Burning Down the House: Uganda’s Political Underbelly
They shoot bloggers, don’t they?
A Ugandan proverb says, “You can burn down the house, but can you hide the smoke?” In other words, actions have consequences that can’t be covered up. Millions of Ugandans are counting on that.
On May 6th, the night Ugandan blogger Ibrahim Tusubira was shot dead, I was five hours west of the street where he lived in Kampala. Not far from the Great Rift Valley and Queen Elizabeth National Park, the Nyaika Hotel in Fort Portal is a gated hilltop complex with beautiful gardens, a grand lobby with marble floors and a sweeping stairway that led up to my second-floor room with a balcony. I spent the day writing, wringing memories out of my brain to make room for the wide-open grasslands, lions, water buffalo, crocodiles, and elephants I hoped to see the next day. I got a massage. I don’t know how Tusubira spent his last day. Maybe he wrote too.
Tusubira was renowned for taking on politicians on social media but I’m not sure whose side he was on. Reportedly a National Resistance Movement (NRM) leaning blogger and advocate of free speech, the chair of the Uganda Bloggers Association came to prominence during the 2020 Presidential Election critical of six-term President Yoweri Museveni’s rival Bobi Wine, leader of the opposition’s National Unity Platform (NUP).
Surprisingly, Tusubira’s final post was not in support of NRM, but celebrated the murder of one Charles Okello (Macodwogo) Engola, a Member of Parliament, and a retired colonel in the Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF, an armed services outgrowth of NRM). He was also Museveni’s Labour Minister. Engola was assassinated by his bodyguard who claimed that he hadn’t been paid and then shot himself. Tusubira kicked Engola to the curb.
“Now you’re dead, go and serve your labour services in the grave. You guys have mistreated Ugandans for so long. People are being kidnapped and you foolishly said they had been kidnapped by Nigerians,” he accused.
Despite that, Museveni said about Tusubira’s murder, “...I treat with contempt of the killing of this Ugandan by some pigs...It is pigs that believe in using guns against unarmed opponents. NRM enjoys defeating unarmed opponents with counterarguments... Killing critics shows that your position is false, and you cannot out-argue an opponent. Why kill him if he is wrong and you are right?”
A peculiar statement from the President who with his son, UPDF General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, has been recently accused in international criminal court by 215 people of arresting them “arbitrarily and [holding them] incommunicado in “torture centres”.
So much for counterarguments.
Uganda is safe enough for a cautious traveler who wants to see wildlife and get to know wonderful, big-hearted people. Ugandans count on tourism revenue to survive. Punishing Museveni and the government by boycotting the country and its people would be wrong. But keeping quiet is to sweep their brutal reality under a rug.
In office since 1986, Museveni helped overthrow Uganda’s bloody dictator Idi Amin in 1979. In 1980, he helped form the NRM and headed up the armed forces, then called the National Resistance Army, which fought a war against Milton Obote, Amin’s successor. In 1986, Museveni declared himself President and ten years later he was elected by the people of Uganda. His supporters in the NRM won control of Parliament that year too. Reelected in 2001 and again in 2006 after an amendment to the Constitution abolished Uganda’s age limit for presidents, among his accomplishments have been a growing economy and revitalization of Amin’s Uganda. He’s credited by some with bringing a measure of peace and stability to the country. But there have been failures.
Marring Museveni’s track record has been violations of human rights. In 2022 Human Rights Watch says they included freedom of expression and assembly, sexual orientation and gender identity, women’s rights, arrest and harassment of opposition members and supporters, attacks on civil society, forced evictions, prosecutions for serious crimes, and children’s rights. Corruption is a hallmark of his administration, as is authoritarian suppression of dissent and political opposition.
Recently, Museveni has been weakened by the Iron Sheets Scandal. The government purchased 100,000 roof panels, iron sheets, for “reformed warriors” in Karamoja to smooth over relations there, but an audit suggested that his prime minister, first deputy prime minister, Karamoja Affairs minister, third deputy premier, finance minister, and the state minister for primary education (and perhaps others) inflated the cost per sheet, receiving kickbacks.
I also heard whispers in Kampala that the recently-passed Anti-Homosexual Act of 2023 which, according to the LA Times imposed “some of the world’s strictest anti-gay measures”, was likely concocted as a diversionary strategy to provoke moral panic, an “artificially created panic or scare” created by people to advance their interests at the expense of others. With a majority in Parliament, the NRM could easily have assisted him.
After he was accused of vote-rigging to win the 2021 election by a supposed 58%, he said, “"Nobody is going to cause chaos here, because whoever tries to, we will break him, because it's no joke," Museveni told reporters at the national vote-counting center outside of Kampala. "There is nobody who is above us in knowing how to handle guns. There is nobody who is above us in fighting."
Again, so much for counterarguments.
But Museveni may be running out of time. Over 75% of all Ugandans are 30 or younger. They’re tired of being poor, hungry, and oppressed. They’ve never known another president and a growing number think he’s old, irrelevant, and are looking to replace him. Their candidate, self-proclaimed revolutionary and crimson beret-wearing pop star and politician Bobi Wine weighed in on Tusubira’s death too, saying “What is clear to all of us, regardless of your political affiliation, is that in a sinking boat, there are no winners... everyone is a potential victim of the lawlessness of the Museveni régime. Let the dead teach the living.”
