It is sometime in late 1975. Idi Amin has decreed into being the Economic Crimes Tribunal to prosecute those accused of sabotaging the economy. In reality, the economy is imploding on the regime’s own economic incompetence; the tribunals, manned by semi-illiterate soldiers and a sprinkling, here and there, of judicial officers, are mostly chasing after smugglers and black market participants.
A tribunal is in session in Masaka. A suspect is dragged in, haggard and dishevelled from what is, no doubt, a brutal encounter with his arrestors and captors. A charge of smuggling is read out. Before he can even take plea, one of the soldiers, barely awake from his nightlong communion with alcoholic beverages, points a fat finger in the man’s direction. “Look at his eyes,” the soldier spits out in Kiswahili, a pot of contradictions addressing itself to a kettle of emotions. “This one is guilty. Life imprisonment!”
There are quiet murmurs in the back. All eyes, including those of the suspect-just-turned-convict, turn to the magistrate sitting in the middle of the bench, flanked by soldiers in uniform. The magistrate looks away from the man and scribbles something on a notepad. He thinks of his young children.
“You are sentenced to life imprisonment,” he says slowly, sending a man, whose only crime was to try and put food on his table, to prison, so that he and his own family do not have to suffer a worse fate.
Fast-forward to November 2005. Two lawyers are representing a high-profile client in the General Court Martial on treason charges. One of the lawyers stands up to make representations. The presiding officer, a high-ranking military man, orders him to sit down and keep quiet. The second lawyer tries to intervene on his behalf. He is also told to zip it and both are sent to the dock, next to their client.
“We are robbed and you want us to go to the dock?” one of the lawyers protests, but he is cut off by a tirade from the military man who points out that he has the power to try anyone, including thieves and robbers, as well as their relatives, friends and in-laws, whatever the case might be.
The lawyer briefly considers pointing out that “robbed” was in reference to his courtroom attire and his role in the court as a representative of his client. He thinks of his young children. He zips it. The two lawyers are detained for several hours, convicted of contempt of court, and sentenced to a small fine, which they pay.
I do not know why, but every time I think of the United States’ sanctions against former police chief, Gen Kale Kayihura, these two stories play back in my mind, on repeat. Is it, like King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, one of those that you must first know before you interpret? Or is it a mere chronological tale of our long-running struggle to contain military might within the threadbare robes of the rule of law? I know not the things I see, but I know and fully understand those I’ve already seen.
Ugandans do not need to be reminded about Gen Kayihura’s deeds, whether good or evil. Many men in military uniform, right from Idi Amin, have cast large shadows over public life in this country.
Most were known – scratch that – feared for their brutality and the ingenuity of their evil: Forcing people to chew and swallow bathroom slippers; cutting off noses and lips; cracking skulls with small hoes, and so on and so forth. There are very few methods of causing pain that haven’t been considered or applied in these parts.
But like the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, few men have towered so prominently and held as much power as Gen Kayihura. And, truth be told, he wasn’t half as bad as some of the other brutes in fatigues. But even with fists of iron, every one of them had feet of clay and was eventually toppled and broken into pieces.
Some will argue that it is not right to kick a man when he is down, even in these days of ‘an eye for an eye’. Others will add that it is not right to kick a man even if he is standing, to extract a confession, or because you disagree with him politically. They are all right, of course.
It is possible that when the history is finally written, it will be more nuanced about these times. And that, beyond merely painting Gen Kayihura with the broad-brush of his alleged crimes and infractions, history will also see in his actions and inactions a man who knew the law and who also knew what he was doing.
They say to whom much is given, much will be required. Now let us pray.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter.