How Museveni family politics plays out
Kampala, Uganda | IAN KATUSIIME | In December 2022, President Yoweri Museveni flew to London with a business delegation en route to the U.S. Africa summit in Washington D.C. In his delegation was one individual who loomed large: his son-in-law Odrek Rwabwogo.
Rwabwogo’s presence on the trip and the deal making he was involved in triggered several responses, including from Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, Museveni’s son, now well known for his eye on the throne.
In a tweet, Muhoozi wrote about “favoured sons-in-law” and his post ignited intense debate about the two. Muhoozi deleted the tweet but it gave Ugandans a rare glimpse into the unrest among President Museveni’s family members.
Rwabwogo, a farmer, businessman and Director of Tomosi Group, is married to Patience Rwabwogo, a pastor at Covenant Nations Church and Museveni’s third child with Janet Museveni. The couple celebrated their twentieth marriage anniversary in August 2022 at Lake Kakyeera in Kiruhura district. The President and First Lady attended the ceremony of about 200 guests that included relatives and family friends. But there was one notable absentee: Patience’s elder brother Muhoozi.
Rwabwogo was part of the delegation to the U.K. as chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Exports and Industrial Development. When Museveni appeared with Rwabwogo at the meeting in London with U.K. investors, some political insiders felt it was good optics for a son-in-law considered way below in the pecking order of succession by those in the royal court.
At the business event in London last year, Rwabwogo pitched the establishment of business councils to facilitate business between Uganda and other nations. Rwabwogo’s proximity to the President has kept tongues wagging as a favoured son-in-law as Muhoozi had pointed out earlier.
Rwabogo’s recent trips to South Africa and Serbia leading Ugandan delegations have been widely reported about on mainstream and social media. In February, Rwabwogo led a delegation to the South Africa-Uganda Business summit which President Museveni and his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa addressed.
This month, Rwabwogo led another team to Serbia where they inspected progress on the Uganda Trade Hub in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. The highly visible moves have sparked debate on why Rwabwogo is snapping up major deals in spite of heading a somewhat obscure agency.
The rise of Rwabwogo’s committee has relegated Uganda Export Promotions Agency, created by statute, further to the back burner and perhaps left Uganda Investment Authority (UIA) in limbo.
As a sign of his perhaps growing clout, Parliament with the NRM majority, voted to approve Shs37bn to Rwabwogo’s agency to promote coffee. The motion was passed over the objections of opposition MPs like Anne Adeke (Soroti District Woman), Ibrahim Semujju (Kira Municipality), Muwanga Kivumbi (Butamabala County), Goretti Namugga (Mawogola County) and Lulume Byaiga (Buikwe South) who authored a minority report on the annual budget estimates for FY 2023/24.
Rwabwogo in his defence said the criticism towards him was “cheap politics”. He said in a tweet; “There is no ‘Odrekvote’ in UGbudget. I head a 44 member comt & UCDA sits in. We drive 13 agro- Industrial sectors to raise USD6bn exports by 2028. The coffee fund to underwrite invoices is for 21 coffee firms.”
He doubled down on his defence. “Uganda firms have had limited market presence for years. 5 of the 13 sectors now have orders of up to USD550m & we have created a revolving fund for firms to help underwrite invoices to help them supply these orders.”
As soon as the news broke of the budget passed for coffee activities, Rwabwogo was under fire from those in the trade who said he has no intention of helping the sector.
Many observers have been left wondering who is possibly behind the 21 coffee firms and how the figure Shs37bn was arrived at. However how the allocation for Rwabwogo’s activities was transferred to the Classified Expenditure vote is what has raised eyebrows.
The move left insiders and others wondering whether money can be moved to the Classified Expenditure vote for any entity’s activities without the express approval of the highest office in the land.
Semujju wrote in the minority report on Museveni’s ever burgeoning expenditure. “To make matters worse, he has provided himself with Shs120billion for classified expenditure at his residence. This money includes Shs37billion initially budgeted for under Science and Technology as transfer to private entity.”
He added “This money which will be given to individuals headed by President Museveni’s son in law Mr. Odrek Rwabwogo to ostensibly promote coffee export has been transferred to a classified code under State House.”
