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Like father and prodigal son

By The Independent Team

Museveni and Byanyima never had any major political differences, and now it seems they have resolved the personal ones

One June 2011 day, about mid-day, a Toyota Land Cruiser drove through the gates of State House, Entebbe. There was nothing especially remarkable about the car, but the main occupant was not an ordinary caller to the President’s residence.

Ensconced in the back seat was Mzee Boniface Byanyima, an Ankole elder and Democratic Party politician whose family’s love-hate relationship with President Yoweri Museveni has little precedent. With him were his son Anthony and daughter Martha.

When the Byanyimas alighted from the escalator, Museveni was waiting eagerly with a big smile on his face, partly out of happiness for meeting and perhaps also nervousness how it would go.

The moment he saw Mzee Byanyima, Museveni pushed all the security detail out of the way, walked straight to the old man, stretched his hand out and said “greet me”. The old man reciprocated with an outstretched arm.

The two looked at each other directly in the eyes for about five seconds, burst out into loud laughter, then shared a long hug. The ice on the long silence between them had been broken, the tension diffused.

More relaxed, Museveni then led the Byanyimas to his meeting room, sat them down and the first thing Mzee Byanyima said to Museveni in Runyankore was, “Museveni, n’okivuruga ensi?” loosely translated to mean, “Museveni, you are still confusing the world?”

The President laughed and retorted, “No, I am doing whatever I can to help.”

The two easily fell into their old banter, re-establishing the old chemistry that, years ago, despite age and political differences, helped them build a close-knit friendship.

President Yoweri Museveni and Mzee Boniface Byanyima were once like father and son. Museveni grew up in the Byanyima homestead (commonly known to as Green Cottages) in Ruti, 4km outside Mbarara town, along Kabale Road. That’s where he spent many of his high school and, later, university holidays.

The Byanyimas treated him as their own, and to this day, Museveni’s high school and university books hold their place in the Byanyima family library. Museveni’s name, “Yoweri Tibuhaburwa”, is inscribed on the covers in his own handwriting.

But beyond their positions of guardian and ward, Museveni and Mzee Byanyima shared an intellectual affinity that is rare even amongst contemporaries.

Mzee Byanyima knows that even as a young boy, Museveni was ambitious and never hid his desire to be at the helm of political change and leadership, whether in his local community or on the national stage.

Museveni himself has confessed that when he was entering politics, it was only Mzee Byanyima who understood and encouraged him. And for that he would be eternally grateful to him.

He recognises that Mzee Byanyima  helped and nurtured him, and supported all his causes. At a time when most people, especially in Ankole, had no faith in him and underestimated his potential, Mzee Byanyima was the exception, as he treated him with respect.

According to Museveni, Mzee Byanyima would even give him money to mobilise Bahima in places like Buganda to return to Ankole. As a Member of Parliament in the 1960s, Mzee Byanyima had tried to heal Bahima-Bairu differences in Ankole and bring back Bahima scattered all over the country, but says he met stiff opposition from the governments of the time.

Museveni grew up angry, never really understanding the source of his anger until he met Mzee Byanyima in his early teens. There was a confluence of sentiment and intellectual passions, and through their discussions, the injustices of the day – the unfairness to his people who were landless and scattered all over the country – became clearer to Museveni. Byanyima helped him start the realization of his life’s goals and this marked the beginning of the very strong bond.

Museveni despised excessive accumulation of wealth and often spoke strongly against families in Ankole that held huge chunks of land at the expense of others. His views at the time were strongly communist, advocating the redistribution of land from the rich to the poor. They couldn’t have known that despite this like-mindedness, Museveni’s handling of land redistribution as President would later draw them apart and precipitate an estrangement that would last more than 20 years.

Sitting as a guest in Museveni’s home for the first time in a very long time, Mzee Byanyima decided to unburden his heart and open up to the man he once knew as a son.

The fallout

It is not one single factor that sullied the relationship between Museveni and Mzee Byanyima and his family. Rather it was a combination of different factors and circumstances.

The first bone of contention started growing in the during the bush war, when Museveni began an intimate relationship with the old man’s second daughter, Eng. Winnie Byanyima, now wife of opposition leader Dr Kiiza Besigye.

When Museveni’s National Resistance Army took power and he became President, he went to Mzee Byanyima and told him he was going to marry his daughter. The old man and his late wife Gertrude opposed the proposal.

