Hitmen invade Teso, kill and torture with impunity
What you need to know:
- Investigation. In this first instalment of our new investigative series, Blood, Guns and Politics in Teso, we detail the heart-wrenching tales of raging extra-judicial killings and impunity in the sub-region. Twenty-eight months after Parliament debated the executions and directed the Internal Affairs ministry to investigate the macabre deaths, more executions, including day-time shootings have occurred. Victims’ relatives and rights activists pursuing justice have had to flee for their safety, reports IVAN OKUDA.
Komuge village in the eastern Bukedea District is on first sight an improbable attraction, whether for tourism or news.
Unlike Rwakitura of President Museveni’s country home or the Rwakabengo backyard of Opposition politician Kizza Besigye, Komuge is a hamlet in the far-flung greater Kumi where most struggling Ugandans eke a living by plowing fields with hand hoes.
Yet in its remoteness, Komuge buries the ignoble secrets of a village consumed by the toxic tales of extra-judicial killings, lawlessness and impunity stringed to political and military heavyweights powerful enough to cover their tracks or frustrate prosecution even of incarcerated suspects.
Human rights activists that raise an alarm are targeted, forcing some to flee the locale, while police officers investigating the cases find themselves momentarily transferred or prosecuted for alleged command lapses whenever they close in on those implicated.
The bludgeoning to death of 74-year-old Mary Opus on March 11, 2016 headlines the horror in the opening chapter of the indiscriminate killings that spans the last couple of years.
Opus had been unwell and was recuperating from a malaria attack. In Kachumbala, she lived with gardener-cum-house help James Ongodia as her adult children chased their dreams through exploits in and out of the city.
On that fateful day, she screamed in a croaky, terrifying voice around 11pm and followed it with telephone calls to her sons Lawrence Akoda and David Omagor to alert them of a potential intrusion at her place of abode.
It turned out the interlopers were neither thieves nor relatives on an unannounced visit. As the elderly Opus sat on her bed, reciting the rosary in the dark and praying for safety, the prowlers returned with a bang, smashing into her bedroom menacingly.
One man hit her jaw with a pestle, closer to the neck. The impact knocked Opus off her bed, and she fell on the floor unconscious.
The attackers hit her multiple times on the head with a gun butt. Blood oozed and splattered inside the house. And then the pestle was pushed inside her private parts in an orgy-like enactment of what British author William Golding called the “darkness of man’s heart” in his novel, Lord of the Flies.
They left her lifeless. This was all but the beginning of a murder mystery that has got politicians from Teso Sub-region speaking in hushed tones and pointing fingers at one another. And yet, for those in the know, “it is one of the many murders that go on [unreported] in Bukedea.”
So, who would kill such an elderly lady and why? Our investigations show that both the President and First Lady have been informed and have taken personal interest in the matter.
Opus was mother to Mr David Omagor, 52, an accountant in Kampala who offered himself for the office of Member of Parliament for Kachumbala County in Bukedea District but lost the NRM primaries to Mr Patrick Isiagi Opolot.
Mr Omagor stood as an independent but was defeated. At that time, like in other parts of the country where elective politics has been reduced to a do-or-die affair, the air in Bukedea reeked of intrigue, tension and war drums. Families threatened to wipe off one another.
Some senior military officers from Teso were named as god-fathers of some candidates and they allegedly deployed state machinery to tilt the results in favour of their political protégés. But Bukedea, again, like any other district in Uganda, is a society where land conflicts stir untold anarchy. And it is possible to use land ownership row as a ruse to explain away killings motivated by different reasons.
Whatever the reason, Opus’s killings has raised more questions and exposed a scheme that suffocates the functioning of the law in this part of the country. Daily Monitor has seen various documents linking the murder to the political contestation in the area, including statements recorded by suspects held at high-security Nalufenya detention facility, in Jinja District, confessing to the murder. They, according to the official correspondences, admitted including in the charge-and-caution statement that they were hired hitmen.
A document titled “Murder in Kachumbala” which the family of the deceased has circulated to human rights groups, including the Uganda Human Rights Commission, reads in part: “On the night of March 12, 2016, murderers entered the home of Omagor and hid in the shamba boy’s house. He hid them as he was promised Shs13m for his cooperation. The plot was to kill Omagor and his mother. He didn’t stay home that day.”
We could not independently verify this claim.
However, events preceding the death of Opus were telling.
