In his book Tears & Triumph; My Life With Yoweri Museveni and Others, Onapito Ekomoloit, former press secretary to President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, delves into the president’s fixation with public gatherings and their media representation.
Ekomoloit, who served from 2002 to 2006, reveals that his job was once in jeopardy due to the perception that his team did not adequately capture these crowds in the media. During the 2006 presidential election, Museveni faced his former physician, Dr Kizza Besigye, for the second time.
Ekomoloit recounts how a photograph published by New Vision, a government-owned newspaper, infuriated the president. The image showcased Besigye addressing an enormous crowd in Arua.
“The New Vision, seemingly disregarding its affiliation with the state, shocked many by prominently featuring the photo of Besigye’s crowd on the front page,” Ekomoloit writes.
“A terse meeting ensued, attended by Museveni, New Vision corporation secretary Robert Kabushenga, the newspaper’s board chairman Brig Noble Mayombo [RIP], and myself. Museveni, brandishing the newspaper, asked rhetorically, ‘What is this?’ Before anyone could respond, he tossed the newspaper onto the table and abruptly exited the meeting.”
Aware of the president’s keen interest in how crowds were portrayed, others who sought Ekomoloit’s position began to criticize his performance. They argued he was failing to effectively maximize Museveni’s visibility by not capturing images that would attest to his ability to draw large audiences.
Ekomoloit narrates another incident when some of Museveni’s campaign team, eager to deflect blame and curry favor with the president, portrayed him [Ekomoloit] as lethargic and unenthusiastic about Museveni’s bid for a third term.
This narrative adds a nuanced layer to understanding Museveni’s relationship with the media and his staff, as well as the internal dynamics of political campaigns in Uganda. In his book, Onapito Ekomoloit recounts a critical moment during the campaign trail in Rukungiri, Dr Kizza Besigye’s home turf.
“Some people seeking to curry favor alleged that our Presidential Press Unit (PPU) photographers were not in the right place at the right time, thereby missing key shots of Museveni’s strong public support,” Ekomoloit writes.
Rumors reached him that his performance was under scrutiny. Later that evening, as they headed to Mbarara town, Ekomoloit received a call summoning him to a meeting with Museveni at the state lodge. Upon arrival, he was promptly led to a room where Museveni, wearing a vest, sat with his wife Janet and then-principal private secretary, Amelia Kyambadde.
“The unexpected fifth person was Robert Kabushenga, who held no official role in State House or the re-election campaign. I immediately sensed that the meeting was about campaign photographs, specifically those involving crowds,” he recalls.
Museveni directly questioned Ekomoloit’s commitment, asking, “Why don’t you want to do your work?”
This caught him off guard, given that he had just returned from another exhausting campaign day and was fully committed to Museveni’s victory.
“Clearly, someone had briefed Museveni negatively about me and the PPU,” Ekomoloit adds.
Despite this tense atmosphere, and a suggestion by someone else to replace Ekomoloit’s team, Museveni chose to give the PPU another chance. Ekomoloit’s experiences are particularly relevant now, as Uganda is again on the cusp of another political season, even though general elections are nearly three years away.
National Unity Platform (NUP) president Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, also known as Bobi Wine, is currently touring the country in gatherings similar to campaign rallies. These tours are closely followed by those of President Museveni’s son, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, which are disguised as birthday celebrations but have sparked a polarized debate.
Critics argue that Muhoozi, being an active officer in the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), should not be involved in partisan politics. His supporters, however, claim that as a Ugandan, he has the right to speak to the people. Muhoozi himself has announced on social media, particularly Twitter, that he plans to replace his father as president in 2026.
Amidst these political maneuverings, a significant question has arisen—especially on social media—concerning who between Kyagulanyi and Muhoozi can draw the larger crowds during their respective nationwide tours. While Kyagulanyi’s supporters claim that Muhoozi’s crowds pale in comparison, the secretary-general of NUP, David Lewis Rubongoya, told The Observer that the overwhelming public attendance at Kyagulanyi’s events is a testament to his widespread support across Uganda.
