Military Court frees ex-police boss Gen Kayihura

Former Uganda police chief Gen Kale Kayihura in the dock at the Makindye Court Martial on August 30, 2023. PHOTO/ISAAC KASAMANI

What you need to know:

  • Gen Kayihura was accused of failing to protect war material and abetting illegal repatriation of Rwanda exiles.

After nearly six years in legal limbo, his trial frozen by the very army in whose name he had enforced and vigorously defended President Museveni’s hold onto power, Gen Kale Kayihura yesterday walked out of a military court a free man.

He seemed almost lost for words, thrilled at the unspoken prospect that he can now expect to be formally retired from the army this month as has been widely reported.

“Oh, freedom, oh, freedom!”  the former Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, chanted, punching the air in ecstatic relief as he walked down the steps of the General Court Martial building in Makindye Military Barracks just outside Kampala Capital City.

Gen Kayihura was freed by the military court after army prosecutors withdrew charges for capital offences they had slapped against him in 2018.

“I am extremely,  extremely very happy,” he said. “I have never been this happy because I have got freedom. It isn’t the kind of freedom that you have; this is sweet freedom! Sweet freedom you can’t imagine! You only appreciate freedom when you lose it. That is when you appreciate how valuable it is,” Gen Kayihura said as he addressed the media and well-wishers.

Gen Kayihura had been accused of failure to protect war materiel (military material and equipment), aiding or abetting kidnapping of Rwandan refugees, allowing use of arms by unauthorised persons and failing to provide accountability for arms held by violent crime police units, allegations he denied.

His troubles with the law can be traced to March 2018 when he was sacked as the IGP and replaced by his deputy Martins Okoth Ochola.

In October 2017, agents from the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) arrested police officers, including Senior Superintendent of Police Nickson Karuhanga Agasiirwe, Assistant Commissioner of Police Herbert Muhanga and others, alleged to have been close to Gen Kayihura.

Their arrests followed weeks of surveillance by CMI on suspicion that they were kidnapping Rwandese refugees believed to be fleeing persecution back home and illegally spiriting them off to Rwanda.

Months later on June 13, 2018, soldiers led by the then Deputy Chief of Defence Forces, Gen Wlison Mbadi surrounded Kayihura’s farm in Kashagama, Lyantonde District and arrested the General.

He was airlifted to the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) headquarters at Mbuya in Kampala where he was presented before the then Chief of Defence Forces, Gen David Muhoozi. Gen Muhoozi then handed him over to CMI, who whisked him off to be detained at Makindye Military barracks.

The next day, local leaders and Gen Kayihura’s friends from his home area in Kisoro District led a demonstration in protest at the manner of his arrest. The police dispersed the protest, saying they were not notified about it as required by the law.

Over the next two months, Gen Kayihura remained locked up without recording a statement, according to his lawyers.

Partly because of the high profile and sensitive nature of his detention, MPs from Kisoro raised the matter of his detention without due process, and beyond the legally allowed period,  on the floor of Parliament. But they were unable to secure his release.

Marking his two months in detention, Gen Kayihura’s supporters also held a series of prayer meetings, which they said were intended to soften President Museveni’s heart and make him release their loved one.

Kisoro District Chairman Abel Bizimana said: “The mafias and other people who hate Gen Kayihura are giving the President wrong information. It is that information that has affected the President’s lenses. We are praying to God to remove those bad lenses and give him the right ones. We are now petitioning God.”

Gen Kayihura’s mother, struggling to walk, attended one of the prayers at a church in Mulago, a Kampala suburb.

Days later, Gen Kayihura was presented before a team from different security agencies, which quizzed him about the March 17, 2017 assassination of former police spokesman and deputy IGP, Andrew Felix Kaweesi. He denied any links to the crime.

Joint security investigations revealed that existing suspicions at the time in security circles that rogue police officers planned Kaweesi’s shooting death were fuelled by some intelligence operatives.

Later, he was questioned about new offences relating to abduction of the Rwandans and failing to protect war materiel, crimes for which he was eventually charged.

On August 24, 2018, Gen Kayihura was arraigned before the General Court Martial, where he denied the allegations and was remanded to a military prison.

Four days later, he returned to court for the hearing of his bail application. Court granted him bail, but restricted his movements to Kampala City and Wakiso District.

He also had to report to court once on a given Monday in a month. He was also barred from travelling abroad without the permission of the court.

Sources said because his health was failing due to the prison conditions, they sought permission from court to take him abroad for treatment.

The source said he spent the better part of September 2018 bed-ridden in at a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, and only returned when his health improved.

But even when he returned, the trial of his case never progressed.

Gen Kayihura left Kampala and buried himself at his farm in Katebe Village, Kashagama in Lyantonde District.

He kept silent and away from the public eye until September 13, 2019 when the United States of America sanctioned him and his family, accusing him of human rights abuse while still police chief.

