“Muhoozi talk” and the future of Uganda

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On 2 December, after a fortnight of silence, Muhoozi Kainerugaba started tweeting again. The National Resistance Movement (NRM), he wrote, “is probably the most reactionary organisation in the country”. The next day he doubled down, tweeting that “whatever NRM has become certainly does NOT represent the people of Uganda”.

This was extraordinary: the son of Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986, openly repudiating the party that his father founded and leads. And yet such outbursts have become routine. It is only two months since Kainerugaba was sacked as commander of the land forces after joking about invading Kenya. The most revealing tweet of all was the one he put out a few hours after that quip, and which was deleted by the following morning: 

“In 2026 [the year of the next presidential election] it will be 40 years of the old people in charge. That will change. Those are instructions from Jesus Christ! Our generation will be in charge of this country.”

It is tempting to dismiss Kainerugaba’s Twitter antics as meaningless froth. But I argue that we should listen closely to what he and his associates say. They have cultivated a sub-genre of Ugandan political discourse that I will call “Muhoozi talk”. It tells us less about the man himself than it does about the internal struggles within the army and the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM). Muhoozi talk functions as a kind of Rorschach test, onto which the political elite projects its own characteristic neuroses: Bobi Wine anxiety, Rwanda envy, and filial frustration.

This article does not analyse all the pieces in the Muhoozi jigsaw (for that, see the writing of Titeca, Mutyaba, Onyango-Obbo and Wilkins and Vokes, among others). Nor does it focus on grave allegations of human rights abuses by soldiers under his command, which I have written about elsewhere. Its aim is more modest: to “read” Muhoozi talk.

Generational divides

Let’s play a game. There is a thirtysomething politician whose meteoric rise to parliament was eased by his canny use of social media. Like four-fifths of Ugandans, he has only ever seen one president in his lifetime. “I think it has been long overdue that a certain percentage of the population of our country witnesses a transition,” he says. He complains that there is too much corruption in government. Who is he?

The answer is not an opposition firebrand but David Kabanda, the NRM MP for Kasambya County and one of Kainerugaba’s biggest cheerleaders. In 2019 he helped to organise a 45th birthday party for the first son – a lowkey precursor to extravagant celebrations this year. When I met him in May, he openly floated the idea that Museveni should retreat into the background, perhaps as a presidential adviser, and leave Kainerugaba to take the reins. “One thing I can assure you of,” he tweeted on 8 October, “Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba will be on the ballot in 2026.”

This is one function of Muhoozi talk: it is a relatively safe way for those within the NRM to discuss a world beyond Museveni. Earlier this year, while researching a story about Kainerugaba for The Economist, I spoke to a number of his friends and supporters. This sense of generational anxiety emerged as a consistent theme.

“The system is increasingly alienated from young people, and it is so difficult to turn it around without the change at the top,” said Andrew Mwenda, a crafty newspaper editor who is one of Kainerugaba’s closest allies. “Museveni has a large number of supporters who actually want a transition. People in Uganda are hungry for change. And you need to understand this Muhoozi movement to actually be a movement for change.”

The same argument was put to me by Balaam Barugahara, a music promoter who organises events for Kainerugaba.  “We don’t want another old man to come and be president of Uganda,” he explained. “The generation has changed. So these gentlemen and fathers of ours who are above sixty, it’s time for them to take a rest.” He worried that the opposition already has “a replacement” in the form of singer Bobi Wine. But in the NRM, he went on, “we don’t have that young man who can march” – except, of course, for the first son.

This publicity surrounding Kainerugaba could almost be a pastiche of the opposition People Power movement. A billboard at Kibuye roundabout in Kampala declares him to be “a generational leader”. On Twitter the first son claims to speak for the “New Uganda”, a slogan purloined from Bobi Wine. The singer seems to get under his skin.

But Kainerugaba promises change of a very different kind. His appeal to elites lies in the prospect of “change with continuity”, as his friend Mwenda put it to me. A similar point was made by the MP Lillian Aber, another friend, who is a rising star in the NRM machine. “A new person out of the blue, coming from any other political party or any other angle, will want to rubbish everything and start a new kind of agenda,” she told me. “What if it is a mistake? Are we going to pay a price for that?”

