Last week, the Chief of Defence Forces, Gen David Muhoozi, apologised for the Uganda’s People Defence Forces’ (UPDF) brutal attack on journalists.
The latest incident was when they savagely beat journalists as they covered the attempt by former National Unity Platform (NUP) party presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, to petition the offices of United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights on the gross human rights violations ahead of and after the January 14 elections.
Gen Muhoozi was met with scepticism because the UPDF and its predecessor - the National Resistance Army (NRA) - has spent 35 years brutalising journalists, and none of the previous apologies have changed anything.
In fact, between late October 2020 and the January 14 election alone, nearly 20 journalists were attacked, injured, and/or arrested as they covered election-related events.
The attack on journalists is not just targeting media. It is part of the wider and long-running violence against alternative organised voices, institutions, civil society, and public intellectuals who offer knowledge, information, and ideas around which a consciousness that could find the NRM’s universe narrow and dated might develop.
That said, there were differences this time. For starters, Gen Muhoozi came across as less cynical than his predecessors, and the clown show that the Uganda Police Force often offers after these abuses. There weren’t the usual “buts” and “ifs.”
And, unusually, he offered that the army would foot the cost of the treatment of the journalists. It came too late for photojournalist James Akena, who was left in a wheelchair by the UPDF in 2019, and he had to sue.
The starkest difference for me was visual, and the message it sent.
Gen Muhoozi looked nothing like the CDF - or commander - of an army where a threatening President Yoweri Museveni is the Commander-In-Chief, and of a government where early 20th Century politicians, foaming at the mouth, bang tables, warn about killing, and are totally out of touch with a youthful nation whose yearnings they can’t put a finger on. One almost couldn’t help ask: “Who is this guy, is he speaking for the current UPDF, or the one that will emerge in 2031?”
I for one think his demeanour and mindset hinted at a less menacing future UPDF. There was an almost imperceptible pain in his voice at the violence the soldiery has meted out in recent times.
And I get where it comes from, because beneath the madness, the primitive violence of the country’s politics today at base is a fight to define a modern Uganda that has pitted generations against each other.
Museveni is what they call the “silent generation,” born from 1925 to 1945. Most owe (or at least money) in NRM world, is held by “baby boomers,” the fellows born from 1945 to 1964. The dynamics of the time are being driven by Generation X (born in early 1960s to late 1970s) – Gen Muhoozi was born in 1965; Generation Y (born in the 1980s and 1990s) – Bobi Wine; the Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996), and Generation Z (born after 1997) - the largest chunk of the Ugandan population. Museveni is from a world that is 100 years behind Gen Z.
Many Millennial and Gen Z children of the “rulers” don’t like it that the friends with whom they were producing a song or writing code, are shot in the head the next day at a workshop where they are interning, because the area is a Bobi Wine stronghold.
I have had occasions in pre-pandemic times to be present and quietly watch these millennials as they engage in what, in substance, is very hot political argument over the future of Uganda, the excesses of the NRM government, the corruption, and rampant nepotism.
But if you didn’t listen carefully, you wouldn’t realise it. They are civil, and keep breaking the tension with jokes, and then pile in the same car and drive away to party away the night.
I know a smart Ugandan woman doing wonderful things abroad whose parents are deep in the NRM. She resolves the conflict of having to balance between a home she sees as representing the worst of the government of the day, and her cosmopolitan friends who come from “non-regime” homes by staying away, meeting her friends in less poisonous environments outside Uganda.
Generations of Ugandans that have the possibilities to impact the world in ways previous ones didn’t, are getting weary of being divided and fighting ancient wars that started when their parents hadn’t even met. Maybe Gen Muhoozi has a reflexive feeling about it all. Whatever the case, he looked out of place.
We are used to fire-breathing, axe-wielding UPDF generals, with scalps of the Opposition, rebels and al-Shabaab proudly hanging in their living rooms, sitting in his chair. We will know soon if it is a lie, or for real.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3