2020 protests and the changing face of Uganda-West relations

UPDF soldiers put out a fire on the streets of Kampala during the November 2020 protests following the arrest of NUP presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi. PHOTOS/ FILE

What you need to know:

Fallout. In the 36 years NRM has been in power, it has been littered with human rights violations, yet Western governments didn’t push the government to fully account for or prosecute the commanders or the soldiers who committed the acts. But the killings of November 2020 have led to a slightly tougher response from the West. 

For two days in November, Mr Kiryowa Kiwanuka, the Attorney General, had the unenviable job of defending the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government record on torture before the United Nations Committee against Torture in the Swiss city of Geneva.
Facing questioning from members of the committee, Kiwanuka, who has for a long time been President Museveni’s personal lawyer, put on a brave face and assured whoever wanted to listen that the NRM government is as transparent as they come when it comes to torture.

Torture: We have learnt nothing from history
“The Government of Uganda doesn’t run any safe houses or ungazetted detention areas. It doesn’t, and when we come back tomorrow, we shall share with you a report from Parliament where they went around all these places, which alleged to be safe houses and they found none. If that happens, then that person is acting on a frolic of their own, and it is not a position of the Government of Uganda,” Kiwanuka said.

While the UN committee that Kiwanuka faced restricted itself to torture allegations, on November 18 was time to remember the Ugandans that were killed by armed personnel during protests that were triggered by the arrest of Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, alias Bobi Wine, who was on the presidential campaign trail in the eastern district of Luuka in 2020.

Police arrest an NUP supporter outside Nalufenya Police Station in Jinja where their former presidential candidate was being held in November 2020. PHOTO/ ABUBAKER LUBOWA

The West remembers victims
Though the West normally doesn’t come out to publicly comment on controversial issues, this time they didn’t back down. 
The US Embassy in Uganda led the way when, through its Twitter handle, said: “We remember the over 50+ people killed by security forces two years ago today.” 
Ugandans, the US embassy said, deserve a full accounting, asking government to bring those responsible to justice. 
“Human Rights Act and Constitution must be adhered the rights of citizens protected,” the Americans said, calling for the prosecution of those who killed Ugandans by citing Section 10 of the Uganda Human Rights Act, 2019, which stipulates that: “A public officer who… violates or participates in the violation of a person’s rights or freedoms shall be held personally liable for the violation notwithstanding the State being vicariously liable for his or her activity.”
“Ugandans’ rights are enshrined in law. We reiterate our call for accountability for those responsible for human rights violations. Accountability is key to building trust between government and its citizens, and to Uganda’s future,” the Americans said. 
 READ: Protestors breach Uganda’s rights record defence at UN

Torture: UN tightens noose on Uganda government
The European Union (EU), which is Uganda’s biggest donor, followed suit in reminding the government that, “On November 18-19, 2020, many innocent Ugandans lost their lives in a violent reaction to political demonstrations. Two years on from these tragic events, European Union in Uganda and member states continue to call for justice, rightful compensation, and for all perpetrators to be held to account.” 
Uganda’s colonial master the UK wasn’t to be left in remembering the killings and asking for accountability. 
“Today we remember those who were tragically killed in Uganda on November 18 and 19, 2020. We continue to ask the Government of Uganda to fully and transparently investigate what happened and bring all of those responsible to account,” the British High Commission tweeted.  

Rights violations over the years
In the 36 years the National Resistance Movement (NRM) has been in power, it has been littered with human rights violations. 
The first of its kind was what came to be known as the Mukura massacre – when more than 69 men died of suffocation and hunger at Okungulo Railway Station in Mukura, Ngora District, after National Resistance Army (NRA) soldiers packed them into train wagons for about three days without food or water.
The claim by government was that these were either rebels or collaborators of a rebel outfit known as Uganda People’s Army (UPA) which had bases in Teso Sub-region as it was trying to start a guerrilla movement to oust NRM that had just shot its way to power in 1986.
Other bodies, upon doing their own investigations, came up with radically different conclusions.

“They were suspected of being rebel collaborators against the NRA regime, but there is little evidence to suggest that most of them were anything other than innocent civilians. Trapped in the crowded train wagon, trying not to trample on one another, the men struggled to breathe, and by the time they were released… 69 of them had suffocated to death, while 47 of them survived,” a non-governmental organisation called the Justice and Reconciliation Project concluded in its report.
Fifteen years after the massacre, as he was traversing the Teso sub-region during the 2001 presidential campaigns, Museveni who was facing a stern challenge from his former physician Dr Kizza Besigye apologised for the killings.
“I have come to say sorry for the people who died here due to bad politics. There was confusion here. It was difficult to distinguish a friend from an enemy. People were locked in a wagon because there was no prison and they died of suffocation,” he said.

President Museveni.

Desire to win votes, but not honesty admission of guilt
Though in its report the Justice and Reconciliation Project gave the NRM government credit for reacting to the massacre by putting in place accountability, healing and reconciliation measures for the families of the victims and the survivors from the train wagon, it said its reaction was determined by the desire to win votes, but not honesty admission of guilt.
“A central finding of this report is that most of these initiatives to provide reparation—though likely well-intentioned—were implemented in an untimely manner, with little involvement and consultation of the victims and in times of increased political incentive for the government. As such, the people do not attach much significance and ownership to structures such as the mass grave and Mukura Memorial Senior Secondary School,” the organisation said. 


