There were three significant political developments in Uganda last week worth commenting on. The first was the transformation from curiosity and front-page news and into crisis and mainstream national issue of the Gen. David Tinyefuza affair.
The second was Gen. Elly Tumwine’s public statement insisting that Tinyefuza should be listened to rather than simply dismissed or condemned.
The third development was the appointment of a new Katikiiro of Buganda, Charles Mayiga.
As was said by many in the public when the Daily Monitor first published Tinyefuza’s letter, we had heard all that before and this latest Cry Wolf act had to be treated with skepticism.
It soon became clear, though, that this was not just another routine statement of defiance by a disgruntled army officer seeking the president’s attention. There was heavy troop deployment in Entebbe on Friday night, May 10 in anticipation of Tinyefuza’s scheduled return to Uganda from London the following day.
Three Daily Monitor journalists, acting Managing Editor Don Wanyama and reporters Risdel Kasasira and Richard Wanambwa, were summoned on Tuesday May 14 to the CIID headquarters at Kibuli for interrogation regarding the letter that Tinyefuza leaked to the paper.
The three journalists were asked to return to Kibuli for a second and a third day on Wednesday and Thursday for questioning. That they could be interrogated for three consecutive days suggested the seriousness with which the state is taking the General’s claims of a plot to assassinate senior military officers and politicians.
Concurrent with this interrogation of the Daily Monitor journalists came pressure from the state on the media on its reporting on the story, with warnings that radio licences could be suspended depending on how they reported it.
According to the Human Rights Network for Journalists, several reporters who went to Entebbe airport to cover Tinyefuza’s arrival --- including several from government-owned media --- were harassed by security officers and operatives at the airport.
The Member of Parliament, Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, appearing on NBS TV’s Morning Breeze talk show on Tuesday May 14 disclosed that the government-owned paper, the New Vision, had been instructed to stop covering the Tinyefuza matter.
The reaction by the state to Tinyefuza’s allegations turned the story into a weighty one or rather revealed that this was a weighty development. When Tinyefuza’s letter was first published, several of his senior military colleagues, from the head of police, Lt. Gen. Kale Kayihura to the Chief of Defence Gen. Aronda Nyakirima and another General Salim Saleh all condemned Tinyefuza’s move.
A number of NRM party spokespeople and officials also condemned him. This chorus of condemnation from top army leaders and ruling party officials gave the impression that the army is united and speaks and thinks with one voice, as is the NRM.
Out of the blue, however, arguably the senior-most army general of them all, the first NRA army commander and the man who fired the first shot on February 6, 1981 that launched Yoweri Museveni’s guerrilla war and also a former chairman of the army’s Court Martial, Gen. Elly Tumwine, took a contrary position.
He told the media that there should not be a rush to judge and condemn Tinyefuza but rather hear his side of the story. In NRA lore and history, Tumwine ranks just behind Musveeni as the ultimate in historical. He is to the NRA and UPDF what the late Eriya Kategaya was to the NRM: a kind of sentimental, historical, ideological and hierarchical number two after Museveni.
Therefore Tumwine’s word and opinion has an authority about it different from any other historically NRA officer. For him to depart from the condemnation of Tinyefuza and urge patience and sympathy to his allegations was a bombshell.
It suddenly silenced Tinyefuza’s critics within the army or at least forced them to be more measured in their future comments about his letter. It portrayed Tinyefuza not as just another ranting soldier but one with a legitimate claim worth listening to.
Another former army commander and a man with one of the most respected public profiles in Uganda, Major-General Greg Mugisha-Muntu, also spoke out about the Tinyefuza issue late last week, May 17 and like Tumwine, appeared to back Tinyefuza.
All this reinforced the growing public perception that no matter what appearance of unity the NRM and the army put up, there really are serious divisions within these two bodies.
Here’s why these dissenting voices matter. Last week, I wrote about the bitterness among the Acholi army officers in the UNLA in 1984 at the appointment of Col. Smith Opon-Acak as the new Army Chief of Staff.
In the 1970s, the narrative was that President Idi Amin had set upon the Acholi and Langi and subjected them to horrible massacres, intent if possible on wiping them out.
Many Acholi and Langi army, police and airforce officers fled to Tanzania and joined the anti-Amin struggle. Several, however, stayed in Uganda and actually served in the Uganda Army under Amin, one of them being Capt. Opon-Acak, a tank commander in the Malire Reconnaissance Regiment.
Many Langi and Acholi viewed their tribesmen like Opon-Acak, Lt. Col. Panglasio Onek and Major John Mwaka who served Amin as traitors. So deep run this resentment that many could not bring themselves to serve under Brig. Opon-Acak as Chief of Staff in 1984, leading in part to the 1985 mutiny and coup.
In the NRA, many of today’s senior army officers suffered casualties. Tumwine lost an eye. Brig. Henry Tumukunde was injured during the war and walks with a limp. Tinyefuza says he has up to 30 bullet wounds and Mugisha-Muntu was left for dead on the battlefield.
Physically disfigured and maimed during the NRA guerrilla war, Generals like Tumwine, Tinyefuza, Tumukunde, Mugisha-Muntu and others typically feel about the “Muhoozi Project” --- Museveni’s alleged/reported attempt to orchestrate events to have his son succeed him as president --- the same way the Acholi officers in 1984 felt about Smith Opon-Acak becoming Chief of Staff, after all the Acholi had sacrificed in fighting Amin, their leading role in the 1978-79 Tanzania-Uganda war and being 60 percent of the UNLA, their casualties in fighting the anti-Obote insurgency.
That is why this Tinyefuza affair should be treated as the serious crisis that it is, is being treated as such by the state and should be watched closely by the Ugandan public and observers of contemporary Ugandan history.
If this Tinyefuza crisis goes on for a third week, next week I shall explain the significance of the appointment of the radical and outspoken Charles Peter Mayiga as Katikkiro of Buganda and what the state reads into this and what measures it certainly will try and take to neutralize this alarming development.
Having the most fire brand Buganda Katikiiro in more than 50 years, at a time when all the signs are becoming more and more clear of President Museveni’s waning popularity, itself poses a major political threat to the NRM.