Mzee Byanyima told Winnie the relationship would never work. First, because Museveni was already married to Janet; second, he knew the personalities of Museveni and Winnie – both highly opinionated and strong-headed – and said they would never be compatible. Winnie insisted. Like the old man had predicted, that relationship later fell apart and the two never married. That was the first bad blood.

The second dispute arose over the management of the Ranch Restructuring Scheme in Ankole in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

A few people owned ranches on large expanses of land which were largely idle yet many others were landless. Soon after taking over power, President Museveni visited Mzee Byanyima, seeking his advice on the Ankole land question. Museveni’s view was that it was unfair for a few people to own often unutilized land when there were many landless families in Ankole. He argued that this injustice needed to be cured through some form of fair and equitable land re-distribution.

Although he was one of the largest land owners, Mzee Byanyima was supportive of the idea. The two agreed that a commission be set up to investigate and make recommendations on the most orderly way to redistribute the land in Ankole.

President Museveni’s main concern was that the Bahima sub-ethnic community in Ankole had been dispossessed of land by people from other parts of the country especially Buganda, leaving them landless in their own homeland. The few who had any land at all were tenants or squatters. President Museveni and Mzee Byanyima both felt very strongly that the status quo needed to change.

The two men felt that while Bahima were renting their own ancestral land from “migrants,” the government could not discriminate by only redistributing land held by Baganda in Ankole, so the policy had to apply to all land-owners.

Consequently, President Museveni appointed the Mugerwa Commission, of which Mzee Byanyima was a member, to handle the matter. The Commission made a report of findings and recommendations on the best way forward.

However, before the commission’s recommendations could be implemented President Museveni, according to Mzee Byanyima, arbitrarily set up the Ranch Restructuring Scheme under David Pulkol, formerly chief of the External Security Organisation (ESO).

Government then confiscated large parcels of land from many land owners in Ankole, including Mzee Byanyima. Mzee Byanyima says he had no objection to surrendering some of his land, but wanted it to be done in an orderly manner, which had been the commission’s objective after all.

Mzee Byanyima accused President Museveni of sending “armed government thugs” to his ranch in Nyabushozi, settling hundreds of people on it, destroying his developments, stealing his cows and infecting those left with diseases that decimated his stock.

Emotions were high not only because Mzee Byanyima felt disrespected, but said the “armed government thugs” beat up his wife Gertrude (now deceased), leaving her weak and ailing until she died in December 2008.

The wounds ran too deep for any meaningful reconciliation to be considered possible.

Unburdening his heart

Mzee Byanyima reflected on all these things as he sat in the comfortable visiting room at State House, and looked in the President’s eyes. Not a man known to mince his words, he told the President straight off that he was very disappointed in him. For all the years he had been in power, Museveni had never been to visit the home in which he grew up, excepting the time he visited seeking help to establish the commission on land redistribution. The old man said that even former Presidents Idi Amin and Milton Obote had been guests in his home even when they were in power. That Museveni who was raised there turned his never to return was something he found disheartening and incomprehensible.

“You grew up in my home, yet even when my wife died, you never came to pay respects or offer me condolences,” the old man said.

The President, not a man given to extreme and easy displays of emotion, was so overcome with remorse there were tears in his eyes.

However what Mzee Byanyima found most saddening and disappointing was the fact that even under the autocratic regimes of Obote and Amin he had his entire family around him; none of his children ever fled to exile.

Yet now, when the person he had always thought of as his eldest son was in power, all his children were running away, scared for their lives.

On this, President Museveni was resolutely defensive. “No, no, no, Mzee. I can accept responsibility for everything else but not that one, because no one ever called me and told me Anthony, or anyone else in the family, was in trouble.” The President then turned to Anthony Byanyima, whom he fondly calls ‘Kanyamutaba’, and said, “Kanyamutaba, you always had my personal telephone contact. Did you ever call me to say your life was in danger?” President Museveni said he only learned of the exile of the Byanyima children much later and immediately sent emissaries to ask them to return unconditionally.

Contrary to widely held views, Museveni and Mzee Byanyima never had any major political differences. The old man is a known, unapologetic member of the Democratic Party (DP), but fell out with Dr Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere in 1980, when Ssemogerere, then party leader, opted to go into Parliament after the 1980 general elections which DP claimed to have won but was allegedly rigged out of by the Uganda Peoples Congress. Mzee Byanyima wanted DP to boycott Parliament and said by taking a seat in that House, Dr Ssemogerere had sold the soul of the party.

