‘A Wild Card’: Son of Uganda’s President Jostles to Succeed His Father

KAMPALA, Uganda — He has boasted that he could capture the capital of neighboring Kenya in two weeks. He has offered a dowry of 100 cows to marry Italy’s new female prime minister. And he has claimed that the majority of “non-white” people around the world supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

With a barrage of provocative, late-night Twitter posts in the last year, Muhoozi Kainerugaba — the 48-year-old son of the president of Uganda, and a military general — has unnerved Ugandans and regional allies, and become an embarrassment for President Yoweri Museveni, who has chided his eldest child publicly, apologized on his behalf and promised that his son would leave Twitter altogether.

But Gen. Kainerugaba is still tweeting, raising his public profile as he tries to position himself to succeed his father, a close Western military ally whose landlocked nation receives almost a billion dollars in development assistance each year from the United States. Gen. Kainerugaba has vowed not to “stop until we are in complete control” of Uganda.

His father has held an increasingly authoritarian grip on the country for 37 years, a six-term president who at 78 has already begun receiving endorsements to run in the 2026 elections. Ugandan political experts say he is unlikely ever to relinquish power.

But as President Museveni’s vigor wanes, experts say he is looking to preserve his family’s dominance and trying to line up his son as a successor. Yet he is coy about fully backing him, in part because of his exasperation with the stream of erratic tweets his son has shared with his over 650,000 followers, according to several Uganda analysts and Western officials.

“Even as he encourages him to become a public figure, Museveni now realizes that he is not in full control of his son,” said a senior Western official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “He is not in the same caliber politically as his father and he is quite self-absorbed and that informs people’s assessment of whether he is suitable for the presidency.”

The question of succession has taken center stage in Uganda, one of many African countries ruled by aging strongmen. Some African leaders have set up their children, wives or other relatives as successors. Other leaders have tried to lay the groundwork for successors, but failed — as in Zimbabwe, Egypt and Angola, where the ruling dos Santos family lost control when its patriarch stepped down.

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda speaking to his supporters after the presidential elections in Kampala in 2021.Credit…Luke Dray/Getty Images

The Ugandan president has been testing his son’s prospects with the public, political analysts say, as succession tensions build among ruling party cadres and the army. He has dispatched his son on diplomatic visits across Africa, promoted him to a full general and thrown him a lavish state dinner for his birthday last year.

“Due to Museveni’s advancing age, there’s a lot of pressure building on the question of succession and Muhoozi is an insurance policy,” said Michael Mutyaba, a Ugandan researcher and political analyst. “He is meant to act as a shock absorber.”

Gen. Kainerugaba declined multiple requests for an interview through a spokesman, and President Museveni’s spokesman did not respond.

Since coming to power in 1986, Mr. Museveni has changed laws to stay in office, suspended dozens of nongovernmental organizations, and subjected activists and opposition members to arbitrary detention, disappearances and torture. Two years ago, the president declared victory after a bloody election replete with accusations of vote tampering.

Stella Nyanzi, a government critic, being arrested by the police officers in Kampala in 2020. Since attaining power in 1986, Mr. Museveni has subjected activists and opposition members to arbitrary detention, disappearances and torture. Credit…Sumy Sadurni/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The flood of tweets from Gen. Kainerugaba has revived questions about an alleged scheme, known as the “Muhoozi Project,” to groom the president’s son for power.

The government has denied that there ever was any such plan. But with the recent tweets, there is renewed apprehension about dynastic rule.

Mr. Museveni’s family is deeply entrenched in power. His wife, Janet, is the minister of education and sports. His brother Salim Saleh is an influential businessman and serves as a military adviser. His son-in-law, Odrek Rwabwogo, is a presidential adviser who harbors political ambitions.

Gen. Kainerugaba has held several strategic positions in the military and is a special adviser to his father.

Last March, the general tweeted his intention to retire from the army, a precondition to running for office in Uganda. The decision caught military officials by surprise. He later retracted it, saying he will retire in eight years.

His offhand tweets about the war in Ukraine have especially discomfited his father, according to two people familiar with those discussions. Mr. Museveni has said he wished to remain neutral about the war in Ukraine. When Gen. Kainerugaba voiced support for President Vladimir V. Putin, the president stated that his son was “speaking for himself.”

