While we were seated outside the Criminal Investigations and Intelligence Directorate office in Kibuli, Kampala, in December 2010, waiting for pastors Solomon Male, Bob Kayiiira and Martin Ssempa, who were accused of soiling Pastor Robert Kayanja’s name, in came Maj Michael Ssali popularly known as Maj Ssalambwa.
We were accustomed to chatting with him not only because he was the driver of the police car that ferried the suspects we were interested in, but also because he loved arguing and talking, and we loved listening to him.
One day, my colleague Stanley Ndawula and I engaged him in a chat about his life while he was still the aide-de-camp of Dr Kizza Besigye in 2001.
“I wouldn’t want to talk about those things now. Mzee (President Museveni) will get annoyed with me,” Maj Ssalambwa said. But we nudged him on and he finally gave in, but jokingly pleaded that he did not want the story to be published when he was still alive.
Maj Ssalambwa died in a shrine of a one Salimat Nakamanya at Kikandwa village, Kyampisi Sub-county in Buikwe District where he had gone for treatment in January 2011.
Maj Ssalambwa was one of the veterans of the Luweero Bush War who followed his bush doctor Besigye on his new political journey after he fell out with President Museveni.
Escape to exile
The 2001 presidential election was in many ways the first real challenge to Museveni. It left both Museveni and Besigye terribly bruised. Museveni won the elections and Besigye started getting feelers that there were plans to arrest him over allegations of treason.
So Besigye and his inner circle started planning his escape to exile. Maj Ssalambwa said this was one of the hardest assignments he has ever carried out in his lifetime.
He said they hatched the first plan that would enable Besigye use the eastern route and borders, but they realised that the time they would spend travelling from Kampala to Busia or Malaba border posts, would make them get detected because all intelligence organs were keeping watch over him.
He said another plan was to go through Rwanda but they thought this was equally deadly given the fact that diplomatic relations between the two countries were at their lowest.
They imagined that if they were detected and arrested, the government would use it as evidence that they were linked to a rebel group.
As part of the plan to arrest Besigye, Maj Ssalambwa said the Museveni government had alleged that he [Besigye] was planning to overthrow the government through military means.
In July 2001, President Museveni held a press conference and claimed that Dr Besigye, Col Anthony Kyakabale and Col Samson Mande had established a rebel group called the Popular Resistance Army (PRA) to fight the Uganda government.
Soon after, Besigye too held a press conference and denied the allegations. Last year, Col Mande came out and claimed that he was the mastermind of Dr Besigye’s escape.
Maj Ssalambwa said Besigye urgently wanted to flee the country because his intelligence reports had indicated that days ahead would be very difficult for him.
“After the security forces had pulled him off the plane [to South Africa], it became clear to us that many of our colleagues were yet to enter jail on tramped up charges. Security agents were trailing us wherever we went,” he said.
It was in a meeting, he said, that Dr Besigye told him that he could use Lake Victoria as an escape route since it was near his home and no one would expect him to use it.
They planned on getting a safe passage, taking into account the fact that Uganda Revenue Authority enforcement officers were patrolling the lake.
Anyhow, Maj Ssalambwa said they came to a conclusion that it was the safest of all routes. He said he was tasked to coordinate the plan since he had colleagues in the fishing industry.
“I straightaway went and looked for people who could make for us a boat. But I found one that had already been made. So I paid for it and promised to pick it. I also got two men who were good at sailing who would help transport Dr Besigye to Tanzania,” he said.
On August 16, 2001, a day before Dr Besigye took off, he hired a Mitsubishi Fuso truck to transport the boat from Kiyindi landing site (now Buikwe District) to Kampala.
“When we reached Luzira, metres away from Dr Besigye’s home, we stopped and pretended that the truck had developed a mechanical problem. We even pushed up the truck cabin as we waited for Dr Besigye to come,” he said.
As the evening approached, Besigye’s plans were smoothened by his wife Winnie Byanyima’s meeting with her friends at Sheraton Hotel.
“Dr Besigye told us later after escaping to our truck that he sent one of his house keepers with a police guard to a pharmacy and bought for him pain killers and then pretended as if he had swallowed them. He told us that he put on music and told the guards not to allow any person inside because he wasn’t feeling well,” he recalled.
After closing the door, Dr Besigye allegedly told Maj Ssalambwa that he used the backdoor and climbed his fence, fell into the neighbour’s compound and again scaled another wall and fell near the road.
“We believed what he told us because he had sustained some injuries and his trousers were torn. He said this was caused by barbed wires on the top of the perimeter wall,” Maj Ssalambwa said.
With Dr Besigye already inside the car, they put back the cabin and drove off to an abandoned landing site in Luzira.
