Illustrations of suspects being tortured while in detention. Illustrations/ FILE


State of torture: Is promise of a fundamental change a pipe dream?

What you need to know:

  • Recently, President Museveni and his ruling NRM party marked 36 years in power. The celebrations come a year after general elections that have left the country polarised with many youths in prison, and government being accused of human rights violations and undermining democracy, Derrick Kiyonga writes.

When President Museveni’s ragtag outfit, the National Resistance Army (NRA) which has since morphed into the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), shot its way to power in 1986, he promised to rule Uganda on the basis of the 10-point programme formulated in the Luweero jungles in 1984.
Under his 10-point programme, Mr Museveni envisaged that his National Resistance Movement (NRM) would lead Uganda to a peaceful, democratic future, free from corruption, and with basic services and economic opportunity for all citizens.
“No one should think that what is happening today is a mere change of guard; it is a fundamental change in the politics of our country,” Mr Museveni said upon taking over power 36 years ago.
Mr Museveni’s promise created a lot of anticipation within the population after many years of despair.
The country had gone through tough times due to bad governance from 1966 to 1986. This period witnessed unparalleled authoritarian rule, characterised by institutional decay and political insecurity, which adversely affected the economy.  
Idi Amin Dada, who ruled Uganda between 1971 and 1979, has been particularly singled out for superintending over wider dispossession of multitudes and left the country pauperised.  
By the time Amin escaped to exile in Saudi Arabia, the devastation he had inflicted lay fully wide-open in the scratched ruins of Uganda. 
The number of people he caused to be killed has been formulated by exiles and international human rights groups as close to 300,000 out of a total population of 12 million at the time.
While there were high profile murders like that of Anglican Archbishop Jonan Luwum, Chief Justice Benedicto Kiwanuka, Shaban Kirunda Nkutu, a post-independence minister, those who were assassinated were mostly unidentified people: farmers, students, clerks and shopkeepers who were killed by members of death squads, including the chillingly named Public Safety Unit and the State Research Bureau.
Along with the Military Police, the 18,000-strong forces were recruited largely from Amin’s home region. They often chose their victims because they wanted their money, houses, or women, or because the tribal groups the victims belonged to were marked for humiliation.
The killings which were publically carried out in ways that were meant to attract attention, terrorise the living and convey the message that it was Amin who wanted them killed, also included Cabinet ministers, diplomats, university rectors, educators, prominent hospital directors, surgeons, bankers, tribal leaders, and business executives.
In response to the crisis, Ugandans clandestinely withdrew from the formal institutions of the State and organised parallel informal structures as coping mechanisms. 
“The consequence was a dysfunctional State,” Prof William Muhumuza, a lecturer at Makerere University’s Department of Political Science and Public Administration, explains.
“Otherwise, it would not have been possible for Museveni’s ragtag guerrilla army that started fighting with 27 guns to overthrow a legitimately elected government within a period of only five years.
He adds: “Museveni’s promise of fundamental change took cognisance of the fact that Ugandans had lost trust in the State and subsequently denied it legitimacy. He knew that without restoring hope, it would be difficult to get popular support for his young and fledgling government. Prior to capturing power, Museveni lacked a serious support base within the country, the very reason why he opted for a protracted civil war.”
The thinking that with NRM politically-motivated disappearances would be a thing of the past has turned out to be off the mark.   
In February last year, a white Toyota Hiace, popularly known in Uganda as “drone”, rolled into Nakulabye, a neighbourhood found north-west of Kampala, Uganda’s capital.
As soon as the vehicle parked, a group of youths who were playing mweso, a board game, scampered in all directions for their dear lives.
The man who was manning the car, apprehensively walked into a shop nearby. He bought some eats and left as onlookers held their breath, expecting the worst.
Ordinarily, the drone is a light money-making van that can be used as a minibus, or taxi, to transport passengers. Alternatively, it can be adapted into an ambulance to transport the sick to the hospital.  
But since 2020, the drone has gained a menacing reputation. Stealthily, sporting plain clothes, armed men in drones, according to Opposition groups, snatched hundreds of people from markets, taxi stops, petrol stations, roadsides and homes to unknown destinations where they are either tortured, or in worst case scenarios, killed.
Movie-like scenes have been playing out in Kampala suburbs where men wearing face coverings and helmets, and carrying guns jump out of drones like eagles to snatch their prey before disappearing.  
“Police has become helpless,” Kira Municipality Member of Parliament (MP) Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda told Parliament in January last year, “So madam speaker, I beg you to instruct the minister [of Internal Affairs] to come and tell whether we should migrate to Congo [DRC], or seek refuge elsewhere because you can’t sleep in your own house because in some cases they have been breaking into houses, either dragging out husbands or the children.”
In 1995, 10 years after Mr Museveni came to power, his government put together a Constitution whose aim, they said, was to help Uganda not slide back into anarchy.  
The preamble of the Constitution goes, “We the people of Uganda: recalling our history which has been characterised by political and constitutional instability; recognising our struggles against the forces of tyranny, oppression and exploitation; committed to building a better future by establishing a socio-economic and political order through a popular and durable national Constitution based on the principles of unity, peace, equality, democracy, freedom, social justice, and progress…”
Article 23 of the Constitution, which details protection of personal liberty, stipulates: “A person arrested, restricted or detained shall be informed immediately, in a language that the person understands, of the reasons for the arrest, restriction or detention and of his or her right to a lawyer of his or her choice.”
It adds in sub-section 3: “A person arrested or detained… (b) upon reasonable suspicion of his or her having committed or being about to commit a criminal offence under the laws of Uganda, shall, if not released earlier, be brought to court as soon as possible but, in any case, not later than 48 hours from the time of his or her arrest.”

