It may be difficult to recreate a sense of just how central human rights issues were to Ugandan politics, and therefore how instrumental they were in building and feeding the legend of the National Resistance Movement (NRM).
Between 1962 and 1986, Uganda was caught in an entrenched and mounting human rights crisis that characterized all her national life. Everything was about disappearances, detentions, bans, exiles and executions. It was our defining feature and something that, due to its very heart-rending nature, was also easily turned into media material.
This fully matured during the reign of General Amin where the combination of wholesale political exclusion, Western racism, and a mounting economic crisis led to a virtual carnival of language and imagery that really entrenched the notion of rights violations as being Uganda’s fundamental problem. The 1980-1985 anti-Obote war was merely the final point of that. Beyond the political differences, human rights violations were the struggle’s lowest common denominator: they were accessible, human, unifying.
This is where the NRM became important, because its unique selling point in Uganda politics was as being the entity that finally “found the medicine” that enabled the country to solve this problem and therefore allowed us to move on to other things. This is of course completely untrue as everyone can now see. However, the point is not that it has become untrue through some backsliding over the years; the point is that it was never true. All that has changed is people’s perception of the same things.
If we are to put it in modern terms, we would say that human rights was NRM’s “brand”; the thing that defined its public identity. So, what went wrong?
One perhaps needed to have been there, alive and aware, at the time of the NRA victory, to fully understand this.
However popular Robert Kyagulanyi is now as an inspiring insurgent figure, his popularity is nothing compared to that which a youthful and inspiring Yoweri Museveni enjoyed between 1985 and maybe 1990. This speaks to just how significant the arrival of the NRM was: Museveni, and the various smaller versions of himself to be found in his various war-hero commanders, were virtual gods.
Nothing wrong could be said about them. One risked insults, ostracism, physical violence and open ridicule for making even the most basic negative remark. And this not from the regime itself, but from ordinary members of the public. I know, because I was at the receiving end of all that throughout the 1980s and beyond (even at the extended family level). It’s what developed my interest in education issues, because it was then that I first fully realized that the Ugandan education system is designed to train people in how to not think, and therefore not reason, and that, in particular, there is nothing as manipulable as an excited [wo]man, especially one that considers themselves “educated”.
As said, the image is completely undeserved of course, despite what even some opposition and wider human rights activists say: that the regime has “started” human rights violations with the abductions and other things we now see. This is very uninformed in many cases. In other cases, it is just very intellectually dishonest.
NRM human rights violations began immediately after they took power and have never stopped. A good early example of the actual view of their leadership on the matter was the warning to “lock up [the media] under the [Milton Obote created] 1967 Detention laws, if they continue to malign the good name of the NRA” given by none other than new president Yoweri Museveni himself, on the 18th of February 1987.
NRM human rights violations began immediately after they took power and have never stopped.
The venerable journalist Tony Owana was one of the victims of the attitude back then. Other victims of the true nature of the NRM were Jacob Oulanyah who was among the students shot by the Ugandan police during a peaceful demonstration against Makerere University cost-cutting; and Charles Rwomushana, whose 1995 parliamentary ambitions were summarily crushed during the election campaigns by the violence from the supporters of his NRM big-shot rival.
As said, what has changed, in the main, is the wider public perception of the violations. So the real problem with these abductions is that the logic, framework and arguments for human rights were themselves abducted a very long time ago. And their custodians did not file any complaints at the time. Now these new victims do.
For example, Charles Rwomushana, despite his unfair treatment by the NRM (and incidentally having been, he claims, also among the aforementioned demonstrating students), went on to a long career in our famously partisan state intelligence services, and now spends his days as a media contortionist speaking for the opposition on the behalf of the government (I think. Or something).
The late Mr Oulanyah of course went on to become an NRM voice in his home area, and through them, was elevated to parliamentary speakership.
Mr Owana is a dedicated cadre of the NRM of decades. He once told me that his detention (in a military barracks) had been as a result of a news source misleading him with information. He did not seem to have an opinion on the manner of the detention itself.
