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Did Britain help Museveni capture power in 1986?

Ties. Queen Elizabeth II walks down the red carpet with President Museveni at State House Entebbe on November 21, 2007. FILE PHOTOS

What you need to know:

Claims. According to a new book, the dealings before the rebellion were mostly about courting Yoweri Museveni and winning him over to London. While those after the rebellion had begun revolved around intelligence, reorganisation and training of the rebels Gaaki Kigambo writes.

As the National Resistance Movement (NRM) celebrates its 33rd anniversary since it first captured power in 1986, their victory through a devastating five-year armed rebellion owes to a lot more external support than it likes to admit.

Until now, the NRM has only acknowledged, albeit half-heartedly, support from Libya. Tripoli reportedly supplied the National Resistance Army (NRA), NRM’s fighting force, a “relatively small amount of weapons [that] was useful, but not decisive in any way,” according to the autobiographical Sowing the Mustard Seed by NRM’s long-time chairperson and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni.

“It is the 96 rifles, 100 landmines, five GMPGs (general-purpose machine guns), eight RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and a small quantity of ammunition that constitute the much-talked-about ‘massive assistance’ given by Libya to NRA,” Mr Museveni wrote on Page 142 of the first edition of his co-authored story.

“It was not until 1985, after the overthrow of Tito Okello’s regime, that the Libyans sent us two additional consignments of 800 rifles, 800,000 rounds of AK-47 ammunition, and some SAM [Surface to Air Missiles] launchers. Therefore, the NRA was not built up by Libyan support,” Museveni adds.

Covert dealings
But now, a new book titled Protection, Patronage or Plunder? British Machinations and (B)Uganda’s Struggle for Independence, claims the NRA also benefited from “longer and deeper but covert dealings” Britain cultivated with Museveni before he launched his rebellion and sometime afterwards.

The dealings before the rebellion were mostly about courting Museveni and winning him over to London. While those after it had begun revolved around intelligence, reorganisation and training of the rebels, all of which the book suggests started roughly around 1984-5.

Otherwise, at the start of the rebellion in 1981 Britain alongside the US and Kenya declined to give Museveni military assistance when he approached them about it, according to intelligence files America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) declassified in 2017.

The CIA dossiers never contained reasons why Washington turned down Museveni’s request for arms. For London, however, the reason appears to be that they had wagered on Milton Obote’s second regime, which they were supporting militarily despite their discomfort with it.

London at the time was craving some sense of normalcy for the sake of its interests in Uganda. As such, a group holding state power, however vile, was better to do business with than another one that was in a long shot fight to gain the same.
London, of course, quickly turned course once the NRA gained the upper hand. This followed the death of army Chief of Staff David Oyite-Ojok who until then had succeeded to hold the rebels back. His suspicious helicopter crash in December 1983 split the army’s loyalties between its major Langi and Acholi factions so badly that they could no longer close ranks against Museveni and his NRA.

Home-grown support
To the extent that the new claims about British support are true, they further upend Museveni’s insistence his uprising succeeded purely on home-grown popular support. They also explain why, despite his constant swipes at Britain and similar foreign countries, Museveni has hardly ever broken ties with either of them.

Home-grown support is a central element in how NRM perceives itself. Its repeated victories at the polls, however disputable, have consistently been attributed to the idea that the NRM is mass party with an entrenched and widespread support that goes back a long way.

The 547-page book is authored by Apollo N. Makubuya, the 3rd deputy prime minister (Katikkiro) and minister for justice and constitutional affairs of the Kingdom of Buganda.

The book relies on newly de-classified records of Britain’s colonial rule and postcolonial influence in Uganda “to reconstruct a history of the machinations underpinning British imperial interests in (B)Uganda and the personalities who embodied colonial rule. It also addresses Anglo-Uganda relations, demonstrating how Uganda’s politics reflects its colonial past, and the forces shaping its future,” according to its blurb.

The British High Commission declined to comment for this story. Simon Tucker, its public affairs officer, said in a brief telephone conversation on Wednesday, January 23, that it is unlikely they would comment on issues that are that old. An email about the same remained unanswered by press time.

According to Mr Makubuya’s account, dealings between Britain and Museveni initially started around early 1979 when Museveni was minister of State for Defence in the then Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) government headed by Yusuf Lule. The UNLF had toppled Idi Amin in April of that year.

