One month ago, all on the same day, Saturday July 5, 2014, three districts in the far western part of Uganda - Kasese, Ntoroko and Bundibugyo - were attacked by bands of unknown men. Several security officials were killed in the attacks that took the country by surprise. For a week, the news had nothing but stories of these attacks, with the death toll climbing every few days.
To this day, nobody or group has yet claimed responsibility.
The Inspector-General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, flew to Bundibugyo and inspected the scene of the attacks. In some of his initial comments at the scene he described what had just happened as “genocide”. The Commanding Officer of the Special Forces Command, Brig Muhoozi Kainerugaba, twice appeared at the scene in Bundibugyo before departing for Kasese.
The government said these attacks bore the hallmark of tribal strife and soon started referring to the attacks as “tribal clashes” between the Bamba of Bundibugyo and the Bakonzo of Kasese. President Museveni did not visit the scene but from afar joined the official voices describing the attacks as “tribal”, different from Kayihura’s first description of them as “genocide.” Kayihura’s reference to “genocide”, barely noticed by the public, quietly dropped from the radar.
Typically when acts of sabotage or terrorism take place in Uganda, the first reaction by the media is usually the default position of following what the government or police have said. A few media houses might try to develop the story but usually any further reporting is done along the lines of what the government first issued as an official explanation. The media appears to lack either the resources, imagination or courage to conduct its own investigation.
Where the police and the army, in their investigations, might get a few facts wrong or leave out some lines of investigation, the media will reflect that in their reporting. However, the media is not entirely to blame. The government has made political reporting and coverage of security matters a high-risk area for Ugandan journalism.
The Woman Member of Parliament for Bundibugyo, Ms Harriet Ntabazi, meeting NRM supporters in Bundibugyo, suggested that the attacks were by somebody prominent in the government. Appearing on the state-owned Voice of Bundibugyo radio station, she repeated her hint that this was an inside job by someone from high up in the government but did not give names.
Suspects since being arrested have confessed, some say under duress, to taking part in the attacks.
Local Council officials who spoke to the media after the attacks were later arrested. Observers across the country were quick to ask what kind of “tribal clashes” these were in which the attackers seemed to target only the army barracks and the police station in Bundibugyo. In Kasese, the army and the police were also the only targets.
A repeat of Mbuya incident?
Commentators like KFM’s Charles Mwanguhya-Mpagi and several others said the attacks in western Uganda had the appearance of the mysterious attack or alleged attack on the Mbuya army barracks last year.
Barely had the incident at Mbuya happened and hardly had investigations began, than the then army spokesman Col. Felix Kulaigiye was declaring that this had been an attempted coup.
The renegade army General David (Sejusa) Tinyefuza would later claim that what happened at Mbuya was a creation and an inside job aimed to somehow implicate him and the Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi in subversion.
Mbabazi has never publicly commented on the Mbuya attack and so far has been largely silent on the Bundibugyo-Ntoroko-Kasese attacks. The attacks on these western districts came in the wake of an increasing number of attacks on police posts in and around Kampala, an attempt on the army’s Kabamba barracks and attacks on some mobile money kiosks, where money was not taken but the intention seemed to be to sow a mood of fear among the public.
To try and make sense of the Bundibugyo and Kasese attacks would require viewing them not at surprise attacks out of the blue, but the most dramatic and bloody incidences in what had been building for most of 2013.
Certainly, there has to be some kind of connection between the attempted attack on Kabamba and the barracks at Bundibugyo. The perception in the country is that in the one area of military strength, the NRM government has at least proved its worth. It is difficult to defeat or challenge in armed combat.
The question, then, was who these attackers might be who seemed to have no fear of attacking what they obviously knew were well-guarded military installations. Sources with knowledge of the situation in Kasese, moreover, said the only people who had come under attack in that town were the “Balaalo”, the nickname for the cattle-keeping Bahima and Banyarwanda of western Uganda.
The post-attack mood in Bundibugyo
Academicians and media analysts in Kampala, taking the cue from the official government explanation, immediately started tracing the historical tensions between the Bamba and Bakonzo going back decades to the 1960s.
Days after the attacks, however, appeared to contradict this prevalent view that the Bamba and Bakonzo or sections of these tribes were at war with each other.
Both Bamba and Bakonzo in Bundibugyo had their shops and market stalls open. There were no reported secondary clashes or attacks by the majority Bamba against the small number of Bakonzo traders and residents of Bundibugyo. There were no reports of Bakonzo in Bundibugyo, fearing for their lives, fleeting from the area and back to Kasese to find safety in larger numbers.
The two groups together would meet to discuss the recent attacks and who might be behind them. Shops remained open and there were no signs of stepped up security to separate the two groups.
Some officials of the Bakonzo kingdom, including the prime minister and his deputy, were later arrested by police to help in investigations. The suggestion was that Charles Mumbere, king of the Bakonzo, might have had a hand in the attacks.