It is no surprise then that Mzee Byanyima then supported Museveni’s bush war to dislodge Milton Obote’s government. He also mobilized DP supporters to join the bush war and is said to have procured guns from the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire), where he had contacts with people willing to support the war effort. The liaison between him Museveni, the guerrilla, was mainly coordinated by Maj. Gen. Jim Muhwezi, Ms Dorah Kutesa (wife to Maj. Gen. Pecos Kutesa) and Museveni’s then personal bodyguard Col. Akanga Byaruhanga (RIP). These three were frequent visitors to Mzee Byanyima’s ranch in Nyabushozi on clandestine missions.

When Eng. Winnie Byanyima married FDC Leader Dr Kizza Besigye in 1998, Mzee Byanyima’s political sympathies were with the couple, but the old man always privately told Winnie and Dr Besigye that while he wished them well, he did not believe they would ever defeat Museveni, because “the Museveni I know would never let you.”

Winnie’s marriage to Besigye further complicated any possible reconciliation between Museveni and Mzee Byanyima.

Children in exile

Following Besigye’s first attempt at the presidency in 2001, most of the Byanyima family members faced real and perceived threats to their personal lives and fled to exile, mainly the United States. Mzee Byanyima became more publicly critical of Museveni.

However Museveni continued looking for ways to reconcile with the old man, mainly through his younger brother, Gen. Caleb Akandwanaho a.k.a. Salim Saleh.

When Museveni learnt of the departure to exile of most of the Byanyima family, he was shattered because these were some of the people closest to him in his formative years, and he had ridden to power swearing to them that no Ugandan should ever again be forced by politics to live outside their country.

Museveni has overseen the return of more exiles than any other post-independence leader. The Byanyima family’s exile therefore was for him not just a political contradiction, but personal embarrassment.

Between 2007 and 2008, President Museveni sent Uganda’s then representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Perez Kamunanwire, to meet with one of Mzee Byanyima’s sons, Anthony Byanyima, and ask him why he ran away from Uganda and what was stopping his return. The meeting did take place, but details of their discussion remain unclear. Museveni was concerned that Mzee Byanyima, now a very old man, was living alone, his sons exiles claiming to have run away from him. At about the same time, Museveni dispatched another senior government official related to the Byanyimas by marriage, to relay a similar message to Mzee Byanyima’s youngest child, Olivier, who was then a post graduate student at Columbia University’s Business School in New York, USA.

Anthony Byanyima eventually returned to Uganda in 2008, after seven years in exile, when his mother Gertrude Byanyima passed away, upon assurance from President Museveni and Salim Saleh that he would be safe.

Upon his return, President Museveni met Anthony and asked him to spearhead a process of reconciliation between Museveni and the Byanyima family.

Museveni admitted that mistakes were made in the ranch restructuring process and that the old man had valid complaints, which the President was prepared to address as a matter of urgency, to bury any old hatchets.

Preparation for the talks began sometime in April 2011, with Anthony and Salim Saleh as the main facilitators of the process. President Museveni initially suggested that he host Mzee Byanyima at his Rwakitura country home, but the old man declined, saying the road to Rwakitura was too dusty and bumpy for his poor health. Clearly, Museveni was keen on a more informal “home-coming” for his “political father”.

But before the reconciliation meeting could take place, Anthony held his wedding at Sheraton Kampala Hotel and in his speech, heaped praises on President Museveni, surprising guests, many of whom had come to associate the Byanyima family with Museveni-bashing!

But the real shock of that evening was Mzee Byanyima. When he stood up to speak, guests expected “some acid-laced words about Museveni”, possibly even chastising his own son for praising the enemy. On the contrary, he thanked Museveni for the support he extended to his son, and wound up his speech saying, “my only problem with Museveni is, you all know what his government did to my cows”! He drew gratefully surprised applause from the guests.

With old grudges buried, the reconciliation meeting at State House fell into rather familial ground, delving into Ankole history and culture, family, social affairs. There was no discussion of politics at all. They had a sumptuous meal together, and the entire meeting lasted about 6 hours.

At the end of it many differences had been settled and President Museveni immediately directed that the old man be sent to South Africa for medical attention at Museveni’s cost. This was done within two weeks.

Mzee Byanyima has stated that since Museveni had invited him to his home and apologized, he had forgiven him.

Two weeks ago at the burial of Mzee Byanyima’s elder brother, the old man his speech and for the first time since Museveni’s accession to power 27 years ago, thanked the NRM government for the peace in the country, but quickly added, “They should stop rigging elections!”

The two now speak “very frequently” by telephone and the President attends to all Mzee Byanyima’s concerns, whenever he raises them with him.

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