Seated under a particular tree at his country home in Rwakitura, President Museveni has made some of the most important decisions in his 33-year rule: hosted diplomats, former presidents, met businessmen and women, and played cards with his grandchildren.
But on one hot afternoon in early 2005, at the height of the ruling NRM campaign to remove the constitutional two term limits, which posed a real existential threat to President Museveni’s re-election at the tail end of his two terms in office, two top diplomats offered to pay him a visit.
Ambassador Jimmy Kolker (USA ambassador to Uganda 2002-2005) and the then United Kingdom High Commissioner Adam Wood presented a deal. They nudged Museveni to retire from office in 2006 in exchange for a job at the United Nations, one of the world’s most important organisations.
This never-heard of-before revelation is contained in a book detailing President Museveni’s relation with Western leaders and his quest to stay in power without them questioning too much.
The offer had never been discussed publicly until author and public health expert Professor Helen Epstein interviewed Kolker in 2015 for her latest book on Uganda. Titled; Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda and the War on Terror, the book details how Museveni has juggled diplomats and Western governments ensuring they don’t question the pervasive corruption in his government, his long hold onto power, the use of brute force against the opposition and, above all, keep the billions of dollars in aid flowing in.
The book was released later in 2017 and it is not on Ugandan bookshelves but can be bought on Amazon.
The two diplomats reportedly told Museveni: “Retire from office in 2006 and we’ll help you find a lucrative job as UN negotiator.”
According to Epstein, the ambassadors also offered to help arrange a deal to shield Museveni from any prosecution for acts committed in office.
“Museveni looked distracted by the ambassadors’ offer,” Kolker reportedly told Epstein. “One of his tactics with foreign visitors was to distract them with digressions about African history…”
But at this moment, she writes, Museveni did not attempt these games with ambassadors that sought to kick him out of power – he in fact didn’t answer them.
“[Museveni] didn’t kick us out,” Kolker said. “He dismissed us like flies.”
When the ambassadors left, Museveni went into self-reflection. Why were these diplomats baying for his blood? What had he not played well?
He had been the first African president to offer his support for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003; he had supported USA against Sudan president Omar-al-Bashir. What then was wrong? After all, he had known early in his leadership that the USA and the UK were key to his stay in power.
For instance, between 1987 and 1989, he had met President Ronald Reagan three times in a row, including visiting Reagan’s California ranch, “an unusual intercourse with an African leader at the time,” says Epstein.
To get out of the trap, Museveni reached out to his lobbyists unknown to the ambassadors to secure a deal with the George W Bush (junior) administration – to offer his support for USA in Somalia, a move that would end with Uganda sending troops there in 2007.
At the centre of lobbying was Rosa Whittaker of the Whittaker Group while Scribe, a US public relations firm, organized a congressional Uganda Caucus which opposed legislators who criticized Museveni. The firm also gave them donations, writes Epstein.
Earlier in 2003, Whittaker had arranged Museveni’s White House visit and now she sent letters reminding State Department officials that “Museveni was strongly supporting the US in global war against terrorism.”
Meanwhile, before Kolker went to Rwakitura, he had placed several Ugandan senior officials including Museveni’s brother Salim Saleh and wife Jovia on travel ban over corruption.
To get around this, Museveni reached out to his personal friend, the then assistant secretary of state for African Affairs Jadayi Frazer and she reversed the travel bans on Museveni’s family, writes Epstein.
Kolker’s term in Uganda consequently ended in September 2005 and Museveni had then succeeded in removing presidential term limits from the Constitution. When Prof Frazer left the State Department, she joined the Whittaker Group and they continued the lobbying job in the USA.
Little wonder then that when diplomats, including USA ambassador Deborah Malac walked out on Museveni’s inaugural in 2016 when he referred to the International Criminal Court as “a bunch of useless people”, she, Frazer, tweeted that the walkout was “an empty symbol.”
But in attendance, was the ICC indicted Sudan’s president Omar-al-Bashir cheering – yet in 2007 at State House Entebbe, Museveni had told Frazer that behind all the central Africa’s problems was “Sudan, Sudan, Sudan, Sudan”.
But Museveni’s change of attitude towards Sudan’s president coincided with the USA’s change in the way they looked at the Sudanese leader. In 2017, they removed sanctions from the Sudanese leader – after 20 years – on the premise that he was no longer a threat to war on terror.
Meanwhile, with Ugandan soldiers in Somalia and Museveni projecting himself as a champion of war on terror, Kolker and Wood’s plan fell short. Museveni had triumphed.
“He [Museveni] has since had far more contact with high-level American and British officials than any other living African leader…,” writes Epstein.
But Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) spokesperson Brigadier Richard Karemire, described Epstein’s book as “confused.”
He said: “The NRM government and UPDF are in Somalia [and other countries on the continent] because we are pan-Africanists. That’s it.”
Pan-Africanism is the idea that peoples of Africa have common interests and should be unified. This means if one country has a problem, another must pacify it.
In the next issue, we write how Museveni has managed to keep donors sending money despite his democratic credentials and human rights record being dull.