Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu was the National Resistance Army (NRA) commander between 1989-1998 and one thing is indelibly etched in his memory: Lt Gen Henry Tumukunde doesn’t bow to authority.
“Henry is someone who speaks his mind; he doesn’t bow to authority. If he comes out now [to announce his presidential bid], it means the contradictions that have been happening in the regime have forced him to take the stand he has taken. Those who sacrificed a lot when we were in the bush have done a lot of soul-searching and realized that if they don’t change direction, [President] Museveni will take down the whole country with them,” Muntu said in an interview on Tuesday.
Muntu, a key promoter of the new opposition Alliance for National Transformation, ANT, led the army when Tumukunde was at the rank of major.
Muntu joined the 1981-86 National Resistance Army (NRA) bush war with Tumukunde immediately after completing their studies at Makerere University in 1982. The two were supposed to go to the bush on the same day but their plans were scuttled by security operatives of the late former President Milton Obote. When they got wind of the plan, the operatives scattered the group before it could converge and march to the bush.
The Muntu group left and was joined days later by Tumukunde. Muntu was also Tumukunde’s best man when he was marrying Stella. Therefore, When Muntu talks about Tumukunde, he talks about a person he knows very well.
Muntu, however, had a word of caution for the under-fire general who is under incarceration. He said Tumukunde shouldn’t try to stop people probing his checkered past as a harsh tormentor of Museveni’s political opponents.
“We don’t have to look at the past; it’s the current crisis that we are in, which is even worsening, that we must address. But people must ask questions; that is inevitable. Even people who might have made mistakes in the past, it doesn’t mean that they don’t recognize the danger now,” Muntu, who has tried several times but failed to shake off the accusation of being an NRM mole in the opposition, said.
He added that even him and his other colleagues who left the ruling NRM almost 20 years ago are still held at arm’s length by some people.
“But you have to leave it to time. Because when you act consistently, over a period of time, people get over it and start gaining trust in you. You can’t jump overnight and people welcome you with open hands. That’s not going to happen,” Muntu said.
Col Fred Bogere, who boldly stared down General Aronda Nyakayirima, the then Chief of Defence Forces, CDF, and refused to vote for the removal of term limits on the floor of parliament, said in an interview yesterday that he firmly believes Tumukunde is sincere about taking on Museveni in the 2021 presidential election.
He, however, added that it would be wrong for the general to be angry at a population that still doubts his motives. Col [rtd] Bogere worked as the Chief of Logistics when Tumukunde served as the UPDF Chief of Personnel and Administration. He said Amama Mbabazi’s presidential bid in 2016 shocked President Museveni and could have prompted him to lean on Tumukunde for support.
“Under panic [in 2016], he could have entered any deal with him [Tumukunde] but ordinarily if you start giving conditions to the army for retirement, that’s reason enough for them to deny it to you because when they allow you to go, they will have little leverage over you,” Bogere said.
Is Tumukunde playing Ugandans?
Last week, police backed by the army arrested Tumukunde at his office in Kololo together with a dozen other people. The charges although not yet formally brought against him, include treason, which is normally preferred against Museveni’s opponents.
On air on different radio and TV stations, Tumukunde allegedly encouraged Rwanda to support any Ugandan who wants change if Kigali wants to change the status quo in Kampala. This allegedly annoyed the establishment.
Those who have worked with Tumukunde closely agree that he is quite an intelligent man who doesn’t settle for less. Col Bogere who together with Tumukunde were part of the 10 MPs who represented the UPDF in the seventh parliament, said the general is not trying to play political gymnastics with Museveni.
“I wasn’t shocked with his announcement because I know him as a person who doesn’t settle for less. I knew he would want to explore other opportunities,” Bogere said.
These two officers opposed the removal of presidential term limits in parliament. Once they were removed, Museveni got another shot at the presidency just before his two terms expired in 2006.
“We vehemently opposed the removal of terms limits. I think he has never been satisfied with the way the politics of this country is run. But my only disappointment with him is that he enters compromises, which are not very principled and somehow goes back to government,” Bogere said.
“We have seen people who have come out to oppose the government but again they return giving very shallow reasons. What we are not sure of is, if government brings out its tools, he won’t turn back,” Bogere said.
Tumukunde, the favored the prince
FDC spokesperson and Kira Municipality MP, Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda said Tumukunde’s presidential bid is a big thing, because he has been one of Museveni’s princes.
