How Museveni succession intrigue is shaping up
Kampala, Uganda | IAN KATUSIIME | President Yoweri Museveni’s reshuffle of the army top brass picked up from where he left off with his new cabinet: rewarding loyalty, continuity of the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) tradition, and springing up a few surprises. In what was widely expected, Gen. Wilson Mbadi was elevated in rank and named the new Chief of Defence Forces (CDF). A former Aide-de-Camp (ADC) to Museveni, Mbadi’s rise through the ranks has reached a climax.
After serving for four and a half years as deputy CDF, Mbadi now takes charge of the UPDF; a 50,000 plus strong force whose roles and scope have evolved and grown more complex with the outfit, originally known as the National Resistance Army (NRA), now in its 40th year.
In 2012, after Mbadi serving for five years as ADC to the Commander in Chief, Museveni deployed him as UPDF Fourth Division Commander and then as Joint Chief of Staff of the UPDF in 2013. Mbadi spent only a year as the Fourth Division Chief in Gulu before he was named Joint Chief of Staff.
The latter position has wide operational scope; from welfare planning to coordinating troop deployments and overseeing the strategy of the force, Mbadi was finally in the thick of things at the army headquarters in Mbuya.
It was a complete departure from his time as ADC where he had to watch over who gets in the President’s orbit. But given the nature of the UPDF and how Museveni exercises control over it, the position of ADC to Museveni is a highly coveted one and no ordinary officer gets there.
But even before he became ADC, Mbadi had been sent by Museveni to do a host of courses at military academies around the world including prestigious ones like the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the U.K. from where he was commissioned as a cadet officer in 1991. He had also done stints in countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and the U.S.
The appointment of Mbadi continues a tradition of who gets to be CDF; picked from a closely knit coterie of UPDF officers whom Museveni keeps by his side. Since the position was renamed as such in 2005, only Gen. Katumba Wamala has been the outlier in this carefully groomed cadre of soldiers.
Gen. Aronda Nyakairima was the first CDF, although he was named Army Commander in 2003. He served for ten years and was replaced by Wamala, now Minister of Works and Transport. Aronda who died in 2015 was an elite officer in the Presidential Guard Brigade who also hailed from the same sub-ethnic Hima group like the President.
Wamala was in the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) under the second Obote government. He was later integrated in the UPDF among others of his ilk. Even though Wamala was a very senior officer, it explains why he was not among the first batch of UPDF Generals that were promoted to that rank in 2005. They included Aronda, Salim Saleh, Elly Tumwine, and David Sejusa.
Wamala had a brief stint as CDF from 2013 to early 2017 when he was replaced by Gen. David Muhoozi. Muhoozi was another soldier honed from within. Prior to his big appointment, he served as Joint Chief of Staff to the UPDF. It is from that same template that Museveni has appointed the 59-year-old Mbadi as the fourth CDF.
The appointment of Mbadi who was born in Kasese also comes at a time when there is still reckoning over the massacre of hundreds of royal guards when the UPDF attacked the palace of the Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu in 2016 in Kasese district. The attack was led by Lt. Gen. Peter Elwelu who will be Mbadi’s deputy.
The other appointment being inevitably discussed is the promotion of Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba from Special Forces Command (SFC) to Commander of Land Forces. Muhoozi, the President’s son, is once again making a major step upwards. The Commander of Land Forces is in effect the second in command of the UPDF.
Muhoozi replaces Elwelu who has been appointed Deputy CDF. However analysts say the deputy CDF position is not in as much a decision making position as Commander Land Forces, Muhoozi’s new role.
In just the six months Muhoozi was commandeering SFC, he was in his element relishing the key role he had been away from for four years while serving as Presidential Advisor on Special Operations. Occasionally he would meet with diplomats, counterparts from defence ministries of other countries and other visiting dignitaries. In March, Muhoozi announced that SFC was in partnership with Poly Technologies Inc., one of the largest Chinese defence contractors.
The SFC is tasked with the security of President Museveni, his immediate family and is also in charge of Special Operations. Museveni appointed Brig. Peter Chandia, Acting Commander SFC and Brig. Felix Buzisoori as Second in command SFC.
Therefore as Commander Land Forces, Muhoozi is widely expected to continue with where he had stopped. As the President’s son, Muhoozi has stirred Trumpian-style Twitter storms; picking fights with opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine and making controversial statements on ethnicity and politics. Ordinarily, Museveni would prefer his top army officers to stay out of the limelight but Muhoozi gets a pass possibly because of his unique relationship with the Commander-in-Chief.
The feeling has always been rife that that Museveni is preparing Muhoozi, 47, to be in a critical position in case of any unforeseen events such as a popular uprising or if Museveni were to die in office. However Museveni has also demonstrated zero intentions of handing over power anytime soon or planning a transition. This has left Muhoozi and his loud army of backers and propagandists second guessing the President’s moves.
Museveni’s continued rapid promotion of his son is a subject of intense debate in and outside the army. In 2012, Muhoozi stepped into the hallowed General ranks as Brigadier and in 2016, he went a notch higher as Maj. General. At the time, Muhoozi was on an equal footing as revered Bush War fighters like Maj. Gen. Pecos Kutesa, and at the time Brig. Stephen Kashaka. Muhoozi’s continued rise did not go down well with some in the UPDF, among them the most senior officers.
In one of his famous letters, the maverick General David Sejusa wrote in 2013 that “We are tired of saluting our grandchildren.” The message was interpreted as one for the Commander in Chief who had settled for young cadres; some of whom joined the army along with Muhoozi in the 1990s. The same year, Sejusa fled to exile in the U.K. He since returned, faced the court martial, flirted with the opposition and has resorted to a quiet life posting his reflections on Twitter.
In 2017, Brig. Kashaka was promoted to Maj. Gen and at the piping ceremony where 122 other officers were promoted, he spoke candidly about the need for easy retirement for UPDF officers. There are many suppressed grumbles about retirement by many officers in the army; senior and junior. Museveni does not take kindly to retirement qualms in the army. Insiders say that a number of up and about retired soldiers could potentially cause political trouble for Museveni once they no longer have to adhere to the strict code of the army while donning its uniform.
Chief among those was Gen. Sejusa who long clamoured for retirement and even filed a case at the High Court arguing that he had been constructively retired from the army because of many years of non- deployment.
Other retired officers have gone on to challenge Museveni politically like the late Maj. Gen. Biraaro, though deferential in his exit, who contested in the 2016 presidential elections. The other more daring ones have been Col. Kizza Besigye who retired in 2000 and ran against Museveni in presidential elections, Lt. Gen. Henry Tumukunde who had a long grueling Court Martial battle before being retired. He contested in the 2021 elections as a presidential candidate.
Officially the army has a Commissions and Promotions Board tasked with scheduling retirements of officers but it has been accused of making the process a bureaucratic nightmare.