Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba’s Swift Rise to Chief of Defence Forces: A Political Game-Changer in Uganda

General Muhoozi Kainerugaba’s recent appointment as Chief of Defence Forces (CDF) marks a significant milestone in his career, potentially positioning him as one of the fastest-rising army officers in the Great Lakes region and bringing him closer to the presidency.

With his roots in the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), where his father, Gen. Yoweri Museveni, once led as a guerrilla, Muhoozi’s journey has been closely watched for years.

President Museveni’s strategic appointments, including Muhoozi’s chief political strategist Balaam Barugahara as the state minister for children and youth affairs, suggest a calculated move to consolidate power and manage potential political rivalries.

Amidst speculation about his political ambitions, Muhoozi’s recent activities have garnered attention, particularly his bold Twitter posts, public appearances, and nationwide rallies. While his supporters see him as a potential successor to his father, his promotion to CDF presents both opportunities and challenges. It grants him significant political leverage but may also constrain his political activities as President Museveni expects him to prioritize military responsibilities.

The emergence of the PLU, successor to the MK Movement, has further complicated the political landscape, with implications for the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM). President Museveni’s actions, including the registration of NRM members and his bid for re-election in 2026, underscore the ongoing power dynamics within the party.

Muhoozi’s strategic engagements in the Greater Masaka region, aimed at countering the National Unity Platform (NUP), reflect a calculated approach to expanding political influence. The PLU’s presence in this region and its efforts to capitalize on internal divisions within the NUP signal a strategic shift in political tactics.

The MK Movement has always said it was acting with Museveni’s blessing but it was hard to tell whether it was not acting in defiance at times.

“The MK Movement is only waiting for permission from President Museveni and not any organisation. We are a strong movement ready to massively defeat anyone once we are allowed to Participate in the 2026 General election,” Daudi Kabanda, MP for Kasambya County, a well-known Muhoozi surrogate tweeted in Feb. 2023.

In February this year, the MK Movement changed tack and rebranded to PLU. At the event were renowned politicians like Mike Mukula, Frank Tumwebaze, Daudi Kabanda and lords of supporters.

President Museveni, in a reciprocal move, kicked off registration exercises of NRM members, sending a clear signal that he is once again seeking re-election in the 2026 general elections.

Muhoozi’s political activities, especially his recent engagements in the Greater Masaka region—a vote-rich region where his rival Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine got significant vote tallies in the 2021 election—suggested a strategic counter to the National Unity Platform (NUP).

PLU launched its move in this region to make inroads at the time NUP was locked in an internecine fight with Mathias Mpuuga, an MP for Nyendo Mukungwe and a deputy president in the party.

Muhoozi met MPs, staged political rallies and canvassed for support for a presidential bid just before his appointment as the country’s next army chief landed like a bombshell. It appears Museveni wanted to counter the PLU since it started to look like a rebellious political organisation growing inside the NRM. Balam was at the heart of its activities with his ability to organize and rally Ugandans with such success.

Museveni test on Muhoozi

Interestingly, Muhoozi’s supporters are cheering his latest move up in the political and military ladder and possibly filling him with higher ambition. He will be 50 in April–a ripe old age that makes him think deeply about his future and the role he can play in it. Whether Muhoozi picks up from where he left two years ago and resumes full blown politics could be a test of his mettle and on how much he can stand up to his father.

However, Muhoozi’s new position will also be a test on Museveni on how far he is willing to go to rein his son in, once he deems him to have gone overboard. In 2022, Museveni sacked Muhoozi as UPDF Commander of Land Forces after Muhoozi posted a tweet about invading Kenya. He however elevated him to a full-star General.

That same year, Muhoozi had gone full throttle on his presidential dream staging MK Movement rallies in major towns like Entebbe, Mbarara, Fort Portal and Jinja before President Museveni brought them to a grinding halt. As the countrywide celebrations went on for weeks, there was growing angst in the public, the military, and in government over the lavish parties being thrown amidst a host of crises in the country.

NRM insiders say these activities were also creating intrigue and division internally. The MK wave was also creating discomfort for Museveni, the party chairman, who likes to have a leash on the goings-on in his party.

Despite Museveni’s unease over campaign events, Muhoozi went on unbothered even with warnings from his father to stop. Museveni let Muhoozi get away with all the political fanfare as a serving army officer. In the past, senior army officers like David Tinyefuza, Henry Tumukunde, James Kazini, and Kizza Besigye who dared to defy their commander-in-chief were punished with sackings, jail or outright isolation.

