NUP: Museveni's bullets killed appetite for protests

David Lewis Rubongoya, the National Unity Platform secretary-general

David Lewis Rubongoya, the National Unity Platform secretary-general

For an opposition that revels in protests — and in orchestrating them against President Yoweri Museveni’s government—a months’ long lull in rebellion has surprised many.

And in an interview, David Lewis Rubongoya, the National Unity Platform secretary-general, explains why, just a day to the first anniversary of the November 18-19 2020 killings of protesters.

He said the wanton killing of hundreds of opposition supporters protesting the arrest and incarceration of presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi last November in the eastern district of Luuka not only scared people away from polling booths but also killed their appetite for protests after the January 2021 general election. Read transcript by Muhammad Kakembo.

How much do the frequent arrests on your people and the November 2020 killings affect your willingness to challenge President Museveni?

These illegal arrests and abductions do not only have an impact on us as leaders but also on the population generally. By the time we went to the polls in January 2021, people were subdued. People voted and their votes were robbed in broad daylight. Electoral Commission chairman Simon Byabakama couldn’t explain where he was getting the results he was reading.

Bullied by the events of November 2020 in which regime operatives opened fire and killed people in broad daylight, people were scared to come out and protest. Remember after those events, General Museveni said that was just a rehearsal. It became clear to the people that we are not dealing with a civil person at all.

Remember people were not armed. So, if unarmed people are killed every time they protest, definitely that has an impact on them.

So, would you say the struggle for change in Uganda was lost in November 2020?

No, no, no; the struggle has many fronts, and clearly, it is not a sprint but a marathon. Dictators fall; that is a constant. When and how they fall is different. When Museveni was in the bush, he lost some soldiers but they continued struggling until they succeeded.

The events of November might have subdued the population but they did not subdue the eternal spirit of the people to defend themselves. It may take some time, but I am certain our struggle will end in victory.

What has NUP been up to since the elections ended in January?

The National Unity Platform has lately been engaged in getting our people out of prison. You remember, after the presidential election, we had thousands of supporters thrown in different prisons across the country. We have parents, spouses, relatives, etc., piling pressure on us to get their loved ones out of prison.

Eddie Mutwe [ jailed and bailed Bobi Wine bodyguard] and Nubian Li [also jailed and bailed Bobi Wine longtime friend] are prominent but there are very many ordinary people who were just picked from the streets. That has taken a lot of time and our resources.

At the height of the kidnaps, how many people did you record as missing?

It’s difficult to know the exact number because more people are coming out to say their people were abducted or arrested. Almost every day, we get someone saying their person was picked by a drone (mini-van) or arrested and is still missing. There was a time we had a list of 3,000 people, arrested or kidnapped. But these numbers keep growing. After the November 2020 debacle, security operatives kept picking people across the country.

Do you know how many people are still in jail?

We have over 150 people in prison. But there are others whose whereabouts are unknown. There are people who are picked by the state, compromised, and then kept away from their people. But what you should know is that they are very many.

Last week we went to visit John Damulira’s family in Makindye. He was picked from Kisekka market and to date; no one knows where he is. John Bosco Kibalama has been missing for close to three years now. Lukwago Martin and a one Vincent were picked from Bugolobi in November, and to date, no one has heard from them. More are being arrested.

In Kakiri, and Kasenyi, more of our comrades are being arrested every day. Just two days ago, the military arrested five of our comrades in Kasese and they are threatening to charge them with treason.

But how do you know that they were indeed arrested for their political views?

It is quite obvious. Our people in Kitalya and other prisons were charged in military courts [for] putting on red berets. Actually, most of them weren’t found with the berets. They would be picked, taken to military facilities, and forced to put on berets and their pictures are taken. They would then be charged with unlawful possession of military stores.

Why would these comrades who are civilians be tried in military courts? Some were charged before the General Court Martial in Makindye, others at the Division Court Martial at Kakiri, others in different UDCs [Unit Disciplinary Committees] of the military.

