Over 600 rebels stranded after CMI detains leader

Brig Gen Ayiga Rajabu Ayile, a former member of the defunct Uganda National Rescue Front (UNRF) II rebels. PHOTO | STEPHEN OTAGE

What you need to know:

  • While Brig Gen Ayiga and five of his men are in detention in Ntinda, more than 600 more wait in the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan for word on whether to turn themselves in and receive amnesty or continue their armed rebellion against the government.

At a safe house in Ntinda, a Kampala suburb, a one-star general paces up and down restlessly wondering whether he is a prisoner or waiting to meet President Museveni to talk peace and seek amnesty.  

The one-star general is Brigadier General Ayiga Rajabu Ayile, a former member of the defunct Uganda National Rescue Front (UNRF) II rebels whose then leader, the late Maj Gen Ali Bamuze denounced rebellion and sought amnesty. 

Gen Ayiga was brought first to Yumbe District and kept with a group of more than 600 rebel fighters. He was later transferred by operatives of the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) to Entebbe and finally brought to the safe house in Ntinda where he has spent 11 months in detention. He is yet to meet President Museveni, as promised, or receive amnesty, which he craves.

“My members and I are tired of this. I want to know whether I am a prisoner or not because I don’t understand why I am being kept here for all this time when I was initially told that I would be meeting the President,” Ayiga said, speaking in the Aringa dialect of Lugbara language.

While Brig Gen Ayiga and five of his men are in detention in Ntinda, more than 600 more wait in the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan for word on whether to turn themselves in and receive amnesty or continue their armed rebellion against the government.

The rebel leader says he and his men are detained in difficult conditions, poorly fed and with limited access to medical attention. One of his men, who is diabetic, recently fell down a flight of stairs and hit his head against a wall.

“We called the CMI and they didn’t show up,” the rebel leader, says. “They said the doctor is coming, but when we called the doctor, he also never showed up. Our colleague was taken to Mulago hospital and they found a blood clot in his head and was operated on at Shs7 million. Up to now, CMI has not even responded to our pleas and our colleague may die without help.”  

The Chief of Military Intelligence, Maj Gen James Birungi, is yet to respond to requests for comment. UPDF spokesperson Brig Gen Felix Kulaigye on Friday said he was not aware of the detention of the rebel leader and some of his men.  “Were they arrested? I am not aware of this and I need to first consult and I will get back to you,” he said. He was yet to provide more information by press time. 

Officials from the Amnesty Commission, which is charged with managing the process of reintegrating and reforming former rebel combatants, were not available for comment.
Waiting for peace

The main rump of the Uganda National Rescue Front II rebel group laid down their arms after their leader, Maj Gen Bamuze signed a peace deal with the government in 2002. However, Brig Gen Ayiga says he and 52 other rebel fighters were left out of that settlement due to a disagreement with Maj Gen Bamuze. 

He says Maj Gen Bamuze was furious when he learned of separate contacts between government peace negotiators and Brig Gen Ayiga. When the final peace deal was signed, Brig Gen Ayiga and his loyalists were not considered, leaving them under arms. 

Akasa Kelili, the chief coordinator of Aringa Obungi Peace Initiative Committee, accuses CMI of frustrating efforts by Brig Gen Ayiga and his men to renounce rebellion.

He said when contact was initiated between the UPDF and remnants of the UNRFII, more than 400 fighters renounced rebellion and handed themselves in. The group says many were sent home empty-handed and some detained. “About 120 were taken to army barracks to cook for recruits,” Mr Kelili said. 

According to Mr Kelili, when the fighters under Brig Gen Ayiga were contacted again, they were told that President Museveni had asked them to renounce rebellion and promised to meet with them. However, the meeting is yet to happen. Apart from those detained in Ntinda, four other fighters were arrested and detained in Moyo.

“Four officers from the team together with 11 of us were brought here and told that we would meet the President, but up now we have been left stranded in the hands of a private who is mistreating us here. Some of us have ulcers and yet we are only fed on posho and beans. We want them to tell us why we are being detained here without any reason,” he said,

“We cannot continue to live like this. We have no water to use the toilet, no water for bathing and the situation is out of control right now. The water people came here twice, but these people refused to pay the bills and therefore water was disconnected. When it rains, we use mineral bottles for fetching rainwater for drinking and for bathing. What are we doing here,” he wondered.

“We are being locked and now allowed to step out, I want to ask the government whether we are prisoners or not, because this is what prisoners go through. If we are prisoners, let the CMI tell us because what I know is I am the one who spoke to the former rebels together with my colleagues and we are the ones who welcomed them home, so why are we being detained here now,” he added.

Andruga Daniel Bata, a member of the peace coordination team, said rebel fighters in South Sudan and DR Congo are waiting for reassurances before laying down arms. 

“These people all want to come home, but they only want their commander to go and talk to them and bring them home,” he said.  “They now think their commander, Brig Gen Ayiga has been arrested and is in jail.” 

Although the rebel group has not been active in Uganda for more than a decade, there are fears some of their fighters could be recruited into rebel outfits within the Great Lakes region if they are not returned home and reintegrated into society.
Road to redemption

Until 1993, UNRF II was part of the UNRF I group under Gen Moses Ali. However, in 1993 the group which mostly operated in Aringa county, Arua District led by the late Maj Gen Ali Bamuze, broke away and on December 24, 2002, signed a peace agreement with the government of Uganda in Yumbe. 

A blanket amnesty was granted to the rebel group and Sh4.2 billion distributed to fighters to help them reintegrate back into society. 

Brig Gen Ayiga was arrested and tortured at Yumbe Army barracks on allegation of participating in the murder of an American couple in Acholi Parish around March 2004. He was later cleared by the Uganda Human Rights Commission and awarded Sh6.5m in compensation for torture. 

In 2013, after failed peace attempts, Brig Gen Ayiga headed to South Sudan and joined forces with SPLA-IO and other equally disgruntled rebels of West Nile Region to form a larger rebel group of more than 600 rebels. On September 13, 2022, the Civilian Peace Movement based in Yumbe met and discussed the return of the rebel leader and his group, and established contact. According to records seen by this newspaper, 121 rebel fighters were taken to Nakasongola Army barracks, while 442 were taken to Yumbe Camp. The rebels handed over 34 guns.

“There is also another group of rebels who are in Uganda and want to hand over their guns but only to Ayiga,” a brief prepared for President Museveni and seen by this newspaper says. 

“There is another group of over 300 rebels under Ayiga in South Sudan which is waiting for his command on whether to continue with the rebellious activities or surrender to the government of Uganda.”

Who is Brig Gen Ayiga?

A father of seven, Brig Gen Ayiga was born in 1970 in Kozinga Village, Acholi Parish, Aria Sub county, Yumbe District. He did not attend any formal education. After the overthrow of Idi Amin’s government in 1979, the remnants of his soldiers took arms to fight the new government under the Uganda National Rescue Front (UNRF) I led by Gen Moses Ali. 

In 1993, after Gen Ali joined the ruling NRM government, UNRF I under the late Maj Gen Ali Bamuze broke ranks and formed UNRF II that operated in West Nile until 2002 when the rebels signed a 
peace agreement.  However, unknown to him and 52 others, Bamuze omitted them from the list of amnesty and they did not receive resettlement packages.

On September 3, 2014, Ayiga returned to rebellion in South 
Sudan. He teamed up with remnants of another rebel group, the West Nile Bank Front of Juma Oris and with a force of about 600, allied with the SPLA-IO that was fighting against the government of South Sudan. He returned to Uganda on October 31, 2022, and camped in Yumbe until February 19, 2023, when he was handed over to CMI.