What you need to know:
- In the second instalment of our series on torture in post-independent Uganda, Frederic Musisi writes that recommendations from probes by justices Mohamed Saied and Arthur Oder have largely remained on paper.
Following a rebel attack on the Mpoma Radio Satellite, 10 miles east of Kampala, in May 1984, the Obote II’s army—the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA)—conducted a sweep of the area, during which they unloaded unbridled terror on the area of the Namugongo Martyrs shrine then part of Mukono District.
The terror went on for several days. Among the trail of destruction were countless rapes and 85 civilian deaths—including the Rev G. C. Bazira, the principal of the theological seminary in the precinct of the Protestant Shrine.
In his testimony to the Justice Arthur Oder Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses in post-independent Uganda, Bishop Dunstan Nsubuga—under whose diocese the Namugongo Seminary was administered—described in gory details what he found after visiting the scene days later.
The UNLA soldiers, who menaced the area, were under the command of Makindye barracks.
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After the military coup of January 1971, Makindye was turned into the headquarters of the Military Police and has remained so ever since.
The prelate told the Commission that a report detailing the damage and carnage had been compiled and submitted to President Milton Obote.
Obote only lamented over the incident and “promised to think about it.”
“Apart from some compensation paid by Vice President [Paulo] Muwanga and the arrest of a soldier found riding a stolen motorcycle in the area, little else was done,” the Oder report titled the Pearl of Blood and submitted in October of 1994 reads in part.
President Obote, frustrated by the brutality of the army and his inability to control it, recently declassified CIA files reveal, departed from his customary silence on such events and publicly condemned the incident. But condemnations turned into empty rhetoric.
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Decades later, President Museveni has on numerous occasions used vituperative words to describe his predecessors, Obote and Idi Amin, over human rights violations.
Popular in his lexicon are words like torture, disappearances, murders, arbitrary detentions and impunity by security agencies.
On April 29, 2001 while toasting to his victory in the presidential poll, Mr Museveni added a new word to the lexicon—beasts. In another address in October 2005, he called them “swine.”
Then while meeting the Inter-Religious Council at Commonwealth Resort, Munyonyo, on July 1, 2014, he called President Amin “an idiot.”
The depth and breadth of human rights violations preceding his ascent to power on January 25, 1986 have been written about extensively and immortalised in motion pictures.
The Pearl of Blood report is one of such oeuvres that details the suffering and agony that Ugandans have endured since independence in 1962.
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Justice Oder, then as a High Court judge in 1986, was tapped by then Minister of Justice and Attorney General Joseph Mulenga to lead the Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations as a result of the cycle of violence that plagued post-independent Uganda. Other members of the commission included then Makerere University law don, Khiddu Makubuya, Dr Jack Luyombya, DP’s John Kawanga, Ms Joan Kakwenzire, and Mr John Nagenda.
Pearl of Blood
The Oder report noted that Uganda’s post-independence regimes—especially between 1971 and 1979 plus 1980 to January 1986—much like many other African regimes went to extraordinary lengths to deny any human rights abuses.
“Once such denials were made, perpetrators of abuses could not be brought to justice because you cannot punish offences the commission of which you have publicly denied,” the report reads in part. “The official denials therefore provided protection to the violators of human rights.”
Whenever there was a change of regime (almost invariably through violence), the report details, almost everything, including bad human rights violations records, “is swept away and things begin afresh, as if nothing happened or existed before”, a practice which precipitated a cycle of violence.
“The army, police, state security agencies and the Executive have been central in the perpetuation of the cycle of violence. This fact is well attested to throughout the evidence given before the Commission,” the report reads in part.
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In interview with Voice of America’s Peter Clottey, broadcast early this month, President Museveni asked about torture of writer Kakwenza Rukirabashaija—and other Opposition supporters— blamed the problem on capacity building and colonialism.
“We are building armies and security agencies; these come with traditional ideas from the village or get imported ideas from the former colonialists,” Mr Museveni said while acknowledging that he had received reports of torture of some civilians and taken the matter up.
