At first, the narrative by President Yoweri Museveni’s government about the people power movement, a political group that later metamorphosed into the National Unity Platform political party, was that these were a bunch of criminals, hooligans to be exact, who were bent on causing instability in Uganda through violent means. After all, they were a ghetto gang.
Mr Museveni calls the Bobi Wine group “terrorists and lawbreakers.”
Fast forward, Mr Museveni’s security seized this opportunity to neutralize this group. So when the leader of this group, presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu a.k.a. Bobi Wine, was violently arrested on November 18, 2020 while campaigning in eastern Uganda, and his supporters countrywide responded by rioting, 54 people (by official figures) were instantly shot dead in only two days (November 18th and 19th) by a combination of police and military force.
Authorities argued that the riots were premeditated by the Bobi Wine group to jump start an insurrection.
Mr Museveni warned he would decisively deal with the rioters. He said: “Those who have been attacking NRM people in Kampala, they will soon lose that appetite. You will see a uniform of NRM, you will lose apatite to touch it. Even if they abandon it there, you will not be able to touch it. They have entered the area we know very well, of fighting and they will regret.”
True to his word, the President unleashed mayhem on all those caught on CCTV cameras rioting. A specialized unit of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces that was battling Al shaabab terrorists in Somalia and had earlier fought the notorious ADF rebels operating in western Uganda and the DRCwas called in to help and purge those responsible for the riots. Security Minister Gen. Elly Tumwine gave a shoot-to-kill order.
Mr Museveni then appointed Major General Paul Lokech a.k.a the Lion of Mogadishu (a nickname for subduing the Al shaabab in Somalia) as deputy Inspector General of Police. The President also returned his son Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba to head the presidential elite guards. Muhoozi had been relieved of his duties as commander of Special Forces Command and promoted to become Senior Presidential Advisor of Special Operations.
Then real action started against what Mr Museveni called perpetrators of an insurrection. There was a lot of fear and suspicion amongst Ugandans as many young people supporting the opposition started being kidnapped, tortured and in some cases killed or made to disappear.
In one grisly incident, Bobi Wine’s childhood friend and former national boxing captain, Isaac Ssenyange alias Mando Zebra, was brutally gunned down by security personnel. Ssenyange was shot nine times in the middle of the night by about 12 armed men dressed in black attires resembling those of Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force (JATT) or Counter-Terrorism who were moving in numberless vehicles, according to Mr Museveni’s personal intelligence after reviewing CCTV footage.
Witnesses said that the killers did not know Zebra but went looking for him using a photo even though President Museveni hours later admitted that Zebra was his supporter and had been on appointment to meet him.
In the same night and same area, another boxer, Robert Mukasa alias Soja-man, who was the manager of Zebra Boxing club, was reportedly kidnapped by unidentified people dressed in police and military uniform. He was blindfolded and driven off to an unknown place where he was allegedly tortured.
Another boxer, Justine Jjuuko, had also been kidnapped while he was campaigning for his party, the Forum for Democratic Change. After a habeas corpus was filed forcing the state to produce him, he was charging with illegal possession of firearms but was later released unconditionally.
The National Unity Platform offices in Kamwokya, a Kampala suburb were raided by police and 130 supporters of Bobi Wine were arrested and charged for donning the red beret attire. Towards the end of the election campaigns another 126 members of Bobi Wine’s entourage were arrested in Kalangala District where they had gone to campaign.
Then many young people especially supporters of Bobi Wine started disappearing. Some would be picked up by state security personnel in the middle of the night. Others were brutally snatched off busy streets of Kampala Metropolitan and bundled into numberless vans and driven off at breakneck speed.
Wails and cries from mothers and wives of those kidnapped became a common ordeal on social media and local media.
Wife of one of the abducted, Ritah Namazzi, 30, in an interview with the media, said: “It was past midnight when men with guns knocked at our door. When I opened they told me that they wanted my husband. He had hidden under the bed. I deceived them that he was not around but they entered and found him hiding. They beat him and pushed him in their vehicle.”
Ms Hadijah Munyenze, the mother of Abdul Karim (missing person) also told one of the news outlets that her son was abducted from Kabembe Village and they had not seen him again. “My son is not a politician, but I don’t know why he was abducted,” she said.
“We don’t know where our husbands are. We don’t have what to eat (because the breadwinners were abducted). Our children also want to start school (there is no one to pay school fees),” Ziwuja Mutesi, another grieving mother, cried as burning tears rolled down her cheeks during an interview with NTV.
One Opposition leader and Lord Mayor of Kampala Capital City Mr Erias Lukwago said on average courts of law would register five applications filed for habeas corpus for missing persons.
