Museveni, Besigye first disagreed in Luweero

Besigye (middle) with other army officers at Sserwanga Lwanga's residence

What you need to know:

Animal farm in the bush. After briefly working as a doctor in Nairobi, Besigye ended up with the NRA in Luweero Triangle where he was key in treating injured combatants and training other medical staff but he also diagnosed other ills within the rebel group as this second extract from our serialisation of Kizza Besigye and Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution authored by Daniel Kalinaki tells

There were early signs of inequity and injustice that were not lost on Besigye, and which would later contribute to the breakdown of his relationship with Museveni and his closest allies.

The senior rebel commanders lived a life of relative luxury, with access to milk, meat, chicken, cigarettes, alcohol, clothes and other scarce commodities, compared to rank-and-file fighters. To distinguish him from the commander, Magara, a more junior officer who shared his surname was referred to as ‘Magara atalya nkoko’ (who does not eat chicken). Many assumed it was his real name; while the man enjoyed his chicken, it was a preserve of top commanders.

It became so commonplace that the phrase ‘size ya commander’ (commander’s size) was given to any item that was deemed too big or too good for small fighters to enjoy, and which they often had to hand over.

Besigye, by virtue of his role, was part of the high command and enjoyed access to these luxuries but he also spent time with the rank-and-file soldiers he had to treat and the inequities did not sit easily with him.

“Even if a soldier got something from a relative, if it was good, the commander would take it away from him and say ‘this is not your size’. That sat very uncomfortably with some of our beliefs,” says Besigye.

“When I went to the bush, I went with a copy of George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm, and it nearly got me court-martialled because of reading to them what the pigs used to say when they were drinking milk while everybody else was not. It was never a formal thing but I was threatened. I was at Mucunguzi’s high command and he would have five litres of milk every day in his hut. I once asked Mucunguzi about the milk and he said, ‘I want to be honest with you, I don’t like milk but it’s just for my health’ so I went and brought the book and told him to read what the pigs were saying, that it had been scientifically proven that milk was good for pigs.
He started saying I wanted to start a mutiny. General Elly Tumwine, the NRA commander who succeeded Magara, was especially renown for monopolising goodies even to the exclusion of fellow officers.”

What surprised Besigye, more than anything else, was the response from Museveni who was both a socialist in his avowed ideology at the time, and a beneficiary of this inequity.

“It always came up as a matter for discussion and Museveni defended it saying that we should not be like squirrels which, when they kill something, chop it into small bits equal to the number of the squirrels and if they find the number is not equal to the squirrels, leave and go away. Again, in typical Animal Farm kind of explanation, he argued that commanders needed to be fed better so that they are able to plan and think.

That if there is an attack or if the commanders themselves are weighed down by hunger, then the soldiers stand a bigger risk. He said if there was something small, it would rather go to the commander instead of sharing it out and leaving everybody hungry. There may be some logic to it, but it certainly creates the stage for institutionalised deprivation.”

Greed takes over

For Besigye, this might have remained a small matter had the double standards not gone beyond food and clothes, to impunity of a higher level. Soon senior commanders were charging money and other personal items during operations and keeping it, contrary to the rebel rules (the NRA rebels robbed banks as a matter of course but the money was meant to be handed over to senior commanders to buy arms and food), but they were getting away with it.

Again, Besigye says, Museveni justified the errant behaviour of his commanders, and planted the seeds of doubt that would later sprout into a forest of differences between the two men: “He justified it by saying it would be unwise for him to clamp down on the errant commanders because they were the only ones he had to get the job done. He said even if he was aware it was happening, he was tactically not addressing it in order not to jeopardise the bigger good. That it was okay to relegate those tendencies and first defend ourselves, win the war, get more people and deal with that later. He used to be quite critical of people like Saleh, saying he did not agree with the way they attached themselves to material things.

When we came to government that was unmasked fairly early. That was a source of deep disappointment for me.”

The fall-out begins

NRA operations. File photo

Besigye was a key player in advancing and entrenching the Movement ‘umbrella’ system in the country during the early days of the transitional, broad-based government. Just as the 1985 Nairobi Peace Talks had been a simulation of the 1979 Moshi Unity Conference, so the NRM government was a faked imitation of the post-Amin coalition government.

He was, however, also growing increasingly critical of some of the excesses that he saw in the government, and openly opposing some of its positions. “Things were being decided without any of the policy organs discussing or weighing in on those decisions. I was raising these matters both in Cabinet and in NEC [National Executive Council] and I could clearly see that my issues were beginning to become an irritant to the President who seemed to think that by raising them I was challenging his authority or his judgment,” he says.

In 1990, Besigye opposed clauses in the Insurgency Bill that sought to give wide-ranging powers to military and security officials operating in northern Uganda against the LRA.

The slightly sanitised law that was eventually passed did not prevent rampant human rights violations but it started to put Besigye at loggerheads with Museveni and other top regime officials, including in the military.

The rift between Museveni and Besigye had opened as the deadline for the transition government drew closer. According to Besigye, the impending loss of power and privilege saw regime officials start to grab whatever they could.

“There was a sense of panic among many members regarding their welfare and it gave rise to the start of corruption. It became clear to me that Museveni was either condoning corruption, or involved in it.”

