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Justice remains elusive as relatives search for missing persons

What you need to know:

As the question of the political transition remains foggy while the regime is focused on entrenching itself in power, acts of egregious abuses including kidnapping and torture of civilians by security personnel have become commonplace, writes Frederic Musisi & Rita Kemigisa

The 2022 Fragile State Index, which assesses the vulnerability of the 193 UN member states in regard to conflict or collapse, recently placed Uganda in the 20th spot on the list topped by the war-wracked Yemen, Somalia, and South Sudan. 

As the question of the political transition remains foggy while the regime is focused on entrenching itself in power, acts of egregious abuses including kidnapping and torture of civilians by security personnel have become commonplace, which experts have warned could derail the democratic gains made and plunge the country towards the cliff.  

While President Museveni has variously rejected comparisons of his government to past regimes, to some observers, history has an uncanny way of repeating itself.

On the sunny afternoon of November 23, 2020, a coterie of security personnel riding in two Toyota vans popularly known as drones, raided Middle East Bugolobi market in Nakawa Division.

They brandished guns and concealed their faces by wearing balaclavas, according to witness accounts. Their mission was to arrest a fish monger at the market, Martin Lukwago.

The country was struggling to contain the first Covid-19 wave so wearing face masks was a requirement in public. The high-octane presidential election campaigns were also raging.  On many occasions, security personnel donned balaclavas in place of facemasks to conceal their faces.

Relatives of missing persons and National Unity Platform supporters at the party offices in Kamwokya, Kampala, early this month. PHOTO | MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI 

According to witness accounts, the marauding security personnel could barely identify Lukwago and asked others who worked in the market where he was.  By the time of his arrest, Lukwago had taken a break and was playing a board game (Ludo) with his friends. Eventually the soldiers encircled him and his friends.

In the ensuing melee, one Ashraf Malepo was shot as he tried to run away. Malepo was taken to Mulago National Referral Hospital and treated. Lukwago and others were rounded up and though most of his colleagues were freed, he remains missing, two years after his arrest.

On November 18, 2020, spontaneous protests broke out in parts the country following the arrest of Mr Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, the then National Unity Party (NUP) presidential candidate, while campaigning in Luuka District for allegedly violating the Covid-19 prevention guidelines. More chaos ensued, with both sides involved. The situation was aggravated by some rogue security personnel who randomly fired at passersby.

A police probe last year established that 49 out of the 54 people who were killed by security personnel during the riots, were passersby and not involved in the riots.

The government promised to compensate families of the deceased but there has been no update so far on the process, while only two security personnel have been prosecuted by the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF)  court martial.

Lukwago is among scores of NUP supporters who are missing. Others are John Bosco Kibalama, who was allegedly abducted by security in June 2019 in Kanyanya, a Kampala suburb; Michael Semuddu, who was reportedly kidnapped on November 28, 2020; and John Damulira, Moses Mbabazi, and Vincent Nalumosco all of whom were allegedly kidnapped by security in December 2020.


Others missing

Other missing persons, according to NUP party officials are Muhammad Kanatta, Yuda Ssempijja, Musisi Mbowa, Peter Kirya, Shafik Wangolo, Dennis Zimula, Musitafa Luwemba, Hassan Mubiru, and George Kasumba, among others.

Kasumba, who was contesting for the LC5 position for Kasaali Town Council in Kyotera District, was allegedly kidnapped by unknown security personnel under the cover of darkness on the night of January 19, 2021. The family continues to visit prisons and police cells in search of Kasumba but all this has been in vain. Mobile phone tracing using mast tracking indicated that he disappeared between Rushere in Kiruhura District and Lyantonde District.

His mother, Agnes Nanono narrated to Daily Monitor the pain and anguish of not knowing whether her son and breadwinner of the family is dead or alive.

“What did we do to deserve this? What crime did he commit that they cannot produce him in court? He was just contesting for a political position; does that get someone taken away forever?” a teary Nanono laments. “If he is dead, they should return his body for burial.”

Most of the family members of missing persons are too timid to speak out. They fear that they could be picked up and detained by security personnel who they say occasionally threaten them through phone calls.

Damulira’s brother, Charles Kigganda, who has been outspoken about his missing brother and appeared in several media interviews, was recently arrested by security personnel and later dumped at the Central Police Station in Kampala. The reason for his arrest was not given after he was freed on bond.

Establishing the whereabouts of the missing persons has proved difficult for family members. Civilians could barely identify the arresting security personnel and the command structure and deployment in regard to such covert operations remains confidential and a preserve of security agencies. 

Livingstone Ssewanyana, the executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, says the state remains liable for the people who disappeared and those arrested arbitrarily because it needs to provide redress and ensure justice for all.

“It remains a blot on Uganda’s human rights record that Uganda is a country that cannot hold perpetrators to account, that can’t provide relief and redress to those who have suffered damage or cannot ascertain the whereabouts of people who go missing,” he argued.

During the reign of terror in the Idi Amin and Milton Obote regimes, the army and security outfits that operated through loose command structures wielded immense powers and its officers, some of whom were semi-illiterate, determined the fate of hundreds of the kidnapped through kangaroo courts.

Owing to the heightened disappearance of civilians, especially real and perceived opponents of the Amin regime, Mr Ssewanyana says during the Amin era there was a decree passed in 1974 called the Missing Persons Decree which made provisions for the time frame within which a person would be declared missing and, therefore, all efforts would cease to establish the whereabouts of that person. 

“That decree was repealed so at the moment we do not have a legal framework for any person who goes missing. The assumption is that Uganda then sought to be a democratic state and as such the state became responsible for every citizen,” he noted.


