Gen. Yoweri Kaguta Museveni is the current President of Uganda and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces; he has been in that position since January 26, 1986.
Gen. Museveni was born on August 15, 1944 in Ntungamo District, Western Uganda, to Mzee Amos Kaguta (RIP) and Esteri Kokundeka (RIP). He was the first of three children the couple had. His sister Violet Kajubiri and younger brother Gen. Caleb Akandwanaho (a retired army officer) were born in later years.
His surname, Museveni, means “son of a man of the seventh,” in honor of the 7th Battalion of the Kings African Rifles, the British colonial unit in which many Ugandans served during World War II. Museveni gets his middle name from his father, Amos Kaguta, who was a cattle herder.
Gen. Museveni attended Kyamate Primary School, Mbarara High School, and Ntare School. It was while at high school that Museveni became an active member of the students’ revolutionary movements that were fighting for independence and de-colonization for African countries.
In 1967, Museveni joined the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. There he studied economics and political science, involving himself in radical pan-African politics. While at the university, he formed the University Students’ African Revolutionary Front (USARF), which was a students’ activist group. Later on, he led a students’ delegation to FRELIMO liberated territory in Portuguese controlled Mozambique, where he received guerilla training.
Studying under the leftist academic Walter Rodney, among others, Museveni wrote a university thesis on the applicability of Frantz Fanon’s ideas on revolutionary violence to the liberation struggles in colonial Africa. He graduated in 1970.
In 1970, Museveni joined the Office of the President; the Ugandan President at the time was Apollo Milton Obote. When Maj. Gen. Idi Amin seized power in a January 1971 military coup, Museveni left for Tanzania with other opponents of the newly installed Amin regime.
The exiled forces opposed to Idi Amin, who were predominantly comprised of former members of the Obote regime, invaded Uganda from Tanzania in September 1972 and were repelled, suffering heavy losses in the process. Museveni participated in this attack (although he was opposed to the methodology used by the exiles) and was fortunate to survive the experience.
Museveni briefly worked as a lecturer at a co-operative college in Moshi, in Northern Tanzania, before breaking away from the mainstream opposition and forming the Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) in 1973. In August of the same year, he married Janet Kataha, a former secretary and airline stewardess with whom he would have four children.
1972 – 1980: FRONASA and the fall of Idi Amin
In October 1978, Amin invaded Tanzania in order to ‘re-claim the Kagera province for Uganda’. This reckless and illegal adventure was to be Amin’s undoing for the Tanzanians responded in strength to the invasion of their country. Later in the war (when Amin’s fate seemed sealed) the Tanzanians organized the famous ‘Moshi Conference’. In March of 1979, Museveni and FRONASA attended this gathering of exiles and fighting groups called by the Tanzanian leader Mwalimu Julius Nyerere in the northern Tanzanian town of Moshi. The Moshi Conference was supposed to forge a new dispensation for Uganda after the downfall of the hated dictator Idi Amin.
Overcoming ideological differences, for the time being at least, the various groups established the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF). Museveni was appointed to an 11-member Executive Council, chaired by Yusuf Kironde Lule. This was to be assisted in governing Uganda by a National Consultative Council (NCC) with one member for each of the 28 groups represented at the meeting.
The newly created UNLF comprised of important fighting groups like Kikosi Maalum of Milton Obote and FRONASA led by Yoweri Museveni continued to prosecute the war against the Amin regime under the guidance and leadership of the Tanzanian military. This liberation war culminated in the toppling of the Amin regime in April of 1979.
Museveni was named the new Minister of Defence in the new UNLF government. He was the youngest minister in Yusuf Lule’s administration. The thousands of troops whom Museveni recruited into FRONASA during the war were incorporated into the new national army the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). They retained their loyalty to Museveni, however, and would be crucial in the later resistance against the second Obote government.