Mr Johnson Okaali, a driver formerly with Teso coach; Julius Mukula, a Sub-county councillor representing Kongunga Parish; Victor Okaali, a farmer from Komuge village; one Tom Malinga; and, shamba boy James Ongodia, held over the elderly lady’s death at Nalufenya detention facility reportedly confessed their culpability in Opus’s killing in their police statements.
How did police zero down on the gang of six?
On the day the old woman was laid to rest, some mourners among the hundreds speculated on the cause of death ranging from politics, robbery to land conflicts gone bad.
Several glances were thrown at Ongodia, the middle-aged casual labourer she stayed with. He cut the poise of a man at ease with himself. A man who witnessed a murder most gruesome would, in the minds of the mourners, be shaken or at least be overcome with grief. Ongodia was not. Villagers found that bizarre.
And they alerted police that whisked Ongodia off to Kachumbala Police Post.
It is at this point that the cracks started to develop in the murder tale and how a death in a small village crept its way to the high echelons of power, in this case State House, as investigators unravelled more leads.
A local politician (name withheld for legal reasons) and the officer in-charge of Criminal Investigations attempted to secure the suspect’s release. Ongodia was now a highly prized person whose word would make or break the case.
He played the silence card until he was transferred to Soroti Central Police Station and grilled by senior detectives where his revelations led to the arrest of five other suspects. Mr Lawrence Akoda, 42, son and heir apparent of the deceased, was called by the police to help identify the persons Ongodia had named.
One was picked from a local drinking joint, another on his way home in the evening and others found seated outside their huts. These were men known in the village. Their incarceration puzzled and terrified their colleague villagers.
In police statements seen by this newspaper, the suspects revealed how the murder plot was hatched in the office of an MP from Teso. They would later meet in the MP’s office with another MP in attendance. They told detectives that they were pre-paid Shs4.5 million with a promise of the balance being delivered after the mission.
In a confession statement, 56-year-old Victor Okaali told detective Robertson Elungat that “the killing is politically motivated” and names two MPs alongside a former district chairman as the masterminds. The statements reveal graphic details of the murder including how, after Opus’s death, the shamba boy was locked in a hut and it was set ablaze, “to disguise that he killed the old woman and attempted to commit suicide”.
Neighbours later broke the door and saved Ongodia.
Days after the killing, the political trio met the ‘gang of five’ excluding the shamba boy. The devil is in the detail of that meeting.
“In the meeting room was Julius Mukula, Tom Malinga, Victor Okaali, Mr Tukei, Anita Among (Bukedea Woman MP) and Opolot Isiagi (Kachumbala MP) was the last to join. “Anita chaired (the meeting); Julius started blaming us for coming late but told us what had been discussed and what Anita had promised him... Anita and Isiagi went aside and that was the end of the meeting,” according to a translation of the suspect’s confession statement, originally recorded in Ateso language.
Contacted for a comment, Mr Isiagi Opolot told our reporter on Wednesday, March 15, that: “I cannot comment on that case since it is now before court.” Attempts to get a comment from Ms Among, including visits to her office at Parliament, and several text messages and telephone calls to her known telephone number were not received or replied.
In his statement, Mr Okaali disputes that the meeting took place. He, however, rejects assertions that the killing was over a land conflict.
A cousin to Mr Omagor, Mr Okaali attributes his involvement in Opus killing to the work of the devil and asks to be forgiven.
He had attended the deceased’s burial and moved on with his life by the time he was arrested a month later.
When this newspaper contacted Mr Peter Lawrence Adeng, a Local Council I chairman and neighbour to the deceased, he too ruled out land conflict as the cause of Opus death.
Politics takes centre stage
Mr Okello Obura, a senior police officer, had been instrumental in the investigations when his junior officers were accused of being compromised.
He was later interdicted by Gen Kale Kayihura, the Inspector General of Police, on accusation of misconduct after he without permission met First Lady Janet Museveni with Ms Rose Akol, the former Internal Affairs minister and the immediate former Bukedea Woman MP. Afterward, Mr Obura was subjected to trial before a five-member police disciplinary court that by end of the year had acquitted him of three of the five charges. Mr Moses Balimwoyo, police’s director for human resource and administration, wrote to Mr Obura through the East Kyoga Regional Police Commander, on August 29, 2016 accusing him of “interference with investigations into a case of alleged misconduct vide PSU/GEF/233/2016.”