Another key factor in the perpetuation of the cycle of violence was the ignorance of human rights by either the law enforcement officers and agents or their victims. Consequently, officers and agents of the state regularly ’ abused the rights of those who fell in their hands and the victims and the public often aided the process by being passive.
The other assumption, the report notes, was that “those who do not oppose” are safe, or that only those who had “offended” the regime in power or belonged to the ‘wrong’ ethnic groups were wanted by the regime further proved disastrous, especially during Amin’s regime and the years of insurgency in 1981 - 1985.
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For instance, the Commission noted that during Amin’s regime “it was common practice for one or two intelligence officers of the State Research Bureau or other agencies to arrest someone from amongst a huge crowd of people, bundle him in a car boot, carry him away and proceed to kill or make him disappear never to be seen again. Whenever such incidents happened, persons not affected felt or thought that they themselves were innocent and safe.”
An incident in Nakulabye in 1964 is believed to be the earliest post-independence act of arbitrary deprivation of life of civilians by state agents.
The Special Force Unit of Uganda Police shot at a crowd of people at Nakulabye trading centre, killing six people and injuring several others. This ensued following an attempt to break up a fight between a group of Congolese and Ugandans at Suzana, a popular night club then.
The wheels of bloodletting had been set in motion. The toxic politics between Obote’s Uganda Peoples Congress and Buganda Kingdom precipitated the attack on Lubiri, seat of the monarch, and consequently the abrogation of the 1962 Constitution.
Justice Oder’s Commission of inquiry was the second in a space of 12 years after the Mohamed Saied Commission. Following the 1971 coup that dislodged Mr Obote while he was away in Singapore for the Commonwealth Heads of State Conference, scores of people —particularly of Acholi and Langi origin—are believed to have disappeared.
Reign of terror
In Uganda’s political parlance, the word ‘disappearance’ is a euphemism for civilian abductions by security operatives.
By 1974, disappearances, much like those witnessed last year, elicited nationwide and international outcry. By decree of Legal Notice 2 of June 1974, President Amin, who doubled as Commander-in-Chief and minister of Defence, constituted a four-member commission of inquiry led by Justice Saied to investigate the disappearances.
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Other members of the commission included two police officers—Superintendents S.M. Kyefulumya, and A. Esar, and one Capt Haruna representing the army.
The decree compelled the Saied Commission to “inquire into and establish the identity of the persons who are alleged missing, and to establish whether such persons are dead or alive” and recommend to the government what should be done to “put an end to the criminal disappearances of people in Uganda.”
Earlier, on June 4, 1974, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)—a human rights group of eminent jurists—had published a scathing report detailing “a total breakdown in the rule of law” in Uganda occasioned by a series of decrees overriding all constitutional safeguards.
This, according to ICJ, midwifed “a massive and continuing violations of human rights” by the main security agencies, the military intelligence unit, the Military Police, the State Research Bureau, and Public Safety United leading to “a reign of terror” in which thousands of people “sought refuge in voluntary exile.”
The Oder-led probe found that disappearances started in the political turbulence of the 1960s. During the 1966 crisis, a number of people from or near the Mengo palace disappeared, never to be seen again. It is presumed that they were killed in what came to be known as the “Battle of Mengo.”
Disappearances were also commonplace between 1971 and 1985. The Commission’s report methodically details that during that time law enforcement agencies were notorious for violation of human rights that the “term law enforcement became an inapplicable designation.”
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During this period, some security agencies retained a degree of professionalism. Others such as the Special Force (with its Special Force Unit) and the General Service Unit (a para-military force), employed ruthless operational tactics which gave them a generally fearsome reputation in the eyes of the public.
Repeat of the past
According to the report, between 1979 and 1985, the army and soldiers, as in the past, continued to enjoy protection from justice and behaved as if they were above the law while the police continued to be inactive or passive.
