What you need to know:
Doom and gloom. In this last part of our series, Blood, Guns and Politics in Teso, IVAN OKUDA chronicles the boundless reach of the Teso killing gangs and how they have forced a rights group to close its operations after its officials fled the sub-region amid intensified surveillance and death threats
In functioning states, the spate of killings engulfing Teso sub-region would have elicited panic and urgency for government action. In Uganda it hasn’t even when the state has the constitutional responsibility to safeguard citizens. More people in Teso are instead being killed, including in broad day.
The alleged masterminds are a coterie of powerful senior security officials, politicians and businesspeople some of whom have in the past done or continue to do dirty jobs for state or its political executives. This, victims’ relatives and human rights activists say, has helped insulate masterminds against prosecution and buoyed them to act with impunity and intimidate those pursuing justice.
Our investigations show that meetings involving government or security people precede the killings and then carefully-crafted propaganda is rolled out to frame the eventual victim either as a land-grabber, sex offender or bad debtor --- all calculated to rationalise the extra-judicial executions and derail post-killing investigations.
On November 11, 2014, then Serere District Woman Member of Parliament Alice Alaso raised the matter on the floor of Parliament upon which Speaker Rebecca Kadaga directed the ministry of Internal Affairs to investigate.
“Madam Speaker, the second and very important matter that I want to raise is that for nearly the whole of this year (2014) running, the media in Teso and overall the country have continued to report and document systematic killings. People have been gunned down in Teso almost on a weekly basis,” Ms Alaso said, according to the Hansard (Parliament’s official record).
She added: “The main characteristic of these murders is that they happen during broad day light. Investigations are not conclusive no matter what and the survivors, if any, especially the offspring of those who have died, are further victimised. So I wonder whether the police are able to follow through these suspects. And often times, it is also said that it is the same suspects all over the region.”
There is no evidence that the government undertook the inquiries or that it is closer to closing in on the gangsters, if it ever will.
Internal Affairs Minister Jeje Odong met the Inspector General of Police Kale Kayihura last week to demand update on handling of the Teso murders as Parliament directed, but he was not given a report.
“We discussed this same issue [of killings in Teso]. He (Kayihura) has vowed to give me a report on the matter since these concerns of killings in Teso Sub-region keep coming up. I shall get back to you with the benefit of this report,” Gen Odong said.
When this newspaper began serialising the Teso killings last Friday, Gen Kale instead dispatched then police Spokesman Andrew Kaweesi to rebut the account as “alarmist”, but Kaweesi, his driver and guard were ambushed and brutally killed in a Kampala suburb before he could challenge our accounts of widespread violent crimes in the eastern Sub-region.
Bukedea, Serere, Amuria, Katakwi, Soroti and Kumi districts are the hotbeds of the extra-judicial executions.
Ms Mary Opus, the mother to former Kachumbala county parliamentary aspirant David Omagor was killed by four men in Bukedea who have since been committed to the High Court for trial after a protracted struggle by the family to get the suspects to face justice.
Mr Okello Obura, the regional police Intelligence chief for East Kyoga region, who investigated the murder case amidst what sources close to the probe say was “every attempt by local politicians to kill the case”, was arrested and detained for days at the Railway Police Post in Kampala, and is being tried by the police disciplinary court.
His crime? Accompanying former Internal Affairs minister Rose Akol to meet First Lady Janet Museveni, whom he briefed about the unaccounted-for killings in Teso, without permission of superiors, according to police leadership.
Mr Obura has since been interdicted and awaits his fate.
Some of the suspects in statements to police upon being taken into custody link the eliminations to local politicians who hire them at handsome fee. Ms Opus was reportedly targeted and killed under similar arrangements.
An October 25, 2016 DNA analysis report signed by James Owere Odumbi from the Governmental Analytical Laboratory following a May 17, 2016 request from D/AIP Edward Esebu (ref: Bukedea CRB241/16) from Bukedea police station to examine the exhibits submitted under laboratory reference number FB087/16, confirms a 99.9 percent chance the suspects in custody killed Ms Opus.
The government analysts used samples taken off a pestle the assailants used to hit the elderly lady as well as blood stains on white bed sheets and electricity switch in the house. In spite of the suspects’ confession and incriminating DNA report, forces united against Mr Obura and pressed for his trial. He was accused of colluding with Rose Akol to torture suspects at Nalufenya police detention facility in Jinja District to extract confession.
