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Murder in Uganda

epstein_2-040314.jpg
Arne Doornebal
Girls in Butaleja, the district in eastern Uganda that Nebanda represented in Parliament, December 2012

Politics in Uganda is not for the faint-hearted. For years, opposition supporters have been beaten, robbed, murdered, imprisoned in secret police cells, tortured, and charged with treason. Ruling party supporters have shut down the generators of radio stations and even destroyed bridges to prevent opposition candidates from campaigning in some areas. The supposedly impartial Electoral Commission has used donor-funded “civic education” programs to campaign for the ruling party. Cell phone companies and radio stations had been intimidated into refusing to carry opposition advertisements and even text messages. On polling days, ruling party agents routinely pass out coins, small bags of salt, and bars of soap to desperately poor, illiterate villagers, telling them that “the computer in the ballot box will see how you vote.” Ballot stuffing, multiple voting, and ghost voting are routine. Opposition Internet communications and phone calls are tapped. Cooks, drivers, and baby-sitters are paid to spy on opposition leaders.9

Nebanda was running as a ruling party candidate, and may have thought she’d be spared such treatment, but she was trying to unseat a powerful opponent. During the primary campaigns, Hhuya’s supporters fought Nebanda’s with sticks, and at one point, the president himself tried to persuade Nebanda to quit the race. “Let the voters decide,” she told him. On primary day, turnout was huge. “People felt empowered, they were dancing around her home,” a local from the area told me.

That evening, as the ballot boxes in Nebanda’s district were about to be opened for counting, workers in the uniform of the national electricity company suddenly turned up in Butaleja town, the main trading center, and began turning off the electricity supply. They told a group of highly suspicious locals that they were there to do necessary repairs. At 6:30 PM? The villagers suspected that the workers’ intention was to plunge the entire area in darkness, so that in the confusion the real ballot boxes could be exchanged with fake ones, stuffed with votes for Nebanda’s opponent. An angry crowd chased them away and Nebanda won the primary, and the election five months later, in landslide victories.

In the twenty-two months she spent in Parliament after her election in February 2011, Nebanda was indefatigable. She joined several committees, sometimes showing up more often than the chairmen. She sent text messages to colleagues after midnight with ideas for electrification and road projects and programs for the disabled. She built three secondary schools in her constituency, bought a boat for people stranded in their villages during the rainy season, and helped out countless villagers with school fees and medicine.

She was also sassy. She told the interior minister that the local police station in her hometown was “like a poultry house,” and reported to a parliamentary delegation that she couldn’t fit in the shoddy latrines constructed under one of the donor programs that had been looted.10 But her natural brazenness sometimes led her to take serious risks. She walked out of President Museveni’s speeches, talked back to the First Lady, and called his cabinet ministers thieves. When the ministers balked at moving funds for entertainment from the defense budget to the Health Ministry to pay doctors’ salaries, she accused them of caring more for sausages than for people’s lives.

The day before she died, Nebanda challenged her president one last time. Museveni had come to Parliament that day to address the MPs about Uganda’s nascent oil industry. The video of this event was one of the ones I’d been looking for in the archives that Saturday. Since 2006, British, French, and Chinese companies had been preparing to extract some $400 billion worth of oil in western Uganda. No sooner did they arrive than rumors began circulating that some of them were paying huge bribes to senior government officials. Nebanda and other members of Parliament were drafting legislation to promote transparency and prevent such abuses. In his speech, Museveni accused them of working in the service of “parasitic” foreign interests bent on crippling Uganda’s development. He assured Parliament that he had already created a special Petroleum Authority staffed with trained technocrats, so there was no need for them to worry about the details of oil contracts.

Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, a sharply dressed man with snowy hair and a neatly groomed mustache, was in Parliament during Museveni’s speech. He’d been in government since Museveni’s takeover in 1986, and some of Uganda’s most flamboyant corruption scandals had occurred in ministries he was heading at the time. An intelligence agent had claimed to me and other reporters that an Italian company had offered Mbabazi a bribe of millions of dollars for permission to exploit one of Uganda’s oil fields. Mbabazi denied the allegations, but he looked up when the president said he had recently signed a contract with the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation for the very concession Mbabazi had allegedly tried to arrange for the Italians.

