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Uganda: The General Challenges the Dictator

In the early 1990s, President Bill Clinton, concerned about the specter of militant Islam in Africa, secured military alliances with a number of African strongmen, among them Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni.1 Since then, human rights groups have accused Museveni, now in his twenty-eighth year in power, of widespread corruption and political repression. I’ve been working as a public health consultant on and off in Uganda for twenty years, a period when development agencies such as the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) spent $20 billion on aid projects in the country. I’d looked on with dismay as the budgets of many of these projects were looted, elections were rigged, and innocent people who tried to draw attention to this were intimidated or worse. Museveni, now sixty-nine, has long been an important US ally in the war on terror—his troops have been deployed on America’s side in Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq—so the money kept flowing anyway.2

Yoweri Museveni; drawing by James Ferguson

In fact, Museveni has made Africa even more dangerous. Uganda backed the Rwandan rebels whose invasions in 1990 and 1994 set off the genocide in that country.3 Uganda’s troops then looted some $10 billion worth of timber, elephant tusks, gold, and other minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo,4 and Ugandan-backed militias have raped and killed countless villagers there.5 Uganda’s army has taken sides in the current civil war in South Sudan, a move that could spark a wider regional conflict.6 Ugandan officers in the US-supported African Union Mission in Somalia have even been caught selling guns to the terrorist group al-Shabab.7

Meanwhile, even as US officials made lofty pledges to support African democracy,8 Museveni used looted development funds to close off nearly every peaceful means of loosening his grip on power. That’s why I found the mysterious death of Cerinah Nebanda, a Ugandan member of Parliament whose case I wrote about in the last issue of this magazine, so disturbing.9 The Ugandan police and prosecutors claim that she died from a drug overdose, but her family and colleagues in Parliament strongly believe that she was poisoned by government agents. Though only twenty-four years old, Nebanda had been a fearless critic of the corruption and cruelty of Museveni’s government. Understanding what had happened to her and why, I felt, could shed light on why this country, and perhaps the entire region, is on such a troubled course.

The person most likely to know about Nebanda’s case was General David Sejusa, until recently a senior adviser to Museveni and coordinator of Uganda’s two main spy agencies—its FBI and CIA. He’d been a commander in the National Resistance Army that brought Museveni to power in 1986 and had held senior positions in the army and government ever since. As intelligence coordinator, he had been responsible for defending many government abuses, including media crackdowns and a military raid on the High Court in 2005. However, he’d also quarreled with Museveni on numerous occasions and had tried to quit the military. In May 2013 he fled to Britain after learning, he says, that he and other senior officers who opposed Museveni’s secret plan to install his thirty-nine-year-old son as his successor were slated for assassination. Then, a few months after arriving in the UK, he told a Ugandan journalist that Cerinah Nebanda and many other prominent Ugandans had been murdered “from orders on high.”10 I was therefore eager to talk to him.

I first met General Sejusa in October 2013. On the morning of our appointment, I received a text message instructing me to go to a chain restaurant in a compound of office buildings on the outskirts of a British university town. The enigmatic general has a reputation for being gruff with journalists. In official photographs, he is a stern-faced sixty-year-old with a horseshoe mustache, dressed in military garb draped with medals; now he was wearing a bulky gray sweater and looked like a kindly professor from the nearby university.

The story the general told me would defy belief, if much of it weren’t confirmed by contemporary news reports and interviews with other Ugandan political observers. In 2011, he said, Uganda’s struggling democratic movement began flourishing in the atmosphere of protest following the Arab Spring. It began when Kizza Besigye, the main opposition presidential candidate, claimed that elections held in February of that year had been rigged. Besigye had made the same claim after losing the two previous elections in 2001 and 2006, and had taken his case to the Ugandan Supreme Court each time. The court initially decided in his favor in both cases, but according to a senior judge involved in the second case, as well as a journalist with sources inside the court, the opinions were reversed at the last minute at Museveni’s insistence.11

Besigye decided that going to court a third time was futile. Instead, he organized street protests against the rising cost of living. To finance the election-rigging, Museveni’s agents had removed some $350 million from the Ugandan treasury.12 The Central Bank printed more money to pay civil service salaries and other expenses, but inflation soared, along with fuel and food prices, and hundreds of angry people turned out for Besigye’s marches. The government crackdown was swift and brutal. Nine people, including a two-year-old child, were shot dead by security forces, scores of others were injured and imprisoned, and Besigye himself was shot in the hand and nearly blinded when a police officer emptied a canister of pepper spray directly into his face. No senior officers have since been prosecuted. Today, police in riot gear surround Besigye’s house and follow him everywhere he goes. When I met him at a hotel café last summer, all the surrounding streets were blocked by pickups full of policemen with machine guns.

