By Agather Atuhaire
Quiet general was chief of defense forces for 10 years
On June 7, 2003, President Yoweri Museveni who is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces took a decision that would have far-reaching implications for the Uganda army and the country. He removed Maj. Gen. James Kazini as army commander and replaced him with Maj. Gen. Aronda Nyakairima. To make the cut, the new top army boss had to be promoted from brigadier.
It was possibly the first time that most Ugandans were seeing the quiet soldier, with his dreamy eyes, slow speech, and shuffling gait that made him appear like he was hauling his hulky body when he walked.
That year was tough on Museveni. Troops from erstwhile ally Rwanda were still facing with the Ugandan army in Congo and the UN had intervened to force them to withdraw.
Uganda was withdrawing, but it had its tail between its legs from defeats suffered in earlier battles. The worst fighting between Rwandan and Ugandan forces lasted six days from June 5, 2000. It was a bloodbath. According to some reports, up to 120 soldiers were killed on both sides, and an estimated 640 Congolese civilians also died and up to 1,668 were injured. It was the third time Rwandan and Ugandan forces were fighting. The first was in 1999. Then second in May 2000.
Following the earlier fighting, Gen. Kazini had been withdrawn and replaced by Col. Edison Muzoora. But, as army commander, he continue to oversee operation and looking for opportunities for revenge.
That ended when Aronda was chosen to replace him.
Museveni’s selection of Aronda was a masterstroke.
But Gen. Aronda was not new at all on the scene. He had been an army representative in parliament since 1996.
In fact, at the time of his appointment, he was fresh from fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels of Joseph Kony who were ravaging northern Uganda at the time. Before that he had been commandant of the Armoured Brigade in Masaka. Before that, he had been director of intelligence of the Presidential Protection Unit. Even as early as 1989, just three years after Museveni came to power, anyone interested in predicting Aronda’s path at the time, would easily see that he was destined for great things. Back then, he was among the first officers to attend Officers Basic Course (OBC).
President Museveni possibly liked Aronda for his level of discipline, which almost matched his. Aronda was a teetotaler like Museveni and a workhorse. As a commander, he came to be recognized as result oriented.
Museveni groomed him systematically. In 1993 he sent him to the elite American military training academy of Fort Leavenworth. This is possibly where Aronda linked up with his bush war comrade, Paul Kagame to forge an enduring relationship. Aronda was the best man at Kagame’s wedding in 1989.
Therefore, it appears, by appointing Aronda to head the army at a time of heightened tension with Kagame’s Rwanda, Museveni was signaling his desire for a détente.
In the same stroke, Museveni was also signaling his desire to professionalise the army.
Gen. Aronda’s predecessor was an illiterate general who made his mark on the battle field. Aronda, on the other hand was an intellectual who had studied political science at Makerere University and initiated what came to be called the `Makerere Boys’ when he joined Museveni in the bushes of Luweero to fight then-president Milton Obote’s government in 1982.
Although he was born in western Uganda, Aronda in his formative years studied in northern Uganda, where he proved to have a knack for languages as he spoke Luo, and Swahili. It is not surprising that he was immediately deployed in intelligence and mobilisation. When the war ended, he got his first rank – of Lieutenant in 1988.
Words like team player, consensus builder, calm and affable, come easily to those who knew Aronda. It was almost ironical that this great general, in fact, always set out to avoid conflict.
Under Kazini, the army was run like the den of thieves that Ali Baba found. Everything was for pilfering. When helicopters, tanks, and other equipment were bought, it was likely junk, the food rations were expired, and the boots and uniforms did not fit. Payrolls and force strength was exaggerated by officers greedy for skimming off the ghost numbers.
Aronda set off to change all that.
He believed in training of soldiers and helped establish the Senior Staff and Command College at Kimaka in Jinja and improved the Junior Staff College. He also believed in building a people’s army.
Like most Ugandans, I did not know most of this history and I never paid any attention to Gen. Aronda even when he was appointed Internal Affairs in a swirl of dust over breach of the constitution.
But one day, as I was talking to a friend in the security agencies, he told me he had great admiration for two people in this country. One of them was Aronda. He repeated it several times in subsequent conversations. I was surprised.
When I asked my friend why he admired the Aronda that people took as a not-so-clever man, he said, “because that’s what he wants everyone to believe.”
He continued: “Aronda is very smart and he is result oriented. Take an example of the ID project. How many ministers failed to pull it off but Aronda came around and not just executed it, but in a period no one expected. That guy turned around not only the ID project but the entire Internal Affairs Ministry.”
He says that the only area in his scope that Aronda did not tamper with, which he wishes he had, is the police. That is probably because of the not-so- good relationship he was reported to have with the police boss, Gen. Kale Kayihura.
“He didn’t want to have any collision with Kale. In any case, he knew that Kale reports and gets orders directly from the top boss.”
My friend said people underestimate Aronda because he does not go proving himself to anyone.
“He talks only when he has to, he never says anything more than he has to say. That makes people think they know more than he does, but I think that’s what makes him even smarter.”
When I told him I was told by one of the people in government that Museveni had decided to keep him close to monitor him regarding his alleged alliance with former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, my friend said it was a mistake.
“I don’t think those two are even friends.” He said. “The only reason anyone would think Aronda and Amama are allies is because like Amama, Aronda is against the idea of Muhoozi succeeding his father as President.”
Who Was Aronda Nyakairima?
Gen. Aronda Nyakairima was born on July 7, 1959. He joined the National Resistance in 1982 soon after completing his degree in Political Science at Makerere University.
In 2003, he was named Chief of defense forces of UPDF, a position in which he served until 2013 when he was replaced by Gen. Katumba Wamala. He had also represented UPDF in Parliament since 1996.
In the course of his career, he was inducted into the International Hall of Fame at the Lewis and Clark Centre in Kansas, United States of America for attaining the highest rank in the Ugandan Military.
At the time of his death, he was serving as the Minister of Internal Affairs since 23 May 2013 when he was appointed.