JOHN NAGENDA, 77, a senior presidential advisor on media and public relations for the last 18 years, has warned that Uganda would be no different from a monarchy should First Son Muhoozi Kainerugaba replace his father Yoweri Museveni as president.
At his residence in Muyenga last Wednesday, Nagenda spoke to Deo Walusimbi about a transition from Museveni, the presidential age-limit and former prime minister Amama Mbabazi’s and former vice-president Gilbert Bukenya’s presidential ambitions. Below are excerpts:
Do you envisage a transition from Museveni to another person soon?
No I don’t.
Why, you advised Museveni to retire about 10 years ago?
I invited him [Museveni] to leave. I thought it would be in the way President [Julius] Nyerere of Tanzania left, he [Nyerere] left but never left; he had people there who were called presidents, but he was really the president. What was done was to leave the day-to-day [work] to them, but all the decisions really remained with him and this is what I had suggested to President Museveni, but he said that Uganda was not Tanzania...
Anyway, President Museveni didn’t think that this should work in Uganda and you know, we all hold very strong views on matters and therefore, I was a bit disappointed, but that was quite long ago. If you say something and you find that you know more about the subject, you can either stay with what you thought then, or you can change your mind.
So, what did you do in this case?
I changed my mind because of the fact that we [Uganda] were the first into Somalia...and don’t forget the Americans had been defeated by Somalis and had left.
So, for an African country to go to another and help it out is one of the best things I have ever heard of because that is what we should be doing in Africa. So, when Museveni did that, I said if he had not extended [his rule], it would not have been in his power to join Somalia, and I had written against going into Somalia. I said [that] from what I had heard, that Somalis like nothing better than killing each other.
So, the president went to Somalia against your advice?
Yes, but I am so proud because he was 100% correct and I was 100% wrong, and then I am so excited and I really love it because only Nyerere had helped in the same way with the South African freedom fighters. But he never went deep into South Africa as we have done to both Somalia and South Sudan at the people’s invitation.
So, from that moment, I fully accepted that Museveni was right to stay on and what pleases me is that he stayed on legally with the mandate of the people through Parliament.
Do you support the proposed lifting of the presidential age limit of 75?
What makes it very difficult is that when people want to quash the 75-year age limit, they are keen because they don’t want to lose Museveni who comes once in about 50 years, but how do you write a law in favour of one person?
So, it’s a very difficult question and I don’t think anyone has solved it...
I believe he is now 70 years [old], I am 77-years, and I feel that beyond that I can’t rule Uganda. But I feel I am still strong except that I keep getting these annoying diseases. So, when he says that I am still strong, he is right. But what I think is that the people he chooses in his government should give him strong advice. If they feel that a particular path he is taking is wrong, or not morally right, they should tell him.
So, I would expect the cabinet and all the other people he puts in positions, including small flies like LC1s, not to be afraid to advise him.
Some Ugandans think that Museveni is not receptive to advice. Is that true?
I have been a senior presidential advisor for 18 years but not every dot of my advice was taken. But I don’t mind because he’s the president. By the way, if I were the president, I would be more difficult [to advise]... May be some people are disappointed that their advice is not taken, but definitely, if I must advise, I advise him.
Do you see Museveni ruling Uganda beyond 2021?
I am quite certain that he will win the next election, but it’s very difficult to say [that he will rule beyond 2021].
You see, he is now 70 years; he would be 76 after 2021.
To hold that job, which is very tiresome, and [has] many things to juggle at the same time – I don’t know how Somalia and South Sudan and Uganda would be turning out. I would have thought personally that at 76 years, the job might be too tiring.
Having said that, when you get older, you get very stubborn and you become a believer in your views. But if somebody said to me that President Museveni would be an advice-taker, not just for the sake of it, and if he cultivated people around him whose advice he can listen to and, therefore, remained the strong figure-head and convinced me that he would be able to go by what I suggested to him, then fine because he would be 76 and then after another five years [after 2021], he would
be 81 years.
Are you suggesting he’s fit to seek another term in 2016 but not fit to rule beyond 2021?
I didn’t say that, if I had wanted to say that, I would have. I am saying that if he can take strong advice not just for the sake of it, because when I advised him to leave, about 10 years now, it would have been a very bad decision if he left then compared to what he has done.
But I would like to say that somebody who has worked so hard for his nation, if he felt that he was becoming a bit erratic through age and turbulences, it would be so ridiculous that he would risk all he has worked for and let it crumble around his feet. I would expect him to lead with one, two, three people who are taking multiple decisions.
