The former Western Youth MP, retired Maj Okwiri Rabwoni, has, for the first time, spoken out on the mysterious death of his brother, Brig Noble Mayombo.
In a candid interview with The Observer last week, Okwiri says a cloud of uncertainty continues to hover over the death of his brother, who, many believe, was one of Uganda’s most intelligent and eloquent soldiers and a potential head of state. Tomorrow marks five years since Mayombo, then permanent secretary in the ministry of Defence, died at the Agha Khan hospital in Nairobi, Kenya.
Although President Museveni sanctioned an investigation into his death, Okwiri says neither he nor his father, Rev James Rabwoni, who died three years later, ever received the findings of the probe team. There were fears and rumours that Mayombo may have been poisoned or otherwise killed by his enemies or those of the government. In interviews with The Observer, members of Mayombo’s family and his friends also spoke of suspicious circumstances surrounding his death.
In the interview, Okwiri also speaks about the toxic rivalry he shared with his brother during the 2001 presidential elections, when Mayombo ordered his brother’s arrest. He recalls arguments with a person very dear to him, and what he told President Museveni when the head of state tried to stop him joining Dr Kizza Besigye in the Forum for Democratic Change.
“Mayombo was shocked. He knew my loyalty to Museveni was guaranteed. He told me bluntly: ‘Okwiri, this is the height of recklessness,” he says.
Okwiri recalls that after Dr Kizza Besigye wrote a paper in 1999, chronicling corruption, patronage and lack of internal criticism within the regime, he began to believe in the now FDC leader.
“We used to talk in Luzira [at the home of Besigye] in 1999, with Amanya Mushega, Maj [John] Kazoora and Maj Guma Gumisiriza. We wanted to check the excesses of a deviant regime. I believe the political map was irreversibly changed from the day Besigye wrote the document,” Okwiri says.
Speaking about the controversial death, which was clouded in conspiracies, Rabwoni, who shared a toxic sibling rivalry with Mayombo during the 2001 presidential campaigns, told The Observer recently: “I for one have never seen the report. The father the late [Rev James Rabwoni] also died without seeing the report.”
During Mayombo’s burial, in Kijura, Kabarole district on May 6, 2007, President Museveni suggested that he could have been killed by hit-men.
“Our security services have been looking at criminally-minded characters in the region, who have been saying that by eliminating NRM cadres, they would finish the NRM. Mayombo’s name was high on that list and, of course, also Museveni’s, as the head,” he said. “But criminal scheming is not the same as succeeding. They have been planning, but not succeeding.”
Museveni then appointed a committee to investigate Mayombo’s death.
“His material will be availed to three persons who are in charge of the investigations: Col James Mugira, a lawyer by profession; Lt Rusoke, a bio-chemist with a Master’s in toxicology; and a senior doctor whom I have identified, but not yet consulted.”
As speculation reached fever-pitch shortly after Mayombo’s death, another conspiracy emerged, that he could have been a victim of a sophisticated cold-war-era style of poisoning. Sources reveal that on Thursday, April 26, 2007, Mayombo went to office and was served tea. It was after taking the tea that he developed stomach complications.
He later briefly visited the home of Prince Kenneth Muhangura Rukiidi, son of Omukama George Rukiidi III, who is the grandfather of the current Omukama of Toro. That day, he was expected to meet his other close friend, the elderly Prince Kaijamurubi Switzer, brother to Omukama George Rukiidi III of Toro, but due to the stomach complication, they spoke on phone and postponed the meeting. The following day, he was rushed to Kololo hospital in pain.
There was also procrastination over transporting Mayombo from one place to another for treatment. Some sources claim there was an offer of a super medical jet from Israel to take him to Tel Aviv for treatment, before the presidential jet was offered. His family also questioned the presence of restless security officials at Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi shortly before the dialysis machine that had been connected to Mayombo, and which had helped him improve significantly, suddenly stopped functioning. Okwiri revealed in the interview that by the time of his death, Mayombo was unhappy with the state of affairs, especially corruption.