For Bobi Wine, the problem with the NRM is that it is a dictatorship; for Kainerugaba and his backers, the problem is that it has gone soft. “I think he would be less tolerant compared to his father, in which case he would get government institutions to work,” said Mwenda. “The father can tolerate corruption and incompetence as part of political negotiation.”

Where might Ugandans look for an example of a state that combines high-handed intolerance with a brusque air of efficiency? The answer lies just across the border in Rwanda. Kainerugaba has flaunted his closeness to “uncle” Paul Kagame, helping to broker a renormalisation of relations with the Rwandan regime in January, and returning for visits since.

“I see a little bit of Kagame [in Kainerugaba],” said Arinaitwe Rugyendo, a tabloid journalist whose paper Red Pepper was briefly shut down in 2013 for reporting on an alleged “Muhoozi Project”, but who is now an outspoken backer of the first son. “He’s very uncompromising I think. Which is possibly what I think is the biggest undoing of the current regime: corruption, maladministration. And he seems to be the type of guy who is not willing to compromise on that… I think Muhoozi is cut out for the typical modern state, while the father is a traditionalist, sort of old school ruler. In a modern state, where things move fast, things need decisive action.”

There is something rather desperate about painting Kainerugaba as the voice of change and youthful vigour. At 48 years he is already older than 90% of his compatriots. On his watch, the army’s principal engagement with young people has been to abduct and torture them.  But “Muhoozi talk” flourishes because it is useful – not least in articulating frustrations that are felt within the ruling party itself.

Follow my lead car

One way to understand the manoeuvring around Kainerugaba is by analogy to Kampala’s traffic. At rush hour, when the streets coagulate with cars, the only vehicles which can cut through the jam are pick-ups manned by the police. They are often trailed by a line of opportunist drivers, who slip into the space opened behind them. Kainerugaba’s rapid ascent makes him the political equivalent of a police truck, siren blazing, slicing through the clogged regime hierarchy. Acolytes trail in his wake.

These internal struggles – between young and old, between insiders and outsiders – are a longstanding feature of NRM politics. They become most visible during parliamentary primaries, where there is fierce competition for the party ticket. During the 2020 contest, voters rejected more than a hundred sitting MPs, including 15 ministers. Challengers accused incumbents of failing to create jobs, deliver public services or tackle corruption.

The NRM primaries have historically functioned as a pressure-valve, allowing disgruntled cadres to pin the party’s manifest failures on local leaders, while directing blame away from Museveni himself. “Muhoozi talk” echoes the rhetoric of these lower-level contests. But there is an important and dangerous difference: these ructions have now reached the very top.

The simplest explanation for Kainerugaba’s Twitter tantrums is that he wants to run for president in 2026, but his father is not giving way. In October, several senior NRM leaders publicly endorsed the 78-year-old to stand again. Just two days later Kainerugaba fired off his tweets about Kenya – in what looked like a calculated provocation, coming shortly before a planned visit by William Ruto, the new Kenyan president and a Museveni ally.

Kainerugaba – who once put his name to a book about the “tradition of manoeuvre” – is now using Twitter to wage a guerrilla war against the old guard. In June, amid friction between Kainerugaba and other generals, Museveni called a meeting in which he ordered commanding officers not to comment on social media about security or foreign affairs. The first son has flouted that directive shamelessly.

Another example came in November, when the internal affairs minister Kahinda Otafiire, one of the most prominent Bush War veterans, told the younger generation to wait for their time. “The problem is that when those children take over now with this excitement, they will roll us down and the country might go back to where we found it,” he warned. Kainerugaba subsequently suggested on Twitter that Kizza Besigye, a veteran-turned-opposition leader, could “teach Otafiire some lessons”.

This internal warfare is now out in the open. A senior presidential adviser recently used his newspaper column to condemn the “rabid hooliganism” of succession talk. A party apparatchik described the situation as “total anarchy”. With each new provocation, a dangerous split in the party and the army becomes more likely.

So too does public conflict between father and son, which they have so far avoided. In an interview broadcast on 17 October, Museveni said that his son “should not and will not” tweet about partisan politics. The next day Kainerugaba tweeted that “I am an adult and NO ONE will ban me from anything”. Muhoozi talk has been weaponised. It could one day push the regime – and Uganda – to the brink.

Liam Taylor is a freelance journalist based in Uganda since 2016.

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