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Vol 61 No 22

Published 5th November 2020


Bad cop, worse cop

The President’s spies and soldiers are fighting each other, not just the opposition, ahead of elections in February

President Yoweri Museveni has been reshuffling his security chiefs after rivalries broke into the open, threatening the cohesion of the state's repressive apparatus. On 8 October Colonel Kaka Bagyenda was sacked as head of the Internal Security Organisation after it became clear that it was challenging other parts of the security system, especially the military, and accusing them of plotting to overthrow the President.

The scandal-dogged ISO is responsible for counter-intelligence as well as surveillance of the opposition. But Bagyenda's sacking, according to insiders in Kampala, is the climax of his long-running fight with what is now regarded as Uganda's most powerful intelligence outfit, the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence. Often the CMI collaborates with the Special Forces Command, the elite branch of the Ugandan military in charge of Museveni's security. The CMI and SFC are both within the military chain of command.

Pundits warn that the ISO was guilty mostly of an excess of zeal. It was intended that it should harass only the government's political enemies, and Bagyenda fell because he did not confine his depredations to the opposition but had targeted prominent members of society. And his organisation lost out in favour of the military. The ISO is under-resourced and its staff unprofessional, we hear.

Chief among the ISO's missteps was to accuse the President's son, Lieutenant General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, and his mother, the First Lady Janet Museveni, of plotting to overthrow the President. This is believed to have been the proximate cause of Bagyenda's fall.

CMI and SFC placed the ISO under investigation for making this accusation. While the investigations were ongoing, ISO clashed with the military leadership in another case in which some individuals had sued Bobi Wine and other members of his National Unity Platform, alleging that he had acquired the party fraudulently. Bobi Wine needed the NUP as a vehicle in order to meet constitutional conditions for standing for the presidency.

Many in Kampala think that the National Unity Reconciliation and Development Party, the precursor to the NUP, had been encouraged by the securocrats to sue Bobi Wine so that he would be shown to have acquired the party wrongly, and would thus be 'legally' ineligible to stand (AC Vol 61 No 20, Bottling Wine). The plot hinged on Moses Kibalama, the NUP's founder. ISO officers are believed to have coerced Kibalama to claim in an affidavit that the NUP had been forced out of his hands by Bobi Wine.

ISO found itself at odds with Gen David Muhoozi, the commander of Uganda's armed forces, over Kibalama. The upshot was that Bobi Wine was cleared to continue with the NUP. So the military's resentment of the ISO grew.

The embarrassed military blamed the ISO. President Museveni was angered at the reputational damage the army had suffered and met Bagyenda to demand answers. Museveni was particularly irritated that many thought his government was so afraid of Bobi Wine it would keep him out of the polls illegitimately.

The ISO is also accused of creating other problems for the government. In May, the CMI and SFC had arrested an ISO operative named Simon Peter Odongo for falsifying intelligence which ISO had submitted to the President.

Odongo was a key operative in ISO's cyber unit. In 2017, he produced a report claiming that Uganda's Secretary to the treasury, Keith Muhakanizi, together with other high officials had been involved in a scheme to steal $20 million from the central bank.

Yet the Bank of Uganda confirmed no money was missing. The ISO had also claimed that the MTN mobile phone network contained a 'back door' in its systems that Rwanda could use to spy on government communications.

In July 2018, the ISO raided MTN and later senior MTN employees, including the CEO Wim Vanhelleputte, a Belgian, were deported for allegedly compromising national security. Following further investigations, Vanhelleputte was allowed to return to Uganda and resume his job. President Museveni admitted he had been misled.

Odongo was also involved in the imbroglio around the 2017 assassination of top police officer Andrew Felix Kaweesi (AC Vol 59 No 4, An inspector calls, no longer). Gen Kale Kayihura was accused of the murder before a court martial. That and other charges were dropped after it emerged that prosecution witnesses had been coached by ISO operatives. He still faces serious charges but has been released on bail since late August.

Then, in May, CMI and SFC arrested Odongo following an altercation with some military officers. The two agencies have since defied court orders demanding his release. In what appeared to be a further escalation of tensions, the CMI and SFC in July raided ISO's safe houses, where the agency was accused of holding and torturing Ugandans, and arrested ISO personnel.

Responsibility for internal security and undermining the opposition has long been blurred, with the ISO, CMI, SFC and the Uganda Police Force all exercising varying degrees of autonomy while competing for resources and the President's favours. The President likes his securocrats to be suspicious of each other, insiders say, because it means no single body or commander can plot against him without his rivals hearing about it and alerting him. But Bagyenda is believed to have taken vigilance to extremes.

Rise and fall
Bagyenda, 68, had an important intelligence role in the National Resistance Army's guerrilla war. After Museveni came to power in 1986, the ISO was in the ascendant until the early 2000s, when its then head, Henry Tumukunde, then a brigadier, got into a power struggle with the CMI. Tumukunde challenged Museveni's first lifting of presidential term limits and from then on CMI started to command resources that had previously been available to ISO and its decline began.

By 2005, Gen Kayihura had made the police the senior security enforcer for the President, overshadowing the CMI and ISO. That continued until he and Museveni fell out in 2017 when he was accused of wanting to unseat the President and working with Rwanda. During that period the ISO was starved of funds and shorn of its intelligence-gathering functions. It gradually diminished in importance until it became no more than an appendage of the National Resistance Movement, its agents often adjuncts of squabbling ruling party cadres and acting as extortionists, NRM sources said.

When Kayihura fell, Museveni summoned Bagyenda back from obscurity on his island in Lake Victoria to regain supremacy in the security firmament. Gen Salim Saleh, Museveni's brother, was believed to have influenced the appointment.

Bagyenda quickly stamped his own authority on the ISO by sidelining the few remaining qualified intelligence officers, replacing them with a team that came to seen as highly disreputable. It included Paddy Serunjogi, a leader of a notorious criminal gang who in 2017 confessed to being behind a spate of robberies and murders in Kampala.

Under Bagyenda's leadership the ISO's profile rose, albeit mostly for its reputation for torturing citizens in its safe houses and fabricating intelligence against them. The poorly trained operatives often used to extort money from senior government officials and top business people in the capital as well as harassing oppositionists.

The ISO also claimed to have 'rooted out' spies. It convinced the President that Rwanda was infiltrating the Ugandan security structure with a view to overthrowing him. This belief helped fuel the public falling out between the two countries last year (AC Vol 60 No 6, Sibling rivalry turns ugly).

In spite of all this chaos, President Museveni has chosen not to punish Bagyenda. Instead, he has appointed him ambassador to Angola. President João Lourenço is leading the effort to reconcile Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Museveni. Bagyenda's appointment is also intriguing because as ISO chief he carried out the very operations that escalated tensions between Rwanda and Uganda.

Much remains unclear about why Bagyenda ended up in such a prominent role. What is clear is that President Museveni wanted him out of the security establishment, which has been critical to his previous election victories and is expected to deliver the same in the 2021 elections.

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