Suspects display marks of torture before court. PHOTO | ABUBAKER LUBOWA

With the NRM focused on maintaining its hold onto power, and on the other hand it being challenged by a youthful Opposition whose supporters are struggling with galloping unemployment, the spirit under which the Constitution was drafted has been shelved.
In November 2020, more than 50 people were killed by security forces as they tried to quell protests that erupted after National Unity Platform’s (NUP) Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, alias Bobi Wine, who was Mr Museveni’s strongest challenger in last year’s presidential race, was arrested in the eastern district of Luuka over allegedly violating Covid-19 regulations.
Using drones, security forces reacted by carrying out covert operations, picking Kyagulanyi’s affiliates but most of these operations weren’t captured by the media.
The cat was let out of the bag on the night of December 30, 2020, when former national boxing captain, Isaac Ssenyange, alias Mando Zebra, was killed by gunmen who had arrived, according to eyewitnesses, at his home in Bwaise, a deprived Kampala neighbourhood, under the cover of darkness, in a drone which had no number plates.
The involvement of a drone sparked off speculation that Ssenyange had been killed by a security outfit and Mr Museveni put any doubts to bed when he confirmed the same in his December 30, 2020, speech.
“The security people had gone to take in Zebra and do some inquiry. Unfortunately, when they got to the house (at around 12am) they knocked and they wanted people inside to open for them but they did not open. The wife later opened as security people were trying to force their way in,’ Mr Museveni explained in his New Year address.
“According to the wife, Zebra was in the sitting room when the security people arrived but instead of opening, he went outside through the back door. She (wife) opened for the soldiers. They entered but Zebra had gone. Apparently, he climbed over the fence and went somewhere, a distance away from his house. The wife and the son cooperated with the security.
“After climbing over the fence, Zebra bumped into another security team (which was part of the one he left at his house). The soldiers involved say when they tried to stop him he refused to stop. They told me he tried to fight them and that is how they ended up shooting him twice. That’s where there is a controversy I do not get well. I’m going to investigate elements surrounding his shooting.” 
After Mr Museveni clinched a sixth term with 58.6 percent of the vote in January – that has been dismissed by the Opposition as a sham – security operatives, fearing riots, ramped up operations, arresting scores of Kyagulanyi’s supporters.
The latest wave of criticism against government comes against the backdrop of rising incidents of human rights abuse and alleged torture of suspects in detention by the security agencies on accusations of criticising the government or annoying the person of the President. 
But Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Muruli Mukasa this week told Parliament that torturing incarcerated suspects is not an official government policy.
“Torture is not a policy of government nor is it even a method of interrogation. The law on this is very clear. The President has in his own words stated the position and policy of government… Any person who conducts himself or herself in such a manner does so in his or her personal capacity and shall be handled in accordance with the Iaw,” he said.