The NCC selected Godfrey Binaisa as the new chairman of the UNLF after infighting led to the removal of Yusuf Lule in June 1979. Machinations to consolidate power by different factions continued in the Binaisa led government. In November, Museveni was reshuffled from the Ministry of Defence to the Ministry of Regional Cooperation, with Binaisa himself assuming the key defence portfolio.
In May 1980, Binaisa himself was placed under house arrest after an attempt to dismiss Maj. Gen. Oyite Ojok, the Army Chief of Staff – in what was a de facto coup d’etat led by Paulo Muwanga, Yoweri Museveni, Oyite Ojok and Gen. Tito Okello Lutwa. A Military Commission, with Museveni as Vice-Chairman, was installed and quickly announced plans for a general election in December.
Now a well known national figure, Museveni established a new political party, the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM), which he would lead in the elections. He would be competing against three other political groupings: the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), led by former president Apollo Milton Obote; the Conservative Party (CP) led by Joash Mayanja Nkangi; and the Democratic Party (DP) led by Dr. Paul Kawanga Ssemwogerere.
The main contenders were seen to be the UPC and DP. A number of irregularities compromised the credibility of the poll. In the planning of the election, the leader of the ruling commission, Paulo Muwanga, supported the UPC’s view that each candidate should have a separate ballot box. This was fiercely opposed by the other parties, which maintained that it would make the poll easier to manipulate.
Suspicions of fraud were compounded by Muwanga’s announcement on the day of the election that all results should be cleared by him before they were announced publicly. It came as no surprise therefore when Paulo Muwanga announced that his mentor Milton Obote had won the elections.
The other parties refused to recognize the legitimacy of the new regime, citing widespread electoral irregularities. Earlier on during the election campaigns, Museveni had warned that if the UPC and Obote rigged the polls, the UPM would go to the bush and launch an armed struggle. Obote sarcastically laughed off the warning and dismissed Museveni’s threat of action as inconsequential.
The Resistance War
True to his word Yoweri Museveni and 27 other patriots launched the armed struggle against the Obote regime on the 6th of February 1981. The opening act of this titanic struggle was the attack on Kabamba Training School. Through adroit military planning and effective execution by able field commanders, that small band of 27 armed men was able to grow into a rebel army of thousands in the ensuing four years.
By early 1985, Museveni and some of his senior commanders had built one of the most effective guerrilla forces in the history of the world. This rebel army was called the National Resistance Army (NRA) and by June 1985 (after the famous Battle of Kembogo) it had precipitated a mutiny within the UNLA (the government military force) which led to the downfall of the second Obote regime. The NRA was poised to take control of the entire country and win the war.
1985 Nairobi Accord
On 27 July 1985, factionalism within the UNLA led to a successful military coup against Milton Obote by his former army commander, Lieutenant-General Tito Okello and the commander of the Gulu based Northern Brigade, Bazilio Olara Okello. The Okello/ Bazilio military junta attempted to lure the NRA out of the bush by promises of big government jobs and the creation of a new national army in which the NRA would be well represented.
Museveni and the NRA (along with the political arm of the resistance war the National Resistance Movement) were suspicious of all these promises and determined to pursue their goal of total liberation of the country from these anti-people forces. They also viewed the UNLA as lacking in credibility because of the gross human rights violations they had committed in the Luwero Triangle. Despite these reservations, however, the NRM/A eventually agreed to peace talks presided over by the Kenyan government under President Daniel Arap Moi.
The talks, which lasted from 26 August to 17 December 1985, were notoriously acrimonious and the resultant ceasefire broke down almost immediately. The final agreement, signed in Nairobi, called for a ceasefire, the de-militarization of Kampala, integration of the NRA and UNLA, and absorption of the NRA leadership into the Military Council that was governing the country. These conditions were never met.
The prospects of a lasting agreement were limited by several factors, including lack of an in-depth knowledge of the situation in Uganda at the time by some of the hosts and the exclusion of relevant Ugandan and other international actors from the talks, inter alia. In the end, Museveni and his allies refused to share power with the UNLA which they knew was responsible for the widespread suffering of Ugandans, not least while the NRA had the capacity to achieve an outright military victory, and usher in, what would later to be known as the “fundamental change.”
