By Haggai Matsiko
Gen. Biraaro joins renegades Sejusa, Besigye
President Yoweri Museveni might face two retired generals in the 2016 presidential elections if word on the street proves correct. Apart from retired Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu who is set to contest on the ticket of the biggest opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), there is a new entrant; newly-retired Maj. Gen. Benon Biraaro.
Make former top army officers three if perennial presidential candidate, retired Col. Dr. Kizza Besigye, stands again. For now, however, the question among 2016 presidential election watchers is what danger or advantage Maj. Gen. Biraaro presents for Museveni and the opposition.
Gen. Biraaro, is a very senior officer and a former close confidante of the outgoing Chief of Defence Forces Gen. Aronda Nyakairima. As early as 1984, in the bush war days; he was Secretary to High Command and National Resistance Council, commanded the Senior Staff College, Kimaka and was at some point the Deputy Chief of staff. Structurally, the Deputy Chief of Staff is the fifth top position after the Commander in Chief, the Chief of Defence Forces (CDF), his deputy and the Joint Chief of Staff (JCOS).
Biraaro’s challenge to Museveni is significant because it comes at a time of the apparent division in the army that flared publicly with the flight to exile in the UK of erstwhile Museveni confidante and Coordinator of Intelligence Services; the maverick Gen. David Sejua aka Tinyefuza.
Gen. Biraaro belongs to the crop of young intellectuals; including Nyakairima and Maj. John Kazoora, who joined Museveni’s bush fighters in 1982 from Makerere University. At the time, Gen. Sejusa and Brig. Jim Muhwezi, were already in the bush. Col. Besigye and Inspector General of Police Gen. Kale Kayihura, joined much later in 1984.
Together, they formed the intellectual vanguard of the elite in Museveni’s military and were often at loggerheads with the semi-literate fringe of the late army commander, Brig. James Kazini.
Biraaro fell out with Museveni because, like other inner-core rebels, he wore his independent-mindedness on the lapels of his officer’s jacket. Sensing this, Museveni quietly kicked him upstairs and shipped him off to work as a diplomat at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2007.
But the restless general quit his post just one year into his two-year contract. He returned to Uganda with an ambitious project called LIFT; an acronym for Local Investment for Transformation,’ a project he proclaimed had the potential to do what Museveni had failed to do – transform Uganda from a Highly Indebted Poor Country to a developed country. When he immediately applied to be retired, Museveni’s survival antennae immediately shot up.
A lofty project of the magnitude and potential of LIFT could have given Biraaro huge political capital. Shortly after Biraaro unveiled the project to Ugandans, Museveni watched as he was showered with praises about how his record was spotless and his project superb. With such plaudits, chances of being released from the army became, to say the least, very slim, his close confidants say.
Col. Besigye, who has been Museveni’s most formidable challenger in three previous elections – 2001, 2006 and 2011 – had set a `terrible’ precedent when he started `causing trouble’ as soon as he was released from the army.
Although Biraaro has not been quiet about his plans to contest against Museveni and resurrected his LIFT agenda with plans to launch it in 2010, as an active army officer then, he needed to pass it off as a government project. Museveni promised to fund it but the billions of shillings it needed never came. It is not clear where Biraaro will get funds for his campaign.
When he held a family function in August at his home in Munyonyo, a Kampala suburb, Biraaro again told his close relatives and close confidants that he plans to contest come 2016. Some of his close associates and potential funders and well-wishers are political and business people. Some of Biraaro’s supporters urged him to contest against his area MP, Bright Rwamirama in Isingiro North constituency but he has maintained his focus is on the presidency.
Who is Benon Biraaro?
