Monday February 4 2013

Rwakihembo, the villain turned village hero

Herbert Rwakihembo appeared before the Court Martial in military fatigue.

Herbert Rwakihembo appeared before the Court Martial in military fatigue. He was sentenced to 35 years in jail for murder.   UPDF

By Ivan Okuda

The 10th day of December 2012 was as dark as it was fatal for Kisenyi Zone 3 in Luzira, a Kampala suburb. Herbert Rwakihembo, a UPDF lance corporal, fresh from the war with the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), lost his cool, pulled the trigger and in a twinkling of an eye, three lives departed from this world and a boda boda man survived death by a hair’s breadth.

Going by the public outcry for justice to take course moments after the macabre incident, one would think the soldier had become not only an enemy of the state but also the public. However, as the army and Uganda Police Force investigated the murder, the public sided with the murderer.

The trial was later to see a clash of the titans as the soldier was now to be tried by two courts. The court of the public opinion alongside the Division Court Martial of the General Headquarters chaired by Col. Godfrey Kakama. This, however, was a trial not only taking a bizarre twist but also historical and extraordinary in every sense of the word.

The public was in full support of the accused and agitated for his release. Throughout the two-week-long trial, their passionate and unrelenting call remained, “Release our boy and promote him! He has committed no crime. Put the case to vote by the residents.”

What exactly happened?
In his submission to court as Defence witness one, the 31-year-old convicted soldier claimed he met Irene Namuyaba while working at a Military Detach in Kisekka Market where she used to sell air time. On falling in love with her, he rented a house in Nansana.

“When I was transferred to Luzira Detach, I bought a popcorn machine and a fridge for her to do business,” the soldier testified, tears welling in his eyes.

“Time came for me to go to Singo for preparatory training for Amisom,” he added. For four months in Somalia, the two lovers’ communication channel was blocked. When he spoke to his lover in December 2011, “she told me she was four months pregnant. I asked for permission to visit her and brought along some gifts that any responsible man would bring for his beloved girlfriend.”

“Time came for me to return to Somalia. I asked her to identify a business project and a plot of land for a house,” he narrated, his voice breaking.

“I trusted her with my Mission ATM card, gave her Shs600,000 as startup capital for a piggery project and left for Somalia,” he said. It is at this point that things began to fall apart.

Rwakihembo claims he sent (in installments) over Shs14m to his partner. He was confident she was undertaking the building project and propelling the family business that now expanded to a boutique and saloon. He claims she morale boosted him with photographs that painted a rosy picture of what never was.

“When I returned to Uganda, I asked to see the house she was building at her parents’ home and the piggery but she kept tossing me up and down,” he said. He smelt a rat.

On the December 7, 2012, the two had an argument over the same in which the deceased spilled beans. The primary school teacher-turned soldier claims his lover suddenly became aggressive and abusive, with support of her two friends, Loyce Kawendeke and Zaina Nassolo, who died in the same incident.

“She told him in public that bullets had drained his manhood and that she had replaced him with a fresher number (lover). She even assured him the child was not his,” Jacob Nyanzi, who claims to be a brother to the deceased, told Daily Monitor.

This is when hell broke loose. In his testimony, the soldier claims he left the barracks and went home to pick a warm suit. It was upon this unexpected background that he reportedly found his lover coming out of the bedroom with another man.

“I knew they had been having sex because her eyes were teary,” he said, stirring laughter in court. Meanwhile, Bavawala Ali Sazzi, the said go-between and the two women friends sat outside the house. A scuffle is said to have ensued with the four attempting to disarm the soldier and the trigger went off. Indeed, all the 13 witnesses presented by prosecution and the five from defence do not point to Rwakihembo shooting at three women. He admitted though that it was his first time to go home with a gun.

“I don’t know who fired the bullets in that confusion, all I saw were people dead,” he told court. However, to entirely rely on the testimonies of the witnesses presented in court, from either side, would be to miss the story behind the story, especially given the legal machinations in prosecution and defence processes.

When Daily Monitor visited the scene of the crime, eye witness accounts of residents point to the fact that the soldier left his duty station, “with a mission to kill.”

“He shot each of them and there was no man in the bedroom. That is all false! In any case, that man would have been the first to die,” a resident, speaking on condition of anonymity revealed. Indeed, the photographs presented to court by Jinja Road Police Station’s Scene of Crime Officer, Detective Sergeant, John Bosco Munaku, showed only the sensitive organs of the deceased, like the chest and head were shot.

A lawyer speaking on condition of anonymity points to, “a weak state prosecution which failed to punch holes in the defence’s claims of no malice afore thought in the murder. How come all the three were shot in the same spot?”

A man of the people
On day one of the trial, the court room was painted with anxiety and tension. In their hundreds, the public crammed the classroom, scrambling for space and breath with others hanging outside the windows, stretching necks to catch a glimpse of the action.

One of them was a Hajj who asked not to be named. He was anxious and disillusioned with his thoughts noticeably wandering far and wide. Unlike his peers, he was unbothered about the handcuffed soldier’s fate, walking with haggard steps.