While Museveni controls the armed forces, his son allegedly controls the torture centers. Kainerugaba has declared his interest in succeeding his father (Museveni removed him from being army chief in 2022 after he tweeted “jokingly” about invading Kenya). One of the Ugandans allegedly tortured in 2018 was Bobi Wine. “During his arrest and detention in August, Wine says he was beaten with an iron bar, punched, kicked, hit with pistol butts and had his ears pulled with ‘something like pliers.’”
Even though Kainerugaba wants to succeed his father, the talk I heard is that he may not be able to hold the office. Internal rivals who have been positioning the interests of the UPDF may have other plans. The military has infiltrated much of civil government, heading up the government’s “anti-corruption unit.” The army brutally enforces fishing regulations, guards tax collection centers, fights locusts, runs factories, herds cattle, chases street vendors, and trains everyone from paramilitary wildlife rangers to water engineers. Vast areas of the economy, from seed distribution to minerals development, are now steered by Operation Wealth Creation, a sprawling military program (How the Army Is Swallowing the Ugandan State: when civilian institutions are undermined, soldiers step in, Foreign Policy, August 15, 2022).
If I didn’t write about these things in Uganda when I was there, I also didn’t write in depth about the NRM majority-ruled Parliament. I referred in passing to being there on the day that the Prime Minister came to give her testimony on the April 27th beatings of eleven female MPs outside of Parliament. The Members were all elected NUP (opposition) representatives. “The lawmakers were detained just outside the Parliament buildings as they prepared to march to the Ministry of Internal Affairs where they intended to handover a protest note to the minister.” (Reuters, May 3, 2023).
As I sat in the Gallery above Parliament’s Chamber floor listening to the Prime Minister field questions from the NUP Members on May 3rd, a well-dressed woman came and sat next to me. She was writing in a notebook as she listened. I noticed she was writing because I wasn’t - the Speaker’s office staff had taken my phone, purse, pen, and writing pad on my way into the Gallery.
She scooted toward me and smiled sweetly. “Are you with the UN?”
“No, I’m here with an agricultural nonprofit,” I smiled too and countered, “Who are you with?”
“President Museveni’s office,” she said.
I sat and allowed that to sink in, wondering what she’d written on her notepad, what actions might be taken because of her observations. We didn’t speak again but I was sure I knew why she was there. She was intelligence gathering to inform Museveni’s strategies and actions. She carefully watched faces, listened for the subtext of statements, and counted noses of supporters and detractors. She took notes.
Twenty minutes later when I left the Chamber for a meeting, an escort and I went downstairs to the front steps of Parliament to meet my driver. While I waited, I looked around. There were the ubiquitous soldiers with automatic weapons and truckloads of automatic-weapon-bearing, grim-faced men hanging out of them, looking like ISIS in camouflage. I turned my head to look back at Parliament and the woman from Museveni’s office was walking hand in hand down the stairs with the prime minister. Her entourage got in a car, and they drove off.
During the 2021 election, Ugandans’ access to social media was shut down. In 2021 too, military police beat 10 journalists who were covering Bobi Wine’s delivery of a protest petition to the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission. Arrests, torture, intimidation, kidnappings, and worse are common for trumped up reasons including treason. A tweet making fun of a police spokesperson earned a law student 5 days’ detention without contact with his lawyer or family. Like other human rights guaranteed to Ugandans in the 1995 Constitution, free expression and assembly are routinely trampled.
Ironically, on the day I visited Parliament, the Uganda Journalists Association held a press conference to commemorate World Press Freedom Day. It was a day they promoted respect for freedom of the press and remembered working journalists who have died. Three days later I was in Fort Portal and Ibrahim Tusubira was assassinated for saying something someone didn’t like.
Despite my love for Uganda and its people, the sheer magnitude of all that is wrong there overwhelmed me and I thought again about the proverb: You can burn down the house, but can you hide the smoke? No, I thought. You can’t. You can’t hide wrong-doing forever. Truth is the best disinfectant.
I have asked myself many times since, would I be burning down a house by telling this story? I was conflicted. Not frightened, but aware of the consequences of staying quiet and speaking out. Uganda is safe enough for a cautious traveler (though probably not for me anymore) who wants to see the beautiful country and wildlife, to get to know wonderful, big-hearted people. Ugandans count on tourism revenue to survive. Punishing Museveni and the government by boycotting the country and its people is wrong. But keeping quiet is worse. It sweeps the brutal reality of life in Uganda under the rug.
On the way home, during a long layover at Hammad International Airport in Qatar, I asked a Ugandan questions I’d kept to myself while in Uganda.
“How do you maintain hope for the future? Aren’t you discouraged?”
“I can’t lose hope. I have to fight,” she said firmly. “To persevere, to navigate the terrain, because if I don’t, they’ll arrest me. They tried several times to kill my husband. We left for a time because it was too much. But in our lives there, we’ve seen so many people amass wealth and die. We know that the day will come when President Museveni will die. Uganda will remain and we will still be here.”
“One day,” she promised, “Museveni will be gone, and we’ll repossess what has been taken.”
Yes, I thought, seeing the resolve in her face. What’s done in the darkness will be revealed in the light. Museveni’s actions will have consequences. I hope they do, and that Uganda’s next President isn’t worse.