The removal of Gen Edward Katumba Wamala as chief of defence forces has wiped out the historical old guard from the army command and effectively put UPDF in the control of middle-aged officers, who either joined the National Resistance Army struggle near its end or after the war.
For the first time since 1986, the head of the army, Gen David Muhoozi, is neither strongly tied to the bush war nor was he part of the old Idi Amin or Milton Obote armies such as his predecessors; Gen Katumba Wamala and Gen Jeje Odong who served in the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA).
Muhoozi, 52, belongs to what in army circles is informally referred to as the “1985 Group.” This comprises soldiers who joined the NRA in 1985 when the war was nearing its end.
Other prominent members of this group are Brig Noble Mayombo, the deceased former Defence ministry permanent secretary; Maj Gen James Mugira, the head of the Luweero army industry; Col Felix Kulayigye, the political commissar, and Brig Leopold Kyanda, who until his removal recently was chief of staff land forces. Kyanda has since been sent to India for a course.
Muhoozi’s deputy, Lt Gen Wilson Mbadi, joined the army in March 1986, two months after President Museveni’s NRA guerrillas took power.
The rise of Muhoozi and Mbadi to the top echelons of the army has been meteoric. Five years ago, Muhoozi was a brigadier and commander of the mechanized brigade in Masaka, while Mbadi was a colonel and bodyguard of the commander-in-chief.
Lt Col Paddy Ankunda, the army spokesman, told The Observer yesterday that Monday’s reshuffle is routine and signals progress in the army.
“It shows that there is an orderly transition in the army when it comes to leadership,” Ankunda said.
Yet by entrusting the army leadership to a group of middle-aged and educated officers, some analysts have concluded that this could be a way of re-aligning power within the military ahead of the 2021 elections.
Unless he amends the constitution and removes the age-limit, President Museveni will not be eligible to stand for re-election in 2021 because he will be above 75 years, the constitutional ceiling for presidential contestants.
Besides the donors, opposition and civil society activists, Museveni’s stumbling block in his quest to stand in 2021 could be senior army officers, especially those bound together by their ties to the liberation war. Some have fallen out with him while others have kept conspicuously quiet as the age limit debate rages on.
This is different with the new crop of officers, many of whom look to Museveni as a father and mentor. For instance, some people have already pointed to the zeal with which Maj Gen Peter Elwelu, the incoming commander of the Land Forces, commanded the attack on the Rwenzururu kingdom in November last year – to demonstrate the blind loyalty of such younger officers.
Perhaps the only intriguing change is that of the First Son Maj Gen Kainerugaba Muhoozi who has been removed as commander of the Special Forces Command (SFC), an elite presidential guard unit, and appointed senior presidential advisor on special operations.
For starters, there has always been combustible talk that Muhoozi is being groomed to succeed his father as president of the country in the near future. That claim has been roundly dismissed by Muhoozi himself.
However, it is safe to believe that Muhoozi will remain an influential figure in the army in whatever capacity by virtue of his place in the first family. A good example is his uncle, Gen Salim Saleh, who has remained powerful even when he didn’t hold an official position in the army or government.
In fact, it is possible that if Muhoozi has any serious political agenda, his new position frees him up to reach out to the constituencies that matter without being seen as an army officer openly engaging in politics.
Similarly, Charles Rwomushana, the former head of political intelligence in the Internal Security Organisation (ISO), believes the reshuffle maintained the first family’s grip on the army.
“It is evident that now that Muhoozi is going to be closer to the father and brother [Gen Salim Saleh], it means that the key decisions will continue being made by one family,” Rwomushana said.
GEN WAMALA SPEAKS
Gen Wamala has been reassigned as minister of state for works, which protocol-wise is a senior position to that of the CDF. However, the position is by no means as influential as that of CDF. Amid talk that the former CDF had been demoted, army spokesman Ankunda sought to disagree.
“There is no soldier who will say he has been demoted because he was made a minister,” Ankunda said.
Talking to The Observer yesterday, Wamala declined to be drawn into the “demotion” talk, insisting that he was happy with his new posting.
“I am ready to take on any challenge that the appointing authority gives me,” he said in a telephone interview.
Asked what he considered to be his major achievement as CDF, Wamala said it was instilling a sense of discipline in the force. He said he was confident that his successor and the new team will steer the army to greater heights.
“He [Muhoozi] knows what it takes [to lead the army]. He is fit for the job,” Wamala said.
He added that the major challenge Muhoozi faces is improving the welfare of foot soldiers, especially with regard to housing and remuneration. Sources within the military told The Observer that a few years ago, Wamala had intimated to some people that he did not fancy serving in the CDF role for more than three years. He was appointed CDF in May 2013.
Some analysts have argued that Museveni could have appointed Gen Wamala as minister of state for works to oversee the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), which is being undertaken by Chinese contractors.
The Chinese have been tasked to work together with the army’s engineering unit to deliver one of President Museveni’s legacy projects. The ambitious multi-billion project, which will link Uganda to the eastern coast at Mombasa, was supposed to kick off in the last quarter of 2016 but that didn’t happen.
So, just like Gen Aronda Nyakairima, Katumba’s predecessor, who successfully implemented the national identity card project after he was transferred from the army to the ministry of Internal Affairs, the SGR could be Wamala’s project.
Indeed, Don Wanyama, the senior presidential press secretary, confirmed yesterday on social media that Wamala would bring a sense of order to the ministry.
“Katumba will bring a known sense of discipline to help direct and propel this sector,” Wanyama wrote.
WHAT NEXT FOR OLD GUARD?
When Gen Wamala was appointed CDF in 2013, he and Gen Charles Angina stood out as the old guard among a group of younger commanders taking charge of UPDF. Monday’s reshuffle has completed the cycle, leaving the entire command of the army in the hands of largely post-bush war officers.
In the bush war days, the top decision-making organ was the High Command which, according to the UPDF Act 2005, had six members by 1986: Yoweri Museveni, Salim Saleh, David Sejusa, Elly Tumwine and Maj Gen Matayo Kyaligonza, as well as the late Eriya Kategaya.
Of these, Museveni still calls the shots, as the commander-in-chief, followed by his brother Gen Saleh, who is now in charge of Operation Wealth Creation (OWC), as well as senior presidential advisor on military affairs. Saleh is known to handle some of Museveni’s most sensitive military and political assignments.
Other historical members have retired to private business or fallen out with the regime.
A few are still in UPDF but in less influential roles. These include generals; Elly Tumwine and David Sejusa; lieutenant generals Ivan Koreta and Joram Mugume; major generals Pecos Kutesa, Jim Muhwezi, Mugisha Muntu and Kahinda Otafiire.
Others are Brigadier Steven Kashaka, and colonels include Fred Mwesigye, Gyagenda Kibirango, Samson Mande and Amin Izaruku.