Early reports claimed that, like the Holy Spirit Movement of the Acholi resistance leader Alice Lakwena in 1987, Bakonzo tribesmen had either smeared oil on their bodies or used magic portions in the belief that these portions would protect them from bullets.
Skeptics questioned this version, pointing out that had Mumbere indeed been involved in the attacks, he would have been the last man to persuade his armed men to use sorcery as protection, since he is a US-trained soldier and would know better than that.
The sophistication of the attacks, carried out simultaneously in three districts, indicates that whoever carried them out is either an experienced military man or at the very least is not an ordinary tribal warrior.
And if the mastermind of the attacks has the kind of military accumen or understanding to launch attacks in three districts on the same day, that mastermind would certainly know better than put his faith in herbs and oil for protection. This alone, believe the skeptics, rules out the involvement of Mumbere or Rwenzururu kingdom officials. It suggests that whoever claimed the fighters had attacked the army barracks and police station under the supposed protection of magical herbs and oil, was not telling the truth or was misinformed.
The other hint
A good lead into what happened would come from the Bundibugyo Woman MP and her alluding to there being a prominent official high up in the government behind the attacks. Who is this high-ranking government official whom the Woman MP from Bundibugyo hinted might be the hand behind the attacks and how come the government has never taken her up on that allegation? Some politicians in Bundibugyo are said to have accused one of the leeding opponents of the president in the NRM party of buying a RAV4 vehicle for a Mukonzo teacher to recruit Bakonzo youths in Bundibugyo to fight the Bamba.
Might this be what MP Ntabazi meant? None of this is clear. After the attacks, Gen Tinyefuza issued a statement commenting on the attacks. The statement did not make it into the mainstream media and vanished somewhere along the line in the social media website Facebook. Also, if reports from Kasese are accurate that some of the first people to be attacked there were “Balaalo”, might this be what Gen Kayihura initially had in mind when he described this as “genocide”?
Then in the following weeks came another uncomfortable matter, that of mass graves of some of the dead.
The subject of “mass graves” in Uganda’s last 30 years is a sensitive one. Rightly or wrongly, it brings up images of massacres, of atrocities against civilians that have been covered up.
It brings back memories of the still unexplained mass graves found outside Kanungu, the base of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a cult formed in the late 1990s.
It is a dark and painful part of Ugandan history.
On social media networks and some mainstream media, questions have been asked about why there was haste to bury the bodies of the dead. Technically, one or two bodies buried in each grave is not quite a case of “mass” graves as it would be if they were, say, 100. But it still raises many uncomfortable questions in many people’s minds. Following the attacks in these three districts, late last month came news of a strange incident of the house of a Museveni supporter in Kanungu being set on fire. Before that, several shops and kiosks in a Ntungamo trading centre were burnt to the ground. This act of arson in Ntungamo faded from the news barely after it had been reported.
What is clear from all these attacks, of police posts from Kajjansi to Bundibugyo, attacks on army installations from Mbuya to Kabamba and Bundibugyo, from the attack on an Evangelical church at Kyegegwa to the burning down of the trading centre at Ntungamo and the home of an NRM supporter, is that there is a quiet war of nerves going on somewhere behind the scenes in Uganda.
The way hints are dropped government or NRM officials from time to time about a possible hand by a perceived political opponent seems to point to the on-going tensions within the ruling party ever since it split into two factions, a pro-Museveni and a pro-Mbabazi one.
It is difficult to know if, then, attacks are actually being staged by some elements within one camp to make it appear that the other camp is behind them, or is vulnerable. This, in the same way that after Dr Kizza Besigye emerged as a serious presidential candidate in 2001, a rebel group (or an alleged rebel group), the PRA came into existence and was pinned to his name.
This takes us back to the most important question: whoever can dare attack an army and police post in Uganda and manage to steal a few guns and run off with them will have scored no mean achievement. He or she would wish to boast about it and warn of more such attacks to come. He would wish to encourage his supporters and interest future recruits to his cause about his brilliant military planning.
That nobody to this day has claimed credit for these attacks, is something that Ugandans should look into.
Recently, a local daily carried three interesting articles in line with the July 5 attacks in the Rwenzori region. One featured two ministers in the Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu. The deputy minister of Royal security Vincent Muhindo Kapirongo and the deputy minister in charge of security John Mumbere Majoba reportedly expressed remorse for the loss of lives and said they had trained youngsters to take up arms against the government. The two also denounced rebellion.
In another article, just three pages away, it was also reported that the Bakonzo that attacked Bundibugyo Police Station, Kanyamira army barracks, Katumba and Kikyo police posts on July 5 reportedly underwent military training at Kitsangirwa camp in Bukonzo Sub-county, Bundibugyo District, for six months. The camp, where the secretive military trainings took place, reportedly neighbours the Rwenzori National Park.