After years of avoiding and in some cases, blocking the retirement of senior army officers, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, on August 31, presided over a ceremony to retire 11 army generals.
With that ceremony, President Museveni joined two long serving leaders, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, and Cameroon’s ailing Paul Biya in making changes to their military within days of each other.
The eleven joined another 99 mid-level officers that the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) had retired on August 25, in what some commentators are calling a cleanup exercise, so that heir apparent, General Muhoozi Kainerugaba finds a youthful army.
“There is a clear generational change in the UPDF. Many of those officers had asked to retire and at their age they couldn’t possibly return to active service,” says one political commentator who prefers anonymity to speak freely.
The commentator suspects President Museveni sees the end of the road, as Uganda’s President.
“Why not start cleaning up?” asks the commentator.
Another analyst that studies Uganda’s politics, who also prefers to speak on background, adds that President Museveni had previously positioned his son, General Muhoozi to take over the army, but things did not work out as expected. This analyst says General Muhoozi Kainerugaba failed to take over the father’s powers because the son did not know how to handle the senior military officers, so a cleanup makes sense.
Yusuf Sserunkuma, an anthropologist and scholar, however, warns against gutting the military’s senior leadership.
“The danger is that Museveni risks weakening the army as he hands it over to young, less experienced folks,” says Yusuf Sserunkuma.
Unlike Rwanda, where supporters of the government have insisted President Kagame’s retirement of soldiers, including the 12 senior army officers retired days ago is routine that happens annually, no one can say the same for Uganda.
Uganda’s army has since 1996, acted as a jail of sorts for senior army officers with political ambitions.
One of the most high-profile cases was that of General David Tinyefuza, President Museveni’s bush war comrade and senior member of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) who has since changed his name to David Sejusa.
General Sejusa attempted to resign in 1996, after appearing before a committee of Parliament and castigating the government for failing to decisively deal with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) war in northern Uganda. His case went up to the constitutional court, which ruled in his favour, but the decision was later reversed keeping General Sejusa in the army for an extra quarter a century.
General Sejusa managed a negotiated exit last year, enduring a stint in exile in the United Kingdom, as the government intended to arrest him for participating in politics while still in the army. Dr. Kizza Besigye, Uganda’s long time opposition leader only managed retirement because he acquired it without President Museveni’s knowledge.
The retirement of these senior military officers now, however, suggests President Museveni is possibly finding a solution that allows him to control the senior army officers that are no longer in the army.
Brig General Emmanuel Kwihangana, one those to finally retire had been a soldier in Uganda’s army since 1973.
Three other senior officers who retired joined in 1979. The rest of the senior military officers joined in the early to mid-1980s, suggesting most were very old men who should have retired a long time ago.
According to President Museveni, the UPDF had failed to retire these old soldiers because the government needed to provide an adequate pension and gratuity.
The government was, however, somehow able to get the appropriate money in 2023, a year when the World Bank just announced it would soon stop lending to Uganda, allegedly over the anti-homosexuality law passed recently by Parliament.
Other lenders such as the Chinese government fell off around 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic leaving Uganda to borrow from commercial banks and others such as the Africa Export Import Bank (Afriximbank). Afriximbank’s main role is to provide longer-term loans to the private sector on the continent.
General Kale Kayihura, a former blue-eyed boy and chief enforcer of brutality against Museveni’s opponents, says the government has indeed been generous with their retirement package.
“Let me thank you [President Museveni] again on behalf of my colleagues for this colourful dignified sendoff ceremony and generous befitting gifts. Generals this is really incredible and a big surprise to some of us,” says Kayihura, who fell on hard times when he was arrested in June 2018.
At the height of a diplomatic row between Rwanda and Uganda, General Kayihura was arrested over alleged conflicting loyalties, as he was accused of abetting the illegal repatriation of Rwandan exiles. The United States of America’s Treasury Department compounded his problems a year later, with sanctions over corruption and his role abusing the human rights of President Museveni’s opponents.
Even in Uganda, where cash is still king, those who have been sanctioned by Americans say it is impoverishing, as one can only receive money when it is handed over in cash. In addition to the cash, the army court martial also dropped pending charges against General Kayihura, allowing him to go home with a clean slate and a purse full money.
The generosity, according to Sserunkuma is to make sure the generals go home, stay quiet, without making any waves in the political space.