Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer, is a common English saying that Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni seems to have taken literally. His decision to reach out to the offspring of his predecessors is being viewed in Kampala with great interest.
What is his strategy? With what intentions are the offspring of former presidents responding to the embrace, if at all?
President Museveni was in the habit of taking a swipe at his predecessors, especially former dictator Idi Amin and Milton Obote, whom he described as swine for misrule and crimes committed during their regimes. Also in this mix was the Gen Tito Okello Lutwa-led military junta, which lasted six months from July 1985 to January 1986, when Museveni took power.
Living in exile
When Amin was still alive and living in exile in Saudi Arabia, President Museveni famously said he could not touch him, “not even with a long stick,” and that if Obote dared to return from exile in Zambia, he would shoot him on the tarmac at Entebbe airport.
But longevity at the helm of Uganda’s politics, which demands skill not only to stay in the game, but to also win over new support, has forced President Museveni to dine with the families and descendants of his enemies of yesterday.
Since 1986, at least five offspring of ex-presidents have found their way into the corridors of power, either as Cabinet ministers, Members of Parliament, operatives in key security outfits or diplomats.
Some like Henry Okello Oryem, can be said to be close to the regime’s inner circle. A legislator, member of the ruling party and son to former president Lutwa, Mr Oryem has been in Museveni’s Cabinet since 2001, most of this time as Minister for International Affairs.
Another offspring of an ex-president in President Museveni’s government is Taban Amin, son of Idi Amin. He serves in intelligence circles as deputy director of the External Security Organisation. In February, his son, Taban Amin Jr, won a parliamentary seat in Kibanda county on the ticket of the ruling party, of which president Museveni is chairman.
In diplomatic circles is Maurice Kagimu, son of Uganda’s pre-independence chief minister Benedicto Kiwanuka. Before being appointed ambassador, Mr Kagimu served as a minister in President Museveni’s government.
But the biggest enigma of ex-president’s children is Jimmy Akena. The son of two-time former president Obote (1967-1971 and 1980-1985), Mr Akena was very close to his father and lived with him in exile in Zambia after he was deposed in a coup.
Tutored by his father in the leftist ideology of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), Mr Akena surprised political observers in the run-up to the February 18 elections, when media reports emerged that the UPC man had cut a deal with President Museveni to support him. Thus he ditched the opposition fronts of both Kizza Besigye and former premier Amama Mbabazi, and delivered the UPC stronghold of Lango sub-region to Museveni.
Political observers in Kampala say several factors have led President Museveni to drop his uncompromising stance against former leaders and their families, top of which is the 2005 switch from the Movement system to multiparty politics, which Museveni was uncomfortable with.
But as leader of his party, President Museveni has also learnt hard lessons while hunting for votes in regions that were initially opposed to his rule. With the return of multiparty politics, and his regime still unpopular in the north, he needed the former first sons, who in many respects are also heirs of their fathers’ hegemony and influence in these regions.
Amin, Obote and Lutwa all hailed from northern Uganda, a region that was hostile to Museveni’s westerner- and southerner-dominated regime, leading to a two-decade rebellion of the Lord’s Resistance Army and several other militia.
“Politics is about support from the local people. The votes from the sub-regions of Acholi, Lango and West Nile matter to Museveni. He has come to the realisation that sometimes you may have a personal opinion about some people but you need their communities’ support,” said legislator Betty Amongi.
“If I accommodate somebody who is thought to be an enemy, or a person whom I don’t agree with, what signal do I send politically?” she added.
John Nagenda, the senior presidential advisor on media and public relations, says that despite President Museveni demonising his predecessors, in a situation where every vote counts, pulling families of ex-leaders into his stable of supporters was a masterstroke that denied the opposition votes.
“I don’t want to make the president seem like a saint, but when he befriended Akena, who by the way is a very nice young man, he was dealing a blow to the likes of Besigye. And to do this, it starts by being charitable to the other people,” he said.
In an interview with The EastAfrican, Mr Akena said his support of Museveni, 71, is for two reasons: Acknowledgement that “there has been a softening” by the president “and I welcome it,” including the award of a “deserved medal” in 2010 to Obote for his contribution in fighting for Uganda’s independence, which Mr Akena received on his father’s behalf.
But Mr Akena has also one eye on post-Museveni politics — barring a constitutional amendment, the incumbent will not run beyond 2021 as Article 102 of the Constitution places an age limit of 75 years on eligibility to run for the highest office.
Despite this, President Museveni’s larger-than-life personality in the country’s politics over the past 30 years impacts the transition, Mr Akena argues.
“I don’t believe you can have any useful discussions of transition that don’t involve Museveni. He remains a factor in the same way my father is. But my mission is to build UPC into an active, vibrant party, participating in all political processes,” he says.
But signs had emerged even earlier that President Museveni and top lieutenants in his regime would work with Mr Akena in order to stabilise the Lango region, which was still suffering effects of the LRA rebellion, and thus accumulate political capital as the ruling party sought to remain dominant.
In 2005, for instance, just after returning from exile, Mr Akena contested the Lira Municipality seat on the UPC ticket. But the region had been devastated by the LRA rebellion, with thousands living in internally displaced persons’ camps.
Sign the deal
Mr Akena eventually became part of the team that travelled to Garamba to meet the LRA leaders and also shuttle between the then mediator South Sudan Vice-President Riek Machar and the Uganda government chief negotiator Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, as the rebels and government both stuck to their positions.
The peace process fell through when the LRA leaders did not sign the deal, but Mr Akena’s role did not go unnoticed by either party.
In 2013, President Museveni attended the wedding of Mr Akena and Ms Betty Amongi — both MPs from staunch UPC families. But it was the president’s contribution of Ush50 million ($15,000) to the couple that gave a clear indication of his intentions to win over the Obote family.
Betrayed the party
Sections of UPC loyalists, including party president Olara Otunnu and David Pulkol, who were both in Mbabazi’s camp, argued that Mr Akena betrayed the party by dining with and potentially handing Lango to the enemy.
They claimed President Obote “would turn in his grave” at the abomination while others were too shocked to even imagine it was possible that President Museveni, of all the people, would sit at the high table in Obote’s sitting room.
But the National Resistance Movement strategists hailed the deal as one that would turn the tables in a region where the opposition hoped to pick up votes. In the end, President Museveni came out the stronger politician, shrewd and accommodative of past enemies within and outside the country.
Would Mr Akena take up a position in the Cabinet if Museveni offered one?
“If such an offer came up I have to take it to the UPC party council to debate and decide. It’s not for me alone to decide,” he said.
Sabiti Makara, professor of political science at Makerere University, believes Mr Akena would take it.
“He is going to be a minister in Museveni’s new government. In so doing, Akena has handed over UPC to Museveni, with the blessings of his mother,” he said.
This, according to former Chwa County MP Livingstone Okello Okello, would be total betrayal of the party and northern Uganda.