By Peter Nyanzi
It’s always a good sign when the President returns from abroad and camps at Nakasero instead of Entebbe
President Yoweri Museveni and journalists clearly like meeting at his Nakasero residence more than at State House Entebbe.
The homelike environment – in which he spent decades before the expansive State House Entebbe was rehabilitated – appears to bring out the best in the president and his Fourth Estate guests and contributes to a more jovial discussion whenever they meet.
Most journalists have now take it that when Museveni has something very serious on his mind, he will summon them 30kms away to Entebbe or his country home in Rwakitura, 250kms away. At Nakasero, which right in the centre of Kampala city; more often than not, it is a time for good-temperedness not any less from the journalists who don’t have to worry too much about how to get back to the newsroom as soon as possible to file their stories.
So on Oct.02 under his little white summer tent pitched on the lush green lawn, Museveni – clad in a dark blue suit, white shirt and yellow neck tie, but without his signature hat – cut the figure of an influential globe-trotting statesman as he faced a battery of equally relaxed cameramen and writers.
He had just returned from a trip abroad where he had a photo-op with US President Barrack Obama and ruffled a few feathers when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and later held several diplomatic side meetings with various entities including World Bank officials.
Also, he delivered a keynote address on African development and investment. On his way back, he made a brief stop-over in the Netherlands where he met government officials and the monarch there.
Back home while he was away, a paralysing strike by public teachers over salary increment had been successfully suspended. A few hours earlier, he had launched a US$150 million steel rolling factory at Namanve near Kampala. Obviously the President was on a high, which made his bullish and chest-thumping mood easy to understand.
“I thought I would tell these young friends of mine (journalists) about my trip,” a visibly relaxed Museveni began, raising the expectations of a horde of reporters, though – thanks to the global news media – many were more or less aware of most of what he did and said on his trip.
The other two reasons he called the press briefing were to once again boast about the “economic success” the country has achieved under his NRM party since 1986 and how the country is now at peace thanks to the “strong” military.
Obviously, most of the questions on the journalists’ minds could have been easily choreographed a day before. Even easier for him, was choosing to answer only six questions – three from the “boys” and three from the “girls.”
At the UN he had attacked the International Criminal Court (ICC) and later, in a meeting with top Belgian officials, he had warned Europe about messing up the DR Congo, before taking to Al Jazeera TV where he answered even more touchy questions about claims that he was grooming his son to succeed him. As expected, there were questions on these issues and he had prepared easy answers for them.
Probably the only question that appeared to force him into an uneasy turning in his seat was about the ever-increasing State House budget in a country where poorly paid teachers are striking over a salary increment. Museveni gave a somewhat unconvincing suggestion that State House money was not for his personal benefit – because he was already rich thanks to proceeds from his ranches – but for the benefit of poor Ugandans in the rural areas.
“Presidential donations are a project of development because I use those donations to develop your country,” he shot back with a wily grin. “Remember this president was elected to develop the country.”
Earlier, he had made a solemn appeal to “detractors” who want to “distract us” from serious issues like roads and electricity by demanding for higher salaries to keep calm. His reasoning was that he wants everyone to be paid well but roads are the pillars on which the economy stands and they must be prioritized.
Gen. Sejusa question
Over the last few months, Museveni knew that the country has been waiting for him to comment on the self-exiled Gen. David Sejusa, whom on a rather disparaging note, he only preferred to address by his former name, Tinyefuza. Struggling to cover up any appearance of sentiment, Museveni dismissed his former intelligence chief as an “army deserter” who must answer for his “many mistakes” in accordance with the army laws. Even his dismissal of the general’s threats to use force was as emphatic and belittling as it was clinical.
“We are not concentrating on Tinyefuza because he is not our priority,” he said categorically. “If he wants to use force let him come; he knows my address and we have been waiting for him for a few months now. That is rubbish – force can longer work in Uganda. There is no hope for anybody using force even on a small scale. If you try we just extinguish you.”
He again rebuked the media which he said, albeit jokingly, “hates” and “abuses” him and his development agenda.
“This is a season for [launching development projects] so those of you who hate Museveni; how are you going to handle it?” he asked to a bout of laughter.
Giving a reasoned response to suggestions that Uganda should consider pulling out of Somalia to forestall terror attacks from Al Shabaab on Ugandan soil, Museveni was categorical in stating that Uganda would not be cowed from taking the fire to the door of the terrorist group, which he said has links to the ADF – the Islamist rebel outfit that burnt students in Kichwamba Technical College in 1998 – decades before Uganda even thought of going to Somalia.
“Was Uganda in Somalia when those attacks happened?” he asked. “There is no way you are going to hide from these confused people. The best way is to deal with them.”
While ruling out any possibility that the Ugandan army would pull out of the war-torn country where it is protecting “our brothers and sisters”, he warned Ugandans against what he described as “preaching selfish cowardice.”
Asked about his comments about the ICC at the UN, Museveni’s mood changed as he in scoffing fashion repeated his indictment of the court as “shallow” and “distorted.” He was particularly perturbed by its move on newly-elected Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his VP William Ruto.
He suggested that the ICC is better off keeping off because Kenya’s problems were not legal but ideological – tribalism and sectarianism, which could not be cured by international law.
He said the ICC had no business meddling because the Kenyan leaders have already decided to come together politically as a way of dealing with their “ideological” problems.
Of course some people had accused Museveni of hypocrisy in the sense that he found the ICC good when it served his interests and wrong when it did not. But defending his stance, he stated that he only referred LRA leader Joseph Kony and his top commanders to the ICC because they had fled Uganda to other countries such as Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.
“If he was here we would just hang him here because we have very good gallows at Luzira [Prisons],” he said.
The question about his son, Brig. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, being groomed for the top job – fortunately for Museveni and unfortunately for many journalists – was asked in Kiswahili.
Though he tried to explain it away on the Al Jazeera interview by stating that his son “was not interested in politics,” Museveni knows that the issue has locally been emotive in recent months as it indeed led to the closure of several media houses and was the reason why Gen. Sejusa is now in exile for his public comments about it.
It was as well good that it came last because it ruffled Museveni a little, as expected.
“Have you read the Ugandan constitution?” he shot back at the journalist in broken Kiswahili. “Please give her the Constitution so that she can see how somebody becomes a president.”
He wondered how his son, who he said has never even stood for elections at the lowest local council level, could be president.
No sooner had he answered this question than he stood up to leave amidst a clamour from the journalists for a brief presentation in Luganda – the most commonly spoken local dialect. “I taught you English, so translate into Luganda,” he joked as he scurried off to his motorcade to go away for yet another late afternoon event in town.
In the end as the CEO, a calm and collected Museveni was successful in giving the country the much-needed assurance that all is well in their country.
But everyone knows that like a duck that appears to be calmly floating on the water, below the surface Museveni is also frantically working hard to keep his government afloat amidst a cash crunch that is paralysing government operations, acrimony and bickering in his ruling party, and criticisms of massive corruption in his government.