Majority of those released without court trial intimated that they were tortured as they were being interrogated by security operatives on Bobi Wine’s “plan B”. Some of the victims who have been released from ‘abduction’ and live to tell the tale narrate ordeals of torture inflicted on them by the kidnappers with many claiming that they were questioned about matters relating to the National Unity Platform – NUP.
Addressing NUP members at his home at Magere recently, Bobi Wine said an estimated 3,000 party members have been abducted.
Internal Affairs Minister Gen Jeje Odongo told Parliament that the state couldn’t account for 31 missing people.
But Senior Presidential Advisor Lt Gen Proscovia Nalyweso clarified that all missing persons were being held in different places manned by various security organs.
As elections were concluded and Mr Museveni was declared winner of the January 14th presidential polls with about 58% while Bobi Wine came at a distant second with 35% the whole country went numb. But fear roared albeit loudly.
“The future of this country is as if we heading into turmoil. Fear has gripped the country. We are in a country where we don’t know what the future holds. The state seems to have lost legitimacy. That’s why it (state) has turned to coercion,” Patrick Wakida, the Executive Director of Research World International said during and NBS television talk-show.
Mr Museveni’s political party, the National Resistance Movement, had desperately lost a crucial support base—Central Uganda or Buganda, where Mr Museveni and his National Resistance Army rebel group had launched their guerilla warfare in 1981.
It is also in this region that kidnappings of Bobi Wine supporters were covertly being conducted.
Loss of Buganda was a bitter pill to swallow. About 23 Ministers lost their parliamentary seats. The President and his ruling NRM had performed dismally in the election in which more than a dozen party top shots from Buganda, including Vice President Edward Ssekandi and several Cabinet ministers, were trounced as they sought re-election to Parliament.
The Electoral Commission’s official data shows NRM received a paltry 35 per cent in the central region while Mr Kyagulanyi’s NUP cruised with 62.01 per cent. Mr Museveni was beaten in Buganda with a margin of 614,677 votes. He garnered 838,858 votes against Mr Kyagulanyi’s 1,453,535 votes. It was the first time since 1996 that he lost the Buganda vote. The NRM also lost at least 10 parliamentary seats in Buganda.
In Busoga, Mr Museveni got 404,862 votes, while Mr Kyagulanyi got 437,059 Votes. Mr Kyagulanyi won with a margin of 32,197 votes.
Mr Museveni cried foul play blaming the loss on tribalism. But as this argument didn’t hold water he started calling for reconciliation.
The hard stance against the Bobi Wine started changing. The narrative by government functionaries also started changing. After all the 38-year old musician had become the defacto leader of the Opposition. Bobi Wine had lost the battle (elections) but not the war yet. He is in court contesting the election results.
Equally, the accusations of kidnaps, arbitrary arrests and torture were shifted to errant security personnel. Some members of the ruling political elite started disowning these actions against the unarmed but politically active young supporters of Bobi Wine.
Everyone seemed to appreciate these young people’s crime was opposing Mr Museveni and the NRM.
“Police has been given instructions to impound all numberless vehicles. Security should also follow the professional way of handling suspects who should also comply with arrests. Some officers from JATT, police and the army have been arrested (for the kidnaps and torture) for arbitrary arrests. It is regrettable that security is using numberless vehicles to pick people. We condemn actions like that,” said Ofwono Opondo the government spokesman during a popular political talk-show called the Frontline on NBS television on February 11.
“Security forces should follow the normal and legally recognized procedures to arrest suspects. However, there are elements within the forces that error while executing their duties,” Brig General Felix Kulaigye also said.
“It’s not government policy to abduct Ugandans. We don’t arrest Ugandans through abductions,” Chris Baryomunsi, the NRM Vice Chairman for western Uganda and State Minister for Housing backed up his colleagues.
Changes within security were quickly made to make a public statement that security personnel had misbehaved.
Eight senior officers of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces were transferred amid public pressure. Those moved include; former Deputy Inspector General of Police Maj Gen Sabiiti Muzeyi, who was appointed general manager for Luweero Industries; Brig Gen J.K. Mukasa, who has been moved from Joint Anti-Terrorism Unit to head the School of Military Intelligence; Brig Gen D.B. Twesigomwe was appointed commandant of the National Counter Terrorism Centre and Brig Gen SN Ocan was appointed secretary of the National Defence College Kimaka.
Others are Brig Gen Butturo who is the new deputy commandant of Senior Command and Staff College Kimaka; Col H.A. Kaija who was appointed coordinator of Operation Wealth Creation within UPDF; Col P. Semakula is the new chief of Communication and Information Technology; Col J. Muhwezi has been named commandant of United Armed Forces Conglomerate and Col R. Rubongoya appointed chief instructor at the United Armed Forces Conglomerate.
