Kampala, Uganda — Why the crackdown on Bobi Wine supporters may backfire on Museveni and NRM
On Feb.09, Lydia Nassolo emerged from Mityana's newly constructed Kitalya Prison, 56kms west of Kampala City, and pondered her next step. Her husband, Umar Kagimu, was not in the detention facility.
"It was January 21 at around 3pm when men in a drone picked him up from his work place," she told The Independent in reference to a silver Toyota delivery van that has become the symbol of abductions of Ugandans perceived to support former presidential candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi Sentamu aka Bobi Wine and his party National Unity Platform (NUP).
The following day, she says, the men; some wearing military uniform and others in plain clothes descended on their home in Wakiso District, a few kilometers out of Kampala.
"They were about 30, searched our house, took his National ID, ATM card, computers and laptop, and drove away with him," she said.
Since then Nassolo has been to the army offices in Mbuya, Makindye Barracks but she is yet to see her husband. This has been the trend for hundreds of families over the past one month.
The General Elections held on Jan. 14 saw President Yoweri Museveni declared winner in the presidential race with a 58 per cent vote margin but lost heavily to Bobi Wine in the central region where almost all ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) candidates in elective positions were routed - a development that has triggered paranoia among ruling party folk. Desperate to consolidate its power, the NRM government through its state agents has embarked on random abductions targeting supporters of Bobi Wine and NUP.
The felling of almost all government ministers including Vice President Edward Ssekandi, in the previous election is believed to have fed the creation of bogus intelligence reports that NUP supporters were planning to burn Kampala, reports that President Museveni seems to have believed. Hundreds of Bobi Wine supporters have been reportedly abducted, tortured and some killed.
Bobi Wine has repeatedly called for the release of his supporters who have been abducted by state agents over and over again.
On Feb. 10, the former presidential candidate visited Kitalya prison "to stand in solidarity with our comrades who have been incarcerated there for 43 days now", he wrote on his Facebook page.
He added, "I looked at the thick walls of Kitalya and thought about the hundreds of NUP supporters incarcerated there for no crime whatsoever."
Joel Senyonyi, the spokesperson for the NUP says the party lawyers are compiling a list of all those that have been kidnapped by state agents.
"35% of the people detained in Kitalya are NUP agents and supporters," he told The Independent on Feb. 9.
Torture after kidnap
David Lule, aka Selector Davie, a longtime friend of Bobi Wine, had been receiving calls and tips from friends about his impending arrest prior to the elections. He had been warned to stay alert. "Even Bobi had called me several times and told me not to go home," Lule narrates to The Independent.
On Jan. 12, he went home and in the wee hours of the morning, the expected happened. He could hear boots and suspicious movements around his house in Kamwokya, a Kampala City suburb strongly associated with Bobi Wine. Lule says Bobi Wine was not happy when he learnt of his arrest because it could have been avoided.
In a move that was typical of Obote and Amin regimes many years ago, military men smashed his gate open in the dead of the night and pinned the watchman to the ground, Lule said.
"I stayed in the house because some of the men had already scaled the fence and were in the compound. I did not want to be killed like Zebra," Lule recalls vividly in a phone interview.
Isaac Ssenyange aka Mando Zebra, a celebrated a boxer allied to the NRM party was killed by security agents at night in a commando operation outside his home in Bwaise, a Kampala City suburb on Dec.30, 2020, after an internal disagreement with security in dubious operations. .
Lule says he came out of the house after the watchman mentioned his name crying for help. "As soon as they got me, they pounced on me with blows, kicks and drew a saw-like weapon to my neck," he narrates.
He says the men later conducted a search in his home. They had three drones and several patrol cars lined up outside his compound.
From Kamwokya, he was whisked off to Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) headquarters in Mbuya for interrogation. "They took me from one officer to another, asking unclear questions; what is Bobi planning, what is Plan B? From what I gauged, there was no plan on what to do with people they would abduct," he says.
Lule told The Independent that he later recorded a statement at the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) in Kibuli, Kampala, and in subsequent days, he endured torture, beatings and sheer humiliation under detention by military officers.
"I went to Makindye military barracks where there was a daily dose of caning, beating, endless and pointless interrogation," he says. "They took me to a separate room where I would spend days without eating and could be dragged anytime for beating."
According to Lule, anyone leaving Makindye military barracks after detention has to undergo treatment because of the physical depredation one goes through. He says he has seen kids who cannot walk or individuals who are just left for dead from the barracks.
The military court at Makindye charged Lule with wearing a military cap on November 19, 2020, the day protests broke out in Uganda after the arrest of Bobi Wine in Luuka District, at the height of the presidential election campaign.
Legal experts have penned enough literature on the illegality of trying civilians before a military court.
Lule says he only got bail from court after putting up a spirited case of why he should not be in further detention narrating to the judge, a military man, how he had been through enough horror already at the hands of men dressed like him.
"I told him how I had had bled enough, coughed blood, been sick for days and he sort of agreed," he says, "and that is how I survived Kitalya Prison."
Lule got bail on Jan. 28 but he is expected to report back to the military court on Feb.24. He says Kitalya Prison seems to have been designed for government critics because of who he is familiar with currently under detention there.
"I am not even a NUP mobiliser, I don't have any position in the party. I have been helping Bobi with his music business which he is not even involved in any more to be honest," Lule says.