“He was shocked at the level of how people wanted to profiteer through deals and he was under immense pressure as a permanent secretary. He also knew that corruption would be the cancer that would kill NRM.”
Okwiri revealed that although he and Mayombo sharply disagreed ideologically, a lot of things united them.
“What united us was the left of centre ideology. We were both Pan African and regional integration exponents. Although we disagreed, we were united on other things more than 90 percent,” says Okwiri, who believes that even his brutal arrest in 2001 on the orders of his brother “must have been a painful decision on his [Mayombo’s] part.”
“We all read Prof Dani Nabudere, Walter Rodney, Franz Fanon, Mao Tsetung,” says Okwiri, who recalls that “this philosophical orientation would later cause Mayombo problems with his law lecturers because he was from a leftist platform, while his lecturers had western persuasion ideology and would regurgitate western dogma.”
Okwiri believes his brother was so ideological and was underutilized by the regime.
“He spent all his energies on national issues, intelligence and army issues. Noble was global in thinking. You would go to Rwanda, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania — which ever part of the continent — [and he had friends there]. He had close friendship with Cubans and the Israelites.”
After Okwiri dropped out of Senior Five at Kings College Budo in 1985 to join the NRA rebels who were hiding in the Rwenzori mountains near Fort Portal, Mayombo followed just a few months later, dropping out of law school at Makerere University to join the rebel ranks in Buhweju.
Both were sent to Libya for training in 1986 shortly after the NRA had toppled the Tito Okello military junta. Okwiri later left for Cuba (from where he returned in 1987 and was posted to Entebbe), while Mayombo remained in Uganda. In 1989, Mayombo advised his brother to apply to the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) to return to school.
“I told him, ‘I could sit for the exams if you buy me enough textbooks’. He and [Rwanda President Paul] Kagame bought me textbooks. I only studied for three months and sat my A-Level at an examination center in Fort Portal. When I passed, Mayombo said I should read law.”
However former NRA soldiers took arms from the barracks in 1990 and launched a rebellion against Juvenile Hyabarimana’s regime in Rwanda. Okwiri, who had previously served as Aide de Camp to the late Maj Gen Fred Rwigyema, abandoned law school to join the newly formed Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).
“Noble remained the only contact between me and the family,” Okwiri says. At the time, his father and siblings thought he had died in Rwanda. “He also tried to smuggle a few things to me.”
The brothers, who often indulged in camaraderie, were headed to Kigali in 1998 for Okwiri’s wedding, at which Mayombo was going to be best man. It was during the journey that Okwiri warned Mayombo that President Museveni would contest for another term in 2001 and that the next five years would be extremely difficult for the President.
Okwiri says when he joined Parliament in 1996, he noticed that corruption was prevalent. “I became an internal critic with [Winnie] Byanyima and, with [Norbert] Mao and Ben Wacha, we tried to build bridges across the political divide.”
Okwiri recalls that after the dossier authored by Dr Col Kizza Besigye, which chronicled corruption, patronage and lack of internal criticism within the ruling party, he became endeared to Besigye.
“We used to talk at his home in Luzira in 1999, with Amanya Mushega, Maj [John] Kazoora and Maj Guma Gumisiriza.”
Okwiri has a strong conviction that as a result of Besigye’s paper, the Ugandan society today is a more questioning polity. Okwiri, like Besigye, believed Museveni’s landslide victory in the 1996 presidential elections had emboldened negative elements in the ruling party to become more corrupt.
Okwiri and Mayombo would later be caught up in the crux of a political conflict, where one was for and the other against the status quo. On the day, Mayombo learned his brother was hobnobbing with Besigye, he told him bluntly: “Okwiri, this is the height of recklessness.”
“Noble tried to use his charm to convince me to leave the Besigye camp. He became so emotional; he told me: ‘I have given you so many things. Give me one thing back.’ But I replied, ‘You cannot take my conscience and soul. My conscience says excesses must be stopped’.”
Okwiri, who was part of the Elect-Besigye taskforce in 2001, remembers it all began when he (Okwiri) toured Rukungiri, Ntungamo and Kabale districts and held rallies with massive crowds.
