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Nyakairima and UPDF’s soul

By Andrew M. Mwenda

How Nyakairima took UPDF out of headlines and has left a professional respected military

Sometime in 2003, President Yoweri Museveni chaired a meeting of the army high command to discuss highly sensitive matters. The proceedings leaked to me. I was happy to publish a story about them in Daily Monitor, omitting the more sensitive aspects. The president invited me for breakfast at State House Nakasero over the story. He wanted to know my source. He said as a patriotic Ugandan I should know that officers who leak highly classified information are a risk to national security. “We will not harm this officer or officers, not even demote them,” Museveni assured me, “But we need to know so that we do not give them access to national security secrets.”

I told the president that I wanted him to trust me that when I give my word, I do not breech it. I had given this officer my word that I would not expose him. But, I added, the problem is not the officer but the institutional crisis in UPDF. Officers are bitter and do not feel confident the internal mechanisms can redress the institutional crisis; that is why they come to us in the press. Reform the army, I told him, and these leakages will go away. Museveni listened attentively and our meeting ended. I left Nakasero feeling the president was disappointed I had not revealed my source in spite of his courtesy. But I also felt he had taken something from our conversation.

Then in early 2005, I bumped into Gen. Aronda Nyakairima and then Brig. Benon Biraro at the Gazebo of then Nile Hotel (now Serena). Nyakairima was army commander at the time and Biraro his chief of staff. Soon we were involved in a discussion of the situation in UPDF over a cup of coffee.


I had made my career exposing corruption and incompetence in UPDF, breaking big stories on the purchase of junk helicopters, junk tanks, expired food rations, one-foot boots, undersize uniforms, ghost soldiers, battle losses etc. Yet Nyakairima and Biraro were not angry with me. Instead, they thanked me for my work saying a lot of what I had been writing was true.

Nyakairima told me that he wanted to help me understand UPDF. He said things were changing in the army and that the UPDF I had been writing about under Maj. Gen. James Kazini was dying and a new one was being born.

“Soon your stories will disappear, Andrew,” Nyakairima told me prophetically, “and I hope you will have the courage to report the positive changes the same way you have always reported our failures.”

He then invited me to visit the army headquarters and other projects the army was undertaking. “I promise that after this visit,” Nyakairima said, “even if you will not have changed your view of UPDF, it will leave some impression on you.”

I never visited UPDF headquarters or its projects. But his prophesy came true. My story sources slowly died out as Nyakairima had predicted in large part because he helped establish systems and processes that ensured fairness, equity and professionalism in recruitment, promotion, deployment and procurement. Consequently, the Uganda press has not broken any major story of corruption and infighting in the UPDF for the last ten years.

Under Kazini, UPDF had come to be dominated by what Ali Mazrui, in his book Soldiers and Kinsmen in Uganda; the Making of a Military Ethnocracy, called the “lumpen militariat”. Professional and educated officers were purged, the best example being the exemplary Maj. Sabiti Mutengesa, who ran into exile.  An army that had promised not to parasite on the nation by being productive was turned into a springboard for private profiteers. I fought Kazini with fanatical zeal. Frustrated army officers would bring me evidence of his buccaneering which I would take to Museveni, urging the president to fire him or I would publish the details when this was not forthcoming.

In October 2003 Museveni finally fired Kazini and replaced him with Nyakairima. From then onwards, UPDF embarked on a new journey. I don’t want to reduce UPDF’s transformation into Nyakairima’s autobiography. That would do injustice to the core of his approach to management and leadership.

Nyakairima’s greatest asset was being a team player. His success came in large part from his ability to build a team and a consensus among top army officers. He was calm and affable and handled officers with courtesy. This aspect of his personality informed his leadership strategy. So Nyakairima avoided conflict, preferring consensus, an approach his successor, Gen. Katumba Wamala, shares in plenty. He created win-win situations. And most critically, Nyakairima’s reforms would have been impossible without the active support of Museveni.

Under Kazini, UPDF was not only corrupt but also internally divided. Yet Nyakairima reformed it without quarrels and recriminations. One would have expected him to begin his job with a massive purge of the lumpen militariat Kazini left in charge. Instead, he began slowly but steadily to build team spirit, coopted many of Kazini’s men and sent them for training. He reorganised command by identifying the right officers to deploy in the right positions. He also eliminated ghost soldiers, a problem that had literally crippled the army. This led to increased operational effectiveness that finally broke the back of the LRA rebellion in Northern Uganda within two years.

Nyakairima put a lot of effort in training of soldiers beginning with specialised units such as Artillery, Armored and Air Defense. He helped establish the Senior Staff and Command College at Kimaka in Jinja which increased the output of highly trained officers. (Previously Uganda was sending one or two officers a year to command and staff colleges in Ghana, USA or UK). With Kimaka, the country could afford to output 40 officers a year. He also improved the Junior Staff College (also in Jinja) and the Cadet training school by building better infrastructure and giving them more equipment. He reformed the procurement processes, which minimised corruption.

Nyakairima used to say that UPDF’s brand is discipline and he did a lot to enhance this, a factor that greatly improved civil-military relations. However there was hardly a whisper in the press about these changes. This is largely because journalism thrives on scandal – well because it is interesting. But perhaps we need to ask ourselves: who will dare to tell a story of human goodness?

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