For Muhoozi and his lieutenants like Barugahara, there appeared no end in sight. A while back at the opening of his newly built hotel in Masindi, Barugahara, told Museveni, chief guest at the event, that Muhoozi was a “standby generator” for those who are tired of Museveni.

“If you touch Mzee (Museveni), we have an avenger. So I belong to those millions of Avengers. We are not competing with you, we work with you and we shall wait for your guidance for when we can shoot,” Barugahara told Museveni.

He introduced groups like ‘Team Chairman’, and ‘Muhoozi Army’ who are involved in political mobilisation for the First Son. Barugahara took a swipe at opposition groups led by Bobi Wine, leader of the NUP who contested in the 2021 presidential elections.

Depending on his mood, Museveni would give a nod to the MK group when it suited him. On another occasion, Museveni praised the organisers of the Muhoozi celebrations and said they were necessary in countering the opposition.

“In Kampala, some sponsored Opposition take advantage of the weaknesses of the NRM, for example, supporters [of the ruling party]are beaten up for wearing yellow shirts [official NRM colour]and they keep quiet,” the President told a rally.

He added, “But the MK (Muhoozi Kainerugaba) Group resisted such and, so, I want to thank you for sticking with NRM through Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba’s birthday celebrations.”

Lillian Aber with Gen. Muhoozi

But apart from Museveni, some in the army were not happy with Muhoozi’s conduct as he donned the uniform. Few spoke out but retired Maj. Gen. Kahinda Otafiire, a member of the old guard from the NRA and a senior minister, always lets his feelings be known. “We know you are Museveni’s son but we shall not allow you to disrespect us,” he said on a radio station last year.

To this day, Otafiire has always spoken out against Muhoozi’s presidential bid. Museveni has always let his old comrade Otafiire be but for others, there have been repercussions.

Insiders have always talked about the tension between Gen. Muhoozi and his now predecessor Gen. Wilson Mbadi, who has been appointed State Minister of Trade. Mbadi is said to have complained about Muhoozi’s political activities.

For example, Mbadi complained when journalist Andrew Mwenda, a friend and advisor to Muhoozi, wore the UPDF uniform while on a trip to the UPDF Operation Shujaa in DR Congo. UPDF prohibits civilians from donning their uniforms or any military fatigues. Muhoozi came out on Twitter and defended Mwenda, somewhat ending the matter.

Museveni also dropped Lt. Gen. Charles Elwelu, deputy CDF known as a loose cannon, and made him Presidential Advisor. In June 2022, Elwelu issued Standby Class One, the highest alert in the army, after Muhoozi’s continued political pronouncements on Twitter caused tension in the country and region. Elwelu and Muhoozi were said to have a frosty relationship when the latter was Commander of Land Forces. In hierarchy, Muhoozi was below Elwelu although the First Son always defied protocol and acted on his own.

Sanctions trouble

Muhoozi’s new posting as CDF could however put him in the crosshairs of U.S. sanctions if history is anything to go by. Previous military chiefs like Gen. Kale Kayihura, Maj. Gen. Abel Kandiho are under U.S. sanctions for their alleged roles in torture cases in Uganda. Since he will be in charge of Uganda’s army, Muhoozi will be high on the U.S. radar which has targeted other Ugandans like ministers and MPs.

The case of Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, a novelist, who was tortured allegedly on the orders of Muhoozi is still fresh. Kakwenza posted tweets attacking Muhoozi which led to his arrest and torture about three years ago. The torture of Kakwenza sparked a lot of condemnation towards Muhoozi as images of the grievous bodily harm on Kakwenza circulated on social media.

For Kakwenza, there has been no sitting back. In the over two years he has been in exile, he has sustained a campaign against Muhoozi– releasing a new book titled The Savage Avenger– that narrates his arrest, torture and how he fled to exile. On the cover of the book is a cartoonish depiction of Muhoozi with torture tools.

As Uganda heads towards the 2026 elections, there is likely to be more confrontation between the opposition and the state leading to arrests, detention and torture that has become commonplace in Uganda. But ultimately, Muhoozi’s appointment as Uganda’s defence chief could be a referendum on his ambition as time could also be running out for him to fulfil his wish of being president.


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