More action had to be taken for damage control. The Deputy Inspector General of Police, Maj Gen Paul Lokech told journalists that he had instructed the CID Director AIGP Grace Akullo and her Crime Intelligence counterpart, AIGP Brig Chris Ddamulira to investigate the abductions.
Later, a joint security operation led by police led to the arrest of 10 operatives attached to the Joint Anti-Terrorism Taskforce (JATT) who have been the masterminds of the recent wave of kidnaps by security using drone vehicles.
In addition, the state started releasing some of those kidnapped—some without being charged and others through the army court martial—and dumped on roadsides or deserted places.
The President also decided to address nation on the matter in an effort to power more cold water on the boiling tempers due to the damage done by his security.
“Uganda under the NRM can’t have that type of situation (disappearances). Security forces are taught a culture of not violating people’s rights with impunity. So the talk of disappaerances should be ignored. Any mistakes made can be addressed. Every Ugandan under NRM will be accounted for,” said President Museveni on February 13 in a televised address.
Museveni argued he was forced to call in the commando unit from Somalia that is accused of meting torture on most suspects because of plans to disrupt elections. “This group quickly defeated the ‘terrorists’ and killed a few of those who attacked them. Therefore the law breakers and criminals are the ones that forced us to deploy some elements of the army to support the police,” he said.
He said the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence had arrested 177 suspects and released them except 65. He said the Somalia commando group had arrested 59 (18 from Kampala, 11 from Mpigi, 5 from Nakasongola and 17 from Kyotera—all from Buganda), who were are still helping police to track other suspects. And additional 17 from Mukono were released.
So far the abductees that have been released are badly bruised, injured and are in great pain as a result of torture. They are also traumatized although President Museveni says none would be compensated.
However, what is comforting is that Mr Museveni has expressed remorse for the state’s actions by calling for talks with the Opposition.
Early on the evening of January 16, Mr Museveni in a televised address from his country home in Rwakitura, Nyabushozi County, indicated that he would be initiating talks with sections of the Opposition.
“The important thing is to maintain peace so that any dialogue is peaceful and meaningful. Actually, we have contacts with some of these groups, we can talk. Whatever divisions we have, we shall talk,” Mr Museveni declared.
Mr Museveni reiterated his commitment to reaching out to the Opposition while speaking at Entebbe during celebrations to mark the 35th anniversary of the National Resistance Army’s victory. He said he was ready to reconcile with those with divergent views.
“That (reconciliation) is our way to do things. That is how you find that Idi Amin’s son is my deputy Director of Intelligence and when you see Taban, you can see that Idi Amin is around,” Mr Museveni said.
“So really for us we do not have much problems (with reconciliation). We have the mouth and we use it to talk. The only thing we shall not tolerate is violence. This is the minimum. Violence, intimidation and cheating are not allowed. Let everybody maintain peace, everything will move in a positive direction,” Mr Museveni said.
Prof Sabiiti Makara, a lecturer of Political Science at Makerere University, believes that Mr Museveni has never been interested in engaging in any meaningful talks because he believes that “the winner takes it all”.
“This government is not interested in talks. Most times they send junior officers. When the senior officers show up they speak with so much arrogance that it scuttles the talks,” Prof Makara says.
But even though Mr Museveni may not whole-heartedly engage in talks with the Opposition groups, international pressure may leave him with no option.
Already, the European Union (EU) Parliament has recommended sanctions against Ugandan individuals and organizations they claim are responsible for human rights violations during the recent general election, which it said wasn’t democratic and transparent.
The EU Parliament, in its statement resolved that “…sanctions against individuals and organizations responsible for human rights violations in Uganda must be adopted at EU level under the new EU (European Union) human rights sanction mechanism, the so-called EU Magnitsky Act”.
The U.S. State Department also says it is considering a range of actions against Mr. Museveni, who, since taking office in 1986, has been among Africa’s leading beneficiaries of American aid, taking in billions of dollars even as he tightened his iron grip on the nation.
“We have significant concerns about Uganda’s recent elections,” a State Department representative said in a statement emailed to The New York Times. “The United States has made clear that we would consider a range of targeted options, including the imposition of visa restrictions, for Ugandan individuals found to be responsible for election-related violence or undermining the democratic process.”
The “conduct of the Ugandan authorities during those elections,” the statement read, “is one factor that will be considered as we make determinations on future U.S. assistance.”
It is also possible that Mr Museveni may gradually be isolated from the international stage, which is bound to affect his dream ambition of spearheading integration of Africa.
Therefore, since Museveni needs foreign money to augment his security and invest in more economic infrastructure projects and wants to recapture the lost support bases of Buganda and Busoga to keep his future plans safe, his only option is to invite the Opposition to the dining table. How he does it will entirely depend on his opponents’ tactics.
List of some of those kidnapped by security agencies