“The pictures taken at the rallies caused me problems. Immediately after I returned, Noble ordered that I be disarmed — although I had retired, I was doing some work for the State in Congo. My two bodyguards were locked up, and my pistol and rifle were taken from me.”
“Noble and Gen David Tinyefuza (who has since changed his surname to Sejusa) called me to Nile Hotel (now Serena Hotel) and intimidated me. They were using intelligence methods, saying, ‘They [Besigye’s taskforce] want to overthrow government and we know you are part of them’,” Okwiri told The Observer.
“I knew they were doing a security twist so that I would leave the campaign team. It was intimidation, so I tricked them and said, ‘I am with you now’.”
Persuaded that Okwiri had abandoned Besigye, Mayombo returned his pistol.
“They phoned The New Vision claiming, ‘Okwiri has come back’, but as soon as I left, I ran to the American embassy. I said I feared for my life, but the Americans refused to take me [out of the country], so I rang Anne Mugisha [a member of Besigye’s team]. She said, ‘Things are not right; we shall be charged with treason’, then we drove to Luzira and, upon seeing me, Winnie [Byanyima] screamed with delight.”
Anne Mugisha then telephoned senior Monitor journalist, Andrew Mwenda (now managing editor of The Independent) about the development. A day before, Mayombo and Gen Sejusa had booked a room for Okwiri at the Nile hotel.
“To divert them, I told my wife to go home and pretend everything is normal; I was staying in Bunga. They started looking for me at night, but when they discovered that I was not at the hotel, they smelt a rat.
“[Former ISO boss] Maj Gen Jim Muhwezi, Tinyefuza and Brig Sam Wasswa [deputy coordinator of intelligence services] interrogated my wife up to 3am. They ordered [then] Capt Moses Rwakitarate [now a Brigadier and the Air-force chief of staff) to block my residence and grab me on my way home. I slept at Besigye’s home; they were boiling with anger.”
The following day The Monitor published a memorable photograph on the cover page, accompanying its lead story, with Okwiri, Besigye, Byanyima and Mwenda toasting to a glass of wine. With egg on the face, the New Vision’s lead story claimed that Okwiri had returned to the NRM. On the same day, Besigye organized to travel to West Nile to campaign alongside Okwiri. It was a day that would change the course of events forever, when Okwiri was brutally arrested at Entebbe airport’s the VIP lounge.
“We were approached by CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) officials at the lobby and they said, ‘Your plane won’t take off’. We thought it was just a routine matter, but orders had come from above.
“They said I had to go back for questioning at CMI [Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence], so I said, ‘Take me to CPS [Central Police Station] with my lawyer,” says Okwiri, who recalls that the situation was so tense.
“Government had a crisis at hand and they closed the airport. They sent Rwakitarate and Muhanga Kayanja [now a Lt Col deployed in Somalia] to arrest me. I was violently arrested; they were seating on me, but what I feared most was that either the vehicle would overturn because of the speed or the rifle they were pointing at me would go off by accident.”
He says crowds were surging towards the vehicle and people wanted to break into the CMI offices in Kitante to bring him out.
“At my detention center the next day was the army commander, police boss, CID officers, Gen Tinyefuza and Gen [Elly] Tumwine”, said Okwiri. “They drafted a document on my behalf [against my wish] that I am going to be released on police bond. They also prepared a document to read in Parliament.”
The message in the document, which Okwiri did not approve of, alleged that he was neither in government, nor in opposition; he was now an independent. He recalls with nostalgia that on his way to Parliament, the President called saying he wanted to speak to him.
“I said I want to go to Britain. He said, ‘Why are you working with these people?’ I replied, ‘Besigye is a brilliant officer. You have worked with him for long’.”
Okwiri was driven to his home where he spent a week under house arrest, as the State processed his visa. “Besigye sneaked some dollars through another brother of mine to me,” he says.
Okwiri says Mayombo, whose generosity was boundless, facilitated his return.
“If I had not returned, I would never have buried him or my father [Rev James Rabwoni].”
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