On September 12, 2015 the nation woke up to the news of Gen Aronda Nyakairima’s death. The demise of a seemingly healthy man is always a puzzle; and this was a man whose appointment as minister of Internal Affairs on May 23, 2013, after serving as UPDF Chief of Defence Forces for 10 years, caused hiccups.
His appointment was immediately contested since he was a serving officer, a violation of Article 208 (2) of the Constitution and Clause 99 of the UPDF Act.
Members of the Parliamentary Appointments Committee insisted that he resigns before they approved his appointment. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), who fall under the Internal Affairs docket, also expressed their disapproval.
Winifred Ngabiirwe, executive director, Global Rights Alert, remembers the controversy.
“His appointment was an illegality and NGOs did not welcome it. We had never known him to be involved in social development, yet that is where our work falls. Coming from the army, he was used to giving orders, and we wondered how we would dialogue with him.”
Nevertheless, in July 2013, the Appointments Committee approved Gen Aronda with Opposition MPs led by Nathan Nandala Mafabi (Budadiri West) staging a walkout.
At Internal Affairs, Gen Aronda also faced resistance, as Pamela Ankunda, the former spokesperson of the National Security Information System (NSIS) recalls.
“He put military guards at the gate and people were saying this man wants to change everything. He did not listen to them; saying he would not involve politics in his work. He saw the gap in the Immigration Department and decided to recruit more staff. He was fought on every level but still he won. Those he recruited are now working,” she says.
National Identity Card project
The tender for the cards had been controversially awarded to Mulbauer Technology Company Ltd, leading to a huge financial loss to taxpayers.
“Keith Muhakanizi had told the President that no more money would be sunk into the project until a competent person was got,” Ankunda says, adding, “When the General came, he hit the ground running, working from Monday to Monday. The Board resisted his work methods, complaining that he was calling them for meetings on Saturdays,” Ankunda says.
In response, Gen Aronda brought every government agency on board. “Frankly, we in the project enjoyed working day and night. When he travelled, time zones did not matter; he would call any time and that kept us on our tiptoes. He instilled a sense of duty in us,” she says.
In October 2013, Gen Aronda named Col Stephen Kwiringira head of NSIS. MPs rejected the appointment but the General also won that battle. By March 2015, he had terminated the contracts of the overworked technical personnel of the NSIS without payment of their gratuity or social security.
“There were many issues surrounding the project but those cards were produced and distributed in time,” Ankunda says, adding, “I hope NIRA can work as hard as Gen Aronda did because IDs lie at the heart of Uganda’s security.”
Non-Governmental Organisations Registration (Amendment) Bill 2013
In April 2014, Gen Aronda drafted a Bill to bar NGOs from engaging in politics and expand government powers to monitor their operations.
“We had requested him to come up with legislation that encompassed everything NGOs do,” Ngabiirwe says, adding, “There was need to harmonise the relationship between government and NGOs. We had quarterly meetings with him and expressed our concerns.”
When the Bill came out, Gen Aronda said it would stop subversive methods of work of some NGOs which were involved in de-campaigning government programmes and actively recruiting youth to join opposition parties contrary to the objectives for which they were registered.
“We were shocked at the first draft. It did not reflect the discussions we had with him. The Bill would disarm NGOs. The phrasing was totally off.”
In the Bill, the NGO Board had powers to revoke permits of NGOs if it was, in the opinion of the Board, in public interest to do so.
“In Uganda’s history, organised groups have played a role in advancing good causes; they helped this government come to power. Now CSOs are working hard to use the same groups to promote human rights, accountability and drive development. This threatens a leadership that is really not democratic,” Ngabiirwe says. After the uproar, the processes became more open. Gen Aronda invited the NGOs for a better interpretation of the contentious clauses.
“He was open to consultation and we had a good working relationship with him,” she adds.
On November 26, 2015 Parliament passed the Non-Governmental Organisations Act 2016. Section 44 bars NGOs from doing anything that would be deemed prejudicial to the ‘security of Uganda,’ and the ‘interests of Uganda and the dignity of Ugandans.’
“The changes we advocated were incorporated, except for a few ambiguities. How they work on the regulations will prove whether Gen Aronda changed anything at the NGO Board or not. I hope they continue the level engagement he began,” Ngabiirwe says.