Kampala falls to the NRA
As the talks in Nairobi progressed, Museveni sought to obtain the non-involvement of Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire in any attempt to support the Okello/Bazilio military junta. On 20th of January 1986, however, several hundred troops loyal to former dictator Idi Amin were accompanied into Ugandan territory by the Zairian military. The forces intervened in the civil conflict following secret training in Zaire and an appeal from Okello ten days previously.
However, despite the last-ditch support from the Zairian military for the Ocelot junta, by 22 January, government troops in Kampala had begun to abandon their posts en masse as the rebels gained ground from the south-west, west and north. On the evening of the 25th of January, the NRA finally overran the capital. Elements of the UNLA started a mass retreat from the capital on that day and the Okello/Bazilio military junta was overthrown. The NRA declared victory the next day, January 26th 1986.
Museveni was sworn in as president on 29th January 1986. “This is not a mere change of guards, this is a fundamental change,” said Museveni, after a ceremony conducted by British-born chief justice Peter Allen. Speaking to a crowd of thousands outside the Ugandan parliament, the new president promised a return to democracy: “The people of Africa, the people of Uganda, are entitled to a democratic government. It is not a favour from any regime. The sovereign people must be the public, not the government,” said Gen. Yoweri Museveni.
1986–1996: The early years
Political and economic regeneration
The post independence regimes in Uganda were characterized by corruption, factionalism, extra-judicial killings and an inability to restore law and order and acquire popular legitimacy. Museveni needed to avoid repeating these mistakes if his new government was not to suffer the same fate. The NRM declared a four-year interim government, composed of a broader ethnic base than its predecessors. The representatives of the various factions were nevertheless hand-picked by Museveni.
Although Museveni was committed to establishing a functioning democracy, he initially enacted restrictions on political party activity. Museveni argued that Uganda was too fraught with ethnic and religious divisions to allow traditional party competition, citing the sectarian violence which had overshadowed Uganda’s recent history as evidence.
The NRM non-party system did not prohibit political parties, but prevented them from fielding candidates directly in elections. The “Movement System”, which Museveni argued was the best vehicle for competitive politics in this ethnically fractured society, quickly gained the loyalty of many Ugandans. The Movement System would be the cornerstone in Ugandan politics for nearly twenty years.
A system of Resistance Councils (RCs), directly elected at the parish level, was established to manage local affairs, including the equitable distribution of fixed-price commodities. The election of Resistance Council representatives was the first direct experience many Ugandans had with democracy after many decades of varying levels of authoritarianism, and the replication of the structure up to the district level has been credited with helping people at the local level understand how democracy works.
The new government enjoyed widespread international support, and the economy that had been damaged by the civil war began to recover as Museveni initiated economic policies designed to combat key problems such as hyper inflation and the balance of payments. Abandoning his erstwhile Marxist viewpoint, Museveni embraced the neo-liberal structural adjustment programmes advocated for by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Uganda began participating in an IMF Economic Recovery Program in 1987. Its objectives included the restoration of incentives in order to encourage growth, investment, employment and exports. Furthermore the ERP sought to promote the diversification of trade with particular emphasis on export promotion, it argued for the removal of bureaucratic constraints (red tape) and government’s divestment from ailing public enterprises so as to enhance sustainable economic growth through the private sector.
1996–2011: A new democratic mandate
The first general elections under the Museveni government were held on 9 May 1996. Museveni defeated Paul Ssemogerere of the Democratic Party, who contested the election as a candidate for the “Inter-party forces coalition”. Museveni won with a landslide 75.5 per cent of the vote from a turnout of 72.6 per cent of eligible voters. Although international and domestic observers described the vote as valid, the losing candidates rejected the results. Museveni was sworn in as president for the second time on 12 May 1996.
