EXTRACT FROM WHY WE ARE COMING, BY YASIN KAKANDE
“Those who stand up for Justice will always be on the
right side of history.” Barack Obama
On a busy street in Kampala one evening in April 2012 at around nine o’clock after Muslims had completed their last prayers and were joining the commuter melee of cars and cyclists to go home, two men on a motorcycle, known as Boda Boda in local dialect, approached Sheikh Abdul Karim Sentamu, a renowned Muslim cleric and leader of the William Street mosque. The two men said the traditional Islamic greetings to the Sheikh before shooting him dead and then disappearing into the traffic.
It was a start of a series of political assassinations by men on motorcycles in Kampala. Sentamu, like most of the other victims, was a Muslim who had once been a member of a rebel group called Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), before receiving amnesty from Museveni.
Among these victims was Sheikh Mustafa Bahiga, shot five times at Bwebajja Mosque on Entebbe Road. Sheikh Ibrahim Hassan Kirya also was shot multiple times when he arrived at his home in Bweyogerere, Wakiso District. Sheikh Kirya had earlier informed police that he feared for his life after his colleagues were killed in related incidents by unknown assailants on motorcycles. Major Mohammed Kiggundu, one of the former commanders of the ADF rebel group who had joined the Ugandan Peoples Defense Forces (UPDF) after being pardoned, was also shot dead, along with his bodyguard Sergeant Steven Mukasa, one morning at Masanafu, a Kampala suburb. The two were driving to the city in a UPDF pickup truck. Kiggundu had turned into a strong advocate of the Museveni regime on radio stations after his amnesty and recruitment into the army. One time a caller during his radio talk show warned him in plain language that Museveni never forgives former rebels or anyone who has ever tried overthrowing his regime. Other Muslim clerics murdered by motorcycle assailants included Abdul Kadir Muwaya and Abubaker Kiwewa.
Most of the victims were those who had previously rebelled
against the government of Museveni or were deemed politically inconvenient to the regime. Every time a politician was assassinated the police assembled a group of mostly Muslim men on television it had arrested as suspects. Most of those arrested were other Muslim clerics of a rival faction. As they appeared on television some were limping with all the signs of torture. Most disturbing was that even after these arrests, the assassinations continued with other targets killed in a similar way that implied the real assassins were still at large. The police attempted to reassure the citizens and authorities reportedly conducted comprehensive investigations but not a single report was ever published.
There is no concrete evidence for the claim, but it seems at least reasonable to assume that the phenomenon of the assassination by motorcycle-borne gunmen was a weapon being used by the state. The collusion at all levels of official apparatus that was required for these crimes to be committed with total impunity makes it so.
Clearly the weapon was considered to be effective as its scope was broadened considerably to include high-profile political figures. Joan Kagezi, the Senior Principal State Attorney, was the first Non-Muslim target, shot dead in her car while shopping in Kiwatule, a Kampala suburb. Kagezi, who was a prosecutor in a July 2010 twin bombing trial, was shot twice at close range by the assailants while she was seated in her official car. She was known as an ethical independent prosecutor, more inclined not to take orders on what to investigate or ignore because of political sensitivities regarding the Museveni regime.
The peak of these political assassinations occurred when Andrew Felix Kaweesi, a police spokesperson, along with his driver and bodyguard were gunned down about 100 meters from Kaweesi’s home in Kulambiro, Nakawa Division in Kampala. Then, Ibrahim Abiriga, the Arua municipality member of parliament, and his bodyguard were shot dead, near the MP’s home in Matugga, Wakiso District. An audio of an eyewitness account circulated on social media urged all Muslims in Matugga to flee the area to avoid being rounded up as purported suspects as far as they can after the shooting because the government likely would arrest any of them to parade on television. The audio reflected a general feeling among the population that the government was not interested in arresting the real killers but instead announced after every shooting the arrests of apparently innocent citizens on the streets, mostly Muslims as a coverup for the killers.
