The good thing about old age is that you learn to forgive, listen more and talk less. I know it because now in my 50s, I find myself living and letting live, even for people who, in my youthful days, I’d have loved to light fire under their bottoms.
It was in that spirit that about two weeks ago I was delighted to see photograph of Uganda President Yoweri Museveni and retired President Daniel Moi exchange banter at the latter’s Kabarnet Gardens home, and engage in animated talk that seemed to leave Senator Gideon Moi floating.
When Mr Museveni shot his way to power in January 1986, the younger Moi was a college student, while his father had already been in power for seven years.
In those early days, there wasn’t much love lost between the two leaders. I knew it one evening at a hotel in Westlands when a Cabinet minister in Moi’s government, Mr. Kirugi M’Mukindia, came to the table where I was seated with my host, who happened to be his friend.
In the ensuing off-the-cuff chat, he told us the newly installed Tanzania President Benjamin Mkapa had had a hard time, but had finally succeeded in reconciling the Kenyan president and his Ugandan counterpart.
Henceforth, he told us, President Museveni was willing to acknowledge the Kenyan president as the region’s elder statesman and started referring to him as “Mzee wetu”(Our elder). On his part, President Moi had come to accept that his counterpart meant well for him and for Kenya, which is his country’s biggest trading partner.
There is a history to the initial bad blood between the two East African leaders. It has to do with the manner in which Mr Museveni came to power.
Mr Museveni’s political orientation is that of a guerrilla army fighting to snatch power through the barrel of a gun. He was in college at the University of Dar es Salaam when the Tanzania capital was home to assorted liberation movements fighting for independence in their countries.
On his part, he formed a guerrilla army, the National Resistance Army (NRA) to capture power in his country, which had never known any peaceful transfer of power.
The first Uganda’s head of state, Milton Obote, had seized power through a coup. He too, was overthrown by Gen.
Idi Amin, the murderous dictator who too would be chased out of town through the gun.
Prof Yusuf Lule briefly held fort but was forced out in a palace coup staged by Godfrey Binaisa, and he too would be kicked out to pave way for the return of Milton Obote, who was eventually ousted by Gen. Tito Okello.
It is Gen. Okello that Mr. Museveni wanted out. In August 1985, Gen. Okello, then still head of state, came to Kenya and sought the intervention of President Moi in reconciling him with Mr. Museveni, whose guerrilla army was advancing towards Kampala.
A week later, Gen. Okello returned and Mr. Museveni joined him in the Kenyan capital to signal they were willing to talk.
The idea was to have a joint interim care-taker government to oversee elections.
Apparently, Mr. Museveni was merely going through the motions and had made up his mind to march up to Kampala and take over power.
He knew Gen. Okello only had a small and demotivated rag-tag army keeping him in power, which was no match for his battle-hardened, more disciplined, and better equipped bush army. When you have superior fire-power you don’t negotiate; you take over.
Returning home in August, Mr. Museveni made himself scarce for follow-up talks until in December when, due to pressure from President Moi and newly installed Tanzanian President Ali Hassan Mwinyi, he agreed to return to the negotiating table.
On the day the first meeting was to take place at State House, Nairobi, Mr. Museveni demonstrated his contempt for the talks by not showing up, and kept President Moi and Gen. Okello waiting the whole day, yet he was reportedly within Nairobi!
Thinking State House was probably the problem for a man used to operating in the bush, President Moi shifted the venue of the talks to Harambee House; the Office of the President. For the second day, Mr. Museveni played hide-and-seek, only reluctantly showing up in the late afternoon.
Frustrated, President Moi warned that if Ugandans weren’t ready to talk, they could as well pack and go back to their country.
This time Mr. Museveni, fearing sanctions from a visibly angry Mr. Moi, reluctantly signed a peace accord with Gen. Okello, again knowing well that he had every intention to renege on it.
Come January 1986, Mr. Museveni was back in the trenches and, throwing everybody off balance, in a matter of days moved fast to take over Kampala, where he installed himself the head of state.