When contacted by this newspaper, the officer said: “May be there is just intrigue because all the offences [against me] are ridiculous. They say I met the First Lady. Yes, and I went there with then Internal Affairs minister (Rose Akol) who supervises everyone in Uganda Police Force.”
His troubles, by accounts offered by police insiders, mirror the perverse risks for being independent-minded and professional in the Force on cases as sensitive as the killings in Teso fanned by well-connected individuals.
After three weeks of declining to speak to this newspaper, fearing being victimised, Mr Obura later said “it is true there is a problem in Teso; it is largely to do with land disputes and political killings where people take to guns or machetes to settle political differences.”
Days after Parliament debated the bloodletting, the then Lands Minister and Government Chief Whip Daudi Migereko wrote to his Internal Affairs counterpart, stating that:
“Hon Alaso cited two glaring incidents; the first one being that of Dr Emunyeret Samuel Patrick who was hacked to death and two of his children injured on April 22, 2014 and the other is the case of Mr Opolot who died in Police cells in January 2014; and his relatives on following up the matter with Police, have been persecuted and an organisation called Sodann (Soroti Development Association and Network), which allegedly documented the events, has closed shop resulting from repeated harassment by unknown people as Police.”
He asked for a report and none was prepared.
Last week, the spokesman of the prime minister, who is responsible for coordinating activities of all government ministries, bounced inquiries about the status of government investigations to Parliament which authorised it.
“I have no information about it (parliament directive). Speak to the MPs that raised the matter on the manner in which they were to receive an update on government action,” said spokesman Julius Mucunguzi.
Machete-wielding attackers on April 22, 2014 pounced on Dr Emunyeret, 46, in the morning hours as he and family worked in their garden in Kachede village, Malera Sub-county in Bukedea District. His sister Stella Oluka, who was injured in the attack, died two days later. The fingers of one of the doctor’s two children were severed in the attack, although both survived.
The bloodshed was blamed on land conflict the way the death of Ms Opus was disguised.
Security officers, members of victims’ families and the rights organisation, Sodann, however, say land wrange is invoked as ruse to cover up murders whose motivation likely is political or plain criminal.
Various communities in Teso Sub-region occasionally row over borders because the individual or communal land is not surveyed and the boundaries not well delineated or clarified with mark stones as is the case in most rural Uganda.
In an earlier interview with this newspaper, Lands minister Betty Amongi estimated that 70 per cent of both criminal and civil cases in the northern Uganda are attributable to land conflicts. The northern and eastern parts of the country share similar history of political instability, extreme poverty and gun violence.
“The problem is that politicians and businessmen have now taken advantage of this to kill people. They come from nowhere and say you are occupying government land and we want to develop this into Sub-county headquarters; so, leave. If you put up resistance you are killed,” Mr Moses Omiat, the chief executive of Soroti Development and NGOS Network (Sodann), says.
He is facing a similar conundrum.
In the course of this investigation, for example, residents of Kidetok parish in Pingire Sub-county in Serere district had petitioned the Local Government minister, citing a ploy by officials from the local government to grab their land.
“We as residents are not aware of how Kidetok Town Council came into existence and steps which were used to form it. On top of that, Pingire Sub-county Council should have made a resolution to the district council of Serere following the request of the residents. This Town Council is imposed on our customary land so as to grab it from the peasants and the LC V chairman is behind it,” they noted in their November 15, 2016 letter.
One man whose family has stayed on the land for the last 65 years said “it is just that I am poor. Otherwise, I want to buy fifty pangas so [that] my clan can chop into pieces any government person who comes here to grab our ancestral land.” That, however, would be a crime for which the man could face prosecution and tougher penalty.
His vow highlights more the frustration than intent when the vulnerable collide with the powerful in an uneven and lawless society where the poor or less-connected individuals are killed as a game.
During the course of this investigation, this reporter stumbled on information of a young man in his 20s killed in Serere District and his body dumped next to an old man’s kraal. The old man was later pushed to admit the young man was a cattle thief, but he declined.