Pearl of Blood

The late Justice Arthur Oder-led Commission of Inquiry report, the Pearl of Blood published in 1994, paints a grim picture of the actions of these security outfits, particularly in disappearing thousands of Ugandans between 1971 and 1979.

In Uganda’s political parlance, the word ‘disappearance’ started being used recently—last year in the aftermath of the January 14, 2021 polls—as a euphemism for civilians taken by security operatives without disclosed offence, taken to an unknown location and without certainty about their return.

Often, the Pearl of Blood report details that the army and police denied involvement in the disappearance of persons.

“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.”

President Museveni has often rejected the comparison of his government to the “low-calibre”—Amin and Obote—past regimes, which are accused of committing heinous crimes against the civilian population. In his February 13, 2021 address on the security situation in the country, following a spate of arbitrary abductions of NUP supporters by security operatives driving in numberless vans, the President said his security apparatus are taught not to be part of that culture of violating people’s rights with impunity.

Today, there are about a dozen security agencies carved out of police and the army, the notable ones being Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI), Joint Anti-Terrorism Taskforce (JATT), Internal Security Organisation (ISO), Special Forces Command (SFC), Directorate of Crime Intelligence, among others. Their command structure, however, remains opaque. 

For instance, at the height of kidnappings last year and this year— between August and September—police often feigned ignorance in regard to who is responsible. Relatives have accused police of shirking their responsibility to investigate whenever a case of a missing person is reported.

The police and army spokespersons have often engaged in doublespeak when asked about missing persons. In an interview with this newspaper last month, Security minister, Maj Gen Jim Muhwezi, said the government was not holding any NUP supporters in ungazetted places.

In March, the NUP leadership tabled before the parliamentary Human Rights Committee a list of 66 missing persons. Later in May, the Uganda Radio Network quoted the police director of legal services Erasmus Twaruhukwa denying knowing the whereabouts of at least seven people whose names keep appearing on the list of missing persons.

These are Kasumba, Ddamulira, Agnes Nabwera, Sarah Nanyanzi, Mathew Kigozi, and Mathew Kafeero Ibrahim Chekedi. These were specifically picked up from areas within Kampala, Greater Masaka, and Mukono in 2020.

In his February 13, 2021 address on the security situation in the country, following a spate of arbitrary abductions of NUP supporters by security operatives, President Museveni ordered security agencies to produce a list of all individuals in custody.

The President said the CMI had arrested 177 persons who were granted bail or released, while another 65 were still being investigated.

Later in March 2021, Mr Museveni detailed in a missive dated February 23, that at least 51 people reported by relatives as missing, were being detained by SFC.

The SFC is a semi-independent elite outfit within the UPDF and its core job is guarding the President and vice president, top state guests and officials as well as key national installations. However, it has periodically been deployed on special operations in battlefronts and its commandos, according to President Museveni, subdued potential insurrectionists during the last presidential election.


Dead or alive?

The President did not disclose possible charges against the individuals or the reason why they have not been formally arraigned in court as required by the Constitution and neither did he explain why the suspects were being held by SFC rather than regular state investigating agencies.

The letter, however, came three days after the then Internal Affairs minister, Gen Jeje Odongo, had tabled in Parliament a list of 177 civilians that he said were presumed missing, but were on remand in civilian prisons or detained at Makindye Military barracks.

Some of the families Daily Monitor talked to indicated that the names of their relatives were among the list of names President Museveni detailed in his previous speeches, but have hit a dead end in their search. Security agencies have turned around and denied knowledge of the whereabouts of the same persons.

Human rights lawyer George Musisi told this newspaper they have filed in court several habeas corpus petitions.

“We want the state to go on record that they don’t have those people then we can think of another remedy,” Mr Musisi said.

He added: “The bigger picture is the practice of different security agencies picking up people and not giving accountability because previously if a person was picked up from Nansana, there would be a report that this person was picked from here and taken by this agency, but the 2020 riots made a turning point of the different agencies. So, relatives and lawyers have had the uphill task of having to figure out where their people are, and yet the likely possibility is [missing persons] being held in ungazetted locations.”

Scores of those who were arrested during the protests two years ago are languishing in jails and dungeons as the wheels of justice turn slowly. 

The endless calls for accountability in regard to the Kampala 2020 riot victims have routinely put government and Western donors on a collision path.

On November 18, the European Union tweeted: “Many innocent #Ugandans lost their lives in a violent reaction to political demonstrations. Two years on from these tragic events we continue to call for #justice, rightful #compensation & for all perpetrators to be held to account.”

The Germany embassy separately said: “The 54 victims who were shot by security forces are not forgotten. We are still waiting for the final report promised by the government to ensure justice for the victims, compensation for their families and to hold the perpetrators accountable.

In March, the New York-based Human Rights Watch in the report titled “I only need justice”: Unlawful detention and abuse in unauthorised places of detention in Uganda detailed numerous cases of enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, torture, and other ill-treatment by the police, army, military intelligence, and Uganda’s domestic intelligence body, between 2018—when Kyagulanyi became a political force—and January 2021, when the country held general elections. All the victims were NUP supporters.  The pattern of kidnapping and torturing continued for months then it stopped, ostensibly due to donor pressure on government, and then resumed in September this year when reports of several people missing emerged.”

Mr Ssewanyana said there must be relentless demand for justice and accountability, citing the case of Chile where it took more than 22 years to bring the henchmen involved in Augusto Pinochet’s reign of terror to book. Pinochet himself was arrested in October 1998 for the various human rights crimes committed during his reign.

Uganda’s history is peppered with anarchy, violence and bloodshed, events, which are captured in the preamble of the 1995 Constitution. But the ghosts of this violent past are yet to be exorcised. 


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