Rabble-rouser or man full of ambition? The curious case of Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba

General Muhoozi Kainerugaba

General Muhoozi Kainerugaba on the day of his promotion to the rank of Maj-General at Bombo Military Barracks in Uganda.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

It is all fun and games, they say, until someone loses an eye, and so what started off as playful social media posts by Ugandan military boss Muhoozi Kainerugaba have now forced Uganda and Kenya to confront an awkward diplomatic row and reopened old scars that the two nations have worked hard to heal over four decades.

For the better part of yesterday morning, diplomats from Kenya and Uganda were in closed-door meetings following Twitter posts by Mr Kainerugaba that made juvenile military invasion threats against Nairobi. But, even as Kenya’s High Commissioner in Kampala George Owinow and Uganda’s Foreign Affairs permanent secretary Vincent Bagiire worked hard to figure out how to extinguish the fire from Mr Kainerugaba’s tweets, the military boss was still twiddling his thumbs and firing more controversial social media posts.

Not even the flurry of diplomatic talks and wave of condemnation from Kenya and Uganda painted to Mr Kainerugaba the grave nature of his tweets as he maintained that he could, if called, lead a military takeover of Nairobi in just seven days.

“I’m glad that I have scared you Kenyans a bit!,” he tweeted. “Two weeks is long. Nairobi in one week for sure! Aided by my brothers from Carnival. I would never beat up the Kenyan army because my father told me never to attempt it! So our people in Kenya should relax.”

He continued: “After capturing Nairobi, I shall take my wife on a tour of our district.”

On Monday, the Ugandan military boss had claimed that he only needed two weeks to “capture Nairobi”, then went ahead to ask his followers, perhaps in jest, to pick between the rich Nairobi suburbs of Westlands and Riverside for a headquarters location.

After Kenyan and Ugandan diplomats wrapped up their talks, Mr Kainerugaba tweeted again, saying he would like East Africa to unite as one country, and that he hoped he would be appointed the military commander of that new nation.

He further proposed that his father, President Yoweri Museveni, leads the East African nation, deputised by Kenya’s head of state William Ruto.

Kampala has distanced itself from Mr Kainerugaba’s tweets and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday insisted that it does not conduct foreign policy or official business on social media.

Interestingly, Kenya found itself in a similar position after the inauguration of William Ruto as President, with his official Twitter account posting that Kenya would withdraw support of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Hours later, the account deleted the tweet and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs a day later issued a statement in which it said that Kenya does not conduct its foreign policy through social media.

Yesterday, Nandi Senator Simon Cherargei asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to summon Uganda’s High Commissioner to Kenya and demand an explanation on the controversial tweets by Mr Kainerugaba. Mr Cherargei said the commission should be compelled to issue an apology on behalf of Kampala.

Mr Kainerugaba joined the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) in 1999 and quickly rose through the ranks to become Presidential adviser on special operations. In June 2021 he was promoted to Lieutenant-General and Commander of the UPDF Land Forces, one of the military’s most coveted positions.

The 48-year-old army officer is President Yoweri Museveni’s firstborn, and his quick rise in the military and appointment as a Presidential advisor has widely been seen as an attempt by President Museveni to eventually hand over power to his son.

Yesterday, in the heat of the Twitter posts, President Museveni, in what was viewed by many as a back-handed compliment and a reaction to the destructive tweets, promoted his son to General, the highest rank in the Ugandan military, but dropped him as Commander of the Land Forces.

Mr Kayanja Muhanga was promoted from Maj-General to Lieutenant General and placed in charge of the UPDF land forces.

The promotion has seen Mr Kainerugaba promise to do one of the things he does best — party hard and big.

“We are going to have a celebration down Kampala Road for this rank. I thank my father for this great honour! I thank Ugandans for loving me. I will wear this rank, we celebrate and work continues!” a seemingly unapologetic Mr Kainerugaba tweeted after a formal announcement was made on the changes.

Ugandan law bars serving military officers from making statements that could be interpreted to mean waging war on other countries. Mr Kainerugaba, per his social media activity yesterday morning, been informed of the looming changes earlier. In a tweet, he claimed that President Museveni had informed him that his Twitter outbursts had caused panic among Kenyans, and that he was expecting some announcement to be made in relation to the military.

“Had a good discussion with my great father this morning. Apparently, my tweets scared Kenyans too much. He will announce the changes. There is a special prayer I shall make for our army,” Mr Kainerugaba added.

