Opposition sticks to Parliament boycott as Balaalo issue festers

Mr Mathias Mpuuga, the Leader of Opposition in Parliament, with NUP MPs address the media in Kampala on November 6. PHOTO/DAVID LUBOWA

What you need to know:

  • Over the last fortnight, the National Unity Platform (NUP), has been posting briefs about the missing on its website.
  • Mr Mpuuga questioned why the human rights commission is quietly contacting relatives of the missing, yet the same body only early last month unilaterally declared it had closed the case files of 18 missing persons, claiming it could not trace them. 
  • Mr Mpuuga also waded into the highly emotive matter of Balaalo herdsmen settling in Acholiland, alleging complicity of well-connected regime insiders in a dark plot to steal the land from impoverished Acholi people in northern Uganda.

Opposition MPs on November 6 stuck to their enforced boycott of Parliament on a day their leader also denounced alleged plots by regime insiders to grab swathes of Acholiland using migrant pastoralists (Balaalo) as a front.

Nearly three weeks into the stand-off, Deputy Speaker Thomas Tayebwa last week found himself backed into a corner by the stay-away action, and adjourned the House to November 15, citing the need to ‘complete the budgeting cycle’. 

Any hopes that the recess would lead to a meeting of minds were, however, dashed the moment Mr Mathias Mpuuga, Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, opened his mouth at a press briefing yesterday.

“The issues we raised before the executive in Parliament still obtain, namely; the issue of missing persons, the issue of detaining Ugandans without trial for long periods of time… the Opposition still stands by its decision… nobody has reached out to the Opposition with… a structured response, save for the meeting I was involved in with the deputy speaker,” he said.

So, the deadlock Mr Tayebwa is reported to have sought to defuse through adjournment remains on course. Mr Mpuuga told journalists that, “We restate our earlier stance and even if the House is recalled tomorrow, we shall not be part of it until we have received a plausible and acceptable response to these issues…” 

There was no immediate reaction from the government yesterday, with both Chief Whip, Mr Hamson Denis Obua, and Information minister, Dr Chris Baryomonsi, not returning several of our calls for comment. 

Instead, Mr Mpuuga yesterday revealed that government functionaries are now trailing relatives of the missing persons, some of whom disappeared into the opaque world of state security organs more than two years ago.

“Now, we are aware that state agencies, especially the police, military and other groups, including shamelessly, the Uganda Human Rights Commission, have moved to now re-contact the families with a view of taking statements from these families. 

“Now that the regime is waking up from their slumber, we want them to openly declare what they are doing clearly… because complaints about the missing persons were raised with the police many years ago. They should explain to the country what has prompted them now to move having declared these people non-existent in the first place,”  he said. 

Mr Mpuuga questioned why the human rights commission is quietly contacting relatives of the missing, yet the same body only early last month unilaterally declared it had closed the case files of 18 missing persons, claiming it could not trace them. 

The same commission, he said, instead of tracing the missing, quietly wanted them to sue for government compensation. 

“We challenge the human rights commission to inform the country what they are doing now beyond what they declared,” Mr Mpuuga said.

About the missing
Over the last fortnight, the National Unity Platform (NUP), has been posting briefs about the missing on its website. Below are examples of the accounts.

On December 23, 2020, hooded men raided the home of Muhammad Kanatta, a NUP member in Mukono municipality and whisked him away He left behind 14 children and four wives. 

Kanatta has never been seen or heard from since. Family members fear he may have been killed by security forces. Ms Agnes Wabwire, one of the wives, says on the fateful day six hooded men broke into their house, dragged Kanatta away, while beating him.

“They took him away at around 3:30 a.m. in the morning after breaking the doors. Since then, we have looked for him everywhere but we have never got any information about him. They were very angry and had guns, sticks and even other weapons. Our neighbours told us that more men  remained outside when others stormed in. My husband was severely beaten as they took him away,” Wabwire said. 

She said Kanatta’s mother suffered a near-fatal high blood pressure attack after the news of her son’s abduction.

“He left behind 14 children and one of them has an ailment we have no idea about and is not going to school. He also left a year old baby who is now four years old and keeps on asking where his dad is and I have no answer,” she said

“I call on the government… you have mistreated us. If our people are there, bring them back to us, if they are killed, tell us so that we give up the search for them,” she added. 

For Prossy Nasuuna, the mother of Denis Zimula, a 26 years old resident of Kyebando, Nansana municipality in Wakiso district, the pain is as fresh as it will ever be. Zimula was reportedly taken on November 25, 2020 at 11 a.m. and has never been seen again. 

Nasuuna says on that day, a minisbus with blacked-out windows (locally referred to as a drone) drove up and was parked at their trading centre. Later on, it was joined by a black Subaru plastered with President Museveni’s campaign posters. 

“Zimula and his friend Shafiq Wangolo passed nearby and touched it. They were dragged like thugs and thrown into the drone which immediately sped off. Many people rushed to my home and informed me about Denis’ abduction and we rushed to the nearest police station but we did not find him there. We also went to Luzira prisons but he was not there and up to now we don’t know where he is,” she said.

She later received a call from the Uganda Human Rights Commission whose officials visited her at her home. She said instead of investigating the matter, the commission asked if she wanted anything from the government.

“I told them I want my son back. They asked me if government is to give you anything, what would you want. I told them I don’t need anything, not even money, but I only want my son back. They promised to call me after three days but up to now they have never called me,” she said.

Just like the others, Nasuna appeals to the President. “I ask Museveni... Our children were abducted and if they committed any crime, bring them to court and charge them, if you killed them bring the bodies so that we bury them,” she pleaded.

