At Makerere University where Sheikh Haruna Jjemba lectures, I find his office door under lock and key. When I knock on the door, he asks who is on the other side of the door. That is before he unlocks the door, revealing half his face. In a split second, he runs his eyes all over me and then ascertains from my Identity Card (ID) that I am the journalist that has recently called him up for an interview.
When I get in, he quickly reaches for the doors to close and locks it. He gestures for me to take a seat adjacent to his. His desk is cluttered with many books and files, half-covered in dusk.
There are two clicks, proof that he has completely locked it. He then goes behind his desk, pulls his off-white tunic a little upwards and fastens his largely coffee brown Muslim cap, before he pulls a chair to sit.
He does not lean back, and as the chat gets underway, he takes moments to adjust his glasses, sometimes taking them off and holding them in one hand and using the other to stress a point.
He is in a semi-pensive mood and at some point a woman calls him and he reprimands her for lack of respect for time. It is partly the subject of his imminent death that sets him into a pensive mood. He stammers, momentarily gets lost in thought and folds his hands around his chest and at times contradicts himself. Whereas he says he is not sure who is behind the threats, he later on accuses a Sheikh of propagating the hate messages against him, describing him as a radical Muslim.
“I am going through psychological torture due to the death threats. I don’t feel comfortable with the threat. I am scared as a human being but I am strong that it is only Allah who can decide my fate so I expect the worst which is death. I hope one day, one time I can live freely without those threats,” he adds, with a plea.
Responding to the threats
A bodyguard was assigned to protect the Sheikh’s life and keeps guard somewhere close to his office, in civilian attire. The Muslim scholar says he is uncomfortable with the threats and is being guarded.
On January 3, last year, there were attacks on the home of Sheikh Haruna Jjemba in Wattuba, Kawempe Division. Before the attacks, he had been appointed Amiir Ummah/leader of Jamiat Dawa Salafiyyah, an organisation that had just expelled Sheikh Muhammad Yunus Kamoga, the head of the Tabliq Muslim sect, who is currently remanded to Luzira Maximum Security Prison.
“After his dismissal or removal, I received phone calls from anonymous people who told me that my neck was ripe for slaughtering because I had accepted to be the leader or Amir of the organisation. Those who claimed that my neck was ripe for harvesting claimed that there could not be two leaders of the same organisation at the same time,” Sheikh Jjemba recounts. Shortly, after the incident, there were leaflets that were printed and dropped off at Masjid Noor, a mosque on William Street in Kampala.
On the leaflets were photos of six Muslim leaders who are accused of orchestrating the arrest of Sheikh Kamoga and 11 others who were charged on five counts of murder, including the killing of Muslim clerics Mustafah Bahiga and Abdul Kadir Muwaya and attempting to kill Sheikh Jjemba.
During a courtesy visit to SheikhKamoga in prison in February last year, Mufti Shaban Mubajje called on (Kamoga) to be patient as justice takes its course, and also called on the courts of law to expedite his trial.
Leaders who appear on the leaflets include Prince Kassim Nakibinge, Sheikh Hassan Kirya (RIP), Sheikh Najib Ssonko, Sheikh Muhamood Kibaate, Sheikh Sudiq Ndawula and Sheikh Jjemba.
The Muslim leaders are also accused of creating divisions among Muslims, being double-agents and mismanagement of Muslim properties. The accusation levelled against Sheikh Jjemba is takeover of a school in Wattuba which they claim he has since turned into his.
The Sheikh calls these baseless claims, saying the said school is his personal property. However, he says he is constantly living in fear since his home was attacked.
Sheikh Najib Ssonko
Like Sheikh Jjjemba, Sheikh Najib Ssonko also lives under a cloud of fear. I meet him at his office in downtown Kampala. He runs a furniture shop which also deals in other home appliances.
He sits behind a desk covered with his merchandise so when you enter the shop, you will not easily or immediately see him. There is a window to his right that is covered by a large television. From the outside, customers can fully see it.
There is a young man seated adjacent to the door. Between intervals of chewing pancake and sipping tea, he directs me to where his employer is. The shop is fairly spacious, and in one corner, three youthful men are having a chat on one of sofa sets on sale.
One of them is a well-built man who appears to be Sheikh Ssonko’s bodyguard. He rarely contributes to the conversation but smiles and occasionally scans the place. When I get to Ssonko’s desk, he springs from his seat and extends a firm handshake.
Through his heavy grey and dark beard, he says hello, and reaches for his seat. As he takes his seat, the shine on his clean-shaven head becomes more visible. His glassy table has a number of cluttered business cards underneath that look almost decorative.
Within a minute of exchanging plesantries, his smartphone is buzzing and he excuses himself to answer calls or reply to messages. When I mention the subject of his life and the death threats, his voice turns shaky.
“Everyone fears death my brother. I am very cautious. I carry packed food and drinks from home. I cannot trust the food vendors as they can be used by those who want to end my life to quicken their mission,” he says, running his hands through his beard.
As we continue chatting, he shows this reporter messages, with numbers of those he says want to end his life. The back and forth exchanges in Luganda, a local language, border on accusations and insults, echoing the differences that have plagued the Muslim leaders for a couple of decades.
Ssonko’s WhatsApp status is telling. It reads, “Yahya Mwanje ne group yo mwagara kunzita, genda mumaaso ne plan zo”, loosely translated to mean that the Sheikh is aware of a plot to be murdered.
How it all began
“My life has been under threat since 2010. Every single day, I think I am going to face my creator. This has been orchestrated by people we know. It has been organised by the very people we have been with since 1990. I have received so many threats by phone,” Ssonko explains before pulling out several fliers and leaflets on which his face is printed and accusations made against him stealing an omnibus belonging to Muslims.
In the numerous allegations and counter allegations by and against the Sheikhs, money is one of the sources of discontent.
Sheikh Ssonko scoffs at his critics who think that he lives off donations. “I was and I am not living off Masjid Noor collections. I have enough money to cater for my needs and those of my family. Most of the sheikhs around are unemployed so majority think they can get their day-to-day earnings from mosque collections. It is unfortunate that they can live off the collections. That has created problems within the Muslim community. Sheikhs should be job creators. Being a sheikh is not a profession, it is a calling,” Ssonko argues.
To those wishing him death, Ssonko says they should be mindful that they will be answerable to God for taking lives.
Sheikhs explain source of tensions
Sheikh Jjemba says that most sheikhs did not go to school and calls on them to develop businesses that can sustain their families. Jjemba says that those who want to end his life have since pronounced him a non-Muslim who deserves to die.
“I did not expect that money would be a reason to endanger another’s life. These are extremists and are ready to eliminate anybody against them,” he adds. Sheikh Jjemba says those against his leadership have called on the Muslim fraternity to ex-communicate him.
Both sheikhs confess that they live under fear of being murdered anytime whereas they say their fate is in the hands of Allah (God), it is noticeable that the fear of death is real.
“ I don’t feel comfortable these days. I am scared as a human being but at the same time, I am very strong because I know it is only Allah who decides my fate,”
Sheikh Haruna Jjemba, lecturer , Makerere University
“Everyone fears death my brother. I am very cautious. I carry packed food and drinks from home.,”
Sheikh najib ssonko, muslim cleric & businessman