DRUMS OF WAR
Moi never forgave him for that. The Kenyan leader felt piqued that after all the world acclaim for brokering the Uganda peace talks, Mr. Museveni had trashed it all in a matter of days. For many months, President Moi behaved as if he didn’t know there was a fellow head of state in Uganda and never made any reference to him.
Mr. Museveni, also a proud man in his own right, didn’t seem to think much of his neighbour either and went about his business without a care.
Early in 1987, President Moi ordered that aliens from a neighbouring country illegally living in Kenya be arrested and prosecuted. He never mentioned any country by name but from subsequent arrests, everybody knew who he was talking about.
A month later, Kenya expelled five Libyan diplomats who were said to be working with a country next door to destabilise Moi’s government. A Kenyatta University student leader was sentenced to a ten-year imprisonment on allegations he’d been spying for Libya.
And in November, University of Nairobi student leader Wafula Buke was jailed for five years on accusations that he was a Libyan spy.
Next came expulsion of the Libyan charge d’ affaires, and not long after, closure of the Libyan embassy altogether.
On December 15, 1987, Kenyan security forces shot dead 26 Ugandan army soldiers who were said to have infringed on Kenya’s territorial integrity by crossing the border.
However, Uganda claimed Kenya was the aggressor, and it’s her soldiers who’d crossed border to engage their Uganda counterparts.
Kenya ordered the border with her neighbour closed and moved army tanks to Busia town. In turn, President Museveni ordered anti-aircraft guns and ground-to-air missiles moved to the border.
Drums of war were beating. However, quick intervention by Tanzanian President Mwinyi and Ethiopia’s Haille Marriam eased the hostilities when Mr Moi and Mr Museveni agreed to meet at the Malaba border town, where they spoke through clenched teeth. At least a bloody confrontation was avoided but the hostilities remained.
Skirmishes involving the two neighbours wouldn’t be heard of again until in March 1989 when a Uganda military plane dropped two bombs in Lokichoggio, killing three people.
Kenyan authorities were planning retaliation but President Museveni sent emissaries to Nairobi to explain that the attack was a pilot error.
However, reports on the ground indicated Kenya was the aggressor and the Ugandan plane was in pursuit of Pokot cattle raiders who had crossed the border to steal livestock and left a trail of death.
The quiet hostilities continued, often threatening snowball into a shooting war. The two Presidents again had to meet at the Malaba border to forestall armed confrontation in August 1990.
In October that year, fiery politician Koigi Wamwere was allegedly arrested with a cache of illegals arms in Nairobi. He’d later disclose he actually had been abducted from Uganda and the arms planted on him in Nairobi to sustain a trumped-up charge of treason.
By now it had become almost an annual ritual for Kenya to accuse her western neighbour of sabotage, a charge always denied or ignored altogether.
In 1991, police raided offices of the opposition leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga allegedly to look for documents that would have implicated Museveni for working in cahoots with the budding opposition to Moi.
Then in 1992, there were allegations that Uganda funded opposition candidate Mwai Kibaki’s campaign. Close aides were said to have sneaked through Kampala to Tripoli also to get more funding from strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
Then in 1993, and again in 1995, President Moi publicly accused Uganda of offering refugee and training camps to guerrilla armies working to overthrow him.
As I was to learn from the Moi era Cabinet minister, the Moi/Museveni hostilities began to thaw with coming to power of President Mkapa, a gifted diplomat who went flat out to ensure the two were reconciled. In his retirement, Mr. Mkapa would be recalled to bring together warring camps in the post 2007 Kenyan election violence.
On the day President Moi handed over to President Kibaki in December 2002, President Museveni was so disappointed to have Kenyans boo and throw mud balls at the outgoing President, yet he’d willingly come to hand over power and in good faith. Coming from a country that has never had peaceful transfer of power, he thought Kenyans were acting like “spoiled kids” to treat the outgoing president so shabbily.