It seemed as if the motorcycle assassins could not and would not be stopped; and killings became more frequent. Muhammad Kirumira, an outspoken critic and a Ugandan police officer, was gunned down along with a female companion in the Kampala suburb of Bulenga. Kirumira, who was a key witness in a case against General Kale Kayihura, the sacked police boss, had repeatedly told the media that he had become a target for assassination after having revealed that there were bandits of criminals in high posts of the Uganda police. “Expose the mafia to save the state. When you speak, you die. When you keep quiet, you die. Better speak and die when the message has reached the people,” Kirumira said in a short video clip that went viral on social media after his assassination.
Kirumira’s death had a profound effect on the people of Uganda as he had foretold his own death and even that was not enough to protect him. Clearly the assassins were working with no concern for conscience or law. Each killing would put gruesome pictures on social media and illicit a huge reaction from Ugandans.
Kirumira’s assassination happened a few weeks after the army had shot and killed Yasin Kawuma, Bobi Wine’s driver, and reports about the politician’s torture had been circulated publicly. The international media focused intensely on the repressive nature of the Museveni regime for the first time. Museveni responded with acts of apparent concern: attending the scene where Kirumira had been gunned down and addressing parliament, blaming the assassination on elements in the police colluding with the criminals. Museveni also outlined new measures in his address to lawmakers that included setting up a modern forensic laboratory, installing CCTV cameras, shooting down unregistered drones, and banning hoodies.
It is true to say that in Uganda at least, the phenomenon of political assassinations carried out by gunmen on motorcycles was new, but only as a delivery system starting in 2012. Political assassination was familiar: politicians that had proved inconvenient to Museveni had been assassinated throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Gunmen would visit victims’ homes and shoot them dead in sight of their family members. One of these victims was Dr. Lutakome Andrew Kayiira who had a rebel group also fighting Obote alongside Museveni’s bush war. Museveni says in his book The Mustard Seed that during those times, his rebel group confiscated a consignment of guns that were supposed to go to Kayiira’s rebel group. But Museveni and Kayiira had reconciled after Museveni came to power, and, in fact, Kayiira served as an energy minister in the Museveni government in the late 1980s, before his assassination.
Also, Major General James Kazini, former UPDF commander, challenged his government bosses. First, he was accused of disobeying the president, when he moved battalions of the Ugandan army under his command in West Nile without Museveni’s approval. He then was accused of sending money to rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in Southern Sudan and later Ugandans were told he had been beaten to death by his girlfriend in a brawl.
Political assassinations in Uganda during the Museveni rule have not only occurred by putting a bullet in the victim’s head. There have been an implausibly large number of unexplained deaths among the political classes and in some the suspected cause was poisoning. One such case is that of Brigadier Noble Mayombo, who was the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Defense and Chairman of the Board of Vision Group. In April 2007, Mayombo felt unwell and was admitted to Kololo hospital where he was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis. The next day, his condition having worsened, he was transferred to the intensive care unit at International Hospital in Kampala. His condition deteriorated further and on April 29, 2007, comatose, on life-support systems, he was flown to Agha Khan Hospital in Nairobi Kenya. He was airlifted to Nairobi in the Presidential Gulfstream plane, on Museveni’s orders, a courtesy because of what was supposed to be a relationship as mentor and trusted comrade. However, Mayombo died at the age of 42. Speculation that there might have been foul play prompted the government to launch an investigation. The team concluded its investigation and handed a report to Museveni in November 2007. As of today, the detailed findings of that probe have never been released to the public.
Another suspected case of murder by poisoning was that of Cerina Nebanda, who at 24 was the youngest woman MP, serving in the Butaleja district. Nebanda criticized the president on his handling of corruption and unemployment. When she died of suspected poisoning, her parliamentary colleague Mohammed Nsereko was arrested for suggesting that the President was responsible for her death. Also, General Aronda Nyakairima, an MP who served as minister for internal affairs, died on a flight from South Korea while he was traveling through Dubai, a sudden death that followed the same investigative path as Nebanda’s death.
