It’s not clear what the British architect of Uganda’s Parliament envisioned when he designed the building shortly before independence in 1962. Sitting askew on a hill in downtown Kampala, with its angular white columns it could be a modernist African Parthenon. But inside, it’s a warren of hallways and balconies with AK-47-toting security guards lurking everywhere. On the wall outside the visitors’ gallery looms a row of painted portraits of the thugs and generals—Idi Amin, Milton Obote, and others—who have ruled this country during the past fifty years, alternating with a professor and a lawyer who were ousted from power within months. “This one toppled that one, and that one toppled this one…,” a tour guide explained as he showed me around.
I teach and write about public health and have been coming to Uganda for twenty years. In August 2013, I spent a few days watching videos of old debates in the basement archives of Parliament. In 2012, Uganda passed an important public health bill, and I wanted to find out more about one of the MPs who had worked on it. It was a quiet Saturday morning when I found the tapes I was looking for. As I watched the scratchy VHS recordings, the technician who had kindly agreed to open the studio for me on a weekend sat in the adjoining anteroom working at a computer. Most of the politicians in the videos were men in dark suits, some with spectacles creeping down their noses. Some spoke with passion and clarity, pounding the air with their fists; others—the scoundrels, mainly—droned on and on.
After a few hours, the Speaker of Parliament, a formidable Ugandan woman in a British-style judicial wig, called on a twenty-four-year-old MP named Cerinah Nebanda, the person I was interested in. Before I knew it, the technician was standing beside me, his eyes glued to her as she spoke. Nebanda was beautiful, in the zaftig African way, with a warm face, a powerful voice, extraordinary charisma, and, it would turn out, unusual courage. As she shook her finger and leaned over to emphasize a point, it was impossible not to watch her.
Nebanda died in December 2012, poisoned, some of her parliamentary colleagues maintain, by Ugandan government operatives. Then, in August 2013, an online magazine published an interview with General David Sejusa, the former coordinator of Ugandan intelligence services, who had fled into exile in the UK in May 2013. The general claimed that Nebanda, and many other prominent Ugandans who also died from mysterious illnesses or in sudden accidents, had been deliberately killed on “orders from on high”—meaning at the direction…
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