The elderly man was later jailed for unclear reasons and his family rounded up in a night operation by police officers who claimed they had guns. The young man, it emerged, was a child to a family strongly opposed to what the community here alleges is systematic land grabbing by politicians.
In one chilling narration, a state spy who spoke on condition of anonymity in order not to conflict with his superiors, narrated how she sat in a meeting in one of the districts (names withheld to protect our source) chaired by a Resident District Commissioner with the Gombolola (Sub-county) internal security officer, Local Council five chairperson, a politician with their spouse as well as senior police and army officers.
A plot was reportedly hatched in that meeting that took place before the February 2016 general election to kill former Serere woman MP Alice Alaso. The officer on leaving the meeting tipped Ms Alaso’s sister to make a life-saving call. The former Forum for Democratic Change secretary-general was being trailed on her way from another district. Two soldiers were reportedly picked from Soroti Flying School and stationed at a thicket between 8:40-9pm with instructions to snuff Ms Alaso out on entry to Serere District.
“When the mission aborted the officers were called to the office of the RDC at midnight and given civilian wear and told to return to Soroti with their army uniform in the bags,” the source told this newspaper. Asked how these officers are handled after such missions, she explained, that “since these people have their connections such officers somehow are transferred to Somalia or to distant districts like Kasese [in western Uganda] after using them.”
There is also a telephone recording in the Ateso language said to capture the politician who attended the meeting that hatched the plot to kill Ms Alaso in which they are heard telling a mobiliser to brace for “violence during elections.”
In his judgment quashing the election of the new Serere Women MP, before the Court of Appeal reversed the decision last month, High Court judge Justice David Wangutusi accepted evidence laid by Alaso’s legal team of the army’s meddling with the election and violence unleashed on her supporters.
Given the intricate link between businesspeople, politicians and gun related crime in the region, senior police officer Obura told this newspaper that: “Investigations get complicated. My appeal is that police should be allowed to do its job, to investigate cases to the best of [its] ability with utmost independence. When politicians interfere they make our work difficult.”
One District Police Commander who was transferred to northern Uganda told this newspaper on condition of anonymity that he had been relocated because he refused to “budge to the interests of those Teso mafias. You don’t do as they say they mess you up, they set you up as they did with Mr Okello Obura”.
The reach of the masterminds touches NGOs and human rights groups. One such organisation is Soroti Development Association & NGOs Network, better known by the acronym Sodann, whose officials played frontline roles in documenting, exposing the killings and assisting affected families to pursue justice. They also helped put faces to masterminds.
Its offices on Plot 23, Harridas Road, Northern Division, in Soroti town is now deserted following a string of attacks with police hardly taking action since 2014.
On October 20, 2015, Sodann chief executive Omiat wrote to police chief Kale Kayihura, stating that: “At all times whenever we were threatened, attacked or had break-ins [into our offices], we reported the incidences to Soroti Central Police Station. I also made follow ups to ensure that our complaints are addressed and that if there is any information that the officers required, we would provide. The worst situation was on May 7, 2014 at around 2pm when two armed men entered the office and put one of our colleagues, Phillip Echodu, at gun point while demanding for me and my other colleague Ms Monica. Phillip did not reveal our whereabouts even when he knew that we were about 300 metres away from the office, having a meeting.”
In the letter, he adds, “From then, we were advised to get away from Soroti as the situation continued to be delicate and unpredictable. We continued to be trailed on phone by unknown people. When the situation became unbearable, some of our leaders raised the matter in Parliament on November 11, 2014. The Minister of Internal Affairs was directed by the Rt. Hon.
Speaker [of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga] to ensure our security, but this has not been possible as we continue to be threatened.”
Since November 2013, the NGO has lost office equipment and key documents to burglars. One such intrusion happened on August 1, 2015 and the break-in was reported to police under case file CRB1649/2015. Another similar incident occurred and police were notified on October 17, 2015.
On August 30, 2015, Mr Omiat informed Mr Kayihura that “we were surprised to read from the Sunday Vision newspaper an article on page 35 in which it was alleged that some police officers confessed that they were the ones who had broken into our office.”
For a number of victims interviewed, human rights activists like Mr Omiat who have since relocated to Kampala from where he operates a virtual office, are their last resort.
The organisation’s reports and assistance to, through legal aid, for victims to access