“We have written stories about him standing up against Museveni. I remember when he refused to hand over office as ISO director general when Museveni appointed Col Elly Kayanja who was his deputy. That can only be done by a prince,” Ssemujju said.
Tumukunde is related to President Museveni through marriage. His wife Stella is a cousin to Janet Museveni. This proximity to power gave him an aura of invincibility in whichever office he occupied.
Actually it’s said that when he was dismissed as head of the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence and appointed the 4th Division Commander of the UPDF, he refused to go to Gulu where the division is based. It should be recalled that this was at the peak of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency in northern Uganda.
He was later relieved of that command and appointed Internal Security Organization director general with Kayanja as his deputy. During the same time, the late Brigadier Noble Mayombo was the director of CMI. The three would write intelligence reports accusing each other of corruption and misuse of resources.
For now it’s not yet clear what awaits Tumukunde but what is clear is that President Museveni is taking his challenge seriously. But Col Bogere says as Museveni moves to purge his opponents, he must know that his actions might be counterproductive.
“The only guaranteed constant is change; so, one would better play fair because you never know what will happen tomorrow. All of us are safer when we play fair. Stability can only be achieved through fair play.”
Why the treason charge?
Treason, over the years, has become government’s preferred charge against many of its harsh critics. Though the charge usually doesn’t provide an easy path to a conviction, government, however, has used it to good effect to keep its opponents longer in jail and on trial.
A week after MPs were arrested in the West Nile district of Arua in September 2018, and spirited off into military detention, lawyers and opposition leaders denounced the treason charges leveled against them as political persecution.
They told The Observer then that the state loves to slap trumped-up treason charges for pure political harassment. Julius Galisonga, a human rights lawyer, said that the desired objective is to keep people in prison as a punishment before conviction.
“Ordinarily, with capital offences, there is a period of time you must remain on remand before even the hearing of the case can start or applying for bail; this is what those who prefer such charges are after,” Galisonga said.
On August 13, 2018, MPs; Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu a.k.a Bobi Wine, Francis Zaake, Gerald Karuhanga, Paul Mwiru, Kassiano Wadri and 30 others were arrested in the heat of the Arua municipality by-election. Bobi Wine and 33 others were charged with treason in the Gulu chief magistrate’s court.
Why government likes it
Treason charges have been preferred against many real or perceived opponents of Museveni ever since he shot his way to power in 1986. It became a pet charge with the emergence of Col (rtd) Dr Kizza Besigye as a formidable opponent in the last 20 years.
Besigye was first charged with treason in 2005, barely a month before the acrimonious 2006 general election. The Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) founding leader was accused together with 22 others, including his brother Musasizi Kifefe, of belonging to the shadowy People’s Redemption Army (RPA).
Musasizi died in prison. Ten years later in 2016, Besigye was again arrested and remanded for close to six months for swearing himself in after the 2016 elections he claims he won.
FDC man Michael Kabaziguruka, the Nakawa MP who himself is facing two treason cases; one in the magistrate court and the other in the General Court Martial, agrees that treason charges are being abused for political reasons.
“I was arrested in 2012 and charged with treason but as we speak, I have never been committed to the High court for trial. But before they could even finish prosecuting that case, I was arrested again and this time charged in the military court martial on the same grounds. The president claimed I wanted to kill him,” Kabaziguruka said.
When he was first arrested, Kabaziguruka was locked up for four months. Likewise in 2016, he was held in Kigo prison for four months until High court judge Yasin Nyanzi granted him bail.
“The head of state said publicly that I tried to assassinate him; that the UPDF will not release me. In the military when the head of state makes such a statement, you don’t expect Gen Andrew Gutti [GCM chairman] to give me a fair hearing. The purpose of this charge is really to put you out of circulation and cause inconveniences,” Kabaziguruka said then.
Betty Nambooze Bakireke, now MP for Mukono municipality, was kidnapped in 2009 while still the head of the Buganda Kingdom’s Central Civic Committee campaigning against a proposed change in the land law. Nambooze was held in several prisons across the country on charges of terrorism and treason.
“Museveni is very petty; he picks on big cases so that he can keep you in prison for years. The time you spend in police custody or on remand is a punishment in itself because he knows he has no case against you,” Nambooze said.
The Mukono municipality MP is still recovering from injuries inflicted upon her by the SFC soldiers who attacked parliament in 2017. When she was produced in court, the 2009 charges had been reduced to sedition. Nambooze said then that her captors told her she would only be released if she accepted to meet the president.
