more than enough to rectify the imbalance. Instead, they point to a systematic attempt to cement a patrimony.

‘Once he dismantled state institutions and stifled the party,’ says Obbo, ‘within the security apparatus, he needed a rationale for apportioning power inside it. Since he had turned his back on meritocracy in the public service and politics, he could not run the security services based on meritocracy. Because the security services lacked the diversity of the NRM party, and there was little or no direct disloyalty to Museveni, he could only use a subjective criterion to allocate authority in the security services, and so he went tribal in a general sense, and in very key jobs, he relied on the family. Narrow as these are, they still represent some kind of criteria ‘ blood relationship.’

How has it been possible?

The question many people will ask is how Museveni, without the advantage enjoyed by early African dictators who inherited the colonial machinery amidst illiteracy, poverty, ignorance and lack of institutions, could have successfully built a patrimony in this age of democracy and enlightenment?

‘Historically, family dictatorships largely exist in states that are weak; the elite leaders are not organised and there is lack of a common national consciousness. This is exactly what is in Uganda now and that is why Museveni is able to use family rule without fear,’ leading Kampala lawyer David Mpanga told The Independent.

Dr Oloka agrees that there are few institutional checks to hold Museveni accountable because it was not envisaged during the constitutional making process how the extent of abuse could go. ‘State House is uncontrolled like intelligence; there are no controls on the president so it’s the president’s plaything,’ he says.

But for veteran politician Jaberi Bidandi Ssali, who co-founded the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) with Museveni in 1980 and served as minister in his NRM government from 1986 to 2003, Museveni has taken this course not simply because of weak institutional safeguards but also because the president lacked political grooming.

‘The fundamental problem Museveni has is the fact that he never had an opportunity to associate with elders in politics when he was still in his youth, his formative stage; leaders like Ignatius Musaazi, Engulu and the Bikangagas. He has always looked at politics in terms of him becoming the leader and in the process lost out on the possibility of guidance. Instead of learning from them he has always been trashing them one by one. Museveni is a politician who ran out of school, served in government, learnt how to fire the gun and then shot himself into power. And that is why he is using family rule with impunity. He seems to be the ‘I-know-it-all, solve-it-all, giver of jobs and the fountain of favours’,’ Bidandi says.

The uses of family rule

While opinion is divided as to whether President Museveni’s institution of a neo-patrimonial regime was an act of omission or commission, there is unanimity as to how much this system has helped him retain power for so long, writing himself in the books of history as the longest serving leader the country has had. Neo-patrimonial regimes survive because of a combination of factors like patronage, coercion, blackmail, bribery, etc. It is a strategy that was well learned by the Museveni regime.

‘Apart from his tactic of rewarding the southern middle class, this reliance on family actually helped Museveni,’ says Obbo. ‘In the short term, it reduced the level of discordance in the inner sanctum of power. Secondly, it created a fairly large constituency in the security establishment that had both a subjective and objective interest in Museveni’s survival.’

Thus, the way Maj. Okwiri Rabwoni [late Brig. Noble Mayombo’s renegade brother] was handled in 2001 at Entebbe Airport and the shameless way former presidential candidate Col. Kizza Besigye was treated in 2005/06, that disregarded all law and the image of regime are embedded in this neo-patrimonial system.

‘A professional security officer wouldn’t do those things out of partisan reasons,’ Obbo has reasoned, ‘He needs something additional’ a primordial fear that a Besigye regime would punish you and all your family because you are blood relatives of Museveni ‘ to provoke that extreme response in defence of the man. The best way to understand this is that while Amin killed far more people than the Museveni regime, we never saw people like Chief Justice Ben Kiwanuka, Archbishop Janan Luwum, Vice Chancellor Frank Kalimuzo, etc brutalised publicly. They were taken to Namanve or the Nakasero State Research Bureau dungeons and brutally murdered out of public sight.’

According to Obbo, the reason is that Amin had many tribesmen in his service, but not relatives. The irrational fear of loss of privileges that drives Museveni loyalists to be excessive in public because they feel the whole family is threatened is one that didn’t afflict the Amin regime. That cohesiveness, Obbo believes, has allowed Museveni to hold things longer than all Uganda’s previous post-independence regimes combined.