Threatening a nation

Whether the promotion was a sneaky way to quell the diplomatic tension while massaging Mr Kainerugaba’s ego remains unknown. What is on the record, however, is that the high-ranking officer was promoted after making statements that could be interpreted to be threatening another sovereign nation.

Mr Kainerugaba and controversy have walked a steady path hand in hand for years. Indeed, it is Mr Kainerugaba’s love for partying and provocative social media posts that thrust him into the limelight, even though it is his role as a high-ranking military officer that gives him prominence. That, and the fact that he is the President’s son.

For instance, in April this year he formed a national committee to throw several parties across the country in celebration of his 48th birthday. The committee steered parties for three consecutive weeks in several towns in Uganda, including the capital, Kampala. The main event was held in Kampala on May 1. Rwanda President Paul Kagame stepped on Ugandan soil for the first time on the day to hold talks with his counterpart Mr Museveni, and attended the birthday celebrations. Mr Kainerugaba had earlier visited Rwanda and held talks with Mr Kagame, easing tensions between Kampala and Kigali that has simmered on for over 20 years.

A year ealier, when Mr Kainerugaba was celebrating his 47th birthday, he became the subject of an International Criminal Court (ICC) inquiry into human rights abuses in the run up to Uganda’s General Election.

At the time, Mr Kainerugaba was commander of the Special Forces Command, an elite unit of the military that was blamed for hundreds of abductions and several cases of torture. The President’s son was named personally in the complaint filed by some of the abduction victims.

Opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi’s National Unity Platform filed a separate complaint linking the SFC and Mr Kainerugaba to the abduction and torture of over 600 people.

Now, as relations between East African nations appeared to be warming up and military incursions were on a downward spiral, Mr Kainerugaba’s social media activity has once again put to the test the ties that bind Kenya and Uganda. While the two countries have largely been friendly since independence, trade has often threatened their relationship as both governments take hardline stances to protect their people and interests.

Ownership of the 2000-square- metre Migingo Island and fishing on Lake Victoria are the only security-related issues that have tested the two nations in recent years. In 2004, Uganda police officers started claiming tax from Migingo residents. Following complaints from Kenyan fishermen to their government, Nairobi sent marine officers to protect its citizens. The two countries agreed to jointly police Migingo Island, but Kenyan fishermen continued to complain about harassment by Ugandan police.

After Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga agreed to a power sharing deal, the two principals disagreed on how to handle the Migingo issue, despite both insisting that it sits on Kenyan territory. Mr Odinga was for protection of the island at all costs, while Mr Kibaki sought to use diplomacy to resolve the dispute. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration also opted for diplomacy, but the two countries are yet to reach a middle ground on the matter.

The mantle has now gone to William Ruto, who served as Mr Kenyatta’s deputy for 10 years, and whose win in the Presidential race might have come as a big relief for Mr Museveni’s administration. Mr Odinga is a close ally of Mr Museveni’s most fierce rival in recent times, Robert Kyagulanyi, who has for years made life at the top rather uncomfortable for Uganda’s President.

Affront to Kampala

The former Prime Minister also took the flak after some of his supporters allegedly destroyed railway lines transporting produce to Uganda during the 2007-2008 post-election violence. Mr Odinga had called for mass action to protest Presidential election results, but a section of Ugandans saw the destruction of railway lines as an affront to Kampala.

Dr Ruto has in the past year had cordial relations with Mr Museveni, an indication that the two could work to better relations between their countries.

One of Dr Ruto’s first assignments could be to build on the improved trade relations between Uganda and Kenya following bilateral talks in 2021 that saw both countries agree to lift taxes that hindered both sides’ attempts to export products.

At the time, the two countries promised to engage further to ensure a complete elimination of trade barriers that have often threatened to split them.

In 2019 Kenya banned the sale of Ugandan dairy products in Kenya, causing tension among the two nations. Two years later, Kenya banned the sale of Ugandan poultry and its products, angering Kampala, which threatened to retaliate.

Kenya claimed that Ugandan traders were repackaging products exported to the landlocked country and then selling them back to Nairobi. But talks between agriculture ministers from the two countries saw Kenya lift the ban in 2021. Kenya also agreed to waive a 35 per cent excise tax on liquefied petroleum gas manufactured in Uganda, while Kampala waived a 12 per cent tax on Kenyan beverages.