But the opposition wasn’t Museveni’s only problem. What worried him even more was that discontent was also growing in his own political party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM). The 2011 elections had brought to Parliament a group of enlightened young people like Cerinah Nebanda who belonged to the NRM, but were just as enraged as the opposition was about rampant corruption and the resulting deterioration of health care and other services. They were working on legislation to prevent Uganda’s oil revenues from falling into the hands of corrupt officials, and were trying to rehabilitate Uganda’s woefully neglected health care system by raising the miserably low salaries of Uganda’s doctors. What happened next, according to General Sejusa, was utterly chilling.

“There was a movement of elimination,” he told me. “A meeting was held in Statehouse [the president’s official residence] in September 2012 involving key family members.” Museveni himself was there, as well as First Lady Janet Museveni, Museveni’s then-thirty-eight-year-old son Muhoozi Kainerugaba, Museveni’s half-brother Salim Saleh, and various in-laws. Sejusa wasn’t invited to this meeting. By then, he had been put on what is known in Uganda as katebe, a state of powerlessness in which officials retain their titles and salaries but are given no tasks and don’t receive official reports. Most intelligence work was now carried out by a parallel agency directly under the control of the Museveni family. Nevertheless, Sejusa had built up a strong personal network during his many years in power and he soon found out what took place at that September 2012 meeting.

According to Sejusa’s sources, Museveni’s relatives were furious with the president. He had promised to deal decisively with dissent, but he was letting them down, they said, and now Nebanda and other “rebel MPs” were tearing the ruling NRM apart. “Nebanda was part of a fearless emerging force,” Sejusa said. They “were speaking about things that [Museveni’s family felt] shouldn’t be talked about—especially the corruption of the first family and the prime minister. They were also punching holes in the myth that Museveni himself was innocent, and that only those working for him were corrupt.”

“You go and do what you think,” Sejusa says Museveni told the others at the meeting.

“Don’t worry Old Man, we know what to do,” one of them is said to have replied.

Before long, hit squads were organized to stage car crashes made to look like accidents, shootings made to look like robberies, and poisonings made to look like food poisoning, drug overdoses, and other mishaps. In October 2012, shortly after the meeting at the president’s office, Sejusa, who was still Museveni’s senior adviser and spy chief, wrote a prophetic letter that appeared in several Ugandan newspapers warning of “creeping lawlessness,” “sickening robberies of government money,” and “murders.” “The poor people of Uganda should be treated humanely,” he wrote, referring to the crackdown on the street protests, “and should not be flogged on the streets.” He named no names, but no informed reader would have had any doubt that he was addressing the president and his family.

Two months after Sejusa’s letter warning of murders appeared, Cerinah Nebanda was dead. Three other young outspoken MPs were also slated to be killed, Sejusa told me. One of them, Hussein Kyanjo, was probably poisoned but survived. The others have publicly expressed fears for their own safety.

In the weeks after Nebanda’s mysterious death in December 2012, several NRM MPs started a petition calling for a special parliamentary session to inquire into it. Museveni promptly ordered their arrest and four of them spent a week in jail. The president then summoned the Speaker of Parliament to his official residence and informed her that the special parliamentary session would take place “over my dead body.”

After the MPs were released from jail, the president invited them to an NRM conference on the topic of “party discipline.” The MPs threatened to boycott it, but eventually turned up and announced that they wanted to discuss Museveni’s retirement. They were soon thrown out of the NRM.

Despite the crackdown, demands for an end to the Museveni regime grew louder. “Are you stupid [to continue voting for the same leader that cannot pave your road]?” one of the formerly jailed MPs asked a cheering crowd of constituents shortly after his release.

