Truth and reconciliation: A faraway dream for Uganda

Gun Rights

Ever since, Democratic Party president general Nobert Mao was appointed Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs in the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) Cabinet, he has been calling for a truth and reconciliation commission.

He was at it again on May 9, when the body of slain former State minister for Labour Charles Okello Engola was brought to Parliament.

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Mao, who signed what Museveni called a cooperation agreement to join Cabinet, said State building isn’t a partisan task since it demands the joining of hands.

“This country is hurting. We need to repent to those we have wronged and forgive those who have wronged us. Only true reconciliation can secure our collective future. We are all in the same boat as Ugandans. You may think you have a Plan B but there is no country B,” Mao said. 

Mao’s call for truth and reconciliation came after Uganda was hit by a spate of gun violence that saw Engola killed by his bodyguard; vlogger Ibrahim Tusubira, alias Isma Olaxess killed by yet-to-be-known assailants; Uttam Bhandari, an Indian money lender whose life was ended by  Police Constable Ivan Wabwire, among others.

In previous years, there have been a number of unexplained slaying of high-profile people such as prosecutor Joan Kagezi, former police spokesperson Andrew Felix Kaweesi, former Buyende District Police Commander Muhammad Kirumira, and former Arua Municipality Member of Parliament (MP) Ibrahim Abiriga, while Minister for Works Gen Katumba Wamala survived an attack, but his daughter Brenda Katumba Nantongo, and his driver Sgt Haruna Kayondo weren’t that lucky.

A number of Sheikhs — Daktoor Abdul-Qadir Muwaya, Mustafa Bahiga, Ibrahim Hassan Kirya, Yunus Abubakar Mudungu, Muhammad Maganda, and Major Mohammed Kiggundu — were killing in the intervening years, with government accusing the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels of being behind the murders, but no single conviction has ever been obtained.

There are also question marks on who ordered security operatives to kill more than 50 unarmed Ugandans during the November 18-19 2020 protests that were sparked off after then-Opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, alias Bobi Wine, was arrested on the campaign trail in the eastern district of Namutumba.

Former presidents Milton Obote (L) and Idi Amin.

Mao’s suggestion that Uganda needs a truth and reconciliation process was met with disdain.

“After the NRM seized power, reconciliation was high on the new government’s political agenda. The country was hurting. Almost 40 years later, reconciliation is again an issue. The country is hurting again. The NRM has failed to break the vicious circle of abuse of power. Who will?” says Fredrick Golooba-Mutebi, a political scientist.

In their paper entitled Investigating the Links Between Political Settlements and Inclusive Development in Uganda: Towards a Research Agenda Golooba-Mutebi and Sam Hickey say Uganda’s post-colonial history before the NRM emerged from the Luweero jungles involved ruling coalitions that were initially intended to be broad-based, but which became increasingly characterised by ethnic, regional and religious exclusivity, with heavily militaristic tendencies in support of moves away from political disorder and towards a dominant leader form of political settlement.

“Part of this legacy was to ensure that the military would remain a key player within the ruling coalition. In ideational terms, the notion of Uganda as a coherent political entity and the idea that the State was a legitimate political force were both heavily damaged during this era…” Golooba-Mutebi and Hickey write.

During the course of the Luweero guerrilla war, the NRM crafted a document they termed a 10-Point Programme, not only aimed at rationalising Museveni’s decision to wage war against the Milton Obote II government, but also provide a blueprint to resuscitate a battle-scarred country.

Upon seizing power in 1986, Museveni started implementing a 10-Point Programme in which he accentuated democracy, security, national unity, independence, restoring and rehabilitating social services, ending corruption and misuse of power, dealing with the plight of displaced people, pan-African cooperation, and pursuing a mixed economy as the basic tenets of his philosophy.

In quest of these goals, Museveni in 1986 put in place the commission of inquiry into violations of human rights (CIVHR), on which Edward Kiwanuka Ssekandi, Museveni’s future vice president, was the lead counsel.

The CIVHR was tasked with inquiring into “the causes and circumstances” surrounding mass murders, arbitrary arrests, the role of law enforcement agents and the State security agencies, and discrimination that occurred between 1962 and January 1986, when Museveni and the NRM captured power.

The commission also was meant to suggest ways of preventing such abuses from recurring and was expected to determine the role of various State institutions in both perpetrating and hiding gross human rights violations. 

President Museveni (left) with FDC leader Kizza Besigye at the Namugongo Shrines during the Pope’s visit in 2015.

Museveni’s government, on its part, promised that the results and findings of this commission would be treated seriously.

Though CIVHR, headed by Supreme Court Justice Arthur Oder, who has since passed on, crisscrossed the country, getting gripping testimonies on human rights violations, in her academic paper entitled Constraints: The Undoing of the Ugandan Truth of Commission Joanna Quinn says Museveni was hasty in appointing the commission and its mandate was extremely broad and vague.