Lule says he is lucky to have regained his freedom but is still worried due to the increased incidences of abductions.
For instance, Mike Muhima, was abducted from home by security operatives on Feb. 5 reportedly due to 'cyber crimes'. His family have moved to several police departments searching for him, in vain.
This has triggered a Twitter hashtag #StopKidnappingUgandans but the government is yet to cave in to the pressure and release hordes of those missing.
Similarly, two aspiring politicians in Mpigi District on the NUP ticket; Abdul Rashid Nkinga and Ronald Sekajja went missing in early January, according to Daily Monitor.
Nkinga was aspiring mayor for Buwama Town Council in Mpigi while Sekajja was running as chairperson for Buwama sub-county. The publication quoted the Katonga regional police as saying that they did not know who was behind the kidnappings and appealed for information from the public.
Nevertheless, Nkinga was declared winner of the mayoral race for Buwama Town council in spite of being a no show in his locale. However, almost all his associates are reported missing; from a driver to anyone who supported his campaign either through providing a public address system, posters, venue or supply of People Power branded T-shirts.
However, it is not only foot soldiers of NUP that have been abducted. High profile individuals like renowned human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo have experienced the same.
Opiyo was abducted last December by security forces as he was having lunch at a restaurant in Kamwokya, a Kampala Suburb. It was only after a national and international uproar that he was eventually charged in court with money laundering. Others such as Stella Nyanzi,, a Museveni critic, are now seeking asylum in neighboring Kenya.
Asuman Basalirwa, a president for Jeema Party and lawyer told DW that lack of information about those who have disappeared, as well as the manner of their abduction, means that the disappearances can't be categorized as arrests.
"The reason why people are saying security is kidnapping Ugandans is because the mode of arrest is completely against the constitution," he told DW. "I think that's where the focus should be."
Livingstone Sewanyana, the Executive Director at the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, told DW that Museveni's government should swiftly bring those arrested before the courts of law in accordance with the country's constitution, pointing to a troubling resurgence of violent intimidation in the past.
"The act of abductions, kidnappings and enforced disappearance is a relic of dictatorship," he said. "It speaks of our past history and also developments and trends [seen] during the 1970s," he said, referring to the brutal rule of former Ugandan President Idi Amin.
"This must be rooted out. Those held responsible must be punished," he added.
President Museveni has maintained his attitude since the election and remained unrepentant and dismissive of any concerns regarding the state of affairs in the country. In a televised address on Feb. 13, he was simply boastful.
"The talk of disappearances should be ignored because it can't happen under the National Resistance Movement (NRM). Under NRM, even if a mistake is made, it will be discovered or answered. That's the point I wanted to mention tonight," he said.
Museveni said a commando unit that is part of the UPDF had been brought in from Somalia to quell the protests that had gripped the country since the presidential campaign. He lauded the unit and said security would not back down on any matter in spite of the wide criticisms of the violations of human rights on their part.Protests would erupt whenever Bobi Wine would be arrested by Police.
Meanwhile Museveni's ministers and other government officials have been left with the task of explaining to Ugandans why their relatives and friends are being kidnapped with impunity.
On Feb. 2, while addressing the press, deputy inspector general of police Maj. Gen. Paul Lokech gave the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) a 48 hour ultimatum to avail names of all Ugandans who have been abducted by security operatives. No list has been generated two weeks later and if there were to be a list, it could only have grown longer.
Charles Twine, the spokesperson of CID, told The Independent that the communication was made to the deputy IGP and denied that people were abducted.
He says: "Some of the persons being talked about were actually arrested and not abducted. Some of them have been granted bond and produced in court."
Twine adds, "At the time of the communication, some of the persons were being processed on how to dispose them of."
Jeje Odongo, the minister for internal affairs, could not be reached for comment. However Odongo was left scraping the bottom of the barrel for answers on Feb.5 while fielding questions from MPs on the floor of parliament regarding the abductions in the country.
Odongo said a total of 44 people had been reported kidnapped with 31 unable to be traced but he did not give a comprehensive list of the said people.
According to parliamentary records, the minister said that seven people who were reported kidnapped had been arrested, charged and released on bail while others including Ronald Lumu, Benard Kabaale, Ronald Mugarura and a one Shafik were arrested for aiding and abetting terrorism."These suspects have since been interviewed, recorded statements and released on police bond," he said.
Ironically, the day Odongo made that statement was the day Mike Muhima, an IT expert, was abducted from his home. Odongo meanwhile appealed to the public to report incidents of kidnap to the police.
Lt. Col. Deo Akiiki, deputy spokesperson of the UPDF, declined to comment on the issue of abductions and referred our queries to Odongo's statements.
Implications to Museveni and NRM
Independent analysts that spoke to The Independent said that security agents' harassment of opposition supporters especially Bobi Wine creates tension in the country at a time of heightened political opposition to President Museveni and the NRM party.
They argue that the more people are tormented, the more resistance they develop and thus the more ungovernable they become. This, they say, is worsened by Museveni's over-stay in power as the population yearns for change.
For Kagimu's wife, Nassolo,, mother of a 20-months old baby and unemployed, the pain is unbearable and she is desperately demanding for answers from government about the whereabouts of her husband.