The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: Why the Govt Became a Suspect in Nebanda's Death

Family of late legislator dismiss government's preliminary autopsy ( Resource: Uganda's Late Legislator's Mother Refutes Report

A state of mistrust, suspicious deaths:

The mysterious death of Cerinah Nebanda and the uncanny police response has helped fan endless conspiracy theories about the cause of her demise. Last Wednesday, Parliament halted a eulogy session for the former Butaleja Woman MP, ruling that she could only be buried after the cause of her death was conclusively established. Nebanda, 24, spent her short stint in Parliament hammering away at the ruling NRM, especially on corruption.

Preliminary investigations suggested the lawmaker died of multiple organ failure, triggered by external, toxic substances. Whereas it was too early to resolve the jigsaw into what could have been a premeditated murder, there is fear that the investigation is already following a similar pattern -- a series of blunders from police officers whether by omission or commission.

With doubts over the conduct of the investigation, the family and Parliament hired a private pathologist, Dr Sylvester Onzivua, to take body samples to South Africa to establish the cause of her death. But security operatives arrested Onzivua at Entebbe airport, as he prepared to board a plane to Johannesburg. The security men grabbed the body samples.

Under normal circumstances, the police should be in charge of investigating suspicious deaths; but why did the family and Parliament lack faith in the institution of police?

In the aftermath of her death, newspapers quoted police sources saying that Nebanda could have died from alcohol and drug abuse in the company of her boyfriend Adam Suleiman Kalungi at a reclusive house in Buziga. But this hastily assembled theory only raised more questions than it answered.

"So, why did police rush to confirm the cause of death of Nebanda without a postmortem report? Did the duo take any alcohol or drugs or was this a red herring?" asked a lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Since this allegation surfaced last weekend, police have failed to apprehend the chief suspect, Kalungi. Did Kalungi flee the country? Was he liquidated to cover up evidence by those who sent him and who could have sent him and what was the motive? Is he the scapegoat?

As the death exploded into the public conscience and drew a public outpouring of grief, the lack of trust in state institutions - particularly the police, has come to define the narrative of this investigation. Weighing in on this debate, retired Supreme Court Justice Prof George Kanyeihamba told The Observer last week that not only did government mishandle the situation, but the arrest of the private pathologist was unjustified.

"If the pathologist was hired by the family, then they are entitled to carry out tests. The government can only challenge the results. The ministry of Health had allowed him to go and he did not have any past criminal record," said the justice.

Kanyeihamba also agreed that government's past conduct has led to the loss of public confidence.

"It's questionable that the president handed the Mayombo report to the family. The president needs to explain this conflict after the family denied that they had received the report. There are other claims of this nature that government has not explained," said Kanyeihamba.

A political science lecturer at Makerere University, Dr Sabiiti Makara, concurs with Kanyeihamba. "There is no record of any successfully concluded inquest into a mysterious death by government and this can lead to a lack of [public] trust."Former Uganda Law Society (ULS) president, Bruce Kyerere, opines that what should be of interest is transparency.

"Why has the government not invoked the Inquests Act in order to establish the causes of this unnatural death and controversy of the youthful MP?" argues Kyerere.

Kyerere believes that if an inquest is held before an independent judge, it would unravel the truth.

"Even in an accident, if you want to clear the air, you should have an inquest," he told The Observer by phone.

Suspect state:

One disturbing thing about the Nebanda controversy was the palpable suspicion that the state could have had a hand in the MP's death.

That the police hurried to present a theory of drugs; that President Museveni seemed keen to discourage MPs like Baryomunsi from running the postmortem process; that the police arrested Dr Onzivua apparently with a motive of confiscating the body samples he had - all these point to a government bent on controlling the narrative about the cause of death.

Neutral observers, then, are given to ask why the state should appear to be anxious about controlling the narrative. And if the state ought to be trusted, then its agents appeared enough to lend credence to the possibility that it could be culpable. So, was this a case of sheer incompetence by the state or was someone trying to hide something?

These are questions that will be difficult to answer. As Dr Onzivua told his government captors, by grabbing the Nebanda body samples, they were interfering with evidence. And now, whatever the state gives as its findings from toxicological tests will be treated with due suspicion.

A history of suspicions:

Before her demise, there have been several unexplained deaths that were left to public speculation. From the murder of former Energy minister Andrew Lutakome Kayiira in 1987 to the suspect death by poisoning of former Permanent Secretary Brig Noble Mayombo in 2007, government has never released any report though it sanctioned investigations.

Kayiira murder:

In the aftermath of his death, NRM hired the British Metropolitan Police, Scotland Yard at a fee of $250,000 to investigate the death of Kayiira. But no report has ever seen the light of day.

However, on October 14, 2006, a one Sande walked into The Daily Monitor offices and volunteered to shed light on Kayiira's assassination at the home of his friend, Henry Gombya, then a BBC journalist.

Mayombo puzzle:

On May 1, 2007, Brig Noble Mayombo, the charismatic permanent secretary in the ministry of Defence, died mysteriously and it was feared he was poisoned. His cousin, Roger Baguma, told mourners at the state funeral in Kololo that the family suspected foul play.

President Museveni then appointed a team, headed by a toxicology specialist, Dr Tagaswire Rusoke and Brig James Mugira to investigate the cause of the death.

Ayume death trap:

Before he died suddenly, former Attorney General, Francis Ayume, advised the president not to use a referendum to lift presidential term limits. Museveni had sought the opinion of his Attorney General after the late Speaker, James Wapakhabulo, had passed.

"I told him it would set a dangerous precedent to amend the Constitution using unconstitutional means," said Ayume, who reportedly spoke to journalist Andrew Mwenda shortly before he died.

Parliament later abolished the tem limits:

Ayume, who was supposed to make a presentation to Cabinet on Monday, May 17, 2004 at 8am, died eight hours before the meeting in a car crash at Kyankonwa village in Nakasongola district. His friend, Anthony Butele, escaped with injuries and has never spoken about the accident.

Without any prompting, then Information minister, Nsaba Buturo, told a weekly Cabinet news briefing at the ministry of Information offices in Nakasero: "There are rumours in town that government had a hand in Ayume's death."

He would repeat, "There are rumours in town that there are underhand methods and conspiracy [in Ayume's death]. This is nonsense and it's not true."

In Africa, even the death of an octogenarian is accompanied by tales of witchcraft and yet another African proverb says dead men tell no tales. Till today, a cloud of suspicion continues to hang over the deaths of not only Kayiira, Mayombo and Ayume but many others.

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InFocus

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Legislators are living in fear of being poisoned after certain death of their colleague Cerinah Nebanda. Read more »