When soldiers were accused of making political statements

What you need to know:

  • Over the years, some serving UPDF officers have been accused of allegedly making political statements. We look back at some of the most prominent and what became of the allegations.

Recently, the Commander of Land Forces of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, was sued for allegedly engaging in political activities and pronouncements.

The First Son was summoned by the Constitutional Court together with the Chief of Defence Forces, Gen Wilson Mbadi, and Attorney General Kiryowa Kiwanuka.

Lawyer Gawaya Tegulle petitioned the court, challenging what he called unconstitutional acts by Gen Muhoozi of engaging in political activities and pronouncements as he celebrated his 48th birthday last month despite being a serving army officer.
But Gen Muhoozi is not the first army officer to be accused of making political statements.

Gen Aronda accused
In January 2013, at the launch of UPDF’s Tarehe Sita week in Kampala, then Chief of Defence Forces (CDF), Gen Aronda Nyakairima (RIP), warned that “the military would not allow bad politics to take Uganda back into turmoil”.

He said the message about a possible coup was well taken for those it was intended, warning them that should they not change course, “other things will be brought into play”.

This was at the height of disagreements between Parliament and the Executive after the death of Cerinah Nebanda, the former Butaleja Woman MP. Then Defence minister Crispus Kiyonga, had days earlier said the army was watching events and there was a possibility that it could take over should politicians in Parliament continue “not showing seriousness” to solve the problems facing the country.

Days later, President Museveni was also quoted making similar remarks to ruling NRM party MPs at their retreat at Kyankwanzi. Mr Museveni said the military would not allow the “confusion” in Parliament to continue.

Gen Aronda, together with Kiyonga, were later summoned by Parliament. The CDF was also sued by then Luweero Woman MP Brenda Nabukenya, but the case was thrown out by then Nakawa Chief Magistrate Joyce Kabagye.

Then army spokesperson, Col Felix Kulayigye, said the comments about a possible coup in Uganda had been exaggerated by the media.

Aronda’s statement caused him a brush with some MPs and members of the public. He later said his comments had been taken out of context.

“The army chief argued that his remarks, made during the launching of the Tarehe Sita celebrations in Kampala last week, were taken out context by journalists,” wrote New Vision, of January 30, 2013. 

He made his retraction at Paidha Cultural Centre in Zombo District where he had gone for the Tarehe Sita celebrations.

The UPDF did not reprimand Gen Aronda.

Officers in presidential campaigns
During the 2021 campaign season, a serving UPDF was accused of openly canvassing votes for presidential candidate Yoweri Museveni.

On the front page, Saturday Monitor of October 31, 2020, ran a story titled ‘Army on the spot again over partisan politics’.

It quoted Brig Deus Sande, the commander of UPDF Mechanised Brigade in Masaka, as having said: “As long as we are still existing, we are not here to give out power. I have heard the other one telling you that don’t say this, but even if you say this, we are not ready to give out to the people who are ideologically bankrupt…don’t think we are planning a handover, actually we are consolidating…where Uganda is today is not where it was years back. It’s up to you to decide if Uganda is to become Somalia, which is in anarchy, or not.”

Brig Sande was criticised by some members of the public, including former army commander (Rtd) Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, who called the utterances reckless, especially at a time when the country was holding general elections.

“I am surprised that a senior army officer at his rank with all the courses he attended, can make such reckless statements. This makes me doubt whether he genuinely acquired that rank. At the rank of a Brigadier he ought to know when to speak and when not to speak,” Gen Muntu, who was the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT) presidential candidate, told his supporters at Nyendo Town on the outskirts of Masaka City.

But then UPDF spokesperson, Brig Flavia Byekwaso, said Brig Sande was not speaking for the army. “He [Sande] is not the army spokesperson, so whatever he said is his views. The official position of the army is that the army will cooperate with anybody elected by Ugandans,” she said. 

About three months later, another UPDF officer was accused of being involved in campaigning for candidate Museveni. 

The front page of Daily Monitor of January 5, 2021, carried a story titled, ‘UPDF officer campaigns for NRM’.

“The commander of Uganda People’s Forces (UPDF) Engineering Brigade, Cyrus Bekunda Besigye, was on Sunday campaigning for one of the presidential candidates in the 2021 elections. He said he is sure the National Resistance Movement candidate Yoweri Museveni will win the January 14 elections and whoever attempts to cause violence will be dealt with by the army,” the newspaper reported.

Brig Bekunda allegedly said it while addressing NRM party supporters at Kagyeyo village in Nyakishenyi Sub-county, Rukungiri District. A picture of  the senior army officer addressing NRM party supporters was also published. 

But the army never came out to say anything about the commander being reprimanded for making political statements.

Not lucky to escape
But not everyone gets away with it. On November 30, 1996, then Maj Gen David Tinyefuza (now Gen Sejusa) appeared before the parliamentary Committee on Defence and Internal Affairs which was investigating atrocities allegedly committed by UPDF during the war against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Joseph Kony. 

In his response to one of the questions, Gen Sejusa criticised the UPDF and NRM government for failing to end the war in northern Uganda. He was immediately summoned by the UPDF High Command.
However, Sejusa, who was at the time pursing a Master of Laws at Makerere University, resigned from the army before appearing before the High Command chaired by then Minister of State for Defence Amama Mbabazi as President Museveni was said to be busy in northern Uganda trying to end the war.

It is important to note, however, that in this case the UPDF could not find any case against Sejusa since what he said was before a committee of Parliament and, therefore, protected by the parliamentary privileges and immunities.

Tumukunde accused
On April 30, 2005, then Brig Henry Tumukunde, as a serving officer of the UPDF, appeared on a live evening talk show on CBS radio in Bulange, Mengo. 

The Brigadier had been on katebe (not deployed in any office) for some time. His utterances were critical of both the UPDF and NRM government. 

Tumukunde was arrested and put under house arrest on Acacia Avenue in a dilapidated UPDF officer’s mess. 
He was accused of violating several UPDF laws, including Clause 2(1) of the UPDF Act which states that a member of the Defence Force shall not give public speeches or broadcast public statements without permission. 

During the talk show, Tumukunde was alleged to have said President Museveni must retire and go home. In 2019, Tumukunde was promoted to Lt Gen and retired from the army.

In 2020, he announced his presidential bid and in 2021 ran against President Museveni. He garnered 51,392 votes, or 0.50 percent, compared to Museveni’s 6,042,898 votes, or 58.38 percent. 

What the law says

Article 208(2) of the Constitution states that the UPDF shall be non-partisan, national in character, patriotic, professional, disciplined, productive and subordinate to civilian authority.