The grabbing had started during the war, when the rebels broke into commercial banks and regional Central Bank branches and charged money from the vaults. The justification given was that the money was required to support the rebel effort. However, the grabbing had followed the rebels into government and Besigye was convinced the trail of responsibility led all the way back to Museveni.

Besigye had arrived at that conclusion one day in late 1989. Ernest Kakwano, who headed the Coffee Marketing Board (CMB), and Elly Rwakakooko, the secretary to the Board and who was also related to Janet Museveni, approached him with a request.

Museveni was pushing for Hannington Karuhanga, Janet’s cousin, to be appointed CMB marketing manager. The job had been advertised in the national newspapers and all the top marketing officials in the country had applied for the plum position at the country’s top foreign currency earner.

Museveni had telephoned Kakwano a few days after the advert went out, and mentioned that he was sending him a young man; could the CMB top management find a position for him? The board members met, reviewed Karuhanga’s documents, and found him a position commensurate with his qualifications and experience.

Karuhanga, however, did not turn up. A few days later Museveni telephoned Kakwano again and made inquiries into the matter. He was informed that a job had been found for Karuhanga, and an appointment letter offered, but that the young man had not turned up.

“I hear there is another job that he is interested in,” Museveni said. “I think you even advertised it in the newspapers.”

Kakwano shifted uncomfortably in his chair on the other end of the line. “Your Excellency,” he said, finally finding his voice, ‘that job is for people who are much more qualified and experienced than that young man…’

“What experience are you talking about?” Museveni cut in angrily.

Those people you talk about with experience are the ones who have brought problems to this country…”
Kakwano pointed out that the process was already underway and candidates had been shortlisted.

“So why don’t you short-list him also? What is the problem?” Museveni pressed back.

The CMB official was now forced to include Karuhanga among the short-listed candidates. However, how would he explain himself if the young man, as was surely bound to happen, did not meet the experience requirements for the job?

There was also a political angle to the issue. The CMB marketing manager dealt with coffee processors, mainly private Baganda processors and cooperative unions. However, young Karuhanga was not from a coffee producing background and had no experience in coffee marketing. Would the powerful unions agree to work with an unknown entity like him?

It was this background that had encouraged the officials to approach Besigye. Could Besigye, seeing as he was close to Museveni, have a word with the President to persuade him to drop his interest in the matter?

Besigye made an appointment, went in to see Museveni at State House Entebbe the next morning, and delicately presented the matter. He raised concern over the pressure to have Karuhanga appointed due to his lack of experience, and the young man’s relationship to the President.

The meeting did not last long.

First, Museveni insisted on knowing how Besigye, who was not involved in CMB, had become involved in the matter. Besigye was forced to reveal how he had obtained the information and how he had been asked to speak to the President about it.

Casting a long, withering look at him, Museveni cut the meeting short and angrily sent Besigye away, warning him not to interfere in matters that did not concern him. Karuhanga was appointed marketing manager at CMB, anyway, soon after.

According to Besigye, his position as National Political Commissar and junior minister in the Office of the President soon became untenable as the extension of the regime loomed.

“Museveni was pressing for a five-year extension of the transitional government,” Besigye recalls. “This was surprising because the extension he sought was longer than the initial term of the interim government. However, the matter was not open to debate. Debate had already been stifled at this time, although many people did not know it, and sycophancy was already building up.”

Salim Saleh in command
Another problem was emerging within the Army. Saleh had replaced Tumwine as Army Commander in 1987, leading, according to Besigye, to the emergence of rampant corruption as officers stole fuel, inflated invoices and did whatever else they could to make money.

Saleh’s reign as Army Commander would last for only two years before Museveni fired him for what he said was a drinking problem. Although he was replaced by the teetotal Muntu, Besigye says Saleh’s departure had a lot to do with fear of a mutiny over corruption in the Army.

“Corruption went through the roof under Saleh. It is surprising that I have never heard Museveni criticise Saleh for corruption,” says Besigye.

“He always says he removed him from command because of drinking but by the time Saleh was removed from command it was possible there could have been a mutiny because of the kind of corruption that had engulfed the whole force. Soldiers were not getting food, salaries, and procurements were all chaotic.”

In June 1990, Besigye received an unexpected letter from Prime Minister
Kisekka directing him to proceed to Bombo for military training immediately. Besigye telephoned Kisekka to ask whom he should hand over to.
“Don’t worry about that,” the PM said. “Just proceed to the training immediately.”

Besigye believed the decision had not been taken in good faith. He knew that Kisekka did not have the authority to send him to a military training course. This meant the order must have come from Museveni. Besigye packed his bags and reported to Bombo the same day.

The training lasted six months and Besigye emerged top in both the field and class work. Museveni came to Bombo to preside over the passing-out. One of the Tanzanian instructors told Museveni during the prize-giving ceremony that Besigye had immense capacity that could be used in a command position.
He added, however, that Museveni should also keep Besigye under close watch. It was advice that Museveni did not take lightly.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Except where noted, direct quotes attributed to various personalities in these book extracts are to the best recollection of Dr Kizza Besigye, the interviewee, and/or Mr Daniel Kalinaki, the interviewer and author.

Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based
in Nairobi, Kenya
Continues in Sunday Monitor