Again, the point was not that human rights were not being violated back then. Rather, that the then generation of young activists that saw the violations first-hand decided that they could live with them while in pursuit of other things.
A very pertinent example is a recent tweet by veteran women’s rights activist Winnie Byanyima who began her political career as a dedicated NRM cadre, before famously falling out with it and becoming an opposition stalwart. She was commenting approvingly after an encounter with one Ms Jane Francis Abodo, Uganda’s current Director of Public Prosecutions.
“@EBBairport lucky to bump into Uganda’s Director of Public Prosecutions & introduce myself. One of many brilliant young Ugandan women in senior public roles. I don’t usually agree with the man in the hat, but on giving young women opportunity to lead I [salute emoji] him!”
Those three short sentences carry a universe of meaning in regard to the death of human rights as a constitutional concern.
Of course “the man in the hat” being referred to is President Museveni. And indeed, he was present in the form of an official portrait hanging on the wall behind the two ladies in the photo accompanying the tweet.
This suggested the VIP lounge at the airport. Which would be the logical place for two high-powered personages (Ms Byanyima is currently the head of a United Nations Agency) to be while traveling.
Ms Abodo’s office currently sits at the heart of Uganda’s mounting human rights debacle.
First, the current wave of abductions is an attempt by the regime to sidestep the legal requirement of due process in which somebody is expected to be properly arrested, informed of the charge against them, detained in an official place, have access to both family and legal representatives, be presented in court within forty-eight hours, and have the state respect whatever rulings the court makes in the case.
With abductions, few, if any of these things happen. In the instances where – due to some kind of pressure – the abductees happen to end up presented in court, it is often well beyond the 48-hour deadline, and they are presented bearing visible signs of torture.
Second, some of the accused end up being sent on remand. But this is often because the state requests more time to complete its investigation against them. This has become a cycle in most of the cases.
Under Ugandan human-rights based law, the only destination for a person duly arrested is a court. And the only person that can determine that is the Director of Public Prosecutions.
This is simply not happening. Some abducted people, like the National Unity Platform activist Olivia Lutaaya, have not been seen or heard from by anyone at all in over two years. Others have been discovered dead, their bodies surreptitiously dumped in mortuaries. Others still have been found basically held hostage in secret places, where they remain even after discovery. Yet others lucky enough to have been presented in court, have become locked in the endless remand-court-remand cycle.
Under Ugandan human-rights based law, the only destination for a person duly arrested is a court.
In all these cases, the office of the DPP is in a position to make things better. As sanctioned by the Human Rights Enforcement Act 2019, it could refuse to proceed with any case involving any person who was not properly arrested; shows signs of torture or ill-treatment; has been held incommunicado at any one time, has been held beyond the constitutionally stipulated time; or whose case does not come with enough evidence to immediately proceed to full trial.
In short, Madam Abodo, as Director of Public Prosecutions could simply insist on a strict adherence to the constitutionally laid-down provisions concerning, well, prosecution.
She has not done this.
In the meantime, this wave of terror has had a chilling effect on political activism. Citizens simply know that if they fall into the clutches of the state, nobody can tell what will happen next and for how long.
Madam Byanyima is likely to be more aware than most of the meaning and impacts of such travesties, given that she is married to – and has struggled alongside – Dr Kizza Besigye, perhaps the most abducted, arrested, detained and otherwise officially mistreated opposition figure of modern times, in his 20-year quest to unseat that very same “man in the hat”.
It is not unreasonable therefore to have expected issues more pressing than the pleasure of seeing “young” (in fact, Madam Abodo is nearly 50) ladies being entrusted with “senior roles” to have been uppermost in her mind on catching sight of the official who is basically aiding and abetting these travesties and, moreover, doing so at the behest of a regime headed by the very one who appointed the delinquent official. Instead, she is saluting him, and effectively reducing the long-running opposition suffering at the hands of his regime to “disagreements”.
Citizens simply know that if they fall into the clutches of the state, nobody can tell what will happen next and for how long.