The main weapon in Museveni’s campaign was the restoration of security and the recovery of the economy. A memorable electoral image produced by his campaign team depicted a pile of skulls in the Luwero Triangle. This powerful symbolism was not lost on the inhabitants of this region, who had suffered rampant insecurity during the civil war.
The other candidates had difficulty matching Museveni’s efficacy in communicating his key message. Museveni seemed to have a remarkable ability to relate political messages by using simple ideas and anecdotes, especially with people from the south. The metaphor of “carrying a grindstone (olubengo) for leadership”, referring to an “authoritative individual, bearing the burden of authority”, was just one of many imaginative images he created for his campaign. He would often deliver these in the appropriate local language, demonstrating respect and attempting to transcend tribal politics. Museveni’s fluency in English, Luganda, Runyankole and Swahili often helped him communicate his message.
Until the prospect of presidential elections, Ssemogerere (Museveni’s political rival in 1996) had been a minister in the NRM government. His decision to challenge the record of Museveni and the NRM, rather than claim a stake in Museveni’s “movement”, was seen as naive opportunism, and regarded as a political error. Ssemogerere’s alliance with the UPC was an anathema to the Baganda, who might otherwise have lent him some support as the leader of the Democratic Party.
In 1997, Museveni introduced free primary education i.e. Universal Primary Education (UPE).
The second set of elections was held in 2001; President Museveni beat his rival Kiiza Besigye as he sailed through with 69% of the vote. Dr Besigye had been a close confidant of the president and he was one of his bush war physicians. They however had a falling out shortly before the 2001 elections, when Dr Besigye decided to stand for presidency. The 2001 election campaigns were a heated affair, but Ugandans for the second time chose the stability and economic progress that Museveni represented over the unknown.
The election culminated into a petition filed by Dr. Besigye at the Supreme Court of Uganda. The court ruled that the elections were not free and fair but declined to nullify the outcome by a 3:2 majority decision. It was held that the many cases of election malpractice did not however affect the result in a substantial manner. Justices Benjamin Odoki (Chief justice), Alfred Karokora, and Joseph Mulenga ruled in favor of the respondents while Justices Arthur Haggai Oder (RIP) and John Tsekoko ruled in favor of Dr. Besigye.
The next presidential elections were held in 2006 and again Museveni prevailed over Dr Besigye winning 59% of the popular vote. Kiiza Besigye again ran to the Supreme Court seeking to nullify the result of the vote – but by a 4:3 decision, the result was upheld. As before, the judges ruled as they had in the 2001 petition – the malpractices cited in the election did not substantially affect the outcome of the election.
In February 2011, Museveni won a fourth elective term in office with 68.3 % of the total votes cast. His perennial rival Kiiza Besigye could only manage a paltry 27% of the vote, and attempted a mass insurrection through street protests to overthrow a legitimately elected government. These attempts were however defeated.
Internal and Regional Security
Gen. Museveni has been a pivotal figure in ensuring peace and stability not only in Uganda, but also in the region. From 1986 to 2006, the NRA/UPDF defeated a total of 25 insurgencies, the last of which was the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that operated from bases in Sudan and terrorized the population in Northern Uganda.
At the height of the LRA insurgency in 2003 – 06, Gen. Museveni established forward operation bases in Soroti (Teso), Barlege, and Gulu (Acholi) and assumed direct command of the units and formations engaged in the counter-insurgency operations. By the second half of 2005, the LRA was in utter disarray, this culminated in their eventual defeat by August of 2006.
On the regional front, Gen. Museveni has been instrumental in promoting peace efforts in Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan and now in Somalia. After more than 20 years without a central government, Gen. Museveni became the first African Head of State to deploy troops to try and sort out the turmoil in Somalia in March 2007 under the African Union Peace Keeping Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The UPDF has since been in the vanguard of the liberation of most of Somalia from the grip of the extremist terrorist organization, Al Shabaab.