“What made the president drop these charges was because he was put under a lot of pressure from Mengo to release us. I have been on bail since then but I no longer report back to court and nothing has happened,” Nambooze said.
“It’s very shameful that courts of law have been used as tools of oppression. They use these charges to make you permanent prisoners. The aim is to hold you for a long time and restrict your movement.”
The legal opinion
Laudislaus Rwakafuuzi, a human rights lawyer who has defended many against treason, agrees with Nambooze and Kabaziguruka.
“Treason is a grave offence…it is very hard to get bail hence keeping your opponents out of the way through the courts. They will tell you that it’s the court that has remanded you yet actually it’s the executive that has remanded you,” Rwakafuuzi says.
Dr Livingstone Ssewanyana, the executive director of Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, said that because of the seriousness of the charge, it has a chilling effect on the individual and his or her entire network.
“It is intended to subdue that person such that he is no longer seen to assert him/herself,” he said.
He pointed out that treason cases take a lot of time before the state either loses interest or one is acquitted.
“It effectively puts the individual under the custody of the state and it’s hard to get bail because with such a case, you can only get a mandatory bail after 180 days. The charge doesn’t only disfavour an individual but puts him/her at the whims of the state,” Ssewanyana said.
All three men agreed that the state doesn’t prefer treason charges with intent to convict but, rather, to secure victory over an opponent. Galisonga added that because the standard of proof is set beyond reasonable doubt, requiring irrefutable evidence, 95 per cent of the treason cases either suffer a stillbirth or end up in acquittals.
“Treason involves actions that are not known to very many people unless one person confesses that indeed he had engaged in treasonous activities, it is very hard to prove,” Galisonga said. The burden of proof is on the state to prove beyond reasonable doubt all the elements of the offence. The accused can even opt to keep quiet throughout the trial. He doesn’t have to prove his innocence.
It is for this reason, the lawyer added, that government is now dragging people before military courts where orders from the commander in chief could override evidence.
“It is the court martial that can only convict people on such cases but their ruling would also be overturned on appeal in the civil courts,” Galisonga opines.
Rwakafuuzi adds that in some of the cases he has handled, the state abandons the cases because they have no faith in the charges.
“Museveni is jittery; he doesn’t want it if there is another election to have this group from Kampala to go to the villages because when they go, they give the villagers hope and confidence to vote against the status quo. So, he is doing this so that nobody else tries; I can assure you if there is another by-election, very few people will go there [Arua},” Rwakafuuzi says.
Kabaziguruka remembers meeting a one Africa Gabula who has been in prison for over 15 years after he was convicted of treason.
“He was lied to that they would give him a very lenient sentence if he pleads guilty. I was told he is one of the very few people who have ever been convicted of treason,” Kabaziguruka said.
“The ingredients of proving such an offence were really tightened so that you don’t wake up and think court will convict someone just like that,” Kabaziguruka said.
What is treason?
Section 23 of the Penal Code Act, the collection of laws setting out criminal offences in Uganda and their punishment, states that a person commits treason when he/she; (a) levies war against the Republic of Uganda; (b) unlawfully causes or attempts to cause the death of the President or, with intent to maim or disfigure or disable, unlawfully wounds or does any harm to the person of the President, or aims at the person of the President any gun, offensive weapon, pistol or any description of firearm, whether it contains any explosive or destructive substance or not; (c) contrives any plot, act or matter and expresses or declares such plot, act or matter by any utterance or by any overt act in order, by force of arms, to overturn the government as by law established.
The section further states that a person also commits treason when he/she aids or abets another person in the commission of treason, or becomes an accessory before or after or conceals acts of treason.
The section describes death as the punishment.
Section 23 (2) states that any person who forms an intention to compel by force or constrain the government as by law established to change its measures or counsels or to intimidate or overawe Parliament; or instigate any person to invade the Republic of Uganda with an armed force and manifests any such intention by an overt act or by any utterance or by publishing any printing or writing, commits treason and is liable to death if convicted.
Section 23 (3,4) further note that a person also commits treason if he /she incites any person to commit an act of mutiny or any treacherous or mutinous act; incites any such person to make or endeavor to make a mutinous assembly, attempts to seduce any person serving in the armed forces or any member of the police force or prison services or any other security service, by whatever name called to withdraw from his or her duty and allegiance to the Constitution. Such persons are also liable on conviction to suffer death.