BUSES FROM FAR
“You’ll notice that when you attend events for Muhoozi or Museveni in Kampala, buses arrive from places like Kabale and Mbarara. After the event, people complain they were promised money and are now stranded. We’ve even seen people camping at State House demanding their transport fares back. This reflects their dishonesty,” Rubongoya said.
He emphasized that his party, the National Unity Platform (NUP), does not have the budget to ferry people to events, yet they turn out in large numbers to hear Kyagu- lanyi’s message.
Rubongoya also refuted claims by NRM supporters that Kyagulanyi is merely an artiste with a following limited to his fan base.
“If he’s just an artiste, then why abduct and even kill his followers? Why resort to rigging the election against him?” Rubongoya queried.
Discussing the significance of crowd sizes in politics, Rubongoya stated, “Politics thrives on crowds. They offer a snapshot of a leader’s reception in a specific area and have always had a significant impact. Crowds send a message to the rest of the country about public interest in a leader’s message. For instance, if you go to Mbarara and see a large turnout, then head to Kabale and find people trying to surpass Mbarara’s numbers, it speaks volumes. Even Museveni, in his book Sowing the Mustard Seed, discussed trying to scientifically measure crowd sizes at his events. Politics is about numbers.”
Attempts to reach Muhoozi’s spokespersons were unsuccessful as they nei- neither answered nor returned our calls. Andrew Mwenda, the official spokesperson for the MK Movement, said he would get back to us after an interview but failed to do so. However, spokespeople for Muhoozi took to social media to mock Kyagulanyi for having smaller crowds compared to theirs.
David Kabanda, MP for Kasambya and a member of MK Movement’s top leadership, tweeted, “Wait for our roadmap, and you’ll see a real tsunami in Uganda’s political landscape,” accompanying the tweet with a photo of Muhoozi with a large crowd. Another leader of the movement, Balaam Barugahara Ateenyi, tweeted a photo of Muhoozi addressing a large crowd and claimed that Kyagulanyi’s crowd in Mayuge district was dubious.
“Why go to Mayuge town on a market day? People travel from all over Busoga to do business every first Monday of the month. Learn from MK Movement Chairman Gen @mkainerugaba; sup- porters gather in open grounds for rallies, not street jams,” reads a tweet from Balaam Barugahara Ateenyi.
Dr. Yusuf Serunkuma, a commentator on political and social issues, asserts that the ongoing competition between Muhoozi and Bobi Wine regarding crowd sizes should be viewed as a facet of traditional politics. According to him, politicians are naturally drawn to large crowds because they believe these gatherings translate into votes.
“Although this may not be strictly accurate, crowds do manage this perception and anxiety. Politicians are energy consumers; they feed off the energy of the crowds. In scientific terms, crowds bring kinetic energy, which serves as much-needed fuel for any campaign. This energy is vital for a politician’s spiritual and actual ‘automobility.’ So, it’s important for politicians to display more kinetic energy, as it provides electoral momentum, bragging rights and emotional stability,” Serunkuma explains.
When questioned about Kyagulanyi’s messaging, which some supporters of Muhoozi and Museveni have labeled as sectarian, Serunkuma defended it. He believes Kyagulanyi’s messaging is tailored to his audience.
“Outside Buganda, he addresses material concerns like the struggle over Lake Victoria, where UPDF officers are denying natives access to the water, or issues with monopolistic sugarcane sales in Busoga. In Buganda, he focuses on conceptual-theoretical matters like nepotism, as people in this region understand these issues more than their counterparts elsewhere,” Serunkuma says.
Serunkuma also noted a newly found radicalism in Kyagulanyi’s tone.
“He is angry in his tone and combative in his choice of words. There’s a Stella Nyanzi-like flavor to it. This anger may stem from a realization that he needs to sustain or appear to sustain this emotional state to energize his base for possible protests and civic action. Regardless, I worry about his ability to maintain this level of intensity, especially if the state feels threatened and decides to halt this democratic gamble,” Serunkuma concludes.