Gen Salim Saleh (born Caleb Akandwanaho), the presidential adviser on military affairs, and the President Yoweri Museveni’s brother, has thrust himself in the public limelight in a very un-Saleh like manner.
Though Saleh, a bush war hero, former army chief, and minister has been around with us for a long time, he is unique in that he is still an enigmatic figure. In recent months, having set up base in Gulu, and all roads leading to his doorstep up north, people are looking at him in ways they never did before. The Saturday Monitor on the weekend headlined its story, “How Gen Saleh turned Gulu City into pilgrimage capital”.
We arrived at this juncture, through a twisted journey. Saleh has a certain Teflon quality, that can be frustrating. Though he has been embroiled in many scandals, he remains a largely well-liked figure in the country, a feat he has achieved by having that network of friends and business people from many corners of the country, who he ensures get a slice of the patronage cake (i.e. he “doesn’t eat alone” as Ugandans put it), and the perception that he isn’t sectarian. He also doesn’t go shouting at the NRM’s lunatic wall, threatening to cut off opponents’ heads, in heated political times.
Saleh’s public face in recent years has been as head of the amorphous Operation Wealth Creation (OWC), created to kickstart a revolution around agriculture.
Its results have been dismal, at best, but it has risen to be an important political instrument, hovering up a huge chunk of official resources and keeping them behind a wall where they are subject to little or no Parliamentary overview. Saleh has used it to build a large grateful constituency, but delivered for Museveni something he values a lot - keeping alive the origin myth of the NRM as a peasant movement deeply rooted to the land. But perhaps Saleh’s biggest strengths is the strangest one - he has been the kingmaker who doesn’t want to be king. Once renowned for his fondness for the bottle, Saleh has since disavowed drink. All the above factors have now combined to make him a quite powerful centre of power, and there’s indicators that Museveni, who recently began what could be at least 40 years in power, is using Saleh’s platform to make succession moves.
It’s an unusual transition, because it is not a conventional one where the President picks on a clear successor and helps rally the party and country around him or her. “What is significant, is that Museveni has picked a cabinet which is a choir, not a team”, a journalist friend told me.
In his view, this means that Museveni has now set up a free hand to pick anyone, including a family member, to succeed him, and his cabinet would be happy to carry the chosen heir on their backs to his or her coronation.
Ms Jessica Alupo, the second female Vice President of the country, is considered a political lightweight. Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja, though bubbly and good-natured, is regarded as a flyweight.
Museveni also took care to appoint long-time presidential and First Family lawyer Kiryowa Kiwanuka (KK as he’s popularly known) as Attorney General. Clever and combative, KK is the kind of lawyer you bring to a constitutional gun fight.
“We think we could have constitution amendments that give the prime minister more power. And with [Robinah] Nabbanja as PM, she will just cede power to Museveni if he steps down or remains on in a ceremonial role”, one FDC-linked activist told me. But the inner shape of that transition, might actually be somewhere else. As OWC supremo, Saleh has championed a form of Ugandan national capitalism, in which industry and businesses are dominated by Ugandans. His philosophical soulmate, Makerere University don Ramathan Ggoobi, who authored papers arguing for a pivot away from policies that privilege foreign investors, was recently appointed Permanent Secretary (PS) in the Ministry of Finance. It was seen as a coup for Saleh, who for long had been at odds with the neo-liberal cast who have been at the helm of the ministry for over 40 years. It was the first time in recent memory that a PS had been appointed in Finance, who didn’t rise from the ranks of the ministry. Eased out was my good friend Keith Muhakanizi, an abrasive and unapologetic fiscal conservative, and free market champion. Observers think this signals that Museveni’s succession plan is to fast-track bulking up his version of a nationalist capitalist class that will function as another layer of protection around him. “The game is on. The only question now is whether Museveni leaves in 2026, or 2031, and whether his exit is orderly or chaotic”, an analyst in Kampala told me. Saleh, might have a lot to say about that.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”