Mass Arrests in Uganda

Photo Source: Wall Street Journal

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

In May 2021, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni extended his rule in Uganda to four decades, by swearing in for the office for the sixth time. But, he has done that with mass arrests and intimidation. Infact, there has been a certain political unease in Uganda, since late 2020. 

Museveni had run for the office, by pitting against the pop star politician Robert Kyagulanyi (aka Bobi Wine). His rival had warned that Ugandans would rise up, similarly like people did in Libya, Egypt and Sudan, if Museveni did not leave peacefully. As a reaction, the president had accused the singer of wanting to organise a coup d’etat.


In a Guardian article, Jason Burke, and Samuel Okiror, wrote: ‘Museveni has been in power for 35 years and has long been perceived as a key ally of western powers in east Africa. The US and UK have given billions of dollars of development aid and security assistance to Uganda in recent years.’


Bobi Wine’s arrest had sparked protests, especially in Kampala in November 2020. The state had shot atleast fifty-four people dead. Abductions intensified after this episode, continuing through the polling day, which was marred by widespread allegations of fraudulence.


Although, in February 2021, the president dismissed reports of disappearances, but acknowledged that he had called in the army to defeat “lawbreakers”, “traitors” and “terrorists”.  After that, he instituted two military agencies by name: the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI), the army’s intelligence wing, and the Special Forces Command (SFC), an elite president guard with experience in fighting in Somalia, led by his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba. Then, he contradicted his statements by blaming army for 'laziness' and 'indiscipline' for using excessive violence.


In Museveni’s February 2021 speech, he accepted that CMI had arrested 242 people, and that SFC had detained 76, even listing a handful of accused by name. 

On 15 April 2020, Minister of Internal Affairs Jeje Odongo informed the national parliament that 1,304 people had been under detection. He named 338 specific individuals, very few of which overlapped with Museveni’s list. The contradictions between official statements suggest that there is a mischievous uncertainty, and there seems to be a poor co-ordination between security forces. To counter allegations, the officials say that unaccounted people are simply hiding in some villages.

Wine’s opposition party, National Unity Platform, is another source of detention records. NUP revealed that 758 people have been abducted, but admitted that it is difficult to maintain an accurate and up-to-date list. Not all forced disappearances, and the news of release of detainees are reported to their party. 

The NUP’s list gave the place of residence of 414 abductees. Of these, 378 are from the central region, mostly Kampala. This is where Bobi Wine’s party is strongest, and where the government fears unrest the most. As a reaction, the president has accused Wine of ‘playing sympathy politics’, running a ‘criminal scheme’, instigated by ‘local parasites’ and ‘foreign backers’.

“There is nothing like torture. Wine should stop making conclusions before investigating further on the circumstances of the death,” Owoyesigire said, a senior Kampala metropolitan police officer. However, these statements are a lie. 


Abductions have also occurred elsewhere, which may be underreported. Many of the arrests have targeted known NUP activists, such as organisers at city markets, local council candidates, or even Wine’s family members. Some were rounded up at political rallies.


According to journalists, Liam Taylor and Derrick Wandera, the army arrested 126 NUP supporters and leaders, who were campaigning in the island district of Kalangala. 36 of those remain in detention, including Wine’s right-hand man Ali Bukeni (aka Nubian Li), and his bodyguard Edward Sebufu (aka Eddie Mutwe). Several journalists were arrested alongside them.


In Kampala, security agencies used newly-installed CCTV cameras, and hired informants, to determine individuals who participated in the November 2020 riots. Thus, it may also have been that the ruling regime is using its powerful individuals with impunity, to choreograph abductions of opponents.


Other arrests appear more random. When some  young men objected, and an argument broke out, security forces hustled them into vehicles, and drove away. 


Many of the abducted eventually end up in a new prison at Kitalya, which opened in 2020. Others spend most of their time in military custody, such as the barracks at Makindye, or CMI headquarters, in Mbuya, Kampala.


Reports also claim that there are multiple abductees, who are held in windowless rooms with about fifty other people. Multiple people spoke of being abused there too. 


“There’s a place they call a veranda. We call it a freezer. It’s too cold. They pour water on you, they make you roll several times in that water, or they strike you,” a victim said. “They beat you with sticks while detainees jump in despair, and the police want assurances that the abductees would never go again onto the streets.”


Some others are taken to unknown buildings, some very houses with marble-tiled floors and flush toilets. Another man, who was abducted by SFC in Mukono, said that he was taken to a building that “was just like a house”, and that they slept on “tiles” for 20 days, before they were relocated to place that was “just a garage”. Both men say they were beaten, forced to do exercises, and hooded the entire time. They were both released at night, without charge, in a forest, and sugar cane plantation respectively.


The lines between prisons, barracks and so-called “safe houses” are blurred. One victim said that he was moved to four different places, during his three weeks in detention. The Ugandan government is seemingly arresting people thinking that they are close to Bobi Wine, and that they have information about his activities. When they realise people don’t have information, they tend to release the detainees. However, the unwarranted torture has become a way of extracting information.


The torture is evident from abductees, who bear signs of mistreatment, such as scars and missing toenails. One of the victims had his thighs burned, after they put a flat iron, a hot one, on him. Another victim had a hot liquid poured on his back through a plastic jerry can.


There are also reports where there is the use of electric shocks, joints and genitals beaten with wires, been burned with cigarettes, or fingernails torn out, and mysterious injections. Wine had also shared graphic images on social media of one of his supporters, Fabian Luuka, who he claimed died after being tortured in custody. 


Another notable activist, Daniel Apedel, was found dead, after he refused to work with the government. “He had been severely beaten, hit, his fingers were broken, his teeth was a grave torture, and was a very disturbing sight to see,” Wine said.


These arrests and abductions seem to be illegal. The constitution requires that anyone detained must be informed of the alleged offence, given access to a lawyer, and their next-of-kin, and be brought to court within 48 hours. But, some people have now been missing for six months, without seeing a lawyer, or appearing before a court. Enforced disappearances are also illegal under international law.

One feature of the abductions has been the frequent use of military courts to try civilians. In 2006, the constitutional court ruled that this practice is unlawful. The army, however, believes that it can try people for certain crimes such as “possession of military stores”. But, this argument has an insubstantial legal basis.

In the Guardian article, Jason Burke and Samuel Okiror further wrote: 'Ugandan government has also been using unmarked vans known as "drones" to abduct people, which are sometimes visible on footage from traffic, or other surveillance cameras, close to the site of abductions'.

There is a mystery behind the organisational infrastructure used for the abductions. There is also a paradox regarding detentions, which are either well-planned, or running out of control, as competing security networks scramble for influence. There seems to be a secretiveness at the top brass of Uganda’s military leadership. But, the bigger question arises: where are the missing people, and when will they come back?


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