In the midst of the battle with the MPs, an exasperated President Museveni warned “irresponsible” political leaders that the army might have to take over and restore order. Another letter to the media from General Sejusa followed, urging the government to find another way to handle the forces pushing for genuine democracy in the country.

Soon after this letter appeared in a local newspaper, one of Sejusa’s employees in the intelligence service received a call on his cell phone from a man identifying himself as a major in the Presidential Guard Brigade. “Where do you work?” the major asked. “In the coordinator’s office,” the employee replied, referring to Sejusa, whose official title was “Coordinator of Intelligence Services.”

“You mean that enemy Sejusa? We shall kill him.”

David Sejusa; drawing by James Ferguson

“If by killing him, you think you’ll take away the problems”—meaning the democratization movement in Uganda—“then you’ll have to kill us all,” the young man said, according to Sejusa’s account.

“You wait,” said the major.

In early March 2013, a group of gunmen attacked an army barracks in Mbuya, a suburb of Kampala, just before dawn. A soldier on guard shot dead one of the attackers and injured several others. The matter might have ended there, had General Sejusa not published yet another of his letters. This one was addressed to the director of Uganda’s Internal Security Organization—its FBI—urging him to investigate the possibility that the attack had been staged as part of what Ugandans call the “Muhoozi Project”—President Museveni’s plan to install his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba as his successor.

Sejusa had heard that the barracks had been stormed by security guards assembled from Saracen, a private company owned by the president’s half-brother. The plan, he was told, was to blame the “so-called coup” on disgruntled senior army commanders, including Sejusa, who would then be rounded up and charged with treason. Muhoozi’s Special Forces Unit—an armed division under his command—was standing by to save the day. If the plan succeeded, Muhoozi would look like a hero and Museveni would hand over power to him. However, the scheme was thwarted when a sleeping soldier who was supposed to be guarding the barracks and had not been briefed about the plan woke up and roused others who fought off the so-called attackers.

The contents of Sejusa’s letter were reported in two Ugandan newspapers, both of which were shut down for a week by the police immediately afterward, along with two radio stations. Some of the reporters who wrote about the letters were arrested; others received death threats. Sejusa was in England on government business at the time and was preparing to fly home when he learned that a line of tanks had been deployed along a twenty-mile stretch of road leading to the airport where he was to land. The point of this vast deployment was presumably to make it look as though Sejusa was a real threat, with a rebel army standing by to stage a coup. Sejusa would later tell Voice of America that in fact the plans were for the soldiers to arrest him as soon as he arrived, fly him by helicopter to a prison outside Kampala, arrange a mock attack by his supposed allies, and then kill him in the ensuing chaos. Sejusa canceled his flight and stayed in Britain.

Could this story be true? Government spokesmen have denied that the regime had anything to do with Nebanda’s death or Kyanjo’s illness, and claim that the Mbuya barracks attack was staged not by Muhoozi but by lower-level officers seeking to gain attention and rewards from their superiors. They say that Sejusa is making these stories up in order to justify his application for political asylum in Britain. But that claim is undermined by the government’s crackdown on all discussion of Sejusa’s statements, the closing of the newspapers and radio stations that published them, and the jailing of the MPs who wanted to discuss Nebanda’s death publicly.

In December 2013, Sejusa and about forty-five other Ugandan exiles gathered in a classroom at the London School of Economics to launch a movement to oust Museveni from power. They say their aim is not to take power themselves, but to remove the Museveni regime—either by force or by the threat of it—and then establish institutions to oversee free and fair elections, the restoration of the rule of law, and other freedoms that are currently suppressed in Uganda. Although the invitation-only meeting was small, Sejusa and others told me that the movement, known as the Freedom and Unity Front (FUF), has wide support both among Ugandan émigrés and in Uganda’s Parliament, military, security services, and the highest ranks of Museveni’s government. Verifying this is difficult. Even mentioning the names of FUF supporters inside Uganda would put them in obvious danger.

