By Andrew M. Mwenda
How overreaction to Tinyefuza by closing down Daily Monitor and Red Pepper may launch yet another presidential candidate
Since the Coordinator of Intelligence Services, Gen. David Sejusa aka Tinyefuza, kicked off a storm by alleging that there is a plan to have Brig. Muhoozi Keinerugaba succeed his father President Yoweri Museveni as president of Uganda, government has been eclectic.
Yet, more than what Tinyefuza said, it is the response of the government that is troublesome. It seems the government is determined to make a hero out of Tinyefuza.
First, government rapidly mobilized troops and deployed armored personnel carriers at the airport to arrest Tinyefuza on the Saturday he had promised to return. Then again, it backtracked and removed them. When asked, they said the deployment was to protect foreign dignitaries attending the Commonwealth Local Governments meeting.
I can confirm from reliable security sources that a decision has been taken not to arrest Tinyefuza upon arrival at the airport. The plan is to let him go home and then summon him for questioning – in order to deny him the prize of being received with paranoiac tanks at Entebbe.
This seemed to be a sober decision when I left Kampala for London on Friday. Upon my return late Monday night, I found the government had shut down The Red Pepper and Daily Monitor and its affiliate radio stations KFM and Dembe FM. Whoever is advising the government must must be an ally of Tinyefuza. This action is going to amplify his allegations to the rest of the world. What had started as a domestic news story is now going to take a global significance.
Over 90% of Ugandans do not get news from mainstream newspapers even though those are catalysts. They get news from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Therefore, if the government’s intention is to stop the spread of allegations regarding a possible ‘Muhoozi project’, then they are flogging the wrong horse; Monitor and Red Pepper are very miniscule players.
These allegations are being debated on social media without any form of restraint. Indeed, Tinyefuza himself picked these rumors from online sources where they had been circulating for months.
However, the closure of Monitor and Red Pepper has deeply damaged the government nationally and internationally without achieving the objective of undermining the rumors themselves. Nationally, it has embarrassed President Museveni’s admirers as they see their leader acting arbitrarily.
Internationally, it has painted the President as an ageing dictator suppressing freedom of speech. Worse of all, it has also given Tinyefuza’s allegations greater credibility than he could have dreamt of. This is because many people may now begin to see in government paranoia an admission of guilt.
If Museveni wants Muhoozi to succeed him, then he needs someone to precipitate a debate on this subject. In many ways therefore, although Tinyefuza is subjectively anti-Muhoozi Project, he is objectively an ally. Nothing sells Muhoozi’s presidential ambitions than a protracted public debate on the matter. Whether the noise on the Muhoozi project is positive or negative is only of secondary value. Muhoozi needs publicity of his name across the country as a potential presidential contender.
At the beginning of this saga, I tended to underestimate Tinyefuza and overestimate Museveni. I felt that Tinyefuza had taken too high a risk without much short-term benefit commensurate to the risk. As a soldier, he could get politically muzzled and rendered inactive and irrelevant as happened to Brig. Henry Tumukunde. Second, I felt that it would have been difficult for him to find allies inside NRM to openly support his cause as Museveni seems to have tightened his grip on internal dissent. However, I also knew that he had touched a raw nerve in Museveni (his family) that was going to rattle the president in a very bad way thus causing him to overreact. And overreact he has.
The crackdown on the media is an unmitigated disaster – less so for the media involved as it is for the government. People on social media sites were attacking Daily Monitor accusing it of being timid and cowardly. Now this action has given them and Red Pepper much more credibility than any marketing strategy backed by tons of money could ever have accomplished.
If Tinyefuza is making wild allegations about a project that does not exist, why act irrationally to him and the press? The media crackdown will not stop the debate. Instead, it will make Tinyefuza the most discussed subject in bars, streets, shops, restaurants, taxis, buses, homes, schools, hospitals and markets.
From November 1999 to October 2000, I witnessed Museveni turn an obscure colonel into a presidential candidate. Kizza Besigye had authored a document for internal discussion within NRM where he accused government of corruption, incompetence and nepotism. It was not the content of the document that sprang Besigye into prominence but rather government reaction to him.
Museveni then accused Besigye of using the wrong forum and sought to prosecute him through the Military Court Martial. For almost a year and until he was retired from the army, Besigye was frontline news in all media – print and electronic – a factor that he used as a springboard to declare his presidential ambitions.
After the 2001 elections, Besigye was forced into exile. But on realizing that this would improve his political career, he returned to contest for the presidency in 2005/06 elections. Museveni reacted by arresting Besigye and charging him with “rape” and “treason” in the high court and “terrorism” in the military court martial.
In one blow Museveni created the greatest political momentum of any candidacy Uganda had witnessed. It was because of sheer dint of political tenacity and a high doze of rigging that Museveni survived Besigye’s onslaught in 2006.
In 2011, Museveni ignored Besigye and focused largely on his own campaign. In that simple act of civility, he sucked air out of Besigye’s balloon. Where in 2006 a newspaper without Besigye in the headline could not sell, in 2011 a Besigye headline would get 50% returns.
The lesson for me is simple but powerful: in present day Uganda, the best way for government to kill the political attractiveness of a candidate running for office or a politician seeking to build a brand is to ignore them. This is exactly what I thought government would do with Tinyefuza – and how wrong I was. Now Tinyefuza is on the roll.