Some were charged at the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence. We have tried as a party to stand with our comrades. We have a welfare department and a medical department, which ordinarily should never be part of a political party. After elections, hundreds of our people had broken limbs, shattered jaws, and all forms of torture marks.

Away from the prisoners, what else are you engaged in?

We have been taking stock of the period we just emerged from. There are many things that have happened and it was important to reorganize, re-strategize, reflect and understand the way forward.

Ours is a non-violent struggle. But even when you have a military offensive, it is crucial to retreat and take stock of what has happened in order to advance. When you have so many activists languishing in prisons and many more abducted despite every legal action taken, you need to focus on getting them out and treat the sick as you think about the way forward.

For example, the laws of Uganda permit people to protest peacefully but when Gen Museveni and his regime stole our victory in January, we urged people to exercise their power to protest peacefully. But the majority who attempted to demonstrate were quickly arrested. The abductions went up again on the eve of Gen Museveni swearing-in.

Ten months is quite some time to simply be reorganizing...

Our strategy is People Power and we have not shied away from it. We are saying the people of Uganda must exercise their power to change leadership in this country through all legal means. When we say we are reorganizing, I don’t think 10 months is too long. In Sudan, Omar Bashir rigged an election, gave himself 94 percent of the vote, and took 83 percent of the reserved seats in Parliament.

It took about four years until 2019 for the people of Sudan to get rid of him through peaceful protests. The point is, you can’t really say 10 months is a long time. In any case, everyone must understand that a struggle against a military dictatorship is continuous. It is a marathon, and not a sprint.

The most important question for every citizen is, “What am I doing to weaken the dictatorship?” If each one of us took some action every day, however small, we certainly will get there.

You have seen us engage internationally. People in the diaspora have supported change so much. We think Gen Museveni, like all dictators, survives on international support. We have been talking to the Americans, Europeans, Chinese, Russians, Africans, etc., and said look at the violations, the kind of election we just had, etc.

You simply cannot continue dealing with such people who have no respect for democratic governance. They block election observers and then America and Europe continue to deal with such people? We are saying no. So, we have been convincing these people to stop funding our oppression.

International community support has not broken down regimes in Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela. Why do you think Uganda is different?

You have not talked about where it has worked. Gen Museveni was propelled to power by international support. We don’t live in isolation. The world is a global community and, therefore, international support counts. Museveni and his people moved around the globe mobilizing support and demonizing Milton Obote and Idi Amin.

Why do they think it was okay for them to seek international support against brutal regimes of the time, and it is not okay for us who are struggling against an even worse regime?

We have seen you hold demonstrations outside Uganda, how do such activities help weaken Museveni?

As I said, the international community is extremely important. It took protests of this nature to weaken and isolate dictatorships in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Sudan, etc. And protests were also held internationally to get rid of the apartheid regime.

So, we engage in such activities because we want the international community to know what is happening in Uganda. Before the rise of Bobi Wine as a political actor, for many people in the world, Uganda was synonymous with Idi Amin. Thankfully, now when they talk about Idi Amin, they also talk about Bobi Wine because they know he is fighting a dictator in Uganda. This is important because regimes survive when they have some form of legitimacy.

But we see Museveni getting stronger and stronger when you look at all the levers of power?

I disagree with your assessment. I don’t think Museveni is getting any stronger. In fact, when you study these dictatorships and how they fall, we are close to the tipping point. Yes, there are a lot of structural challenges that we must confront, but that doesn’t mean Gen Museveni is growing stronger.

He has a bigger majority in parliament and local governments ...

What do you expect? The same rigging machinery that works for him also works to ensure he gets those numbers in parliament. The rigging machinery is set in motion both for the president and parliament.

In Buganda where we got many seats, it was difficult to rig because we had the capacity to guard the vote. But you talk about places like Karamoja, Teso, and many parts of northern and western Uganda, it was a total joke.

But this was well known before the election; so, what was your game plan before deciding to participate?

What people don’t realize is that the response of the regime this time round was the worst because it faced the worst challenge. If Museveni had done what he did in previous elections, we would certainly have taken over the government. But because of our capacity, that’s why he resorted to kidnaps on an unprecedented scale.