The launch began with the singing of the national anthem, followed by a prayer for peace by a Ugandan princess. During a PowerPoint presentation about the crackdown on democracy activists, a young Ugandan woman who was apparently not on the official guest list arrived and sat down in a middle row. A doctor was describing the miserable state of Uganda’s health services when she suddenly stood up, pointed at General Sejusa, and began shouting “War criminal! He committed genocide against my people!” Several men rose from the audience and tried to throw her out.

“No, let her stay,” Sejusa called out. The other men urged her to sit down and be quiet, but she stormed out anyway.

Soon, it was Sejusa’s turn to speak. “It is never too late to do the right thing,” he began. “My purpose is not to proclaim my sainthood but it is to undo the wrong I could have participated in.”

I knew Sejusa’s background. When I told him I wanted to write about him, he sent me his CV. In addition to the usual sections entitled “Education” and “Employment History,” there was a long section entitled “Battles”—including several in northern Uganda where the woman heckler said she was from. Yet I was also aware that since colonial times, third-world exiles like him have tried to form movements for the liberation of their countries. Some went on to change history; others did not. Few have had spotless backgrounds. More than a few Ugandans have told me that only someone who has been entangled in the country’s complex military politics is likely to understand it well enough to be able to change it.

Sejusa grew up in southern Uganda, where his father was a preacher. During the 1970s he led student protests against the abuses of then President Idi Amin. He was arrested several times and was once hacked with a machete in the torture cells of Amin’s State Research Bureau. He still bears the scars on his head. By then, Ugandan politics had settled into a depressing pattern of ethnic upheavals. In 1966, Prime Minister Milton Obote, a Langi from northern Uganda, exiled Edward Muteesa II, then Uganda’s president and also king of the southern Buganda tribe.

In 1971, General Idi Amin, a former British sergeant from a different northern tribe, overthrew Obote in a coup and then set about oppressing just about everyone who wasn’t from his own region. After Amin was ousted by Ugandan rebels aided by the Tanzanian army, Obote rigged an election and returned to power in 1980. Before long, leaders from southern Uganda were again being jailed and tortured.

Museveni, a southerner like Sejusa, was a teenager in the 1950s, just as the British were leaving, and was beguiled by their guns and uniforms.According to one of his high school teachers, he sometimes marched around pretending to be a field marshal. Museveni’s senior thesis at the University of Dar es Salaam was on Frantz Fanon’s theory that violence could be a cleansing force when committed in the name of revolution.13

Museveni traveled to Mozambique during the independence war and wrote of the alleged empowering effect on peasants of gazing upon the severed heads of Portuguese soldiers. As defense minister in the short-lived administration of Godfrey Binaisa, who led Uganda for a brief period between Amin and Obote, Museveni once ordered his troops to fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing dozens, Sejusa told me. But once his own rebel movement was underway, he professed to be nontribalist and democratic.

As soon as Museveni’s troops took over, the ethnic upheavals resumed almost at once. Throughout northern Uganda, which borders on South Sudan, soldiers looted grain stores, stole cattle, fired on busloads of students, and committed other atrocities. Songs referring to northerners as “things” and “anyanyas,” meaning roughly “Sudanese bastards,” were regularly played on the radio. Within a year, a civil war was underway in northern Uganda that would last twenty years.

Sejusa had a major part in the early years of this war, and this is what the woman heckler at the FUF launch had been screaming about. On one side was the Lord’s Resistance Army, a northern rebel movement led by a messianic—some would say mentally ill—former choirboy named Joseph Kony. Kony’s atrocities are well known. His followers kidnapped thousands of children, forcing the boys to become soldiers and the girls to become sex slaves, cooks, and porters. Villagers who tried to protect their children were shot dead or had their lips and ears hacked off, a symbolic warning not to become government informants.

Less well known is that the Ugandan army also tortured, killed, and kidnapped civilians.14 In 1989, soldiers rounded up scores of men in a village called Mukura and herded them into an empty railway wagon. Most of the men inside died of suffocation. In 1991, a battalion operating in the northern villages around Bucoro rounded up hundreds of civilians and held them in an empty primary school. Thirty-six men spent three days imprisoned in a three-foot-deep pit covered with logs, listening to their screaming wives and daughters being gang-raped by Museveni’s soldiers. Several men were raped as well. One night the soldiers burned hot peppers over a fire near the pit and blew the smoke into it. At least six men died of hunger and asphyxiation. When the soldiers finally departed, they took at least eight of the youngest women with them; most have never been heard from again. No one was ever punished for any of these crimes.