1979 was a heady year in Uganda’s politics. Amin’s ouster had been quickly followed by that of his successor 68 days later on June 20. Then hardly a year afterwards even Lule’s successor Godfrey Binaisa was ousted in May 1980. He was replaced by a Military Commission where Museveni deputised Paulo Muwanga. That, too, didn’t hold for long.

For Britain, therefore, securing its commercial and political interests in this political tailspin was “almost a do-or-die matter”, the book notes.

So, it wasn’t long before Britain turned to Museveni, whom Binaisa had elevated to full minister of Defence. The connection was initiated by Richard Posnett, who had been despatched to Kampala immediately Amin fell to assess the situation on the ground and re-establish the British diplomatic mission.

“Although it considered his views as ‘radical’, Britain considered Museveni not to be anti-British and as the man to watch,” Makubuya references a telegram (No. 535) dated October 16, 1979, titled “Uganda: Minister’s visit”. Mr Posnett had sent it to the East Africa Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which promotes Britain’s interests outside its borders.

Its aim was to persuade his superiors in London to extend Museveni and his wife an official invitation to the UK as guests of the government since Museveni had, apparently, expressed interest to visit the country to check out its military training and other related systems. As the British High Commissioner in Kampala saw it, during the visit Museveni “could be influenced in the right direction, both politically and in defence matters, if we caught him in time”.

Unfortunately, the invitation was put on hold following an unexpected reshuffle in which Museveni was removed from Defence and appointed Minister of Regional Cooperation. Whereas Binaisa aimed the reshuffle to strengthen himself in the presidency, it resulted in his downfall once Museveni, Oyite-Ojok, the powerful army Chief of Staff, and Paulo Muwanga, then minister of Labour, all refused their new appointments.

“British officials believed that with the removal of Binaisa, Museveni was virtually unassailable. For that reason, and to ensure that he was friendly to Britain, the government prepared to invite him for an official visit,” the book notes.

But yet again, that was not to be. Political events in Uganda moved at breakneck speed. It was not long before the shambolic elections of December 1980 returned Obote to power, giving Museveni ground to launch a rebellion against him in which hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives. Obote had been executive prime minister and later president from 1962 to 1971 when Amin ousted him in a coup with the help of Britain.

“In 1984, as his war with Museveni intensified, Britain entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Obote for a British Military Advisory Training Team (BMATT) to assist his army,” Makubuya writes, adding that a small part of this group led by the overall head AJG Pollard also reached out to Museveni and his senior officers.

Colin McLean, the British High Commissioner to Uganda in 1986, commended their efforts since they “paid off handsomely when Museveni captured power”.

To this end, Makubuya’s account appears to contradict the CIA. In its declassified files, America’s foreign intelligence gathering organisation claimed that in 1986 Museveni’s relations with the UK were “particularly poor”.

On the contrary, the two parties could not have been closer. For one thing, Mr McLean was reportedly on phone with Museveni on the morning of January 26 when the takeover of Kampala was formally announced.

“The proximity and ease with which these senior British officials accessed Museveni, as well as the trust that Museveni had in them before and immediately after the capture of power, suggests that there were longer and deeper but covert dealings between Museveni’s NRA and Britain,” Makubuya claims.

What is more, the two sides have enjoyed stable and good relations throughout Museveni’s rule to date. Britain, for instance, has channelled at least $1.2 trillion (Shs4.4 quadrillion) to his regime. And this is only between 1987/88 and 2004/05, according to statistics from the ministry of Finance.

Between 2002 and 2004, Britain funded an extensive review of the defence sector and has continually trained and equipped his army. One of the beneficiaries of such trainings is Museveni’s son Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who is a graduate of the elite Sandhurst Military Academy.

But perhaps the rarest and major show of support to the regime yet was in 2007. Britain extended Kampala rights to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm), which was attended by the Queen, her husband Phillip and son Charles and the top brass of British bureaucracy and business.

Chogm came on the back of the shambolic general elections a year before when Museveni was under pressure from some sections of the diplomatic corps to let the presidency go in exchange for a high profile job at the UN and protection from any possible prosecution, according to another book titled Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror by Helen C. Epstein that was published in 2017 in New York.

It explores how the West’s single-minded fight against terrorism has enabled leaders like Museveni, who are willing to fight on its behalf, to hold onto power and do everything the West is otherwise opposed to such as the muzzling of a free press and stifling divergent political views.

The 547-page thriller is authored by Apollo N. Makubuya, the 3rd deputy prime minister (Katikkiro) and minister for justice and constitutional affairs of the Kingdom of Buganda. It was first published in hardback in September 2018 by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in the UK. The paperback came out in January 2019.