Is Uganda on the verge of dynastic succession?
He is the president’s son and an arrogant Twitter user. He is also a violent general, and his forces have been accused of kidnapping and torturing opponents.
Lieutenant-General Muhoozi Kainerugaba is fueling speculation about a possible presidential run with a series of lavish birthday celebrations and public appearances. In one tweet, he proclaims, “Uganda belongs to Team mk!” “We won’t stop until we have total control!” declares another.
What exactly does this mean? “I’m largely talking about the new generation and their hobbies,” General Kainerugaba says at an army camp, clad in battle gear.
Is he interested in becoming President? “I haven’t thoroughly examined it yet, and there are still things I want to accomplish in the military.” Will he run in the next election? “I’m not thinking about running in 2026,” he adds.
Trying to predict Uganda’s future is like looking into dense fog while walking on the brink of a precipice. When General Kainerugaba was a child, his father, Yoweri Museveni, marched into power at the head of a rebel army, quickly gaining Western backing.
Back then, there was talk of restoring democracy and peace. The major debate these days is whether the 77-year-old would ever step down after removing all hurdles to being president for life.
Mr Museveni is not revealing his strategy. He confronts the same problem that many aging autocrats do: how to keep his position as his vigor fades. Others have established dynasties in Africa (and abroad).
The sons of deceased tyrants run Togo and Gabon. After his father died, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno took control in Chad last year. In Cameroon, the son of Paul Biya, who has reigned for longer than Mr Museveni, is thought to be interested in the presidency.
Mr Museveni employs a personalised leadership style that has weakened institutions and replaced them with informal networks of influence.
Janet, the education minister’s wife, has a network of well-connected acquaintances and family. Salim Saleh, a former commander with vast commercial interests, is regarded as the country’s second-most influential man.
When Mr. Museveni leaves office, these networks may fall apart. Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down in 2017 after 38 years in power, only to have his children charged for corruption. It is safer to keep power concentrated in a single household.
That might explain General Kainerugaba’s rise to the position of head of the ground troops last year. His first name, “Muhoozi,” means “avenger,” since the president believes “he is the one who will revenge me if anything is done to me.”
A new generation of officers has risen with him, often going through Special Forces Command (sfc), the presidential guard. In an indication of his rising power, he was recently despatched to repair ties with Rwanda, thus ending a three-year border closure.
However, there remains one hurdle in passing on power: General Kainerugaba himself. He lacks Mr Museveni’s charm and intelligence. Friends from Sandhurst, a British military institution, recall him as an enthusiastic Daily Telegraph reader who was preoccupied with soldiering. On Twitter, he boasts that his events include “the sexiest ladies on the planet.” His unpredictable tweets regarding crises in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and Ukraine contradict government policy and perplex diplomats.
Even more alarming is his track record on human rights. Hundreds of opposition activists were reportedly kidnapped and tortured during last year’s general election, sometimes by electrocution or by sticking hot irons to exposed flesh.
Mr Museveni said that 242 persons were imprisoned by military intelligence and 53 were detained by sfc, which was then led by his son, who was identified in a complaint to the International Criminal Court in 2021 claiming abuse by security forces.
In another example, troops pulled writer Kakwenza Rukirabashaija from his house after he insulted Mr Museveni and his son on Twitter. He resurfaced a month later, his back scarred. He claims that he was tortured at the headquarters of the SFCC while under the watch of General Kainerugaba.
“That’s a fabrication of his mind,” responds General Kainerugaba. The arrested activists were held by “another unit, not sfc.” What about the gunshot deaths of more than 50 people during riots in 2020, during which he served as a presidential adviser?
“Every soldier has the right to self-defense,” he argues, adding that he had “no part” in the incident. He is unable to describe what danger Amos Ssegawa, a schoolboy shot while going home with his mother, presented.
Furthermore, General Kainerugaba’s coronation is far from certain. Some members of the president’s family are said to be skeptical. In January, Mr Museveni’s son-in-law, Odrek Rwabwogo, warned that individuals “pushing narrow succession agendas” may spark a “backlash” against the governing party.
The president has never stated his choice and may be putting his son on the position. “He wants to test whether this nation can handle a familial succession.” Andrew Mwenda, a journalist and personal friend of the eldest son, says Few anticipate Mr Museveni to stand down before he dies, barring severe health.
However, the desire for the son may take on a life of its own. General Kainerugaba told The Economist that he had planned to retire from the army in March, which is a requirement for joining politics, but was persuaded otherwise.
He claims that young people appreciate his “protecting them, battling for them, and safeguarding the nation.” His supporters see him as the antidote to Bobi Wine, the musician who campaigned against Mr Museveni in the most recent election.
They’re fooling themselves. Ugandans are fed up with unemployment and corruption. Mr Museveni maintains his control via violence and patronage.
“To assume he can turn in anybody else using the same manipulative ways he has been using is just playing Russian roulette,” says Mugisha Muntu, the army’s former commander. “Something has to give.”
Kizza Besigye, another disgruntled veteran, compared the nation to an absolute monarchy. He has ran for president four times against his former buddy, and has been tear-gassed and incarcerated as a result.
He was recently imprisoned for two weeks for opposing increasing consumer costs. “Whereas the military grabbed Uganda’s authority, the family captured the military,” he claims. A messy transition is still avoidable. But the fog is as dense as ever, and the cliff edge is getting closer.