Sejusa, who was then known as Tinyefuza, was minister of state for defense during the military campaign called Operation North during which the Bucoro massacre occurred. Reports by USAID and Amnesty International link him to this and other atrocities, but the reports give no details of Sejusa’s involvement. He was in command of a different division at the time of the Bucoro massacre, and he denied to me that he could have done anything to stop it.

Trying to find out more, I contacted Lawrence Nsereko, a Ugandan journalist now living in the US. Before fleeing into exile in 1995, Nsereko had been arrested and tortured by Museveni’s police several times. Nsereko was one of the few journalists covering the LRA war when Sejusa was in charge of Operation North. The entire area had been cordoned off, and he sometimes had to sneak in across the border from Sudan.

Nsereko is not one to downplay the misdeeds of Museveni’s officers, so I asked him whether he knew if Sejusa had ever committed war crimes. “There’s an official military structure in Uganda,” Nsereko explained, “but there’s also a shadow paramilitary structure consisting of lower-level officers who were responsible for most of the crimes.” Sejusa was a senior commander in the official structure, but according to Nserenko, the real brutes were men like Major Reuben Ikondere, who led the Bucoro massacre, Captain Chris Bunyenyezi, who led the battalion that killed the people in the train wagon in Mukura, and Captain “Suicide” Mwesigwa, who was famous for having shot dead his father’s dog and, when the father complained, shot him dead too. “Most of these men were under Museveni’s direct command,” Nsereko said. “There’s no way that Sejusa could have effectively reprimanded them,” assuming that he’d wanted to.

epstein_2-042414.jpg
Ronald Kabuubi/AFP/Getty Images
President Museveni’s son, Muhoozi ­Kainerugaba, commander of the Ugandan Special Forces, Kampala, August 2012

However, in 1991, Sejusa did order the arrest and severe beating of eighteen northern Ugandan politicians. None died, but Sejusa’s soldiers broke the hand of one of them. When I asked Sejusa about this, he sighed. “Museveni had ordered the arrest of those politicians. They wanted the government to negotiate with Kony, but the policy was to fight him, and they were slowing down the operation. I wasn’t stupid. I knew it was wrong.”

In 1992, Sejusa was sacked from the Defense Ministry when he clashed with Museveni over a British proposal to phase out half the infantry and use the savings to purchase modern weapons. By then, Kony had been severely wounded and had retreated to Sudan. Sejusa argued that the infantry should be reduced gradually, because the troops were necessary to keep Kony out of Uganda. After Museveni overruled him and reduced the force, Kony recovered and resumed terrorizing northern Uganda in 1994. As the war escalated, the government created squalid internment camps for the local population. By the time the camps closed in 2005, 25,000 children had been abducted, more than a million people had fled their homes, and hundreds of thousands—no one knows for certain how many—were dead.

After returning to the capital Kampala from the LRA front in 1992, Sejusa worked on writing the country’s constitution, which guarantees free and fair elections, the rule of law, and other rights that he says Museveni has since violated. In 1996, he testified to Parliament that the LRA war was being needlessly prolonged, that the military budget had become a source of corrupt gains for the government and army insiders, and that soldiers and civilians were suffering horribly as a result—a claim later backed up by many scholars and journalists who have studied Uganda.15 He then submitted his resignation from the army, but President Museveni refused to accept it. Sejusa sued and won the right to resign in court. The government appealed. The Supreme Court was, according to Sejusa, also about to rule in his favor, but as with the rigged elections, the decision was reversed on direct orders from the president. Sejusa went on to hold various government positions, and achieved high rank in the army. Because he was unable to resign, he remained subject to military law, and under Museveni’s control.

“It was like living your whole life inside a coffin,” Sejusa said when I asked him how he felt about that. “We’d discuss it in the high command,” he told me. The officers would ask each other, “How long can this go on? Is this why we fought to liberate this country?” But then, he said, another internal voice would speak up. “And where will you go if you quit? They’ll follow you everywhere. And you have a family. And they could also be hurt.”