“So even if Mbabazi ate that bribe,” the president said beaming and waving his glasses in the air, “He ate it for nothing!” Parliament erupted in shouts.

“I’m not saying that he did!” the president called out.

“You don’t seem so sure!” shouted Nebanda.

The president sighed, rolled his eyes, and twirled his index finger around his temple. “You see, my daughter, Honorable Cerinah Nebanda—that young girl, has got bad ideas in her head. She is saying that I seem not to be sure. I am sure that Right Honorable Mbabazi did not take that bribe.”

Then the president turned to the subject of Uganda’s beleaguered health care system. He boasted that his party cadres had stopped the theft of drugs from health clinics—something that had been much in the news.

“You go back to your districts and find out what is happening in the health centers,” he said to the MPs. “Are the drugs there or not there?”

“They are not there!” Nebanda called out.

“No, you go there,” Museveni said tenderly. “I will go with Nebanda and we pay a surprise visit to one of them.”

Nebanda and the president never made that trip. The following day, she drove her SUV into town to run some errands, according to witnesses who saw her, and then to the house of a man named Adam Kalungi in a Kampala suburb. At about 8:00 that evening, she was pronounced dead on arrival at a private hospital in Kampala.

As news of Nebanda’s death spread by cell phone across the country, Uganda fell into mourning. The farms of Butaleja were abandoned as the people she represented gathered in small groups to talk about her. Newspapers and television covered the story for weeks, and in Parliament the tributes went on for two days.

Rumors of assassination and other crimes by the government soon began circulating. More than a dozen of Museveni’s critics had perished in mysterious car crashes or after sudden unexplained illnesses in recent years. They included senior army officers whom he suspected of plotting a coup, opposition party agents, and an attorney general who was trying to block Museveni’s campaign to eliminate presidential term limits. In Kampala, terrified MPs told me that they avoided driving after dark and establishing routines like going to a certain bar after work. In restaurants, they ate only from buffets, and never ordered from the kitchen.

Although precisely what happened to Nebanda remains unknown, the behavior of Museveni and the police in the weeks after her death was suspicious. Even before a postmortem had been carried out, Kale Kayihura, the head of Uganda’s police, told reporters that the most likely cause of her death was a drug overdose. She’d been dropped off at the hospital, he said, by Adam Kalungi, whom he identified as her boyfriend and a known drug dealer.

When Nebanda’s family and colleagues in Parliament saw these newspaper reports, they immediately suspected foul play. Several of Nebanda’s parliamentary colleagues who had traveled with her to workshop retreats and even gone dancing with her told me that Nebanda didn’t drink, much less use drugs as far as they knew. According to her family, Nebanda had been introduced to Kalungi by David Bahati, head of the ruling party caucus, and the sponsor of Uganda’s notorious anti-homosexuality bill calling for gay people to be imprisoned for life. Bahati denies having ever met Kalungi, or introducing him to Nebanda, but he and others did caution her that she was going too far in her criticism of Museveni, and that her life was in danger. Others had also cautioned her repeatedly to tone down her criticism of the president and his ministers. She dismissed these warnings. “I will leave my mark before I die,” she told another MP.11

The nature of Nebanda’s relationship with Kalungi is so far unknown, but her MP colleagues told me that in the past, Museveni had frequently used attractive young people to seduce his political enemies and spy on them. They recounted several specific cases, although none involved murder.

Nebanda’s postmortem was carried out the morning after she died, and the results were inconclusive. Her pancreas was inflamed and her lungs, which would normally have been spongy, had congealed into a stiff mass. Two pathologists, one a police surgeon, the other an academic named Sylvester Onzivua who had been retained by Parliament to conduct an independent investigation, both concluded that she must have consumed something toxic. But they couldn’t determine what it was without further tests. Since Uganda didn’t have a lab capable of such tests, the police arranged to take one set of Nebanda’s tissue samples to a lab in the UK, and Onzivua arranged to deliver another set to a lab in South Africa.