The father of four lost property worth Shs5m, thanks to the chaos that erupted on the “Rwakihembo night.” He scampered for his dear life, leaving his phone and phone accessories shop open. He gnashed his teeth as he angrily stared at the soldier in the dock. His facial expression exposed a man contemplating the possibility of compensation for his life’s savings. “The public is on his side, most of them lost nothing. That is why they are supporting him,” he sadly told this reporter.

Yet, like the relatives of the three deceased women, he has to tuck this bitterness in his heart, lest he faces the wrath of the crowd.

As each prosecution witness gave evidence, jeers and animosity from the crowd choked them. Through out the trial, this crowd had to be reminded that to disrupt a witness was contempt of court. Not even the heavy army deployment could deter them at the end of the first day’s session at 5pm from showing their newly found hero support as he was led away to Luzira Prison Upper for remand.

“He deserves a promotion! NRM brought freedom! Take him back to Somalia,” the seemingly rehearsed choruses went, accompanied by money collection for his upkeep amounting to Shs65,000, the Buganda anthem and FDC slogan, “One Uganda, One People”.

Animosity towards witnesses
Day two was not to be any different, though with a glitch of violence as Bavawala Ali Sazzi had to be rescued by security as he walked out of court. His crime was testifying against Rwakihembo. The crowd’s anger emanates from the allegation that he was an architect of the adultery and a conduit in the scam that saw the deceased, Irene Namuyaba heartbreak her lover.

This state of affairs was later to characterise the trial throughout the five days of the prosecution witnesses’ testimonies. Every witness, from a pathologist with Mulago Hospital and police detectives was treated with emotions of hatred and suspicion from the crowd, compelling the chairman to occasionally call for order.

This was in sharp contrast with the five defence witnesses who, just like their lawyer, Martin Muhumuza got applause and standing ovations for every word that tickled the audience and appeared to work in the accused’s favour. Slowly but surely, the excitement faded with the numbers.

The final day
On January 28, the numbers were double in the court room. The mood twice as tense and calls for a “yes and no” vote on the case repeated.

“By bringing the court here, we thought this would be like our suggestion box. They should consult us and go by what we are saying”, argued a resident as he convinced soldiers to plead with Col. Kakama on their behalf.

Jane Namale, 27 the convict’s official wife for nine years who was abandoned in Mubende district when the late girl friend came in the picture, was the crowd’s centre of sympathy as she narrated her ordeal, begging for mercy.

This was after the court, on advice of the Judge Advocate, Capt. David Epalu convicted the accused for three counts of man-slaughter and attempted murder citing, “provocation and no malice afore thought.” The mood now transitioned from tense to pensive, as wild guesses rotated around the possible sentence for manslaughter and attempted murder, since murder charges were quashed.

For three hours, the public braved the heat and hunger, awaiting the seven man panel of the court martial to call them in to hear the sentence.

“The UPDF as an institution has a name and image to protect. We don’t condone such acts like manslaughter,” the Chairman carefully read the sentence, attracting loud, held breaths that suddenly evolved into tears and jeers when their man was stripped off the UPDF uniform and listened to his jail term of 30 years, served concurrently, for each count of man slaughter and five years for attempted murder. Literally, this translates to 95 years in jail. It brought an end to the two months of drama.

Public reaction to the 30-year sentence given to the soldier

Gadson Aine
I have never seen a ruling as insensitive as this one. It is a very bad ruling! Why did they even bring their court martial here if they knew they are not going to release Rwakihembo? Even if it was that Chairman, he would have done what Herbert did. How can you miss bullets and bombs in Somalia and a woman messes up with you like that?

Arthur Bulwada
Rwakihembo did not do anything bad. In these hard times, we men suffer a lot looking for money. Do you know what they go through in Somalia? He trusted the woman, cared for her and she disappointed him. Now what did you expect him to do? Remember the man is a soldier!

Irene Namanda
The court martial has passed a good judgment. That case was well judged. Let him go to Luzira (prison).We all get angry but if we all went around killing those who provoke us, where would the world go? Twakowa, agende (we are fed up, let him go).

James Bakazilwendo
That was a poor judgment. The man’s job is to kill, he lived by the gun and the gun is meant to kill. Why don’t they blame him and other soldiers for killing people in Somalia? A soldier is meant to kill and that’s it. I support him! The government should think about the children and wife he has left behind.

Martin Muhumuza, lawyer
The ruling is not fair. I am ready to lodge an appeal against this harsh sentence. He was convicted for manslaughter, the court acknowledged there was no malice aforethought and that he was provoked, what more did they need to acquit my client? I am not satisfied at all, the court martial has failed the litmus test of the law.

Harriet Nassali, resident
I am very annoyed and disappointed. That sentence (of 30 years) is too harsh for our boy. Did the Court Martial consider the fact that he was suffering in Somalia for that money the girlfriend wasted? That should be a lesson to these silly girls in Luzira who play around with men’s hard earned money.