Shaban Nkutu’s secret burial and discovery three decades later
What you need to know:
Shaban Nkutu, a post-independence minister, was abducted from his office, killed by Amin’s soldiers and secretly buried. His family would, however, trace his remains 32 years later.
Shaban Kirunda Nkutu, as seen yesterday, had during his nine years of service in government, overseen the sprouting up of various infrastructure around the country.
However, as we shall see today, he would meet a tragic end in the hands of Idi Amin’s soldiers. Following the military coup in 1971, Nkutu was arrested and detained without trial at Makindye Military Police Barracks for several months. After his release, he retreated to a quiet life of private business and refused to flee into exile.
Over the next one year, the Amin regime began to murder its real and perceived opponents, especially after the unsuccessful invasion of Uganda from Tanzania, by Ugandan exiles in September 1972, who were allied to Milton Obote and Yoweri Museveni.
During that time, Nkutu was also repeatedly harassed by State Research operatives and Military Intelligence officers from the army’s Gadaffi Barracks in Jinja, forcing him to frequently shift residences amongst his relatives. Close relatives and members of the Baisemenha clan were often rounded up and detained in large numbers in order to force him to report to the authorities.
Three months after the invasion, Chief Justice Ben Kiwanuka and seven former ministers of the first Obote government were abducted by the Amin army and killed extra-judicially. None of their bodies has ever been recovered or buried by their families.
In early January 1973, Nkutu had told a secret meeting of his brothers and cousins that Amin was reportedly massacring soldiers from Obote’s Langi ethnic community and that while his going into exile might trigger a massacre of Baisemenha and Basoga by President Amin, his individual death would restrict tragedy to his immediate family alone.
Barely a week after that meeting, Nkutu was abducted by the army at his office at Scindia Road in Jinja. The soldiers attempted to put him in the boot of a vehicle in broad daylight and amidst resistance by residents, who were soon sent fleeing as gunshots were fired to disperse them.
Nkutu was taken to Jinja Central Police Station and later to the Gadaffi Army Barracks. He was last seen alive by his driver Abdul Muloiyiva and nephew Twaha in the office of then Commanding Officer of Gadaffi Garrison—Lt. Col. Hussein.
That night of January 11, 1973, Nkutu was murdered by the army and his body dumped in the River Nile. He was 42. However, the body failed to sink or float and was recovered at the river bank the following morning and identified by dozens of people who gathered there in shock.
Security personnel turned up and took the body to the Jinja Hospital Mortuary, from where it was again hurriedly and secretly taken away by the police.
On the orders of Idi Amin, Nkutu was buried in an unknown place, on an unknown date and registered in the cemetery records as “an unknown person,” without the knowledge of his family.
Grave-diggers conducted the burial at gun-point and were threatened with death if they revealed what they knew or the exact location of Nkutu’s grave.
Nkutu’s murder shocked the country and led to the resignation of his nephew, Wanume Kibedi, a brother-in-law of President Amin, who was serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Kibedi’s sister, the First Lady, Mama Mariamu, also fled the country.
For 32 years, Nkutu’s family lived with the pain of his murder and their failure to bury him.
However, in early 2004, by pure chance, one of the grave diggers met Nkutu’s relative. After securing assurances that he and his colleagues would not bear responsibility for the murder placed on them, he revealed where Nkutu had been buried.
The other grave diggers were also tracked down and explained that Nkutu had been buried last and placed on top of five other bodies. This helped in the retrieval and identification of the remains by pathologists in the presence of Nkutu’s family in October 2004.
Entry and exit wounds on his skull revealed Nkutu had been shot twice in the right hand side of the head, with the bullets exiting the left hand side with a gaping hole. A bracelet identified by his relatives was found intact on his left arm and the state of his clothing matched earlier descriptions given by the grave diggers and two witnesses who saw his body at the river bank in1973.
On February 12, 2005, covered by the national flag, the remains of Nkutu were re-buried in national honour at his home at Busesa, Bugweri, Iganga District. His funeral was a major national ceremony that symbolised Uganda’s sober and sad reflection on the human rights horrors of the Idi Amin regime.
The reburial was attended by President Museveni, then Deputy Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga, ministers, Prince Kassim Nakibinge of Buganda, Sheikh Obedi Kamulegeya, Sheikh Hussein Rajab Kakooza and senior Islamic leaders. Also in attendance were senior political leaders from all of Uganda’s major political parties, including Paul Ssemogerere and Ssebaana Kizito (DP), Mayanja Nkangi (CP), Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu, Dr Suleiman Kiggundu and Wafula Oguttu (FDC) and most of the national leadership of UPC.
Most of all, his family was finally able to bury him with support of thousands of Ugandans who turned up to honour his memory. The national anthem was played before and after his remains were lowered into his final resting place and President Museveni declared Nkutu a martyr for his courageous decision to face death alone without endangering his relatives and constituents.
While the reburial re-opened the wounds inflicted 32 years ago, it gave as much closure as is possible in such circumstances, for his family. For many Ugandans whose loved ones simply “disappeared” during Amin’s time in power, Nkutu’s reburial symbolised the closest they might ever come to burying their own.
Nkutu’s reburial also sent a strong message to those who abuse state power that the ugly facts of their involvement can still come out many years later.
A witness to the Nkutu abduction, Mr Peter Okwera, then general manager of Uganda Grain Milling Company, explained how he saw Capt. Issa Habib Galungbe, the Intelligence Officer of Gadaffi Barracks, command soldiers during that fateful day. Lt. Col. Habib was nominated ambassador to Saudi Arabia by an unknowing President Museveni in 1988 but lost his appointment after he was accused of rape. He died in 2001.
Mr James Zikusooka, who worked as Permanent Secretary and Engineer in-Chief at the Works Ministry together with Mr Nkutu, speaking about the former minister’s life said: “Late Hon. Nkutu lived a lawful and peaceful life. He was a national leader who scored the many high profile achievements.”
In a letter to Jinja Municipal Mayor in 2008, Zikusooka requested for the recognition of Nkutu’s contributions to the country. “Ugandans should treasure the memory of this independence nationalist and honest, hard-working public servant, who endeavoured to put limited national resources to the service of all areas and all tribes of the country as well as East Africa, with total integrity and value for money. He was committed to the development of Uganda and I urge you to re-name a road in his memory.” Led by Mayor Baswale Kezaala, Jinja Municipality Council unanimously voted to re-name Allidina Road in Jinja as “Shaban Nkutu Memorial Road.”