There is no person alive in Uganda today who has been abused and humiliated by the NRM machine more than Besigye
Former Uganda Police Force chief, Gen Kale Kayihura, will shortly mark two months in detention – without trial.
No man or woman endured Kayihura’s torment than opposition Forum for Democratic Change’s Dr Kizza Besigye. There is no person alive in Uganda today who has been abused and humiliated by the NRM machine more than Besigye. That he still stands tall and largely level-headed is testimony to a remarkably stubborn and resilient spirit.
For the NRM system can really break people. Consider, for example, what happened in February 1990. Three journalists; BBC’s Hussein Abdi, New Vision’s Festo Ebongu, and magazine editor Alfred Okware were arrested and charged with treason for asking visiting Zambia president Kenneth Kaunda “embarrassing questions” about ex-president Milton Obote, who was living in Lusaka in exile. The whole episode was so traumatic, as soon as he could, Ebongu fled to the safety of exile. After the charges were eventually dropped, Okware too went into exile.
Abdi stayed, but he was crushed. A previously good Muslim, he took to heavy drink, and other excesses and we watched helplessly as he lost the long fight. He did in January 1998.
Emerging from this hell that breaks the heart and embitters the spirit of many, Besigye has publicly called for Kayihura to get a speedy and fair trial. How now? There is the wider point that, in practical terms, laws are really made for those who will break them. In other words, it really is for those whom you think are undeserving of it.
But Besigye is not a narrow legalist, so he is aware of a bigger political reality – in Uganda, the best protections you have are from those who might otherwise seem to be enemies. You need to have been at the receiving end of the NRM system, as some of us were for years, to appreciate it. Let us stay with Besigye. In April 2011, there was that savage attack on him when he was beaten by security operatives like a snake and pepper sprayed during the “Walk-to-Work” protests. Injured, he was flown to Nairobi Hospital for treatment.
For the time he was there, we learnt of all the unsettling things that happened to him off camera. And then there was the mystery – how did he survive? I guess he will have a remarkable story to tell when he writes his book.
But, at one point, he was locked in a windowless small room, with broken limb, and clothes soaked in pepper spray thus the room slowly filled up with stinging gas and he was slowly choking to death. That he narrowly survived, seemed to have been a result of some people in the Presidential Guard and Police, who “turned the other way”, possibly to great personal risk – or even likely through a nod from Museveni, who knows – to allow the series of actions that eventually prevented the most tragic of endings.
Those few good men and women, need to be reinforced and emboldened. Keeping alive the idea that “bad fellows”, should still be subject to due process, is perhaps the only potent weapon we can give them.
Additionally, the notion by some NRM regime critics and victims that Kayihura deserves what he is getting, because he created the monster and even went to Parliament to argue against people being produced in court within 48 hours of their arrest, only helps enshrine the dangerous idea that only people you like or agree with should be treated fairly by the law.
There might be some acceptance for exception because probably there is no person whom Kampala’s polite society, Ugandan progressives, and the Opposition despise and loathe like Kayihura. Part of it is born out of a sense of betrayal, because Kale was once one of them – urbane, leftist lawyer, and cosmopolitan - then he crossed over to the dark side as a brutal enforcer for the Museveni regime.
How did it get to this? Kayihura was chairman of Northcote Hall (before it was bastardised to Nsibirwa Hall by reactionary forces). He was part of left-leaning student politics, and later in the NRM/NRA, he was among the leading progressive lights.
Edward Kalekezi Kayihura Muhwezi, became known mainly as Kayihura only from about 2010. Before that, he was Kale. But to those of us who were his friends and acquaintances, up until 2002, he was known affectionately as “Eddie”. It’s important to see men and women as works in progress, and not to judge them at only one point in their lives. Watching Kayihura in recent years raving like a psychotic thug, veins standing out aggressively on his face, we could only ask: “What happened to Eddie?”
Maybe watching the law he violated in the pursuit of the Opposition and repressing regime critics work justly for him, might just be what ennobles it in the eyes of that old Eddie.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa
datavisualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3