Aminah Nalubega, is the wife of Hassan Mubiru who was allegedly abducted on November 20, 2020. This her lament: “He was picked by the security operatives who accused him of having a gun, which was entirely false. We have searched in all prisons and we have failed. When we went to police, we were told to go back home because the captors would eventually release him, however to this day, he is still missing”.

The Balaalo question 
At yesterday’s briefing, Mr Mpuuga also waded into the highly emotive matter of Balaalo herdsmen settling in Acholiland, alleging complicity of well-connected regime insiders in a dark plot to steal the land from impoverished Acholi people in northern Uganda. 

Only this weekend, President Museveni met political and opinion leaders in the Acholi districts of Gulu/Amuru and echoed earlier directives, first announced in a May 19 Executive Order No. 3 of 2023, for the herdsmen to vacate Acholiland as the matter threatens to boil over into a fully-fledged ethnic dispute. 

His younger brother, Gen (rtd) Salim Saleh has pitched camp in Gulu District for over a year now and has been pushing for dialogue as opposed to outright eviction.

“The issue of the land question in Acholi requires dialogue and I urge the leaders to work towards that. I am stating it here that I will never cross Karuma Bridge until I sort out the question of land in Acholi,” he said while addressing members of Uganda Development Forum at Chobe Safari Lodgeon Friday, November 3, in Murchison Falls National Park, Nwoya district.

Some of the Balaalo are reportedly armed with automatic rifles and are believed to largely hail from Ankole in western Uganda, birthplace of the President. Despite official ultimatums, they remain in place mainly in the areas of Amuru, Gulu and Nwoya, grazing vast herds some of which have invaded and destroyed people’s gardens.

Back in Parliament, Mr Mpuuga yesterday said the Balaalo are fronts for well-connected people. He, however, did not provide any evidence to support his claim 

“On the issue of grabbing land in Acholi by people who call themselves Balaalo, or whatever name they have given themselves and the attendant executive order issued by Gen Museveni, as opposition we want to inform the country that we are aware that this is an attempt to further control the people of Acholi using whichever means,” he said.

Mr Mpuuga wondered under what law President Museveni is ordering the locals to fence off customary land which belongs to the entire community, according to Acholi culturally norms.

Ms Santa Okot, (MP Aruu North) spoke about how the Acholi lost their cattle in the post-1986 social upheaval after Mr Museveni came to power. She described how cattle from Acholi, Lango, Teso and other parts of northern and eastern Uganda were raided and driven southwards by the new security forces, and noted that government has not compensated the victims to-date.

She also referred to the lasting consequences of the bloody Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency which saw the government ordering people off their lands and forcing them into camps. 

“The second issue is that for about 20 years there was war and many people were killed and others driven to IDP camps and so the land continued to remain vacant. When President Museveni issued an executive order, it was his brother who blocked it and he even told us in a meeting that he stood before the President and told him that you made a big mistake because the Balaalo cannot move in a hurry,” she said.

Ms Okot said land in Acholi is customarily owned and those claiming to buy such pieces of valuable real estate are doing so illegally.

Timeline to Opposition protest in Parliament

October 9
House raid.
Security personnel raided the opposition National Unity Platform’s offices in Kamwokya, a Kampala suburb where they brutally arrested party officials and MPs.

October 12
Three days later on October 12, Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Mr Mathias Mpuuga, convenes a meeting where threats to boycott the House were heard. It was also demanded that government explains the persistent State-inspired brutality meted out against Opposition supporters, including an accounting for other human rights violations. Opposition MPs stage walk-out.

October 17
Video evidence. Opposition MPs return and attempt to present video evidence in Parliament of human rights violations.

During chaotic proceedings, the chamber is plunged into darkness with power temporarily switched off. In the ensuing commotion, parliamentary staff who are supposed to play the video vanish from the control room. Deputy Speaker Thomas Tayebwa suspends proceedings for 10 minutes.

Mr Mpuuga and Shadow Attorney General Wilfred Niwagaba are summoned to the VIP lounge for urgent talks. Another walk-out occurs.

October 18
October 18, Mr Tayebwa suspends five opposition MPs, including Betty Nambooze (Mukono Municipality), Francis Zaake (Mityana Municipality), Joyce Bagala (Mityana Woman), Frank Kabuye (Kassanda South) and Derrick Nyeko (Makindye East).

November 1
House suspended.  Deputy Speaker Tayebwa suspends House for two weeks.

November 6
Boycott.  LOP Mpuuga announces continuation of boycott.

What MPS said about house boycott...

“Of course it has had a huge impact because as a democratic institution, you cannot sit and transact business normally when the other voices are missing. We need them in the House and I am happy that the Speaker is resuming work.

I hope she will schedule time for them. I saw them today addressing a press conference to lay their demands, and I wish the Speaker can schedule a programme between them and the government side so that their demands are addressed and they resume participating in plenary [sessions]. A right-thinking person cannot say that their boycott has not had any impact because their contribution is very important,” Ms Flavia Rwabuhoro Kabahenda, Kyegegwa Woman MP

Missing persons. 
“We have managed to reignite the debate on the missing persons and also involved the families of the missing persons in the struggle. We have got all the documentation which we submitted to the deputy speaker for onward transmission.

Previously, the government side had been claiming that these people did not exist so by involving their families, we have made them known, that it; is not business as usual. We shall continue with our boycott until they are accounted for. If government doesn’t yield to our demands, we shall go to court and seek specific demands for government to account for the missing people...’’ Mr Yusuf Nsibambi, Mawokota South FDC-Najjanankumbi whip

“From my own perspective, I can say nothing was affected because I attended all the plenary sessions when they were away. However, we would have loved them to be around so that we transact business together because we don’t want to miss any voice”, Ms Jessica Ababiku (Adjumani Woman MP), ruling NRM member and sits on House Business Committee

Compiled by Franklin Draku