11 November 2012

Uganda: Besigye's Trusted Mwijukye Recounts Deadly Skirmishes

A failed priest who became a political activist:

In the sprawling hamlet of Bwoga, presently Buhweju district, Francis Mwijukye and his siblings often gathered around a bon-lit fire next to his parents' mud and wattle house in the evenings, to listen to folk stories. Mwijukye was like any other ordinary child. He spent his holiday time bare-foot, wading through the bushes as he reared his father's herd of cattle, and plunging into the depths of roaring waters to swim in the baking sunshine.

But even at such a tender age, Mwijukye exhibited a rare protective streak which has become more apparent in his adulthood. Like a shepherd fending off the attacks of a predator, Mwijukye often threw down the gauntlet at bullies who denied his animals a chance to graze or drink water at the stream. Though he at times returned home bruised, Mwijukye cared less, as long as his cows were properly fed. He would get reprimanded by his parents but he would reason that if he had not fought, the cows would have starved.

Raised in a family with a Catholic edifice, Mwijukye's parents dreamt that he would one day become a priest. Today, Mwijukye is not a priest. He is a political activist. In fact, he has become a by-product of the rough and tumble of Uganda's politics. Mwijukye and his colleague, Sam Mugumya, are the daredevil lieutenants of FDC leader, Dr Kizza Besigye.

As crowds run helter-skelter amid a staccato of bullets or the noxious fumes of tear gas during skirmishes between the police and protesters, Mwijukye and Mugumya will stand firm to confront even the most perilous situation. But Mwijukye's dare devil antics have come at a price. Barely 29 years old, Mwijukye has been wounded during protests, incarcerated over 60 times in the last five years, charged with treason, and requires a special permit from the Bushenyi Chief Magistrate to travel beyond western Uganda where he is now confined.

Mwijukye is sure his is a legitimate cause against the regime's excesses. But the state perceives him as a dangerous young man. One day, while a student at St Joseph's Vocational School in Mbarara, Mwijukye was struck by a message from Bishop John Kakubi, which would later shape his thinking.

"He [bishop] said they started this school because they wanted to groom people who look at politics with a Christian background," Mwijukye recalls.

"By then I was the religious information minister and the bishop's words influenced my thinking. I was planning to become a priest but that changed me."

Another incident that would impact on his life happened in 1998. Before he died as a village pauper, the late Brig Tadeo Kanyankore, a historical member of the National Resistance Army High Command, had shared some words with a young Mwijukye. Kanyankore was an influential figure in Buhweju, having recruited a number of youth into the NRA rebel ranks as chief trainer of the guerrilla army.

In 1989, Kanyankore was arrested over allegations of treason and dumped in a dungeon inside Lubiri barracks, where he was reportedly tortured. He was sent to Luzira prison but later on released and dismissed from the army with disgrace. Kanyankore thus became the first member of the High Command to suffer this humiliation. So broke that he could hardly afford medical care, Kanyankore succumbed to death.

Some of his bush war comrades were embarrassed at the state of the home in Buhweju where Kanyankore's body was kept before the burial.

"He died as a pauper, but before his death he told me many things," Mwijukye says without disclosing details. "He was arrested and taken to Luzira prison but later on they found out he was innocent."

At the burial in Nyakaziba, Mwijukye recalls, the army was not represented.

Among the top officers, according to Mwijukye, it's only Maj Gen Benon Biraaro (then a lieutenant colonel and 2 Division Commander), who was present.

Biraaro told mourners that Kanyankore was a good fighter, adding that although the army was not officially represented, he was there privately as a friend. Biraaro also recalled an incident when Kanyankore had pushed him to the ground to evade a hail of bullets from enemy forces.

"Had he not been there, I would be dead," said Biraaro.

As the mourners grew weary, awaiting the arrival of an official government representative, they decided to proceed with the burial at 3pm with or without one. Then to the surprise of the bereaved, Kirunda Kivejinja, who was a minister, arrived at 6:30pm.

"He [Kivejinja] apologised and told mourners he was late because he had to first attend a function in Rwanda," says Mwijukye.

That day, Mwijukye left the burial grounds haunted by the burial fiasco that had transpired. He wondered why a selfless soldier who risked his life to fight and spent his last days in squalor could not at least get a decent burial. The government's treatment of Kanyankore thus helped transform Mwijukye from the naïve young man that he was into a regime malcontent.

In 2001, when Dr Kizza Besigye emerged as a challenger to the status quo, his message quickly gained traction with the likes of Mwijukye.

"I had seen Winnie Byanyima campaign for the Mbarara municipality seat and her base was boda boda riders and wheelbarrow pushers. I instantly understood her campaign message and when Besigye said Uganda was divided into the oppressors and oppressed, it was quite clear to me then," says Mwijukye.

Today, Mwijukye may have faced several life-threatening situations but one stands out: the vicious arrest of his mentor on April 28, 2011 by Gilbert Bwana Arinaitwe and other security men. On this occasion, a hammer and a gun butt were used to break the windows of Besigye's car at Mulago, whereupon pepper was sprayed all over his body before he was bundled into a police car.

"We were in Besigye's vehicle when Mugumya suddenly said someone was coming with a hammer," Mwijukye recalls.

"This guy who was hooded hit the glass hard with a hammer and because of the force he used, it [hammer] fell inside the car. He ran away but came back to unlock the car..."

Mwijukye says he picked the hammer and threatened the man who in turn told his colleagues to shoot him.

"Besigye picked the hammer and said you cannot open the car. Then Arinaitwe jumped and kicked the [car window] and his pistol fell down. That is when he started spraying us directly," Mwijukye recalls.

"Mugumya said we are suffocating; when he got out of the car, he was arrested."

As the pain got unbearable, Mwijukye flung open the doors of the vehicle so that Besigye could come out. Immediately after he stepped out of the car, gasping for breath, Besigye was bundled onto a police pickup truck like a chicken thief and pushed under the seats. Because of the uncoordinated nature of the deadly operation, Mwijukye was left to sit on the pickup like other officers who must have thought he was part of them at the time.

"The pepper spray affected some of the policemen; so, they got water and washed their faces and also gave me some, thinking I was part of them. But one guy seated next to the driver who identified me shouted, 'Don't give him water'."

Mwijukye recalls the driver of the pickup truck drove so fast that he knocked three boda boda cyclists before he could reach Kasangati court. Mwijukye revealed that the officers continued spraying Besigye with pepper before reaching Kasangati where he was pulled out of the vehicle and thrown onto a slab.

"We thought he was dead until his sister, Dr Olive Kobusingye, gave him first aid. I have never been annoyed like that day in my life."

Today, the stoic Mwijukye is even more emboldened. In fact, he says he would not fear embracing martyrdom as long as his name is inscribed in the annals of revolutionary folklore.

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