Mr Obura had been briefly detained at the Uganda Railways Police Post in Kampala and upon release, according to sources in police, now “lives the life of a man on the run.”
Ex-minister Akol had reportedly tried, rather unsuccessfully, to meet President Museveni to explain her side of the story over Opus killing.
A ring of security officers and power brokers hailing from Teso Sub-region close to the President’s ears blocked the former Internal Affairs minister until she found her way to the First Lady to whom she first presented her personal issues before raising the matter and reportedly exonerating herself over the spate of killings in the eastern sub-region.
It is to this State House Entebbe meeting that she tapped Mr Obura along, upsetting the police hierarchy.
Sources familiar with the proceedings of the meetings intimated to this newspaper that Ms Museveni during the two-hour meeting listened calmly and almost broke down at one point as she was taken through the details of gruesome acts that have turned Teso into killing fields.
She promised to arrange a meeting between the pair and the President, which was fixed six days later before a deferral.
Mr Museveni on July 1, 2016 met elders from Teso sub-region, including former minister Akol, at Entebbe State House to discuss the sub-region’s development issues together with the unexplained killings.
To the shock of the delegation, the President had more facts than his guests.
“I know about the murder of Mary Opus and I have heard about the Kaali Kaalis,” a source that attended the meeting quoted the president as having said at the opening of the meeting in apparent reference to the suspect.
He was informed that the right name was Okaali, not Kaali. The President had been told the killing was linked to a land conflict. It is then that Mr Omagor cleared his throat and presented a version disputing that account.
In defence, Mr Museveni reportedly named Bukedea Woman MP Among as the source of his initial information and, pointing at Ms Akol, who he said he had been told was using her office “to arrest her (Among’s) supporters after she defeated you (Akol) in the election”.
At the end of the meeting, Mr Museveni stood up, looked Omagor in the eye and reportedly said, rather calmly, “David, relax. Don’t do anything. I shall handle this matter myself”.
The President, like the people of Kachumbala, continues to look to the state institutions for an answer but as he reportedly stated at the State House meeting, “murders like these which are politically motivated help us check the security apparatus. They show us where the gaps are and we don’t take them for granted. We can’t have people killed because of politics in Uganda”.
He, according to sources, said he had tamed errant soldiers while in the bush and would end the bloodletting.
Ms Jane Kajuga Okuo, the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) spokesperson, told this newspaper on Tuesday, this week, that: “The suspects in that murder were committed to the High Court for trial, they applied for bail, we objected and the court denied them the same so we await the trial.”
Asked why the politicians mentioned in the police statements as having paid the alleged killers a “thank you for the job” were excluded from the case, she said: “I would have to ask the official from our office who read that file to ascertain why they weren’t included.”
“But ordinarily, said Ms Kajuga, “a confession linking someone to the murder is not the only basis to charge that person as we have to corroborate it.”
The grieving family is clutching to the DPP for their last hope for justice. For now, the sight of a mound of soil with overgrown shrubs at whose edge rests a wooden sign of the cross, reminds them of the remains of their brutally-killed mother decaying underground.
March 18, 2007. Joseph Okwi, 45, of Kalou village, Malera Sub-county was shot while bathing.
July 2008. Stephen Odeker of Akutot Parish in Malera sub-county was shot while bathing.
May 18, 2007. Francis Omuya of Kalou village, Malera Sub-county was shot in the stomach but survived.
2012. Emusut of Ongatuny, Kachumbala in Malera Sub-county was shot and died instantly.
May or June 2014. Simon Okello of Aerere village in Kolir Sub-county was abducted and has not been seen since.
April 22 2014. Dr Samuel Patrick Emunyeret and Stella Oluka Adeke of Kachede village in Malera Sub-county were killed by four men with pangas. Atai and Ivan were also cut and seriously injured but survived.
March 3 2015. Moses Okello, 35, of Kalaki Township in Kalaki Sub-county in Kaberamaido District was tortured to death by security personnel. The postmortem report revealed that the deceased died of haemorrhagic shock following laceration of the liver from trauma.
“Murders like these which are politically motivated help us check the security apparatus. They show us where the gaps are and we don’t take them for granted.”
President Yoweri Museveni
“I cannot comment on that case since it is now before court.”
Mr Isiagi Opolot
In the second instalment tomorrow, read about how police killed a man and tortured his relatives after failing to find a suspected illegal gun in their possession.