Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Uganda’s President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni seem to have become quite hunky-dory with each other these days. Over a fortnight ago, Museveni was schmoozing with Raila in Kisumu as his guest.
Then early this week, Raila was off to Kampala and met Museveni. Museveni’s hanging out with the PM in Kisumu was constituted by some media and commentators as some kind of endorsement of Raila as Kampala’s man in Kenya in the 2012 election.
Yes and no. The guerrilla in Museveni means he never operates in a linear fashion. It should be remembered that in the messy 2007 Kenya election, Museveni did not back Raila. He was firmly in President Kibaki’s corner. So much so that Raila’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) accused Museveni of sending troops to the western part of Kenya to stand by and rush to Kibaki’s help, if need be, when the country plunged into post-election violence.
Museveni sometimes had mishy mashy notions about “Bantu commonality”, so faced with a choice between backing a Nilote and a Bantu politician in the region, he was inclined to back the Bantu one. But he has outgrown that political infantilism, or learnt to suppress it successfully.
In 2008, in a speech at Dar es Salaam, when the Kenya-Uganda flap over the minuscule Migingo Island in Lake Victoria was still on, Museveni attacked the “Jaruos” of Kenya because their politicians were launching vicious attacks at Museveni in the dispute over the island. Museveni also criticised the “Jaruos” for uprooting the railway to Uganda in Kibera, Raila’s constituency, during the post-election violence.
In all this, the real target was seen as Raila.
Yet, precisely because Raila was Museveni’s “enemy”, he was destined to be the Ugandan Big Man’s good friend. The warrior in Museveni respects fighters and people who stand up to him. He is a man who feels threatened by and attracted to courage in equal measure. In Uganda, historically Museveni has treated the opponents who take up guns against him more seriously than constitutional rivals.
Raise an army, go to the bush, and you can be sure he will cut a deal with you to give up the fight, accept a juicy government post, and live happily ever after. Oppose him at an election, criticise him in newspapers or at a seminar, and he will send the police around to beat, arrest, or humiliate you.
In 2007, Museveni backed Kibaki. Raila, though, has dealt with Museveni using Kaguta’s own rules. He waited until the elections of 2010 to play his Uganda trump card — at least according to what Museveni’s intelligence chiefs believe.
There was a diplomat called Olara Otunnu, who had been the UN’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, considered one of the most impressive and clever student leaders Uganda has ever had. The Museveni government seemingly feared him. When in 1996 Otunnu, who had lived in exile and was popular in Western capitals, sought to stand for the secretary generalship of the UN, Museveni dealt him a blow; the Ugandan government refused to support his bid. It also declined to renew his passport, forcing Otunnu to take on a Côte d’Ivoire document.
At the end of 2010, Otunnu returned to Uganda through Kenya. In Uganda he won the battle for the leadership of the Uganda People’s Congress and contested for president in 2011 on its ticket. He visited the aspiring Mecca of the East African Luos — Kisumu. Museveni officials believe Raila paid for Otunnu to return to Uganda and funded his campaign.
Meanwhile, as Raila’s supposed man was running against Museveni, the Kenyan PM visited Uganda and campaigned briefly for Museveni!
Privately, Raila was talking down the chances of the Opposition against Museveni (including his “man” Otunnu), saying they had drunk electoral poison by refusing to unite.
Raila’s aim, it would seem, was to fire a warning shot across Museveni’s bow, not to defeat him. Otunnu lost his shirt in the election. Raila had played a classic Musevenisque game. Museveni seems to have liked what he saw, and while his detestation of Raila might not have changed much, he — and his operatives — nevertheless liked his political cunning. Out of enmity, Odinga and Kaguta’s son were joined in a mutual admiration club. Now we wait to see whether they will travel far together.