Passing of the Anti-terrorism Amendment Bill
On April 30, 2015, Gen Aronda tabled the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Bill 2015, seeking tougher measures against acts of terrorism. MPs were recalled from recess to debate this Bill.
Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda (Kira MP) a member of the Committee on Defence and Internal Affairs at the time says the Bill was camouflaged.
“They said we had not defined terrorism according to the UN definitions so Uganda faced an embargo on international financial transactions. However, they fixed other things into the Bill that were meant to take away civil liberties. We rejected it,” he says.
On the night of June 19, 2015, despite spirited protests from the Opposition over lack of the required quorum, the Bill was passed into law. The Opposition walked out. Two provisions rattled them: the damage to property prejudicial to public security, and the powers granted to the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to investigate and prosecute suspects.
“Parliament works like a mob, so our concerns were never addressed,” Ssemujju says.
The Opposition believed the Bill was targeting their financing. It was passed in spite of a Constitutional Court petition by Ladislaus Rwakafuzi, a human rights lawyer, challenging the constitutionality of The Anti-Terror Act 2002.
“We dealt with Gen. Aronda on many Bills,” Ssemujju says, continuing, “He was a very hardworking man who was uncomfortable heading an institution that brutalised people. But did he have a choice?”
On December 24, 2015, Internal Affairs Minister Rose Akol Okullo tabled before Parliament the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) (No.2) Bill 2015.
Electoral reforms campaign
When Gen. Aronda was appointed, CSOs and the Opposition were involved in a campaign for free and fair elections. Later, some pushed for a joint Opposition presidential candidate.
Patrick Tumwine, advocacy, research and information officer, Human Rights Network Uganda (HURINET) says Gen. Aronda’s militaristic approach was at first difficult. “He made a statement about dealing with errant NGOs and we did not want him.”
Surprisingly, instead of sanctioning police attacks on the campaigners, Gen Aronda reined them in.
“There were a lot of arrests and Gen Aronda firmly told the police not to brutalise or stop the reform movement. He handled the police with an iron hand. In a very short time, he had a series of meetings with us and was honest about how he felt about the situation.”
According to Tumwine, Gen Aronda never took disagreement with the CSOs personally. “He just told us not to be negative all the time. He died at a bad time. We were going for general elections and the police was assaulting people. You would hear people saying, ‘If Aronda was around, this would not be happening.’ Maybe, things would be better now if he had not died so soon.”
However, Ssemujju does not agree with Tumwine.
“We were brutalised on specific orders. It did not matter who headed the institution; when the order came it was carried out. When (Lt. Gen Ivan) Koreta was in charge of ISO he told the security to be civil with us. Wasn’t he sacked and sent off to be a diplomat?”
Army officer with a civil outlook
Today, Patrick Tumwine and Winifred Ngabiirwe agree that the CSOs and NGOs judged Gen Aronda wrongly.
“He turned out to be better than we had hoped,” Ngabiirwe says, continuing, “He personally travelled to Hoima and stopped security agencies from harassing us in the Albertine region, at a time when oil was taken as national security.”
Tumwine says the soldier understood that CSOs and NGOs are instrumental to development. “We misread him. He was someone we could do business with. He was a call away; returning missed calls and asking how he could work better with us.”
Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda says the general was a man committed to his work. “We would invite him to appear before the Committee and he would be the first in the room and the last to leave, long after the MPs had left. Ministers do not respect MPs but he was different. He actually listened to us.”
He adds that as a journalist, the first time he met Gen Aronda, he was a difficult man. “He was an intelligence officer in (Presidential Protection Unit) PPU. He was very tribalistic. The older Aronda in the ministry was more refined; a better version.”
Pamella Ankunda says the General had Uganda at heart. “When he travelled to an area he would meet with the leaders to ask about the roads, health facilities, and the availability of water. He said that was the best way of working for the country. He wanted things to be better than they were.”
He was an avid reader who was irked by the long passport lines. He even spoke of introducing e-passports by 2017.
“He studied how different countries used e-passports. His favourite saying was we needed to “securitise” everything and that passports would take care of that.” Well, today, those long lines still exist.