13 January 2013

Uganda: Unveiled - MP Who 'Plotted to Topple M7'

Tonny Kipoi, the Bubulo West legislator, has spent almost two years in Parliament, but to many of his colleagues he remains a stranger just like those who sit in the gallery during parliamentary sessions.

In fact, if one pinned a photograph of the MP on any notice board in Parliament and challenged MPs to identify him, nine out of 10 would fail to put a name to the face.

Handsome, youthful and reportedly wealthy, Kipoi is also very reclusive. The few MPs who have interacted with him describe him as a quiet man who feels more comfortable keeping to himself.

"I travelled with him to Karamoja [when the Defence committee of which he is a member went there to investigate the disarmament exercise]. He did not seem to be interested in politics and was talking about going to South Africa," said Iddi Isabirye, the MP for Bunya South.

Kipoi's recent arrest and arraignment in court on charges of treason and concealment of treason has lifted the veil off his secret life and dealings, thrusting him into the limelight that he otherwise abhors. He was arrested in Fort Portal on December 24 by the Police who accuse him of recruiting fighters for M23, a DR Congo rebel group. He was arrested with seven other people, said to be soldiers.

Beata Chelimo, head of the Police Special Investigations Unit, told The Observer they were tipped off by an informer that Kipoi was plotting to overthrow the government along with some soldiers. She says that Police investigated the claims and after trailing Kipoi for some time, arrested him in Fort Portal together with seven soldiers. Kipoi's version is somewhat different.

He told three MPs--Muhammad Nsereko, Brenda Nabukenya and Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda -who visited him last Thursday that he was arrested alongside four senior army officers, including one Col Wandausi and one Col Chemonges. But Col Felix Kulayigye, the army spokesperson, told us he doesn't know the said officers.

"If they are colonels, I would know them. But I have not heard of them," Kulayigye said.

Kipoi was also arrested along with Rehema Sedi, a sister to one Major Kerir. She reportedly works in the Pension department at Bombo army headquarters. Besides the colonels, Kipoi told the MPs that he was arrested along with eight soldiers - one sergeant, one corporal and six privates. Kipoi also told the MPs that his South African wife has been intimidated and prevented from coming to his rescue. He says his brothers Robert Kitale and Bill Munyifa, who tried to come to his rescue, have also been arrested and detained at Kireka.

Kipoi further claimed that his bank accounts have been frozen and cash taken from his house. One of the MPs told us that Kipoi complained that with no money, and no relatives visiting, he is living like an ordinary prisoner without external support in form of money or food. The MP was found wearing the prison's yellow uniform.

On the first night he arrived at Luzira, he was put in the general ward where he found former Arua municipality MP, Akbar Godi, who was convicted of murder in 2011. He was later transferred to the East Wing (within maximum prison) where the most dangerous prisoners, including terrorism suspects, are held.

Reclusive, mysterious

In his Bubulo constituency, and indeed in Parliament, getting information about Kipoi is akin to squeezing water out of a stone. Prior to the 2011 elections, Kipoi was an unknown businessman, plying his trade in South Africa. An MP, who hails from Bugisu, told us that Kipoi initially wanted to seek election as an opposition candidate but later settled for NRM, probably believing that his business interests would be better protected if he identified with the ruling party.

A journalist based in Mbale, who covered his election, said Kipoi was unknown in the area but endeared himself to voters using money and charm.

"He is very patient and listens to everyone," the journalist said. "Even if he does not agree with you, he will not tell you."

During the campaigns, the journalist said, Kipoi used to move with a sack of money (usually in denominations of Shs 1,000 and Shs 2,000 banknotes) that he would dish out to people after the rallies. After defeating the incumbent, Fred Bukeni Gyabi, and another former MP and minister, Wanjusi Wasieba, Kipoi returned to his South Africa base.

He returned in haste after his election had been challenged in court on grounds that he did not have the requisite academic qualifications. The High Court annulled the election but Kipoi appealed and the ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeal, two months later. According to the directory for the Ninth Parliament, Kipoi was born on June 26, 1978.

Most of his business dealings are based in South Africa where he is the managing partner of Impumelelo Innovation Financial Trust, which he founded in 2008. He also worked as a Rapid Security Response Officer at the Hertzpgoville Security Institute. In May last year, Ugandans got a sneak peek into his possible lifestyle when the Police revealed that they were investigating the MP on allegations of drug trafficking.

This followed the arrest of a Ugandan, Shaban Moses Khuju, in Brazil with 80 plastic enclosures containing 1.19kg of cocaine. Upon interrogation, Khuju claimed he was working on behalf of the MP. The drug connection partly explains why Kipoi was rare at Parliament, apparently fearing arrest. Last year, after attending less than 25 sittings according to parliamentary records, the Speaker, Rebecca Kadaga, wrote to the MP asking him to explain his long absence. He reportedly pinned his absence on illness.

Simon Mulongo, the MP for Bubulo East, which neighbours Kipoi's constituency, says his colleague was always mysterious. Mulongo added, however, that the few times he has interacted with Kipoi, he came across as a reserved person who could not harm a fly.

"I know him as a humble person. I was shocked that such charges were brought against him. My ordinary observation of him is that he does not seem to harbour such intentions," Mulongo said.

Additional reporting by Shifa Mwesigye and David Tash Lumu.

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