The evidence that poisoning is being used by the regime as a political weapon is further strengthened by the fact that some politicians have survived having been poisoned. One such is Hussein Kyanjo, former MP for the Makindye East District. Kyanjo, one of the most eloquent legislators in Uganda, was instrumental in fighting government-proposed bills to make the government the sole land owner in Uganda. He called the proposal a land grab. But it was his investigations of suspected bribery in oil deals in 2011 as a chairman of a parliamentary committee that likely triggered the attempt to poison him, which he relayed to me personally. Kyanjo, who received treatment in Dubai and London, said he had been diagnosed with dystonia, a disorder that affects the control of body movements, but his doctors suspected he also had been poisoned. He has lost the eloquence that once moved crowds and has trouble speaking at all, but he is grateful to be alive.
The list of assassination victims in Uganda is as long as the years Museveni has ruled the country. Political assassinations are so common in dictatorships where dictators attempt to rule for eternity, but in Africa, Uganda during Museveni’s tenure has experienced more political assassination than its neighbors. Every time someone was assassinated the Government promised to leave no stone unturned and to get to the bottom of the matter but each investigation eventually faded and what findings there were will never be made public, even when the victim was a public figure. This became the crucial yardstick for comparison, to distinguish assassinations carried out by dissidents and those likely perpetuated by the government.
Assassination became an understandably sensitive issue. People who demanded investigations or asked that results be made public soon became targets themselves. Ugandans understood that if the Government was not forthcoming with information about a given death then it was better to pretend that the victim had never lived. In some cases the President would give money to the families of the victims and showcase them as they publicly expressed their gratitude as when he gave 20 million shillings (U.S. $5,000) to the families of Yasin Kawuma and Muhammad Kirumira.
Neighboring countries have shared Uganda’s troubles with political assassinations, and some have had their leaders who were killed when they departed from Uganda. One was Dr. John Garang of South Sudan who died in a plane crash, after attending peace talks in Uganda. Journalist Andrew Mwenda was arrested for suggesting the Ugandan government was behind Garang’s death.
Political assassinations is not the Government’s only tool of oppression. In September 2009, the Ugandan government sought to prevent King (Kabaka) Muwenda Mutebi, a cultural leader of the Buganda ethnic group from traveling to Kayunga, a town near Kampala where National Youth Day festivities were planned. His supporters took to the streets, and, in some instances, threw stones and set fires. The military and police beat demonstrators and quickly resorted to live ammunition, killing unarmed protesters and bystanders.
The government maintained that 27 people lost their lives, largely as a result of security forces’ stray bullets. Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigations of hospital records and local organizational accounts put the death toll at more than 40. Sources at Mulago hospital told HRW that they treated 88 victims, the vast majority of them for gunshot wounds. And more victims were taken to other hospitals. The government never investigated or charged any security force members for the deaths.
In another violent incident, the Ugandan army and police raided the compound of the Rwenzururu King in the western town of Kasese. More than 100 people were killed, the bloodiest incident in the country for more than a decade. The king, Charles Wesley Mumbere, and nearly 200 people were arrested; they still await trial, on charges including murder, terrorism, and treason. The Bakonzo people, the main ethnic group in Kasese, straddle the borders between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the Rwenzori mountains. It is here, the Ugandan government alleges, that Bakonzo radicals want to carve out an independent kingdom. The King denies this, but people in these parts have long felt marginalized by the state. In Kasese there has been no investigation into the massacre. Peter Elwelu, the commander in charge that day, has been promoted. Maria Burnett, an HRW representative, said the killings illustrate the “entrenched impunity” of Museveni’s regime. That sense of impunity persistently degrades the quality of life for Ugandans and most people have decided to move to countries they think they would be safe.
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