Museveni turns guns on corrupt military officers

President Museveni poses for a photo with members of the Patriotic club during the 13th Tarehe Sita thanksgiving ceremony at Kololo in Kampala, yesterday.  PHOTO / PPU

What you need to know:

President Museveni praises the army for its operational prowess and discipline but acknowledges the presence of corruption within its ranks, vowing to address the issue.

Several days after he launched a ground-breaking document shaking up the structure and posture of the national army, President Museveni has set his sights on the spectre of corruption which he said has crept back into the forces.

Reports of graft gaining ground inside the military will dampen the fanfare, which greeted the landmark Establishment Document 2021, that was made public at a ceremony held on February 18. In it, the commander-in-chief and the Defence Council affirmed that command and control of all the army’s elements will now be under the Chief of Defence Forces (CDF) -- a telling departure from the status quo.

Under the new structure, even the Special Forces Command (SFC), a formation from which the presidential guard is drawn, and until now believed to operate almost independent of the regular army, has also been placed within the sphere of the CDF’s oversight.

Sources said the dramatic changes in the army’s doctrine and organisational structure were developed to transform the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) into a modern, professional and agile force; one adapted to the changing nature of threats to national and regional security.

President Museveni yesterday said he is now gunning for those who are stealing military resources, including siphoning fuel from army reserves and embezzling funds.

The Commander-in-Chief unexpectedly dropped the corruption bombshell on the UPDF during a thanksgiving ceremony held in commemoration of Tarehe Sita Day at Kololo Independence Grounds in Kampala.

Tarehe Sita (Army Day), celebrated every February 6, marks the victory of the rebel National Resistance Army (NRA) he led to capture power in 1986 after a five-year Bush War. It is from the NRA that the UPDF evolved.

The President’s surprise announcement and promise to deal with the small group of corrupt individuals with access to military resources caught many off guard. The President has long praised the army for its discipline and operational prowess.

But yesterday, he said: “It is true that there is some corruption in UPDF now. They shouldn’t tell you lies that there is no corruption now. Some corruption has crept in. Stealing of fuel, stealing of some of the money and some other mistakes”.

He seemed to have been prompted by the comments of a religious leader who had alluded to the possibility that the cancer of corruption -- rife across other government departments -- could be bedeviling the army too.

The President, however, reverted to type, maintaining that most of the rank and file are good soldiers even as he exhorted the army leadership to rid the UPDF of corrupt officers.

“You are commanders of the UPDF here. And I can see, you are many of you here. You now hear the messages: Bishop Joshua Lwere (a Pentecostal pastor) was talking politely, saying; ‘in case [there is corruption]’. But it isn’t in case. It is since… Since there has been some corruption, because he was very careful saying ‘in case’. No. It isn’t in case,” he said.

Warming to the subject, the President added: “For me, I know that since... It should be since some corruption has crept in, we should repent but also remove that foreign material…”

“Such challenges have crept in, and we have talked about them, but the good thing is that such mistakes are done by the minority; those people who are near the resources. They offend the majority who suffer and report. So, that will be sorted out,” he said.

Separately, the President was nonetheless upbeat over how “on the professional side, things are moving on well. It is really a good army; it is able to operate in a very difficult situation like in Congo and Somalia. Things are not so easy, but they operate because they are educated people.”

Mr Museveni said the UPDF’s successes are down to a combination of ideology and spirituality, noting that, “Our ideology was a mixture of our traditional beliefs here and religion. In our traditions we despise treachery, we don’t even believe in cowardly attacks and when we came to the religion, we found many of the teachings were similar to our traditions and when we were building this Force, we despised treachery and corruption”.

In the 1990s, the UPDF was rocked by many corruption scandals. With troop morale threatened by the vice, a string of inquiries were ordered by Mr Museveni.

Most notorious of these sagas were the procurement of what were referred to as junk tanks and helicopter gunships from a former Soviet republic and the ghost soldiers debacle that is said to have inhibited army performance in the insurgent war theatre that was northern Uganda.

Massive corruption was also investigated around reports that rogue commanders of the Ugandan contingent to the African Union Mission in Somalia were selling weapons, fuel and ordinance to al-Shabaab terrorists.