“The report concludes with lessons learned and recommendations aimed at improving the implementation of future post-conflict transitional justice initiatives which the government may undertake in other parts of the country, such as northern Uganda which has recently emerged from conflict.”  
Still, the Western governments didn’t push the NRM government to fully account for or prosecute the commanders or the soldiers who committed the act. Yet in 2009, Uganda was to witness another mass killing of people by security operatives when people in the Buganda region took the streets to protest against government’s decision to block the Kabaka from traveling to Bugerere County, commonly known as Kayunga, to preside over the national youth day.  
Clashes that went on for days ensured that more than 40 people were killed as the military was called in to reassert order, but no accountability was ever given. 

Done little
“The Ugandan government has done little to investigate or hold security forces responsible in the year since at least 40 people were killed during two days of civil unrest in Kampala,” Human Rights Watch said in 2010. “Despite multiple promises from government officials after the September 2009 riots, police investigations have not resulted in prosecutions, and a parliamentary committee tasked with examining the incident has yet to call a single witness.” 

The Ugandan authorities, said Rona Peligal, then Africa director at Human Rights Watch, should prosecute members of the security forces who used unnecessary lethal force during the September 2009 violence, adding that the government’s indifference to the families of those who lost their lives is cruel and sets the stage for future abuses.
Museveni’s government ignored any of that talk but soon it was engulfed in another crisis in form of protest that were dubbed walk-to-work when the political Opposition under the auspices of Activists for Change (A4C) called on the public to walk to work to protest escalating food and fuel prices in the wake of the 2011 elections.

Government response was to pour the military and police onto the streets and crushed the protesters, insisting that what they were doing constituted unlawful assembly, in the process killing more than 10 people, including a baby in the central district of Masaka.
“Members of Uganda’s military and police have committed serious crimes, particularly during politically charged demonstrations, confident they wouldn’t be punished,” said Maria Burnett, then senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Ugandan law guarantees the right to free assembly, speech, and association, but security forces disregard these basic freedoms, and the victims of their abuses and their families never see justice,” she added.

Between November 26 and 27, 2016, about 103 people killed when security forces stormed the palace of King Charles Wesley Mumbere, cultural leader of the Bakonzo people, in Kasese, home of the Rwenzururu Kingdom.
At first, as usual, the State first downplayed the number of people killed during the offensive, saying they were only 63, but a year later, it admitted that they were 103. As a consequence, Mumbere and more than 150 of his royal guards were arraigned before a court in Jinja District and charged with treason, terrorism, and murder, among other crimes.
The trial is yet to take place but Lt Gen Peter Elwelu, who commanded the operation in his capacity as Commander of Lands Forces, has since been sanctioned by the US but in Kampala, he has been promoted and now he is the Deputy Chief of Defence Forces (CDF).

Yet the killings of November 2020 have led to a slightly tougher response from the West as it’s relationship with Museveni is being redefined.
To show that they aren’t mere barking dogs, in April 2021, the US Department of State announced a blanket travel ban on Ugandan government officials, that they didn’t reveal but accuse of getting involved in gross human rights violations and undermining democracy during and after the January 14 General Election.

Former NUP presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi. PHOTO/ MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

“Opposition candidates were routinely harassed, arrested, and held illegally without charge. Ugandan security forces were responsible for the deaths and injuries of dozens of innocent bystanders and Opposition supporters, as well as violence against journalists that occurred before, during, and after the elections,” Mr Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State, said in a statement. 
Still, in 2021, Maj Gen Abel Kandiho, then head of the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) was hit by US sanctions over alleged human rights abuses such as torture and sexual abuse which were apparently committed under his watch.

“Treasury will continue to defend against authoritarianism, promoting accountability for the violent repression of people seeking to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Andrea Gacki, director of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in the statement. 
With the pressure mounting, on December 8, 2021, the army staged what it called a trial in which the General Court Martial convicted two soldiers for shooting dead three people during the riots.

Unaware of court proceedings
With the families of victims unaware of the court martial proceedings, the military said how it had sentenced one soldier to life imprisonment and it claimed that the second soldier received 35 years’ imprisonment.
That was not the only oddity in the aftermath of the killings, Mr Museveni rationalised the use of live ammunition by security operatives, including those who were in civilian clothes to quash the riots, saying they were dealing with rioters who apparently had external funding to destabilise the country.

Yet when he was speaking during the 2021 Heroes’ Day celebration held at Kololo Independence Grounds under the theme, ‘Remembering those great men and women who put the nation first in pursuing freedom for our motherland Uganda’, Museveni admitted that his soldiers had wrongly killed people.  
“And I have the file of all the 54 people who died in that problem of November. And where the security forces made mistakes…we discovered them. The first I did was to hold seminars; you must have seen how I met all the commanders of Special Forces and all the police commanders in the whole country to review their actions and mistakes. But also, to follow up with the families of the affected people,” he said.
Families of the victims and the Western diplomats have not seen any justice being served.