The return of drones and abductions

Plain-clothed security personnel rearrest suspects in the murder of the late AIGP Andrew Felix Kaweesi at International Crimes Division of the High Court in Kololo, Kampala, on September 11, 2019. Security have used such vans in abductions. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Mr Alex Mufumbiro, the NUP deputy spokesperson, yesterday said “many of our supporters continue to be abducted and taken to different safe houses. [The] government can deny all these, but history will always judge them for their inconsistencies”.

The Opposition National Unity Platform (NUP) party has alleged that security forces have abducted more than a dozen of its supporters, resurrecting dreaded memories of enforced disappearances of its members before, during and after last year’s presidential and general elections. 

Information Minister Dr Chris Baryomunsi as well as spokespersons for police and the military in separate interviews said they were unaware of missing Opposition supporters.

The party leader, Mr Robert Kyagulanyi, an artiste-turned-politician and better known by the stage name Bobi Wine, in multiple media posts said 15 of his supporters, picked up between this month and the last one, were being held incommunicado. 

Six of these were arrested in the past three weeks alone, according to NUP.  These include Bashir Kasagga, whom armed men wearing what looked like UPDF uniform picked on September 6, Jakaana Nadduli, a son of former minister Abdul Nadduli, Teddy Nalubowa, a businesswoman, and journalist Kenneth Kavulu of Buganda Broadcasting Service (BBS) Terefayina.  

The quartet has been produced in military and civilian courts where they were charged with, among others, incitement to violence and being in possession of government stores (military items).  The whereabouts of Mr Hussein Kato Gaaza and Mr Abbas Abtex Semakula, picked separately from their homes by gun-wielding and uniformed men, remain unknown.

Mr Alex Mufumbiro, the NUP deputy spokesperson, yesterday said “many of our supporters continue to be abducted and taken to different safe houses. [The] government can deny all these, but history will always judge them for their inconsistencies”.

Latest incident

Families of Mr Gaaza and Mr Semakula intimated to this newspaper that the duo, upon arrest, was thrown into a waiting drone that sped off to an unknown destination. A week has lapsed since their arrest. 

Asked about the renewed abductions, the UPDF spokesperson, Brig Gen Felix Kulayigye, said suspects he knew about were duly charged with different offences and remanded to prison, pending trial, and he was unaware of the missing duo.

“… You will need to cross-check with CMI (Chieftaincy for Military Intelligence), or the police [for their whereabouts] because I don’t have information about these ones that you say are missing,” he said last evening.

Following growing noise by NUP over its missing supporters, one of the missing members identified as Mr Moses Bukenya, alias Wiser, was suddenly freed from Kitalya Prison on August 23.

Mr Bukenya told this newspaper that he spent 21 months incarcerated at different places, among them Makindye Military Police and an ungazetted detention facility, since uniformed men abducted from Nsambya Sharing Hall in Nsambya, a Kampala suburb.

Upon his abduction, he said he was dragged into a waiting Toyota Hiace van, christened Drone for its speed, before he was kept incommunicado for more than seven months.

At some point, his family members lost hope and held a funeral service for him believing he was dead.

The accounts he offered of the pain and torture he suffered while in custody bordered on horror. 

The lanky 22-year-old said his abductors who he believed were state security operatives threw and kept him in an empty hall for three lonely nights during which he drank his urine to survive.

“I was forced to urinate in naked electric cables and got electrocuted. For me to avoid this horror, I had to drink my own urine so that I could reduce the number of times I went to urinate,” he said.

Because law enforcement authorities denied knowledge of missing NUP supporters, we were unable to ask about allegations levelled by Mr Bukenya who is out on bail.

In an interview last night, Dr Baryomunsi, who doubles as the government spokesperson, said: “Police do not abduct, they arrest and not according to political parties, but they trace for criminals.” 

“If their people are missing, they should report to police and allow them to investigate because NUP is using these criminals for their political gain. However, what we pray of police is that when they are arrested, they should be produced in court within the [constitutional threshold of] 48 hours,” he said.

Police spokesperson Fred Enanga told this newspaper that “[I] have forwarded to … [Police’s] Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) and Crime Intelligence (CI), awaiting feedback” our inquiries on the whereabouts of Mr Gaaza and Semakula. 

The arrest and holding in secrecy of NUP supporters is not new. In the run-up to, during and after 2021 presidential and general elections, security agencies --- among them Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence operatives ---allegedly arrested hundreds of NUP supporters, leading to verbal exchanges in Parliament between the Opposition party and the government. 

The government later admitted that law enforcement agencies had taken dozens of the NUP supporters, but downplayed the numbers raised by the Opposition party.

Incarceration of supporters of Bobi Wine began on a low intensity months before the ballot, but dramatically escalated following the November 2020 protests in Kampala and nearby town following the arrest by security forces of Bobi Wine while on a campaign trail in the eastern Luuka District. 

This newspaper ran a series detailing the accounts by families and relatives of missing NUP supporters, which spotlighted their plight and drew widespread condemnation, including by development partners.

In respect to the November 2020 protests, the government said security forces rounded up as many as 1,300 suspects.

NUP search

Mr Mufumbiro yesterday said their legal teams have been traversing the country, seeking information on the whereabouts of the missing members.

“We suspect that they are being held at CMI, but we know all this can end only when there is change in government. Our supporters are not safe because there are those that were abducted two years ago and have never been seen by their families,” he said.   

At the weekend, Bobi Wine indicated that NUP supporters and all those in the Opposition must take precautionary measures.

“As we register several new cases of state engineered abductions, all political activists need to take some precautions; try to have airtime at all times; don’t move alone, especially at night; don’t open [your housedoor] for people you don’t know; [and], avoid meeting strangers,” he noted in a social media broadcast to followers on social media.