Obviously, the military alone cannot guarantee survival of the regime so it is imperative to build a patrimony in business and in politics, especially in light of the increasing need to use money to buy political support. Thus the president has many of his relatives and in-laws well placed in legitimate business.

Some of the most prominent include Hannington Karuhanga, chairman UGACOF, a leading coffee exporting company and chairman of Stanbic Bank. He is a cousin to Mrs Museveni and is also married to a sister to the Chief of Defence Forces Gen. Aronda Nyakairima. Although Karuhanga has made his mark on the business scene through personal hard work, his connections to the first family and the likely benefits it offers have not gone unnoticed.

Mrs Jovia Saleh: A wealthy business lady who is into real estate and a host of other businesses is wife of the younger brother to President Museveni, Gen. Saleh. Her sister Kellen Kayonga, is an accomplished business lady in this country; she recently won the lucrative deal of exporting security guards to the troubled Iraq through a security company Askar. She is the young sister to Jovia Saleh and therefore a sister-in-law to Gen. Saleh.

Odrek Rwabwogo: The proprietor of Terp Consults, a public relations company that has handled some of the government’s biggest events and programmes, the most notable being the $1 million ‘Gifted by Nature’ campaign on CNN and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). He marries Museveni’s daughter Patience. Of course other relatives like Kutesa, who owns Entebbe Handling Services (ENHAS) straddle the space between business and politics.

Museveni’s relatives’ pre-eminence in business, says Dr Oloka, is not only ‘an attempt to distance himself from personal corruption i.e. that it is those around him that are corrupt,’ but has also been dictated by the current economic trends. Thus whereas in the past generation regimes used state corporations to build their patronage network, liberalisation has left the current generation of patriarchs with limited options. ‘Now Museveni must employ them directly in government and in State House, or let them play a big role in business,’ he says.

Be that as it may, the president’s relatives can still be traced in the few remaining parastatals and public statutory bodies. For instance, Don Nyakairu, the Corporation Secretary of Uganda Telecom Ltd (UTL), is husband to Mrs Museveni’s cousin Hope Nyakairu at State House.

Where will it all end?

‘No regime of patronage except perhaps Togo’s Eyadema has survived to the next generation. But Togo did not have a history of conflict like Uganda has had. Museveni may therefore try to survive but he may not succeed,’ says Dr Oloka.

Bidandi too is pessimistic about Museveni’s patrimony: ‘It’s a nasty practice and I pity his lineage on the basis of what history can give as lessons in different countries.’

So while it is certain that Museveni is patrimony will collapse tomorrow or the other day, the extent of its collapse is perhaps best illustrated by Onyango-Obbo. ‘The disadvantage of this creation of and reliance on a family akazu [rule] is that you do not create a buffer between your family and your enemies, because there aren’t enough non-relatives in the inner eating circle. Thus a Museveni regime’s collapse will affect more members of his family more quickly and directly than it did Obote’s or Amin’s. Also, because you have no buffer, very few of them will help your relatives escape in the event of a coup, for example, because you have not cultivated a large enough constituency of ‘subjective loyalty’ for people to take high risks to aid your flight.’

Interestingly of all Ugandan presidents, none of them has been as obsessed about legacy as Museveni. And he will rule longer than any other president probably ever will again. Yet, ironically, because of his irrational dependence on family, his legacy will disappear faster than those of presidents who ruled for fewer years.

Again, if his family-rule structure has the risk of decimating more of his family in the event of his coming to an abrupt end, it means there shall not be too many people out there to keep his story alive, to cling on to his good works, and to insist on an accurate recording of the history of his rule. For that, one needs to have inner, outer, far outer, and farther out layers of people who feel they are included in the intimate workings of your government, to carry on your memory. If these people are not there, you will be forgotten more quickly. Thus the irony is that Milton Obote ‘ and people like DP’s Ben Kiwanuka ‘ will live longer in history as positive mentions, than Museveni.

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