A leak in high places puts Ugandans on edge

Kampala is in an uproar. The Ugandan government has just shut down four private media outlets — a move that follows a crackdown on journalists from the Daily Monitor newspaper a few days earlier. The government’s anger was prompted by a story in the paper said to reveal details of a plan by senior officials ...

Ronald Kabuubi/AFP/GettyImages
Ronald Kabuubi/AFP/GettyImages

Kampala is in an uproar. The Ugandan government has just shut down four private media outlets — a move that follows a crackdown on journalists from the Daily Monitor newspaper a few days earlier. The government’s anger was prompted by a story in the paper said to reveal details of a plan by senior officials to assassinate rivals opposed to a scheme by President Yoweri Museveni to arrange for his son to succeed him in office. By exposing deep rifts within the ruling establishment, the paper has shaken Uganda’s political establishment to the core.

The Monitor quoted extensively from a letter by a senior intelligence officer, General David Sejusa, calling for an investigation into claims that the government is planning to target opponents of the so-called "Muhoozi Project," an alleged plan to pave the way for 39-year-old Brigadier Kainerugaba Muhoozi (pictured left), commander of an elite army unit, to take over the presidency. The state-owned Uganda Communications Commission (which controls licensing) warned radio stations that they would be shut down for airing the story of Gen. Sejusa’s letter.

The Muhoozi Project has caused a conflict between the Old Guard veterans who fought with Museveni in the war of liberation in the 1980s and a new breed of officers who are mainly Muhoozi’s peers and loyal to him. The latter also form part of the (better-equipped) Special Forces Command, which includes the Presidential Guard Brigade responsible for the president’s security.

Early Monday morning, police officers raided four media organizations: the Daily Monitor, which broke the original story about the letter; the Red Pepper, which ran several stories of its own; and two sister radio stations of the Daily Monitor, KFM and Dembe FM. The two radio stations have been taken off the air, while the newspapers have been declared crime scenes and shut down.

The space for a free press in Uganda is rapidly shrinking. One social media enthusiast recalls a quote from President Museveni when he took over power in 1986: "This is not merely a change of the old guard. It is a fundamental change." The president now seems to be carrying through on his statement back then. He has restricted media freedom in Uganda to the point where barely anything can be said.

When the news of the attack on the four media outlets broke, civil rights activists marched to the Daily Monitor offices in solidarity to protest the increasing clampdown on the Ugandan press. International media have picked up on the story. Human rights activists have condemned the government’s actions. The Daily Monitor’s editors released a press statement condemning the closure of the newspapers and radio stations.

Writing last week in The Observer, former journalist and Member of Parliament Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda elaborated on the connection between the Muhoozi Project and the recipients of a controversial government-funded education scholarship. Nganda argues that the secret scholarships, awarded by President Museveni and funded by taxpayer money, were used to create a new breed of regime loyalists:

What is surprising is that some of the beneficiaries of this scheme are in private primary schools in a country that offers free primary education. The question is, why does the president encourage Ugandans to send their children to Universal Primary Education (UPE) and for him, he sends those of his relatives and clansmen to private schools? … The man is preparing a new group that should take charge of this country for two jubilees.

The government issued a statement denying the existence of a Muhoozi Project. The Independent newspaper agreed (if only in principle), noting that the only political project among the powers-that-be is a "Museveni Project," one aimed at making sure that his son retains power in the army in order to safeguard Museveni’s own continued rule.

Indeed, the allegations could have been easily thrown off if it had been some other officer, and not General Sejusa, making the claims. But Sejusa is a Ugandan political heavyweight, someone who wields genuine clout within the establishment. Some officials dismissed Sejusa’s claims as an attempt to launch his own bid for the presidency in 2016. Others, like NRA war veteran Major General Elly Tumwine, argued for the credibility of Sejusa’s side of the story. Sejusa left the country for the United Kingdom in April, before the controversial letter was printed, and has not yet returned as planned.

When he was expected back over a week ago, the army deployed a large force around Entebbe airport. Journalists were banned from the scene. Yet the general was not on the plane. (A cartoon in The Observer offers a nice take on the situation.) A state-owned newspaper, The New Vision, claimed that the army is not trying to intimidate the general.

Writing in the Daily Monitor, opposition leader Dr. Kiiza Besigye said that the government should not punish General Sejusa for airing problems inside the establishment. Instead, Besigye wrote, there is a need for a national dialogue to address contentious issues. Besigye has been on the wrong side of the government since he had a falling out with the ruling party in 1999. He has since contested the presidency three times.

Earlier in the year, The Observer had painted General Sejusa as a frustrated man, holding a title that doesn’t give him real power or access to the president:

Our sources say the general has not recovered from the "humiliation" he suffered when he was evicted from his Kololo office
… According to these sources, Sejusa and other senior army commanders feel left out, with President Museveni opting to run the UPDF using younger officers, leaving the old guard in the cold. Indeed sources in the intelligence community have told us that Sejusa is particularly unhappy that his reports to the President are at times first channeled to the head of the Special Forces Command, Brig Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the President’s son, for advice before being addressed…."

Journalist Tabu Butagira wrote a feature about the general that tried to explain the source of such conflicts:

Sejusa is one of UPDF’s seven four-star generals, sits on the army High Command, and is the country’s chief spymaster, which theoretically means he should have unlimited access to President Museveni, the commander-in-chief, to give regular sensitive national security updates…"

This dramatic tale of discontent on the part of a top army officer and liberation war veteran war does not augur well for the security situation in the country. The government has raided the general’s office and arrested his aides. In turn, the general accused President Museveni of planting spies in his office. Uganda came in at number 20 in the 2012 Failed States Index issued by the Fund for Peace, an international non-government organization. Uganda’s ranking placed it in a category of countries the group considers to be at especially high risk of conflict and instability. The U.S. Directorate of National Security’s March report warned that Uganda could degenerate into armed conflict in 2014. (Government officials dismissed the report after it was picked up by local press.)

The general’s letter and subsequent government response have been the talk of the town. Ordinary Ugandans are left to wonder what is happening to their country. Uncertainty and insecurity permeate everyday conversations.

In the last few months, there has been talk of a possible coup by dissatisfied members of the army, including the old guard. The Mbuya Army Barracks in Kampala were attacked, and there are several reports of large-scale army desertions. A few months ago we might have laughed off American predictions that Uganda is about to descend into armed conflict. But these latest events are making us wonder: What does the U.S. know that we don’t?

Jackee Batanda is a Ugandan journalist based in Johannesburg. Follow her on twitter at @JackeeBatanda.