“The Commission found that since independence, soldiers often contemptuously referred to the police as ‘women’ ridiculing their role in society,” the report notes. “This attitude grew out of an atmosphere in which emphasis shifted from the rule of law, enforceable by the civil police, to the use of the gun as the source of authority and power.”
Under the Amin regime, the government policy centred on the transformation of all state security agencies and personnel into full military units. The other agencies such as police, prisons, state security agencies, were to accept the army policy, methods of work and cooperate with, or if necessary, obey military commands and commanders.
“Thus the distinction between army, police, state security agencies, etc, became unclear during this period. This was mainly achieved by training the police and state security agencies in exactly the same way as the army,” the report details.
With such blurred lines, individuals of the security outfits rose above the law to act extra judicially moreover with impunity.
The main orchestra of human rights abuses was the State Research Bureau, a para-military intelligence organisation set up administratively under the President’s Office. Though the bureau was primarily supposed to gather information about Uganda’s external enemies, the report documents that, most of its activities centred on arbitrary killing, harassment and torture inside Uganda.
Another key facilitator in the violations of human rights under both Amin and Obote, the report added, was the massive recruitment to all security agencies along tribal lines.
As soon as Obote was removed in 1971, the guns were turned against Acholi and Langi groups (to which Obote belonged). Also, as soon as Amin was removed in 1979, a purge of his Kakwa-Nubians-Muslims gens ensued.
The Oder report methodically details all human rights violations during the period. These included murders and arbitrary deprivation of life, subjection of persons to torture, cruel inhumane and degrading treatment, arbitrary arrests, detentions and imprisonment, denial of fair and public trial before independent and impartial courts of law.
While noting that “it impossible to prescribe a permanent solution for prevention of abuses of human rights in Uganda,” to avoid a repetition or continuation of a similar history by those in charge the Commission offered numerous recommendations to the effect. Among them was the establishment of a permanent Uganda Human Rights Commission.
Other recommendations included separation of powers with checks and balances between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial arms of government, impeachment of Presidents for constitutional and other offences while in office, a system of peaceful change of Presidents and governments through regular and fair elections, and prohibition of over-staying by Presidents in office after their terms have expired.
The Commission further recommended that the legislature should have more powers than the President who should be accountable to the legislature. The rationale here was that the legislature is the watchdog of human rights and democracy. “Parliaments should be constitutionally prohibited from extending their own terms of office,” it added.
No lessons learnt
On the conduct of security agencies, the Commission recommended that the army be national in composition and character to reflect the ethnic composition and geographical areas of the country as a whole.
The army, it added, should not be for the purpose of perpetuation of a single leader or political organisation in power. That army should be neutral and not biased or partisan in politics nor ever be used to suppress internal political dissent or differences or for solving political conflicts.
Similarly as regards police, the Commission recommended, among others, ridding it of the practice of arrest first and investigate later; improvement in the system of criminal investigation for suspects to be arrested only after completion of investigation of criminal cases; and improvement in its funding.
However, 28 years later since the report was published and 36 years since the Commission went to work, the country finds itself at another critical juncture.
While the country has put in place a number of mechanisms to foster human rights, empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that things are going south.
Amidst growing concern of human rights abuses by security agencies, the Human Rights (Enforcement) Act, 2019 that reinforces the onus of individual liability was enacted as a deterrence.
With the Act in Force, the Inspector General of Police Martin Ochola, in July of 2019 warned all police units about its repercussions—specifically that “responsible officers will now be required to personally incur costs” for their actions.
This as the highhanded actions of errant security personnel continues to rise the cost of court. The Ministry of Justice indicated previously that averagely about 30 cases are filed against the government every day.
The Oder report
The Oder report methodically details all human rights violations during the period. These included murders and arbitrary deprivation of life, subjection of persons to torture, cruel inhumane and degrading treatment, arbitrary arrests, detentions and imprisonment, denial of fair and public trial before an independent and impartial courts of law.