By Julius Odeke, Joan Akello & Ronald Musoke
President tightens grip on army, police, media
Three days after he shut down two independent newspapers, and two radio stations, President Yoweri Museveni on May 23 shuffled his cabinet, placing the Defence sector, Internal Affairs, and Information in the hands of the military and trusted cadres.
Since the reshuffle, the second time in nine months, was announced, commentators have said the changes set the tone for the 2016 election in which Museveni, who will have completed 30 years in power, is expected to seek another five-year term.
By putting two generals in charge of police, and three party ideologues in charge of the media, Museveni has signaled that dissenting views, opinions, and activities within his party, the NRM, and from the opposition are likely to be muzzled.
Journalists in Uganda are routinely beaten up and their equipment confiscated by police and soldiers and their offices ransacked. But conditions are likely to get tougher, according to analysts.
Renowned Ugandan columnist Charles Onyango Obbo, makes this point on his blog, Naked Chiefs, of May 24.
Onyango writes that the recent attacks on the media are sideshows to the real thing—which according to him is the grand scheme to have Museveni retain power beyond 2016—when he will clearly be above 75 years old. Another scheme to manipulate the Constitution is on the cards and hence the choice of some of the ministers and other technocrats.
Onyango-Obbo says: “While the Museveni government’s anti-free media streak goes way back, it would never muzzle the press merely for the sake of muzzling it… The attacks on the free media are usually part of its wider political scheme, and never the end.”
The changes also follow the flight to Europe of a top general, David Sejusa aka Tinyefuza, after he alleged in a letter that Museveni plans to purge top military personnel and politicians opposed to his continued stay in power or the transfer of the presidency to his son, Brig. Muhoozi Kainerugaba.
Museveni named Gen. Katumba Wamala to head the army as Chief of Defence Forces. A career soldier from regimes preceding Museveni’s, Gen. Wamala cemented his role in the army leadership in battles against Museveni’s enemies in the DR Congo and northern Uganda where he gained a reputation for professionalism that matched his firmness. When he was named to head the police in 2001 for a four-year stint, he showed how armed forces can achieve results with a human face.
The man he replaces, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima moves to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which is crucial in the organisation of national elections. The move to Internal Affairs also shunts Gen. Nyakairima out of any action in the army which has become restless following Gen. Sejusa’s allegations of divisions and intrigue.
But the shuffle could produce its own tensions. When another army boss, Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu was removed from the position and named minister, he rejected the position, quit Museveni’s government, and is now leader of the largest opposition party in Uganda; the Forum for Democratic Change. It is unclear how, Gen. Nyakairima, renowned for keeping his views to himself, is reacting to the removal from the army at age 54.
For now, he joins another general, Kale Kayihura, who as Inspector General of Police oversaw the 2011 election and its aftermath with unprecedented security deployment and brutality. Kayihura has himself been promoted to general from Lieutenant general in a move that could complicate reporting lines between him and Gen. Nyakairima who is his boss in the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Museveni also elevated Ofwono Opondo, who has been the acerbic-tongued spokesperson of his NRM party to head the Uganda Media Centre, which is designed to be a funnel for all government information to the media and the public. Ofwono Opondo, who has a proven record as an ideological attacking machine against Museveni’s opponents, is deputised by Col. Shaban Bantariza, a more pliable but no less formidable spin-doctor.
Rose Namayanja Nsereko who has been the state minister for Luweero Triangle has replaced Karooro-Okurut as the Information and National Guidance Minister. Namayanja’s new appointment may be surprising to only those who do not know her. Although she holds two bachelor’s degrees, including one in law from Makerere University, the Nakaseke District Woman MP has no experience in media unlike her predecessor.
She is a cadre, who served at Museveni’s Statehouse as a Political Officer for three years from 2008, is said to hold a Master’s qualification in Security Sector Management from the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.
Peter Mwesige, the executive director of the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), the leading professional journalism training institute in Uganda, says the President wants the Information docket under “someone who can bring order in the media”.
He says outgoing Information Minister Karooro Okurut was under pressure to introduce the Press and Journalist (Amendment) Act 2010 which was criticised by the media operators as an attempt to further stifle independent media.
Semujju Nganda, a former journalist who is now an MP and Shadow Minister for Information and National Guidance says Karooro was moved possibly because of the mutual respect she has with the media.
“Karooro Okurut had an idea of how the media works, and because she is decent, it was easy for her to understand the media,” Ssemujju says.
Mwesige says Namayanja is expected to bring her “firebrand” approach.
“The president is still frustrated with the communication gap and is now looking for those who can respond in real time, which may explain why Okurut was moved,” Mwesige says, “Namayanja can respond to issues and take on people without being labeled an outsider.”
Taken in combination with Ofwono Opondo and Col. Shaban Bantariza, the Namayanja tenure promises to be an interesting combination of well-schooled propaganda, rabid intimidation, and further muzzling of independent media. That should work well for President Museveni who always clamps down on the media, including the government-run New Vision, during election time.
In September 2009, barely two years to the 2011 election, the government shut down CBS FM, Radio Two Akaboozi, Ssuubi FM and the Catholic-owned Radio Sapientia.
After the latest clampdown on two newspapers and two radio stations, Makerere University professor of media law, Frederick Jjuuko, told The Independent in an interview that such actions have a “chilling effect” as other media fear to report events independently.