Indeed the NRM came to power promising to restore security and respect for human rights. This was part of the NRM’s ten-point program, as Museveni noted in his swearing in speech in 1986:
“The second point on our program is security of person and property. Every person in Uganda must have absolute security to live wherever he wants. Any individual, any group who threatens the security of our people must be smashed without mercy. The people of Uganda should die only from natural causes which are beyond our control, but not from fellow human beings who continue to walk the length and breadth of our land.”
Museveni managed to get the Karamojong, fierce nomadic pastoralists in the semi-arid north-east of the country that had never had much interest in the central government, to align themselves with his policies by offering them a stake in the new NRM government. However, the northern region along the Sudanese border proved more troublesome. In the West Nile sub-region, inhabited by Lugbara, Alur and Kakwa (tribes that had previously supported the Amin regime), the Uganda National Rescue Front (UNRF) rebel group fought for years until a combination of military offensives and diplomacy pacified the region; the leader of the UNRF, Moses Ali, and later leaders like Ali Bamuze, gave up this struggle and became important officials in the NRM government.
People from the northern parts of the country viewed the rise of a government led by a person from the south with great trepidation. Rebel groups sprang up among the Langi, Acholi and Iteso, though they were overwhelmed by the strength of the NRA except in the far north where the Sudanese border provided a safe haven. The predominantly Acholi rebel group the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) failed to dislodge the NRA from Acholi land, this led in large measure to the desperate superstition of the so called ‘Holy Spirit Movement’ (HSM) of Alice Lakwena. The defeat of both the UPDA and HSM left the northern rebellion in the hands of a vicious faction that eventually came to be known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA soon turned on their Acholi people with a level of brutality unheard of before.
The LRA, led by Joseph Kony, were eventually defeated and expelled from the country by August 2006, taking refugee, first in the jungles of the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and later in the Central African Republic (CAR). UPDF is still hunting the remnants there.
The NRA/UPDF earned a reputation for respecting the rights of civilians.
Museveni has won praise from Western governments for his adherence to IMFstructural adjustment programs, for instance through privatization of state enterprises, cutting government spending and urging African self-reliance. Museveni was elected chairperson of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1991 and 1992. He permitted a free atmosphere within which the news media could operate, and private FM radio stations flourished during the late 1990s.
Perhaps Museveni’s most widely noted accomplishment has been his government’s successful campaign against HIV/AIDS. During the 1980s, Uganda had one of the highest rates of HIV infections in the world, but now Uganda’s rates are comparatively low, and the country stands as a rare success story in the global battle against the virus. One of the campaigns headed by Museveni to fight against AIDS was the ABC program. The ABC program had three main parts “Abstain, Be faithful, or use Condoms if A and B cannot be adhered to.
In April 1998, Uganda became the first country to be declared eligible for debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, receiving some US$700 million in aid. Museveni was lauded for his affirmative action program for women in the country, he was amongst the first African leaders to appoint a female vice-president, Dr. Specioza Wandira Kazibwe, and has done much to encourage girls and women to go to universities.
From the mid-1990s, Museveni was seen to exemplify a new breed of African leadership, the anti-thesis of the “big men” who had dominated politics on the continent since independence. This section from a New York Times article in 1997 is illustrative of the high esteem in which Museveni was held by certain Western media, governments and academics:
These are heady days for the former guerilla who runs Uganda. He moves with the measured gait and sure gestures of a leader secure in his power and his vision. It is little wonder. To hear some of the diplomats and African experts tell it, President Yoweri K. Museveni started an ideological movement that is reshaping much of Africa, spelling the end of the corrupt, strong-man governments that characterized the cold-war era. These days, political pundits across the continent are calling Mr. Museveni an African Bismarck. Some people now refer to him as Africa’s “other statesman,” second only to the venerated South African President, Nelson Mandela.
In official briefing papers from Madeleine Albright’s December 1997 Africa tour as Secretary of State, Museveni was called a “beacon of hope” who runs a “uni-party democracy,” despite Uganda not permitting multiparty politics. Museveni has been an important ally of the US and the world in the War on Terror.