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.