In Uganda, Museveni son’s tweets may mar presidential ambition

The army general’s diplomatic errors have raised debate about whether he can succeed his father, as is widely believed.

Muhoozi Kainerugaba, son of Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, attends a "thanksgiving" ceremony in Entebbe, Uganda
Muhoozi Kainerugaba, son of Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, attends a 'thanksgiving' ceremony in Entebbe, Uganda on May 7, 2022 [File: Hajarah Nalwadda/AP Photo]

Kampala, Uganda – On Tuesday, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni dropped his son, General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, as commander of the land forces section of the army after he tweeted that he would capture Kenya’s capital city Nairobi in two weeks.

The tweets set off a chain of diplomatic meetings between both countries in the capitals, Kampala and Nairobi.

In addition, Uganda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying it was still good neighbours with Kenya and clarified that it does not conduct foreign policy through social media. Uganda’s junior foreign minister also held a meeting with Ethiopia’s ambassador following another Kainerugaba tweet expressing support for rebels in the northern region of Tigray.

A public apology from the president to his Kenyan counterpart, William Ruto, followed soon after.

On his part, 48-year-old Kainerugaba said he had a call with his father and that his tweets had “scared Kenyans too much”, but did not exactly apologise.

And the removal of the younger Museveni came with a curious promotion to four-star general, the highest rank in Uganda’s army.

For years, the general, who many believe is being groomed to succeed his father as the country’s next president, has been a fervent Twitter user in a manner that has been compared with former US President Donald Trump. Museveni, has been in power since 1986 but is believed to be considering retirement from active politics soon.

His tweets, coming often late at night or very early in the morning, have also included barbs at the opposition.

Advice from his father who reportedly asked him to stop discussing foreign policy on Twitter and from Rwandan President Paul Kagame who has offered to edit his tweets have gone unheeded.

Tweeting a storm

Kainerugaba’s tweets have also laid bare his impulsiveness. He has announced retiring from the army only to reverse his decision in hours. He deactivated his Twitter account in mid-April and communicated through a spokesperson that he would not return to the platform until Elon Musk – a figure he admires – acquired the company. But he was back two days later.

The general has previously praised Italy’s new far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni for being fearless, supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and declared support for Rwanda in its ongoing spat with the Democratic Republic of the Congo over M23 rebels.

Following the coup in Guinea last year, he tweeted that the Ugandan army would need a day to discipline mutinous Guinean soldiers. Last year, he pledged to fight anyone who attacks Egypt and declared Trump as the only white man he has ever respected.

His social media use has become a subject of debate given that the law bars serving army officers from engaging in politics. Supporters argue he has a right to freedom of speech like any Ugandan and should be given some leeway for his status.

“He is not just an army officer,” Andrew Mwenda, who has been a close friend of Kainerugaba for decades, told Al Jazeera. “He is the son of the president. People should know that and accept it as the reality.”

Following his father’s footsteps

Like his father, Kainerugaba has spent most of his life in military service. He was born in Dar-es-Salaam in 1974 when his father was already engaged in rebellious activities against his predecessor Idi Amin’s government.

In her memoir, his mother Janet Museveni wrote that as a young boy, “Muhoozi was always very passionate about what he did and even early on, he would convince his friends to get involved in causes that were close to his heart”.

He mobilised a group of his friends to enrol in a military training school together, she wrote. They even started a small magazine to discuss prevailing issues of the day.

In 1999, Kainerugaba formally joined the army, enrolling later that year at the British Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst. He spent much of his time in the army unit that guards his father, commanding it from 2008 to 2017.

And there are signs that he may have inherited his father’s iron-fist style.

Kainerugaba also headed the unit during the 2020 presidential elections, when the unit was accused of arresting and torturing supporters of Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, who was Museveni’s main opposition in that election.

This April, he celebrated his 48th birthday with mega parties across Uganda. In Kampala, roads were closed as music bands marched in the capital city and a race was held even as Kagame flew to Kampala to attend a state dinner hosted by Museveni in Kainerugaba’s honour.

A presidential heir

For many observers, Kainerugaba’s frequent tweets on political discussions are signals that he already fancies himself president-in-waiting.

Analysts warn that he could be entering a complicated playing field, even as his supporters think he could be the best bet for the country that is yet to witness a peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1962.

Moses Khisa, a political science lecturer at North Carolina State University said tweeting is not helping the general’s presumed desire to occupy Uganda’s top office as he “seems not to have the wisdom and sophistication of the father”.

“Many of us who didn’t know him now despise him just from the tweets he has issued,” Khisa said.

Interestingly, Kainerugaba was instrumental in mending relations between his father and “uncle”, Kagame, as relations between Uganda and Rwanda reached an all-time low over the last three years. Rwanda closed its borders with its larger neighbour and Kagame, a former protege of Museveni, was barely on speaking terms with his erstwhile friend.

And as costs of living soar, there is concern that the younger Museveni may be just as brutal in consolidating the family’s stronghold on state politics.

Recently, there have been talks of growing anti-Museveni fatigue and resentment in Uganda that could turn the tide against a possible father-to-son transition.

Opposition figures like Kizza Besigye and Bobi Wine who have attempted to turn this into change at the polls have been met with violence by state security agencies. Prominent dissenters like academic Stella Nyanzi and writer Kakwenza Rukirabashaija have fled into exile after being detained for comments against the state.

However, Mwenda says there is a strong preference within the governing party, National Resistance Movement for “continuity, which the younger Museveni represents”.

“If there is a movement in favour of Muhoozi that is so strong, Museveni in 2026 may say, ‘if it’s my son to succeed me and there is such serious support for him, then I am safe’,” said Mwenda.

Such a move, he says, may be motivated by the situation in Angola and Botswana, where the former presidents found themselves in exile after falling out with their anointed successors.

Across Uganda, the presidential apology note has triggered a debate.

Some say the conciliatory tone of a man not given to apologising for his misdeeds is proof that the veteran is slowly realising his son may be unmanageable. Others say it is further proof that Kainerugaba is untouchable and primed for greater things.

“If any other person who’s not Museveni’s child had done just a tiny fraction of what Muhoozi has done on Twitter these past two years, that person would not be a free person let alone an active-duty general in the army,” Khisa said. “Museveni will do everything for him as he has always done,” he adds.

Fatherly love backed by the state might prevail in the end, says Kampala-based independent researcher Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, who sees Museveni’s apology on behalf of his son as a signal of an intent to support him against all odds.

“If the son messes up and he promotes him to general, then that would suggest to any rational person that he doesn’t think that what Muhoozi did was a bad thing,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera