interviewBy Deo Walusimbi
Retired Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, once the longest-serving commander of the UPDF, a key guarantor of President Museveni's government, is now president of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), the largest party trying to remove Museveni from power.
Muntu's one year as FDC boss has been marred by controversy, largely borne of a contentious election.
But last week, a team of party elders appeared to bring the impasse to an end, proposing that Muntu should serve his five-year term until 2017.
A day after the decision was announced, Gen Muntu spoke to Deo Walusimbi about leading the FDC against Museveni, and relived his days was a young rebel fighting to bring President Museveni to power. Excerpts:
What do you make of the resolution by FDC elders that you are supposed to lead the party for five years?
We endorsed the recommendation from the committee which was established to work on that issue. The Rwakafuzi committee had made six recommendations and we had amicably resolved five.
Then there was that issue of contesting whether it was supposed to be two or five years; that is why we set up the second committee that established that the term should be five years, and we put that issue to rest.
[The elders] did background checks; they looked at the reasons why the former president stepped aside; for example, he had indicated that he needed to leave early enough so that the incoming president will have enough time to prepare the party for elections of 2016.
And they recently looked at the minutes of NEC meetings [and] they established within the minutes decisions which had been taken to indicate that the elections were going to be done for 2012-2017.
Was Dr. Besigye consulted by the elders' committee?
They indicated to us that they had a discussion with him.
What was his opinion?
That it will be five years.
But this resolution is coming a whole year after the election...
It has taken long but to me it is not a question of how long it has taken; the issue is how it has been handled or managed. You can make a decision within a month, but if a decision is made hastily and people are not satisfied, then you will have a problem. But if an issue is handled, even if it takes long, but you use transparent, fair methods, then it is worth waiting.
How have these squabbles between your camp and Nandala-Mafabi's affected the party?
My feeling is that there are no camps. I don't see them because when you communicate with the district, you find that people are no longer stuck in the voting patterns. Yes, at the top you may find different individuals who think they belong to camps, [but] that is their business.
To me what I care about is the party base, and I don't think you can go there and find who voted for Muntu and who voted for Mafabi or for Ekanya. I don't run the party based on camps. I don't care who voted for whom.
That is what democracy is about - that once there [is] a competition, different people will support different individuals. Once the elections are over, it's over. I have run in the past against Dr Besigye twice; after we would finish, I would never say that this voted for me, this didn't. You just go back in the mainstream party and we keep on running it as a unit. That is how I operate, whether I am being led or leading.
Has the party now healed?
A decision has been made. That is the most important thing. Healing is another issue because it is a matter of hearts and minds. Maybe some people may not heal immediately, but as long as we keep running the party in a fair, transparent way, people will heal.
It doesn't mean that there would be no disagreement; there will be disagreements, and to me it's not about the disagreements because where there are human beings, you are likely to keep getting them.
But the most important thing is the way you manage the disagreements and that is [how] I intend to establish the party: as long as I am its leader, I want to ensure that there is an internal environment in the party where every member [leader or not] recognizes that if you have a grievance, you will be heard.
It's a slow process but I will work on it systematically, without any compromise because it is only when you build that internal mechanism that you can build genuine cohesion in a party and once there is cohesion, nothing will stop that party reaching its set objectives.
Who was the winner, from this decision by the FDC elders?
The party. Much as we have gone through this conflict for close to one year, if you see the manner in which these internal processes have been managed, then one should be able to know that this is a party that believes in fairness, processes within where every body is listened to and where all leaders sit and decide and when they decide on whatever they want to do, they do it together.
Some people would say FDC is stagnant...
It is moving forward because if you can be able to manage the conflict we have been in, that shows growth and strength. If you look at this African continent, many political organizations collapse not because of the external challenges but because of the internal ones because they are not able to manage them.
If we keep on doing things the way we are doing them, that creates the strength inside the party, creates trust from the people who are watching; and the moment people trust you as the party, that becomes the foundation for recruitment of new members, more sympathizers.
Apart from that, we have been doing other things because we have been going to the grassroots, we have just done one of the regions, the West. We will go to East, North, Buganda working across party lines trying to attract attention from community leaders, focusing them on the challenges the country is facing and also telling them what we want to do.
Once we finish this first round around the country, by mid next year we shall be done with another two. On the basis of that, we will consolidate the support in the areas where we already have it and break into new territories, and then build party structures from the grassroot to the national level.
What do you make of Maj Ruranga Rubaramira's defection to the NRM?
That is his choice, because he is an adult FDC is an open party. Free entry, free exit; an adult has got legitimate right to make choices in life. All of us who are above 18 years, we are adults. We can make choices, motivated by factors I am not going into.
What if all FDC members make a choice to defect to NRM?
Then there will be no party but they have legitimate right to do that.
Some people claim the cracks in your party are instigated by your rivals in NRM...
I don't care about the source; what I care about is for us to build an internal culture that completely disables any attempt to cause divisions in the party. My job is to ensure that we build internal mechanisms and processes that manage differences.
But you see, this talk about 'moles' is so rife in FDC; some party members even allege that you were planted by government to fail a promising opposition party...
I don't care what they say. As the Bible says that they will be known by their fruits, can you pick a lemon from a mango tree? If it is a mango tree, you pick a mango. So I will be known by what I do, not by what people say.
The best example for me to completely destroy FDC would be from November 2012 until now because there were enough emotions running in this country and in the party for me to have acted in a manner that the party would be no more but how did I act?
So if I was a mole, why didn't I use that opportunity to completely wreck the party? Why would I become a stabilizing factor to ensure that the internal contradictions are resolved in a transparent, fair way in the process that strengthens the party?
How do you rate your performance over the last year?
We are doing well. We have rallied the whole internal leadership because I met all senior leaders of NEC, met all MPs, met all district chairpersons, met all district general secretaries, met all mayors who stood on our tickets, met all LC III chairpersons, all LC V councillors in the whole of the Eastern region, all LC V councillors in the whole of northern region.
We have rallied them to understand the challenges we are facing in the country and to decide on the way forward. We have also done training courses of chairpersons and general secretaries.
We have also worked on the internal processes of managing the internal conflicts and as we speak now, we have resolved and we have put in place mechanisms of fundraising so by the time we shall get into next year, the foundation is going to be firm; the base which we can launch nationwide mobilization and organization for the whole of next year.
So, we have been building the foundation on which we can reach out to consolidate the areas where we have political support and to break into all territories where the NRM still has strongholds.
People often contrast the aggressive methods of Dr Kizza Besigye with your more diplomatic approach to opposition politics: Which is more effective?
The two methods are complementary. He is involved in civic actions, I am involved in party building. What he does exposes and weakens the regime; what we are doing is to build, strengthen and position the party to take power.
So, you are not at loggerheads with Besigye?
Why would we be at loggerheads? They think so because we use different methods. There are many people who are incapable of making analysis; there is nothing you can do for them, until they see the outcome of what we are doing.
How far have you gone with reshuffling the Opposition leadership in Parliament?
We shall embark on that process in early December. We will meet the leader of Opposition, we will meet with all MPs, the interim NEC and then we will discuss the way forward. We will agree on how we handle the review.
There are only 13 positions [and] we have got 37 MPs, we will have to ask ourselves where do we want to go and how would we want to get there? And the outcome of that discussion will lead us how to handle the review.
What is your assessment of the state of Uganda today?
The country is in a freefall. If you carried out a poll, the levels of frustrations are frightening. People have lost hope, people are getting more and more angry, the regime is making more and more mistakes, corruption is stinking to high heaven, the country is rotting. So what we want concentrate on is how we salvage the country from such situation.
This brings me to your own military career; 26 years ago, you joined the NRA rebels to salvage the country...
I joined in 1981 from university straight away to the bush. I fought from 1981 until 1986 when we took power, I retired from the army in 2004 but I was removed from command in 1998 and I just remained just an MP until 2001.
Looking at your driving motive in the bush, did you live by your promises after taking over power?
Yeah; when it comes to having free, transparent, fair general elections, that is one of the things that took us to the bush and [President Museveni] has trampled on that.
[There was also] zero tolerance policy on corruption, all good governance principles, having the observation of the separation of powers to know that you have judiciary, legislature, and the executive that can cooperate but be independent of each other. Those are principles that we were fighting for because we believed that they [were] bedrock of justice and good governance.
As a fighter, do you remember any disagreements among the fighters while in bush?
At a personal level I never had any clash with anybody throughout.
But you reportedly had misunderstandings with officers such as the late Maj Gen James Kazini, apparently because they were not highly educated...
I am the one who actually ensured that [for] officers were not educated, we put in place mechanisms to ensure that they were being promoted, they are examined orally and that you don't speak English, you use Kiswahili and it is on record. People don't understand.
I am the one who established the system where officers and women wanting to continue with education [would] be given leave to go into institutions of learning to continue with their education.
It is not that I didn't like officers who were not educated, it is that I also recognized that they needed to advance their education and there were opportunities when they were willing to do that.
Critics have pointed out that your tenure as army commander was synonymous with the phenomenon of 'ghost soldiers'...
I set up [a] committee which was headed by the late Col Sserwanga Lwanga and at a time, Col Bogere and I ruthlessly fought that system only that there used to come political interference.
But we didn't have systems by that time; we had integrated seven factions into the army, there were no systems; so, it was during that period between 1989 and mid-1990s that we were establishing those systems in the Army.
You enjoyed relatively rapid promotion in the army; why was that?
I would like to believe that because they saw potential in me and I would like to believe that the eight years I commanded the army must have really backed up the realization of that potential because whatever I did was consistent with the belief of what I could do. I operated in a professional way in every manner.
I ensured that the integrity of the institution was observed and by the time I left after eight years, I believe my record will remain behind to bear out my command or management capability as an individual.
As a former army commander, how do you see the state and role of the UPDF today?
The worst thing that is happening is for the regime to use the army for political purposes. But when it come to being a factor in stabilizing the country and operations carried out outside the country, I think it is doing the best in the circumstances.
I respect many senior commanders in that force because I know most of them are motivated by seeing stability in the country. Most of them would want to see a professionally-run army, many of them would want to see a country where there is fairness, where there is justice. I know that because I served with many of them.
However, they are operating in a very tricky environment because an army runs under the commander; so many of the things they do wrong is because of the wrong political decisions that are made by the commander.
What was the final trigger in your fallout with Museveni for him to remove you from the high command to offer you a ministerial post?
Bad governance. I had already indicated areas he had left the objectives for which we had fought and I kept going to him privately telling him that 'we are making mistakes here or there, and I did a lot of proposals to him.
By the time I left, I knew that he had reached a point where he could not reverse his steps on a path he had chosen to take and therefore we separated.
Why did you turn down his ministerial offer; did you perceive it a demotion?
I turned it down because I could see that he was on the wrong track. There are things which I had discussed with him as to the direction the country was taking. Now when you are in cabinet, there are collective responsibilities and wrong decisions are made and you cannot speak out. So, I could not take it.
I wouldn't be the first person to be removed from the command and made a minister... but I would be wasting my time, his time and the country's time because I would be doing something that I didn't believe in and I don't operate that way in my life. If I am going to work with people on something, it must be something that I believe in; if I don't believe in it, I won't take part in it.
You then joined the opposition; has that move met your expectations?
We are building. The most important thing is that we started from a blank sheet so it is us who have to write on that sheet what we want to see done exactly what we did in 1981 only that the person who was writing on the sheet on our behalf, wrote things which he didn't believe in.
So, all of us, have an opportunity as leaders of FDC eventually to show who we are because the same test Museveni has gone through is the same test that we will go through.
We recently witnessed fallout between President Museveni and his former chief spy General David Sejusa. What does it mean in your view?
I think he had reached a point where he realized that whatever advice he was giving was not being taken and decided to skip ranks.
If you have got one of the top most ranking generals who is in the field of security and he falls out and runs out of the country, that is an exposure that there is a big problem in the system.
2016 is around the corner; how have you prepared for it as an individual and as the opposition?
We are preparing and organizing the party to ensure that we become strong we consolidate the areas where we are strong and penetrate into areas where we didn't have support, build structures, prepare candidates and put that strength behind every body that would be elected as our flag bearer and that is very critical and we are doing a lot of things which the public don't know about and we will win the race.
But you are financially unstable as an opposition compared to NRM...
We will get adequate resources to enable us run the party, strengthen us and to enable us run against the regime and defeat it decisively.