Supposed to be the NRM’s crowning moment, nothing in the new NRM constitutional dispensation was lauded more than the whole array of gender-based policies that were embedded in it. Nothing, not even the brutalities of the then ongoing war in the north could distract donor and intelligentsia attention from this.
One could therefore say that Ugandan feminism’s terminal destination was always that: to be perched in a big but fully impotent job awarded by a dictator, because the human rights “inclusions” of the new constitution simply served to create a bigger tent into which a greater array of middle-class interests could be accommodated in an orderly fashion.
And this is why a state that boasts a constitutionally-provided National Youth Council is seeking to crush a wave of youth-based activism, why it can claim this high level of women’s participation in national affairs while also disappearing a mother of a young daughter, not to mention the accusations of sexual assault by former abductees.
We can now begin to reflect on whether this was indeed, in fact, a betrayal: it was never about the status of human rights; it was always about the right to status.
In this respect, perhaps Uganda is now catching up with Kenya, the lead example of the sacrifice of fundamental rights on the altar of acquired petit-bourgeois respectability that first began with the debasing of the struggle for Independence.
A repeat was when Kenyan public discourse underwent something of a reboot following the 2007 post-election violence. Human rights concerns became more urgent, and a need to accommodate longstanding grievances among the wananchi was recognized.
In a sense, the anger of the ordinary people momentarily breached the then comfortable citadel of elite-owned Kenyan politics. With the successive presidencies of the very two men initially accused of having had a hand in fomenting the opposing sides of the violence, it seems an adjustment has been made in order to return to the old normal.
There is a silence around both the post-election violence and the failure to address the issues that caused it, and the lack of full accountability thereafter. There are, however, a lot more positions to be elected and appointed to, and a lot more opportunities to build careers on one platform or another created by the issues that arose from the violence.
As one Kenyan analyst just put it to me, “The post-election violence accelerated the birth of the donor-organized liberal 2010 constitution. A very distorted document, but consistent with postponing any conversation on federation by gifting elites on the periphery with guaranteed cash from the centre. The effect was to massively expand the political class, turning politics into a full-time career. Notice that the Bill of Rights have for all intents and purposes been trashed [and] there has been worse police brutality, including torture, murder and disappearances…”
There is a silence around both the post-election violence and the failure to address the issues that caused it.
Uganda’s current rising generation of political actors facing the brunt of the abductions and torture can be said to be paying the bill for a similar silence that their parent’s generation consumed in this manner, in two ways.
First, they young are engaged in a handicapped discourse because those in charge do not know the issue, and second because those that do, cannot tell them about it because of their past collusion. The most critical point missed, therefore, is that human rights are not “politics” as such; they are what comes up as an issue once politics fails. But to avoid, or even fix a human rights crisis, one must have a clear political program. It is very hard to develop one if one does not know the difference.
This was how the 1987-2002 war in northern Uganda was treated like an issue taking place in a foreign country among people we did not know. Those who know the politics that gave rise to the war were not telling, and those experiencing the actual violations of the war had no political understanding of it.
The 1995 constitution was where all this bad history was finally neutralized and this fresh thinking was formally institutionalized. It came with the broadest of definitions: youth, women, people with disabilities were all given space and consideration. The donors loved it, calling it the best constitution in the world. Human rights were at the very heart of the new constitutional order.
This was how the 1987-2002 war in northern Uganda was treated like an issue taking place in a foreign country among people we did not know.
That constitution is now the dead horse that Justice Sekaana was trying to get to stand up and walk with his admonishing of the State Attorney during a December 9th High Court mention of yet another case of abduction. “Release them, or charge them. They cannot be kept incommunicado,” he groused.
This, in country that wrote such a principle (again) into its constitution against a background of a whole Chief Justice having once been abducted. Justice Sekaana’s having to state the basics shows just how dead human rights now are.
And that is the thing: NRA in power was always going to be a human rights violator. It never really had a choice, given the expectations of the Western corporations that installed it in power. For them to get rich, the population must be either bought, or silenced. This makes human rights abuses the policy, not an accident.
Nothing went wrong, apart from us being a country of slow learners further burdened by absentee teachers.