Let’s see what happens and let Museveni be aware that it would be the opposite of failure to say; I think I have done enough... but it’s very difficult for leaders.
There are only five years between 2016 and 2021. Do you think that’s enough time for Museveni to nurture a successor after condemning the likes of Mbabazi and Bukenya?
You have mentioned two people who are very interesting to me. Bukenya of course is a crumb; he cannot be left safely in charge of running [this] country. But then, presidents around the world choose people who are a joke. Bukenya was chosen because he was not a threat to Museveni.
So, Bukenya is completely irrelevant and you can now see that he’s like a weathervane; he’s being blown this way and that way; he’s completely confused. But he is my good friend because we enjoyed our conversations, but come on, he cannot [lead Uganda] and he will never rule, thank God.
Mbabazi is very different. He is a deep thinker, but his strongest failure is that he has strong contempt for himself rather than the people. You saw when he promised to leave one of his two offices he had within three weeks. He never because he felt he was the only one who could do both jobs, may be he thought of making a fortune out of those positions, but most importantly , he would be far more difficult to lead Uganda than Museveni.
... I like Mbabazi in many ways, but he would be a proper dictator in my view, fortunately, he will never get there either.
Without Mbabazi would Museveni win in 2016? We heard he stole elections for the incumbent?
We have never cheated any election and anybody who says that NRM has cheated a single election is a complete fool because it’s not at all necessary to cheat [elections] with the kind of opposition we have.
The opposition is so disappointing and I told one of those people that I really want a strong opposition because it stands on its toes to come up with good ideas and so on. That is what you hope for [in opposition] but when you have people who can’t even decide among themselves who is most likely to [defeat] the present government, why cheat?
So, Mbabazi’s exit is inconsequential to NRM?
120% correct. In fact, what I hadn’t realized is how badly he was running NRM without a members’ register. Getting his own daughter to write a new one at Shs 4bn, the list is too long.
But he proved that he couldn’t do both jobs [SG and PM] and he was extremely unpopular amongst his peers because they didn’t like the way he treated them. And people were saying to me at the time [he was sacked] that it [sacking] would be very terrible for the Movement. I told them that no, he was a storm in a tea-cup, and his going improved the Movement so much.
Is it a crime to have presidential ambitions within NRM? Look at how [Col Kizza] Besigye and Mbabazi have been condemned?
Not at all but there is a way you do it and let us talk about Besigye because I have talked about the other people. Besigye has proved a terrible leader of FDC. They have not provided alternative policies as other parties are doing.
One thing I would always remember about Besigye till I am or both of us are dead, is that he said that “we shall make this country ungovernable.”
When he got all sorts of people and went on the streets to try to make the country ungovernable, [which] was treacherous because an opposition figure focuses on putting up better ideas, and none of these people is talking about agriculture seriously...
What should Museveni do differently in order for him to leave a good legacy behind?
The legacy he would leave behind if he left today would be fantastic because I have told you about how African countries should come to the aid of each other. ...And he said it himself that he would never again stand aside when an African nation is in need of help and that is the hugest legacy which even if he went tomorrow, will remain.
I don’t want to pretend that Museveni is perfect, because nobody is, but definitely, I would say that Museveni who can be very impatient with people who give him bad ideas, can improve on advice given... and those very close to the president, may be his family and his wife, have got very strong ideas and I understand sometimes she [Janet] gives them in cabinet.
But he should focus on fighting graft. I think about people who came to government without a penny and they are now multi-billionaires. It is completely wrong because we have made it easy and I know some people I wouldn’t name. I don’t know why we have not imprisoned them or why the top leadership has not told them off that for example, we know that you are selling presidential appointments.
Talking about his family, there are rumours that Museveni is grooming his son to succeed him...
It’s rubbish because he is not stupid. Whatever you may say of Museveni, he is not stupid. Why would he want to get his son, who is a very nice young man from what I know of him, and throw him to the wolves in a way that would be akin to a monarchy?
If I am still alive and it’s tried, you would come and remind me. But I am not saying that he can never be a president.
But if President Museveni is grooming him cautiously to take up from him, then I think the president would have depicted himself very badly , because he would have become a king to say that this son of mine by right should be my successor and if he says that, I would hold him in contempt because everything he has ever talked about the subject leads me to believe that he will never do it. It’s done in many countries, but it’s almost always a disaster.