As Onzivua’s plane to Johannesburg was about to depart a few days later, security agents rushed onboard, arrested him, and confiscated Nebanda’s tissue samples. Immediately, enraged MPs began speculating in speeches and on TV that the government might have had a hand in her death. Why else would the police have prevented an independent autopsy? The president called a hasty press conference. The MPs spreading such rumors were “fools” and “idiots,” he told reporters, and ordered their arrest. Four of them spent a week in jail.

When the deputy prime minister turned up at Nebanda’s funeral in Butaleja to offer condolences on behalf of the president, Nebanda’s mother grabbed the papers he was reading right out of his hands and tore them to pieces. As angry mourners chased him to his car, she threw the bits of paper after him. Later, police swooped in on the town and arrested several people for what the locals called “over-talking.”

Two toxicology reports on Nebanda’s tissue samples were eventually released, one on the police surgeon’s samples that had been sent to England, and another said to have been conducted on the samples confiscated from Onzivua at the airport and then sent to Israel. The results made no sense. The two labs had attempted to measure the amount of cocaine, heroin, and alcohol in Nebanda’s blood and in a sample of urine that the police said had been found in a basin in the apartment of Kalungi, Nebanda’s supposed boyfriend, and which the police insisted was hers. The findings of the two labs should have been identical, but the levels of the various substances differed by a factor of ten in some cases. According to the Israeli lab, the concentration of alcohol in Nebanda’s urine—or whomever it belonged to—was nearly four times higher than any previously detected in the history of toxicology, suggesting that alcohol had been poured directly into it.12

Shortly after Nebanda died, Kalungi was arrested and charged with manslaughter for causing her death from overdose. There’s a video of his confession on YouTube, in which this young Denzel Washington look-alike tells reporters that on the evening she died, he’d come home to find her snorting some lines of heroin he had around the house. She thought it was cocaine, he claimed, which he said she habitually used to boost her self-confidence and lose weight. As he spoke, his eyes darted around the room and his mouth twitched. It seemed to me like a poorly arranged piece of theater intended to persuade the public that this idealistic young woman was just a degenerate.

During his trial, Kalungi recanted his confession. In October 2013, he testified that the police had forced him to confess and had offered him a large sum of money to do so. He then claimed he was neither a drug user nor a drug addict, but an IT specialist who worked with international organizations. In January 2014, he was sentenced to four years in prison for delaying taking Nebanda to the hospital when she, allegedly, became ill at his house. The drug charges against him were dropped.

Who is Kalungi really? Several people I spoke to, including two politicians and two army officers, told me that Kalungi was neither a drug dealer nor a drug user nor an IT specialist. He was a spy, employed by an informal parallel intelligence unit under police chief Kale Kayihura and Museveni’s son Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who had been assigned to report on Nebanda. One of the people who told me this was General David Sejusa, Uganda’s official intelligence chief who fled Uganda last spring. If Kalungi is a spy, it’s possible he’s being kept behind bars because the authorities fear he will speak about Nebanda’s case if he’s released.

Though much remains unknown about Nebanda’s death, the story so far suggests to me a very clumsy cover-up. But why would Museveni, a powerful ruler with a fleet of fighter jets and the support, at that time, of Western leaders, have wanted to kill one noisy young MP?

This is the first of two articles.

  1. 9

    Interviews with Ugandan politicians, July–September 2013. See also Olive Kobusingye, The Correct Line? Uganda Under Museveni (AuthorHouse, 2010); and the following Human Rights Watch reports: “Curtailing Criticism: Intimidation and Obstruction of Civil Society in Uganda,” August 21, 2012; “Righting Military Injustice: Addressing Uganda’s Unlawful Prosecutions of Civilians in Military Courts,” July 27, 2011; “Violence Instead of Vigilance: Torture and Illegal Detention by Uganda’s Rapid Response Unit,” March 23, 2011. 

  2. 10

    “Poultry House” Hansard (Uganda) December 21, 2012. Testimony of Hon. MP Mr. Milton Muwuma; “Latrine” Hansard (Uganda) December 21, 2012, Testimony of Hon. MP Mr. Peter Ogwang. 

  3. 11

    Hansard (Uganda) December 21, 2012. Testimony of Hon. MP Sanjay Tannah. 

  4. 12

    Haggai Matsiko, “Nebanda’s Death Reports,” The Independent (Uganda), August 23, 2013. 

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