“The place was soggy in that our car, then moving in reverse, couldn’t reach the water level. It was so dark but we didn’t want to use lights because they would detect us. We tried to push it but it was still difficult. So we decided to pull the canoe off the truck and lift it to the water. It proved too heavy for the few of us to pull,” he said.
Time was running out and everyone was anxious.
An idea struck them with time and they uprooted papyrus, which they used to slide the boat onto the water. After 20 or so minutes, they managed to remove it from the truck onto the shore. But work had just started. It was metres away from the water.
He said the truck driver then came up with the idea of getting logs to put below the boat and push it. But no logs could be found in the vicinity.
They had to move further up to find the logs to implement the idea.
“Finally, the boat was in the water. James Opoka, Dr Besigye, Vincent Kimera and two sailors sat in the boat and left,” he said.
Maj Ssalambwa and the three others who had assisted in the operation drove back. Opoka, who was one time a guild president at Makerere University, would later join Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), where he was reported to have been killed. Kimera, a former MP for Bukoto East constituency, also died in 2006 when he was Forum for Democratic Change vice chairman for Buganda region.
Maj Ssalambwa said Besigye and the group had been advised not to start the motorboat engine so that they wouldn’t be detected by Luzira prison and military guards on the lake. “We were told later that they used oars for hours until they were deep into the lake. They sailed to an island on the Ugandan side where they got support and headed to Tanzania where they connected to South Africa,” he said.
Maj Ssalambwa and his other colleagues remained in the country. He said they pretended as if they were not aware of what had happened.
“In fact, in the morning I was called by Winnie [Byanyima] to establish whether I was with her husband and I denied. We even went to Dr Besigye’s home to see if he hadn’t come back and we found Byanyima so furious claiming that the government had kidnapped her husband,” he said.
He said when the security agents found out that Besigye was missing, they went to his home and arrested the guards and searched the home.
Maj Ssalambwa and his colleagues, Rosette Bagata, John Katungwensi and Frank Byaruhanga were later arrested and prosecuted on treason charges.
But in March 2003, when they agreed to cooperate with the government, they were freed after applying for amnesty. The government dropped the charges.
He later became a State witness in a case in which Dr Besigye was accused of links with PRA and the LRA rebel groups.
He later emerged as an intelligence officer and a driver attached to the Criminal Investigations Directorate.
When we put this version of the escape to Dr Besigye, he was dismissive.
“That is a story I am not yet ready to tell but certainly there was no Ssalambwa anywhere in those arrangements at all, and in fact, Ssalambwa had ceased long time being with me and he wasn’t in the picture. Anything he says would simply be guess work. But at an appropriate time, I will tell the story. The reason I have not talked about the story is that it would expose some of the people whom I would rather not expose at the moment,” Dr Besigye said.
Besigye has to date repeatedly beaten 24-hour security surveillance around his home in Kasangati and sneaked into town to lead demonstrations. Both police and the public remain baffled as to how he so easily does that.
About Major Ssalambwa, Besigye’s aide
Maj (Rtd) Ssalambwa was part the armed groups that brought the National Resistance Army to power. He never came into the limelight until 1998 when he was arrested on allegations of participating in subversive activities.
He claimed that he was tortured by security operatives who made him eat and sleep in a toilet.
He alleged that his tormentors gagged him with a sponge dripping with urine and human excreta, and at one time, they pricked his penis and testicles using a pin. Later, he sued the government demanding compensation.
When he was released, he joined the opposition and was active during the 2001 general elections.
He joined politics under the Reform Agenda that was led by Col. (Rtd) Dr Kizza Besigye and became one of his close confidantes.
He loved to be viewed as a tough spy who could execute any plot. He claimed to have helped execute the escape of Dr Besigye to exile in 2001.
He and Frank Byaruhanga also sneaked out of the country shortly afterwards into Tanzania where he was arrested by Tanzanian security operatives and handed over to Uganda at Mutukula border on November 3, 2001.
A week or so later, he was taken to Buganda Road Chief Magistrate’s Court and charged with treason and remanded to Kigo Prisons in Wakiso District.
His efforts to get bail failed. He then sought amnesty which was given. He later became a state witness in Dr Besigye’s case.
Security agencies then gave him a job in the Criminal Investigations and Intelligence Directorate where he was a driver at the same time an operative.
He was a man of wit and drama. At one time, he made a suspected sodomy victim to wear a motorcycle helmet before he dragged him into a waiting car at CIID headquarters and drove him to Buganda Road Chief Magistrate’s Court for an extrajudicial statement. He didn’t want journalists to take the photographs of the victim.
In another incident, he dressed a suspected thief in police uniform to save him from a mob that had surrounded Kiira Road Police Station. The suspect walked gently into the police car without being noticed by the mob.
Years towards his death, he claimed to be a Muslim and would often greet people in Arabic.
He died in a shrine in Buikwe District.