The mandate included the need to investigate nearly every type of human rights abuse imaginable, all of which had been committed between the time of Independence in 1962 and the beginning of Museveni’s term in office.

Official documents show that the legislation that brought the commission of inquiry into action  had nine wide-ranging categories of violations for consideration, including investigations of mass murder; arbitrary arrest, detention, and imprisonment; unfair trials; torture; crimes of law enforcement agents; the displacement, expulsion or disappearance of Ugandans; discriminatory treatment; the denial of any human right; the protection of anyone who had perpetrated such crimes; and anything else the commission deemed necessary.

“Neither the fact that these abuses totalled well into the hundreds of thousands, nor were specified, was addressed. Instead, the fledgling group of commissioners was left to sort out such issues. As so often happens in the establishment of truth commissions, this sweeping mandate proved difficult to manage,” Quinn says.

The impartiality of the commission had been doubted once Museveni filled it with people said to be his stooges such as Ssekandi; Dr Jack Luyombya, who had treated injured National Resistance Army (NRA) guerrillas; John Nagenda, who would later be appointed Museveni’s senior advisor on Media and Public Relations; and Prof Edward Khiddu-Makubuya, who would later serve in several NRM Cabinet positions.

“Even as the CIVHR was announced, the people of Uganda and many in the international community were calling for substantial reforms. At that time, the five-member commission was expanded to include an academic and women’s rights advocate who had been petitioning the government for adequate representation on the commission both by and for women. Joan Kakwenzire, a historian, was appointed to the commission after its work had already began, giving the commission six members,” Quinn says.

Kakwenzire is now Museveni’s senior presidential advisor on poverty alleviation. Although Museveni had made reconciliation and national unity a cornerstone of his 10-Point programme, there was enough evidence for many observers to conclude that the CIVHR had no political support, contrary to what the government has claimed.

“After the commission’s financial downturn in 1987, the Ford Foundation donated $93,000 to the Ugandan government to allow the commission to continue its work. Despite other international donations, the commission faced continuous financial problems, further delaying its work. Many people assert that the commission only served as a political strategy to provide legitimacy to the new government,” the United States Institute of Peace, an American federal institution tasked with promoting conflict resolution and prevention worldwide, said in its report.

The lack of funding for the CIVHR was on the show when its offices were frequently being moved in order to provide accommodation for the many commissions that were being appointed at that time.

And as time went on and more and more information was gathered, Quinn says, adequate storage facilities became a serious problem.

“The commission’s report speaks of the commission itself as having been hastily appointed, with no provision for funding the actual day-to-day activities of the CIVHR. This lack of attention seems to indicate the lack of commitment to the CIVHR by Museveni and the NRM. Museveni simply had other priorities, as evidenced both by government spending and programme initiatives,” Quinn says, adding that CIVHR faced chronic shortages in transportation to and from hearings outside Kampala, staff, filing cabinets, and stationery, to name but a few.

From time to time, Quinn adds, the commissioners were even forced to ask those whose testimony they were to hear to provide their own paper and pen in order for the testimony to be recorded. 

The CIVHR also faced challenges when evidence such as files, audio, and video records disappeared in thin air.

This prompted some of the commissioners to wonder if the vanishing of evidence was simply down to chaotic archival and storage systems, at the same time others hazarded that people inside the CIVHR had wittingly destroyed evidence that would implicate them or their friends and family in the atrocious crimes.

“The chairman of the commission, Justice Oder, had to be provided with a bodyguard, and police escorts were used throughout the work of the commission. Much of the hierarchical government apparatus appears to have been unable and perhaps unwilling to tolerate the commission’s attempt to delve into the issues of the past,” Quinn says.

With the failings of the CIVHR apparent, Museveni’s political opponents have long insisted that there’s a need for truth and reconciliation.

This time they aren’t stretching back to independence time but concentrating on the alleged atrocities committed during Museveni’s nearly four-decade to hold onto power. 

During the 2016 general election in Teso sub-region, Dr Kizza Besigye, who was part of the NRA guerrillas but has since turned into Museveni’s political nemesis, promised to set up a truth and reconciliation commission that would inquire into human rights violations in Uganda, if elected president. 

President Museveni (R) is welcomed by UPC leaders Olara Otunnu and Cecilia Ogwal in Mucwini Sub-county, Kitgum District, in 2015.

Teso sub-region is critical because between 1987 and 1993 hundreds of people were killed as the NRA forces waged a counter-insurgency war against rebels.

“We shall have a truth and reconciliation commission where we shall inquire into everything that happened in our country,” said Dr Besigye “We must inquire into it so that those responsible are known.”

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