We had put in place measures to mitigate all that he had done before. We had agents across the country; we deployed supervisors to counter claims that the opposition normally has no agents. But they kidnapped most of them. We came up with the UVote App to counter the problem of physically transporting the Declaration of Results forms to the headquarters of the party.

In previous elections, the entire internet infrastructure had never been switched off completely, but the moment we announced the UVote App, they switched off the entire internet. You saw how they were running around arresting people with DR forms.

Previously, your party said that democracy works and that an election can cause change; do you still maintain that elections in Uganda can cause change?

I believe that elections do work and they have worked elsewhere. The task is on the citizens to overcome fear and stand their ground in defense of their democratic rights. It is not just the responsibility of Hon Kyagulanyi. Remember he was placed under house arrest on polling day. So, it was up to the millions of people who voted for him to stand their ground.

You understand why people would be frightened to do that, especially after the November 18th and 19th incidents where people putting on sandals, others wrapped in towels came out with guns and started shooting people indiscriminately.

In Uganda, elections under a dictatorship must not be viewed as a strategy but as a tactic within the broader strategy of People Power.

Did you underestimate what Museveni’s regime was capable of?

Personally, I think I did. I didn’t think the regime was capable of doing what it did in November. I didn’t see that coming. We saw people come out in sneakers and holding guns? I didn’t think such a thing could happen in 2020.

Would you fault anyone if they called you naïve?

In fact, I wanted to use that word myself. Yes, I knew we live under a military dictatorship, but even the worst dictatorships tend to have limits. I honestly didn’t think the regime would go out in full view of cameras and murder people on the streets. You even remember that more than half of the people who were murdered were not at all involved in any form of protest. That is not to say that anyone has any right to shoot at protesters.

Are you willing to mount the same challenge knowing what Museveni is capable of doing?

You know the famous saying that when birds learn to fly without perching, shooters learn to shoot without missing? Now that Ugandans know what the regime is capable of, they are in even a better position to come up with a strategy that works. Eventually, the people of Uganda will succeed in that effort.

How do you expect him to fall when you are not doing much in that direction?

The challenge is, people expect us to put everything we do on the table for them to see. Brutal regimes fall because some people have done a lot of work - some of the work is done before the cameras and the other is done away from the cameras. As I said, we are doing everything legal to reorganize and rethink our strategy. I’m not doing this interview to give away our entire strategy.

Some people claim that you have shortchanged your voters. That you seem comfortable to be in the opposition...

Unless such people are reading from a different script. Every Ugandan knows what has happened in the past two years. It is a struggle and a struggle by its very nature is long and bumpy.

For me, my work every day is to try and remove the dictatorship. I know that is true for my president and many of our leaders. We said we were going to parliament to use it as a front to fight for our liberation.

The people who died didn’t die just to remove Museveni, but to change this country for the better. Removing Museveni is just the start.

You have talked about parliament as another front to cause change in Uganda; how exactly are you hoping to use it?

We want to hold the regime accountable, expose its incompetence, and also show the people of Uganda the difference we would make if we took leadership.

You’ve seen our leader there (LoP) Hon Mathias Mpuuga do several activities including rolling out a legislative agenda. You see leaders like Hon Joel Ssenyonyi (Chairperson COSASE) going for thieves in the Civil Aviation Authority. All these are efforts aimed at citizens’ empowerment and very importantly weakening the regime.

Why did NUP stay away from the People’s Front for Transition?

We decided to first take time and discuss it. What I can say is that NUP believes in unity. Before the Front came, there were efforts led by ourselves to reunite the forces of change. Before elections, we engaged with FDC and wanted to go into the election as one front.

Our view was that if we confronted Museveni as one front on the ballot, then perhaps the dictator would have had a much harder time. But regrettably, some leaders on the other side didn’t seem to see sense in that. And I am sure you’ve seen a lot of hostility from some senior leaders in FDC towards NUP, including some unfortunate comments from the FDC president about NUP and ANT. But we continue to engage with all forces of change because it is the right thing to do.


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