- Born March 1, 1958
- Studied Political Science at Makerere University
- Joined Bush war from Makerere University on June 7, 1982
- Served in several capacities until he became Secretary to High Command and National Resistance Council 1984
- Deputy to Museveni’s Principle Private Secretary in 1986
- Special District Administrator Kitgum 1986-87
- Deputy Commandant Kyankwanzi Political School
- Commanding Officer 97 Battalion in Eastern Uganda that ended insurgency in Samia, Teso
- Commander Military Police
- Military Representative in IGG’s office
- Adhoc committee of Human Rights under Abu Mayanja
- Director of Training
- Led the Uganda contingent to DRC in 1998
- Commander Infantry Division, Western Uganda
- Assistant Chief of Staff, UPDF
- Founded and commanded for two in-takes the Kimaka, the Senior Command and Staff College
- Chief of Strategic Planning and Management Unit of Peace and Security Commission
- Resigns Nov.30 2008 to start LIFT
- Junior Staff College with the British Military Training T
- Junior Command and Staff at Kaduma, Nigeria
- Senior Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, USA
- Africa Strategic Studies at Abdu Nasser Military College, Cairo, Egypt
- Masters in Global Security Studies at Cranfield University, UK
Biraaro has stayed firm.
In the same Christian vein, he built a church in his village in Isingiro. At its launch, he again spoke sharply about how things were going wrong under the current regime and needed to be fixed.
Museveni is possibly aware that Biraaro has been critical of his government for a long time.
His retirement request was immediately frozen and he joined other unhappy army officers like Brig. Henry Tumukunde and the renegade Gen. Sejusa, who Museveni has declined to retire.
Relatively less known than the others on the national stage, Gen. Biraaro is a grassroots operator with a gift for doing the unexpected. The LIFT agenda was his virtual political manifesto and he used it to traverse the country, market himself, and canvass for support and financial resources.
A soft-spoken gentleman with the huge frame of a heavy weight boxer, Biraaro proudly wears the badge of professional integrity and innovative thinking. Ideally, he should belong to the Christian evangelical axis; the so-called ‘Born-agains’ who form the inner core of the First Lady Janet Museveni side of Museveni’s government.
But he does not. Because his presidential ambitions have been known for some time among Museveni’s inner circle, sources told The Independent that they were surprised that he was invited when the Musevenis celebrated 40 years in marriage and even had a brief chat with the President.
President Museveni has often acted quite ruthlessly against any threat to his power. Biraaro’s presence at such an inner-circle function led to questions about Museveni’s plans about him.
When word of Biraaro’s ambitions first started, it was assumed that Museveni would treat him like the rest of the generals; keep him in the army without any specific office.
Then word came in August that Museveni had actually allowed him to be retired. It was a surprise because it was assumed that Museveni would treat him like the rest of the generals; keep him in the army without any specific office.
So why had Museveni had actually allowed him to be retired?
Biraaro reportedly told his family and his close confidants that it was because of his “prayers.” He said the time had come to launch his bid for the presidency. But he could not make this public because, sources say, he knew that a notice to retire is not a retirement certificate. Legally, for one to retire, they must be issued with a certificate.
The letter he had received was by the Chief of Personnel and Administration and it bore no signature of the Commander of Defence Forces or the Commander in Chief.
Biraaro knew that without those signatures, any letter is as good as no letter at all. The army could easily turn around and arrest him if he announced plans to contest against his boss.
Sources say, Biraaro carried the letter back to the Chief of Personnel and told him to write him a proper letter with the requisite signatures and his certificate. The Chief of Personnel promised that his proper papers would be worked on. Then early this month, the army officially announced that it was in the final phase of retiring the general. The UPDF has even contacted him for measurements of his retirement regalia.
When contacted about what could have prompted the retirement of the general, the Army Spokesman, Col. Paddy Ankunda, said there was nothing unusual. He said Biraaro’s case was handled first because he was the most senior official of those that had applied to retire.
“The committee dealing with retirement has attracted over 2,000 applications,” Akunda told The Independent, “Biraaro’s was just one of them. So really, there is no story there.”
Analysts, however, say that Museveni might have calculated that even if Biraaro joins the presidential contest, he could end up serving his interests. Apparently, the elect-Museveni-again camp has calculated that more candidates hurt the opposition more than they hurt Museveni.