Semujju noted that the Shs37bn was moving from Code 282303 Coffee Value Chain Development to item 460014 (Logistical Support and Security) for Classified Expenditure.
Rwabwogo also hit back at Semujju in a social media conversation about the accusations. “We need more help than just cheap politics. Both MPs Namuga & Nganda were in when we came. They said nothing, no debate & simply disappeared in thin air only to resurface with cheap politics. Don’t join them in harming the private sector rising from the ashes of Covid19. Help.”
Anne Adeke, a co-author of the report told The Independent “It was very underhanded of the Ministry of Finance to move the money into the classified budget in an attempt to hide it.
“An individual, also the son in law of the president cannot take the place and duty for a task that should be done by a government institution which we can hold to account,” she added.
Whereas Muhoozi has thrown his hat into the ring for the 2026 race, Rwabwogo’s ambitions remain unstated and a watch-the–space gamble. Officially, the two men are Presidential Advisors but unofficially they hold enormous clout courtesy of their relationships to the same man- Museveni.
To many outsiders, Muhoozi appears as the heir apparent to Museveni. He meets Heads of State and receives Ambassadors at his residence. His convoy is almost as large as that of his father and at times moves in the President’s official car with a security detail that not even the First Lady has, according to those familiar with State House operations.
However, history has shown that Museveni is never one that likes to be second guessed even by those closest to him. According to this theory, it is the reason why some believe that Rwabwogo harbours presidential ambitions with some members of the First Family quietly rooting for him though he is considered a long shot by any measure.
Over Museveni’s long reign, a number of power centres have emerged through his family; the First Lady Janet, Museveni’s brother Gen. Salim Saleh, and Saleh’s nephew Gen. Muhoozi. Through familial relations, power brokers and other influential Ugandans have also emerged leading to an unending web of intrigue, subterfuge and jockeying for power in the House of Kaguta.
Rwabwogo stirred the hornet’s nest in 2015 when he dared to challenge Brig. Matayo Kyaligonza, an NRA Bush War veteran, for the hallowed position of NRM’s vice chairman for western region. With a column in the government mouthpiece; the New Vision, about refining ideology and a spirited campaign, Rwabwogo unsettled Kyaligonza who at the time treated his position as a ring fenced one.
Kyaligonza, then Uganda’s Ambassador to Burundi, faced a humiliating exit from his NRM perch until Museveni prevailed on Rwabwogo to back down through the NRM’s Central Executive Committee.
Whether or not Rwabwogo had Museveni’s backing is unknown but many in the party felt that the long serving NRM chairman had played two of his own against each other; an old compatriot and his son-in-law.
“Rwabwogo had exercised his democratic right to stand and hadn’t consulted me. I hadn’t seen his work. I didn’t know that he was so focused on ideology and can help write the syllabus of the Party’s ideology. Now I am convinced that he should continue with his team and we should find a way to support this work,” Museveni said in late 2015 at a meeting held at State House to tamp down the dust caused by the contest between Rwabwogo and Kyaligonza.
“Rwabwogo seems to have been listening to me closely and learnt a lot from me. I thought he was simply a businessman focused on his milk sales. I had no idea he could clearly and ably trace the process of social formation and how to change society for better,” Museveni said.
Rwabwogo’s campaign in the NRM ended but Museveni gave him a go ahead on the NRM ideological and mentorship training session across the country.
In his last column on the Ideology series, Rwabwogo gave a personal history of his work with the Movement.
“Since 1992 as a young university student serving in the Pan African Movement and as a student leader, I have worked for the Movement as a volunteer, teacher, researcher, writer, logistician, communicator, mobiliser and sometimes its fervent critic,” he wrote.
The older guard in the NRM who had been rattled by Rwabwogo’s bid to join the party leadership had started speaking out actively against him prompting him to end his writings as the 2016 election was also drawing closer.
After the column had ran for more than a year, Rwabwogo fired shots in his last one. “We have always been the evangelists of the Movement gospel preaching openly the need to return to the basic principles that made the Movement great in the first place and kept it attractive. But the sawdust from our carpentry workshop seems to have fallen in the eyes of some three categories of people and they have all reacted differently.
“We do not believe that the right to be engaged is relegated to a few in the political class but rather, it is the responsibility of every citizen to seek to make a positive contribution to the growth of their nation.”