Years before, the UPDF’s expeditionary force in the DR Congo was shaken after a paymaster disappeared without a trace, taking with him billions meant for troop salaries.

Even earlier in the late 80s, there had been the case of undersize army uniforms from China, and military transports (IFA trucks and Santana Land Rovers from Spain) of dubious quality.

Partly on account of the probes, the army leadership was reshuffled over and over again, resulting in the relative quiet and calm which has reigned until recently. Those changes also saw the rise of new, younger officer corps with little relationship with the Bush War.

At Kololo, Gen Museveni also slammed the involvement of the military in illegal land evictions that are now rampant countrywide today.

“Why should the soldiers be involved in land evictions? What are they doing there? They aren’t police officers. Why are you involved in land issues? So, those mistakes are crept in and we have talked about them,” President Museveni said.

“The good thing is that those mistakes are done by a minority of people because they are done by some people who are near some of those resources and they offend the majority. The majority suffer and see and report. So that will be sorted out,” he said.

The Chief of Defence Force, Gen Wilson Mbadi, who spoke first, said the UPDF is improving troop welfare.

“…We have continued to build on the past sacrifices to continue professionalising the Force so that we can make it fit for purpose. With your visionary leadership, we will continue to do so, so much with less, in capacity building, capacity enhancement to ensure that we continue to build a professional, effective, efficient, motivated and accountable force,” Gen Mbadi said.

Pastor Lwere prayed for the UPDF leadership, noting: “Land grabbers have used our soldiers, so we are going to ask for forgiveness for misusing power... Strong weapons are given to us to fight and defend the weak. Where those guns have been misused to torture, to maim to cause pain, we are going to ask for mercy and forgiveness”.

Some background on irregularities in the army

  • Capt Dan Byakutaga scandal

In April 2000, Capt Dan Byakutaga, a UPDF paymaster, reportedly disappeared with $1 million (Shs1.9 billion in today’s currency) in salaries for soldiers fighting in the DR Congo. Capt Byakutaga went AWOL along with then director of finance, Capt Charles Nkurunungi. It was rumoured that Byakutaga fled to the US but that rumour has never been proven. While canvassing for re-election later in 2001, President Museveni said during a talk show on Hoima FM that intelligence agencies knew where Byakutaga was.

  • Junk choppers

During the 1990s, the army was involved in a number of procurement scandals. Undersize uniforms from China; poor grade food rations from South Africa and second-hand tanks, several of which were unserviceable, from Belarus, were bought.

But probably the most infamous of the scandals was what came to be known as the junk helicopter scandal in which two of four unserviceable Mi-24 helicopters were bought. Additionally, four MiG fighter jets modified in Israel could not fly. The deal to supply the helicopters, which was brokered by Emma Katto, then a noted businessman and rally car driver, was aided by Gen Salim Saleh. It emerged that Gen Saleh, the President’s younger brother, had quietly negotiated a hefty $200,000 commission off each of the four helicopters. He would later tell a commission of inquiry into the matter in 2001 that he had informed the President of the ‘commission’ and Mr Museveni had allowed him to use it in the war against Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in northern Uganda.

The Justice Julia Ssebutinde commission of inquiry report released in 2003 detailed that government lost $12 million in the scheme.

  • Ghost soldiers scandal

Complaints about money being paid to soldiers who did not exist had been popping up often in earlier years, but in 2003, what came to be known as the ghost soldier scandal broke. It emerged that units, especially in northern Uganda where the war against the LRA was raging, were under-strength and had their numbers exaggerated so that commanders would cream off and trouser funds off the inflated salary bill. The same problem afflicted military units in the Congo and western Uganda against the Allied Democratic Forces rebels. Some unconfirmed estimates show that Uganda lost about $324 million in 20 years through ghost soldiers

  • Somalia fuel, gun racket

In late 2013, President Museveni ordered a probe into corruption allegations in the army, following tip-offs by soldiers returning from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia and US authorities. During a meeting with soldiers at Singo Army Training School, the President at the behest of the foot soldiers ordered their commanders out to allow the troops to speak freely. To the consternation of their commander-in-chief, the troops told hair-raising stories of how field commanders were selling fuel and guns to the enemy in Somalia. Several UPDF soldiers were subsequently arrested, charged and convicted for treachery etc.