In October, when Gen. Kainerugaba threatened to capture the Kenyan capital, the president asked Kenyans for forgiveness. He then fired Gen. Kainerugaba as commander of the country’s land forces — although he promoted him from lieutenant general to a full general — and said he directed him to stay off Twitter and cease commenting on other nations’ internal affairs.

Gen. Kainerugaba, left, in 2012, when he was the head of the Special Forces Command. Credit…Ronald Kabuubi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But his son said on Twitter that no one could “ban me from anything.” He has said he will “definitely” become president.

His supporters have plastered his picture on billboards and posted fawning messages on social media. To expand his sphere of influence, experts say, he has privately supported the political candidacies of several friends and the appointment of others to critical government posts.

David Kabanda, a lawmaker with the ruling National Resistance Movement party and a staunch supporter of Gen. Kainerugaba, said in an interview, “It is high time for President Museveni to hand over power to the next generation.”

Over the years, Mr. Museveni has amended the constitution, to remove presidential term and age limits, allowing him to retain power. He could similarly lay the groundwork for his son’s eventual accession to power, Mr. Mutyaba, the analyst, said.

Last year, some members of the ruling party suggested the president should be elected by lawmakers and district officials instead of the general population, which would make it easier for his son to attain the high office.

“They will keep changing the rules and amending to get what they want,” Mr. Mutyaba said.

Bobi Wine, a musician turned politician who ran for president against Mr. Museveni, at his home in 2021. Credit…Esther Ruth Mbabazi for The New York Times

Gen. Kainerugaba was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, while his father fought the government of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. His name, Muhoozi, means “the avenger,” the president has said. He has three younger sisters: Natasha, Patience and Diana.

He was shy at school, according to three friends, but showed interest in the debate club. He spent hours reading about military strategy and revolutionary leaders like Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, they said. His friends described him as a good listener and generous to a fault.

But by his early 20s, Gen. Kainerugaba was predisposed to bombastic declarations, telling a conference in 1995 that Uganda will “never have lasting peace” unless wealthy Ugandans rule the nation.

He has said he attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, in Britain, but the school declined to comment for privacy reasons. He finished a 10-month course in 2008 at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He published a book on the history of modern Ugandan resistance battles.

His pugilistic approach to politics was evident after 2012, when he became the head of the restructured Special Forces Command, an elite private unit tasked with protecting Mr. Museveni and his interests. The outfit has been accused of carrying out human rights violations, particularly around the 2021 elections.

Gen. Kainerugaba has also personally faced accusations. He was named in a complaint alleging a wave of abductions and abuse, filed in the International Criminal Court by Bobi Wine, a musician turned politician who ran for president against Mr. Museveni in 2021.

Ugandan writer Kakwenza Rukirabashaija at a courtroom in Kampala last year. “He only understands one language: violence,” Mr. Rukirabashaija said of Gen. Kainerugaba.Credit…Katumba Badru Sultan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

And Kakwenza Rukirabashaija — author of the books “The Greedy Barbarian” and “Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous,” — said in an interview that after he wrote tweets criticizing the general and his father, security officers took him from his house after breaking in, whipped him, plucked his thighs with pliers and ordered him to dance almost all day.

He said Gen. Kainerugaba visited him in prison three times, and promised to give him “anything I wanted” as long as he didn’t reveal his scars to anyone or speak to the press, and promised to remove “Banana Republic” from Amazon.

Gen. Kainerugaba’s spokesman has denied the two met. After Mr. Rukirabashaija was released on bail last January, he fled to Germany.

“He only understands one language: violence,” Mr. Rukirabashaija said.

Helen Epstein, the author of “Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda and the War on Terror,” said Gen. Kainerugaba’s intemperate tweets remind her of the bombastic rhetoric of Mr. Amin, the brutal former ruler of Uganda who killed tens of thousands of people and had threatened to annex parts of Kenya.

“Muhoozi has ambitions to run Uganda one day,” Ms. Epstein said. For now, she added, “he is a wild card.”

A poster by supporters of Gen. Kainerugaba in Wakiso district in central Uganda in November.Credit…Esther Ruth Mbabazi for The New York Times
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