The minister added that “government does not know and doesn’t intend to know the political inclination of all the suspects in custody,” adding that nobody is above the law and any attempt to politicise the handling of offenders breaches the spirit of the Constitution and the impartial administration of justice. 
Designing manifestos
As Mr Museveni celebrates his 36th anniversary, a key fixture is how he has been designing his manifestos with attention-grabbing catch lines.
In 1996, when he organised elections for the first time, having ruled for an initial 10 years, Mr Museveni’s manifesto had “Tackling the tasks ahead” as the theme.
The one of 2001 was “Consolidating the achievements”; 2006 had “Prosperity for all”; whereas that of 2011 had “Prosperity for all: Better service delivery and job-creation”.
His 2016 manifesto had the principal theme and message as “Taking Uganda to modernity through job creation and inclusive development”, but it was the Swahili slogan of kisanja hakuna mchezo (the term for no-nonsense) that Mr Museveni adopted after taking an oath that captured people’s imagination, thinking things will be different from the previous terms.
Socio-economic transformation
For last year’s election, Mr Museveni’s manifesto had “securing your future,” as the theme.  The manifesto claimed that the NRM had led to drastic socio-economic transformation as Ugandans are now meaningfully taking part in wealth and job-creation initiatives.
“More Ugandans are embracing the urgent need to integrate into the modern money economy. They are making a positive transition from poor and subsistence living to modernity,” the manifesto reads. “The wealth-creation campaigns by NRM are beginning to yield succulent fruits. A new dawn is clearly on the horizon.”
One year into Mr Museveni’s latest term, Uganda’s total public debt has swelled to $18b (Shs64 trillion) as of late 2021.
The country’s economy has taken a battering following two years of Covid-19 restrictions and the fuel prices have skyrocketed to an average of Shs5,000 at stations across Kampala, while in some upcountry towns, a litre of petrol is sold at an average of Shs10,000.
The prices have been blamed on the standoff on the Uganda-Kenya border in Busia and Malaba where truck drivers stationed their trucks in protest of a mandatory Covid-19 test by Ugandan authorities even for those with a negative PCR test from Kenya.
What has shocked Ugandans the most is that though the East African country is landlocked, its fuel reserves in the eastern city of Jinja which have a capacity of 30 million litres, are currently dry.
In 2018, Daily Monitor reported that Uganda’s fuel stock in the government’s reserve tanks whilst on the rise can drive the country for just two days. Back then officials at the Uganda National Oil Company (Unoc) – whose mandate is to handle government’s commercial interests in the petroleum sector – warned that Uganda has no strategic stock.
“It is the only country in the world in such a situation. If anything were to happen today, and the borders were closed, after two weeks you will have real issues,” Mr Emmanuel Mugagga, Unoc’s chief finance officer said. It seems NRM didn’t take heed.

Preamble of the Constitution 
‘We the people of Uganda: recalling our history which has been characterised by political and constitutional instability; recognising our struggles against the forces of tyranny, oppression and exploitation; committed to building a better future by establishing a socio-economic and political order through a popular and durable national Constitution based on the principles of unity, peace, equality, democracy, freedom, social justice, and progress.