Denying accusations

He briefly came out of self-isolation to deny the American allegations, before again, quietly returning to Kashagama to tend to his expansive banana plantation, cows and goats farm.

A veteran journalist with close links to political high office in Uganda, Mr Andrew Mwenda, was quoted saying Gen Kayihura hadn’t accumulated wealth using his office. That since losing office, he was struggling financially and had to depend on friends and family members to survive.

Gen Kayihura’s low profile brought with it some relief.  It also allowed his health to turn around to a point that when Joshua Cheptegei won 5,000m gold at the Tokyo Olympics in Japan, the former police chief was able to come out and run for 16kms in what he said was to honour the win.

Mr Cheptegei was one of the runners that Gen Kayihura had recruited into the police athletics team as part of an effort to restore the Force’s past sporting glory days.

A year later, Gen Kayihura’s mother and only surviving parent, Catherine Mukarwamo, passed away in Fort Portal City.

Due to court restrictions, he had to seek permission to attend the burial of his mother in Fort Portal. He did not stay long at the funeral. He was forced to leave fellow mourners at the family home because the time granted by the court had elapsed.

Another tragedy hit him when his grandmother, Ancila Bucyana, died in Kisoro District the next year. Again, he had to seek court permission to travel to pay his last respects to his grandmother.

Tracking his movements

According to a source, security personnel tracked his movements fearing he would use the opportunity to escape into neighbouring Rwanda, whose border is just metres away from his home in Kisoro where the burial was scheduled.

Although it was time for mourning, his appearance in Kisoro for the first time caused a lot of excitement among his supporters who gathered at his home.

During the requiem mass for Bucyana, Gen Kayihura lamented before the congregation that he had been deserted by his friends after his troubles.

He said despite holding top military ranks and having occupying high office, when trouble struck, they couldn’t save him. At that point, he said it was only God and the people of Kisoro, who remembered him during his trials.

A source said while the statement resonated with the people in Kisoro, it didn’t go well with some of his superiors, who requested a deeper analysis of his eulogy with a view to taking unspecified action.

Sensing trouble, the source said, Gen Kayihura didn’t spend a night in Kisoro after the burial.

“He literally escaped from mourners, who had gathered at his home to console him and talk to him after so many months of not seeing him. He returned to his farm. Some of his relatives, supporters and friends only noticed late in the evening,” the source said.

The source said some security personnel thought he had escaped as their earlier intelligence suggested.

“However, along the way, the General intentionally got out of his car before a checkpoint and greeted security personnel to assure them that he was heading back to his farm,” the source said.

As the months went by, the court relaxed some restrictions allowing him to travel between Kampala and Lyantonde as he wished without having to seek permission from its chairman first.

However, the unresolved court cases concerned him and raised the risk that he would not leave the army as he had privately wished. Indeed, it was precisely because of the cases, that he wasn’t considered for retirement from the army in 2022 despite having clocked the necessary age of 60 years.

With the limited breathing space, he nonetheless slowly started attending public events in different parts of the country.

Reconnecting with public

A number of fellow high-ranking military officers started reaching out to him, and even inviting him for high profile meetings where they consoled him. They also thanked him for remaining disciplined during the trial, a source said.

Notably, in December 2021, the President’s son, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, asked President Museveni to pardon and rehabilitate Gen Kayihura in a surprise tweet on his official Twitter, now renamed X,  handle.

“Gen Kayihura was one of the special cadres in the early 1990s who inspired us to serve our nation,” Gen Muhoozi said.

“If he made mistakes, let us use revolutionary methods of work to rectify them. I request the CIC [Commander-in-Chief] to forgive and rehabilitate him,” he said.

Gen Kayihura welcomed Gen Muhoozi’s appeal to the President.

With the first son having declared intentions to run for president in 2026, some political watchers hazarded the guess that his petition on Gen Kayihura’s behalf may have been partly influenced by cold political calculations.

In April this year, Gen Kayihura met Gen Muhoozi in Kisoro District. But whatever they talked about remains largely hidden from the public. At the time, Gen Muhoozi was on a tour to celebrate and highlight his parallel role in the normalisation of relations between Uganda and Rwanda, and the opening of the Gatuna Border.

Relations between the two countries had been frosty over the last three years after Rwanda unilaterally closed the border crossing in February 2019.

Last month, the UPDF finally allowed the former police chief to retire, but the army only retires someone who has no pending cases in its courts martial. It is believed that in order to get around that hurdle, behind-the-scenes talks ensued at the highest level, leading to the decision to quietly pardon him and withdraw the charges.

Yesterday, Gen Kayihura attributed his freedom to President Museveni.

“I want to appreciate His Excellency the President…for this freedom. That, at long last, I have got justice and freedom,” he said.