Since Sejusa fled to the UK, Ugandan operatives have been trailing him and he is now under the protection of Scotland Yard. Back in Uganda, four members of his staff were arrested and charged with treason, and hundreds of villagers from his home area were rounded up and jailed under the same charge. If convicted, they could all receive the death penalty. Sejusa’s teenage son was removed from his Ugandan boarding school after thugs were found trying to scale the perimeter fence at night and administrators said they could not guarantee his safety. Sejusa’s wife narrowly missed being killed in two car accidents, and in November 2013, his brother was found dead at the base of a dam. Sejusa is convinced that all of these incidents were orchestrated by the government, as was the death of Nebanda.

Whether democracy can ever take root in a country with such a brutal political culture will depend crucially on the support that the FUF and all those who continue to struggle for justice in Uganda will receive from inside the country and from the US and other foreign powers, some of which have kept Museveni’s phony democracy going for years. In 2012, the World Bank and several European donors finally reduced aid to Uganda because of the regime’s corruption, and in February 2014, President Obama issued a statement warning that the enactment by the Ugandan government of a harsh bill criminalizing homosexuality would damage US–Uganda relations. Museveni signed the bill nevertheless, declaring that he would “work with Russia.” Uganda’s recently developed oil fields may soon diminish the need for foreign aid in any case.

If Obama really wants to support human rights, he should use whatever leverage he has to support the rights of all Ugandans. America did this for Eastern Europeans during the cold war, and we owe the same to Ugandans today, especially since so much of our own money has been used to stifle all internal democratic means of loosening Museveni’s grip on power.

This is the second of two articles. “Murder in Uganda” appeared in the Review’s April 3, 2014 issue.

  1. 1

    Howard French, “On Visit to Congo, Albright Praises the New Leader,” The New York Times, December 13, 1997. 

  2. 2

    Andrew Mwenda and Roger Tangri, “Patronage Politics, Donor Reforms and Regime Consolidation in Uganda,” African Affairs, Vol. 104 (July 2005). 

  3. 3

    Filip Reyntjens, Political Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda (Cambridge University Press, 2013). 

  4. 4

    DRC War May Cost Uganda Billions,” BBC News, December 19, 2005. 

  5. 5

    “Profile: DR Congo Militia Leader Thomas Lubanga,” BBC News, July 12, 2012. 

  6. 6

    “Fears South Sudan Conflict Could Infect Region,” The Daily Nation, March 8, 2014. 

  7. 7

    David Axe, “US Weapons Now in Somali Terrorists’ Hands,” Wired, August 2, 2011. 

  8. 8

    “Democracy in Africa: The New Generation of African Leaders,” Hearing before the Subcommittee on African Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, One Hundred Fifth Congress, Second Session, March 12, 1998. 

  9. 9

    See “Murder in Uganda,” The New York Review, April 3, 2014. 

  10. 10

    “Henry Gombya, Nebanda, Wapa, Mugalu, and Others Died from Orders on High,” The London Evening Post, August 29, 2013

  11. 11

    George W. Kanyeihamba, The Blessings and Joy of Being Who You Are ( George W. Kanyeihamba, 2012); Charles Onyango-Obbo, “‘Crown Prince’ Museveni, and ‘Queen’ Janet,’” The Monitor, May 9, 2001. 

  12. 12

    Estimate from “Letting the Big Fish Swim: Failures to Prosecute High-level Corruption in Uganda,” Human Rights Watch, October 2013. 

  13. 13

    Amii Omara-Otunnu, “Yoweri Museveni,” in Political Leaders in Contemporary Africa South of the Sahara: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Harvey Glickman (Greenwood, 1992). Museveni’s thesis on Fanon is “Fanon’s Theory on Violence: Its Verification in Liberated Mozambique,” reprinted in Essays on the Liberation of Southern Africa, edited by Nathan M. Shamuyarira (Dar es Salaam: Tanzania Publishing House, 1971). 

  14. 14

    Amii Omara-Otunnu, “The Struggle for Democracy in Uganda,” The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3 (September 1992). 

  15. 15

    The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth and Reality, edited by Tim Allen and Koen Vlassenroot (Zed, 2010). 

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