In the last election, seven opposition candidates contested against President Museveni. These included; FDC’s Kizza Besigye, Democratic Party’s Norbert Mao, Peoples Progressive Party’s Jaberi Bidandi Ssali, Uganda Federal Alliance’s Beti Olive Kamya, Abed Bwanika, Olara Otunnu of the Uganda Peoples Congress and Samuel Lubega.
Of these, at least five will return. But with the divisions and disagreements the number could even increase. Some of the possible new entrants come 2016 apart from Biraaro, could include former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya, who has announced his presidential bid.
Parties like FDC and DP, which are riddled with disagreements, might throw up multiple contenders if the disagreements are not resolved.
Yet, critics say, the opposition has very slim chances of eating into Museveni’s vote, which judging by last year’s election, can only grow or remain intact.
While President Museveni’s vote count had been on a downward spiral since 1996, it suddenly jumped upwards in 2011. In 1996, Museveni got 74% of the vote, 69% in 2001, and 59% in 2006. But his tally swung to 68% in the last election.
In 2011, voter turnout was a paltry 59%, the lowest since the first elections Museveni contested in 1996. Of the 13.9 million eligible voters, only 8.2 million voted. About six million stayed away.
Considering that only 68% or 5.5 million voted for Museveni, analysts say an opposition leader who can win the vote of the remaining 8.4 million or 60% of all eligible voters in 2011 that did not vote for Museveni, could trounce him.
Gen. Muntu’s supporters are betting on him doing that.
Grabbing the undecided voters
They claim most of the six million eligible voters who stayed away oppose Museveni and could have voted against him if the opposition candidates had been attractive. They say, however, that most were put off by Besigye’s aggressive extremism and will most likely vote the quieter and more moderate Gen. Muntu. These argue that Muntu will win in 2016, because he can eat deep into the NRM support base and capture voters that sit on the fence and stayed away from the polling stations in previous elections.
As a result, their strategy involves selling Muntu as a `moderate’ in whom even NRM supporters can find a safe haven.
But if Biraaro joins the race, Muntu will cease to be the only moderate. Like Muntu, those close to Biraaro say his biggest asset is his spotless record. He is one of the few officials who have protected their reputations from corruption.
Some say that Museveni is allowing Biraaro to retire because he does not see a threat from the general, who is a very peaceable person. Museveni is reported to have released Muntu because of the same reason. Those who share this view say Museveni only fears combative politicians like Col. Besigye, David Sejusa and even Tumukunde.
But Biraaro’s entry could split the opposition vote, especially in western Uganda where Museveni has been consistently unbeatable.
Then, there is still the opposition camp that feels that Museveni can only be trounced by a hardliner like Besigye and the return of the opposition strongman in 2016 is, therefore, still on the cards. If it happens, the opposition vote, especially in the west where Besigye too is born, could be split further.
Renowned political commentator Fredrick Golooba-Mutebi of Makerere University says that the splinters within its leadership are hurting the opposition and opening it up to defeat.
“The opposition is out of their depth,” he told The Independent, “they are completely disorganised. They [opposition] are unable to come together, commit to something and do it consistently.”
He cautioned, however, against getting too excited about 2016, yet. As people say, he said, a week is too long in politics; anything can happen.
Human rights lawyer LaudislausRwakafuzi, who has been central to mediating between warring parties in FDC, also says the opposition is crafting a strategy to boycott elections if electoral law reforms are not made.
It is not clear how independents like Biraaro will react to such a situation. The opposition has made such threats before but turned up on the ballot at election time.
In such a complex dynamic, Museveni’s competitors, including Gen. Biraaro, will need to work even harder to defeat him. They do not have much time in which to turn the odds against a man who has ruled Uganda for about 30 years and still wants more.
“In the shape the opposition is in, they are not a threat to Museveni,” says Golooba-Mutebi, “For them to be, they will need to work very hard. The peak of the opposition popularity in my view was 2006 and by that I mean Kizza Besigye and FDC. After that they were defeated squarely in 2011, everyone saw that. I do not see what they are doing to return to that level.” But as they say; a week is a long time in politics; anything could happen.