Perhaps there is no politician, other than President Museveni, who in recent memory has punished those who have criticised him or her more than the Speaker of Parliament, Annet Anita Among.
The list of culprits is extensive. It includes Mityana Municipality MP Francis Zaake, who was impeached as a commissioner for tweeting against the Speaker, and the State Minister for Housing, Persis Namuganza, who was also impeached, primarily for actions that displeased the Speaker.
Then there’s former Kamuli Municipality Member of Parliament contestant, Moses Bigirwa, who was imprisoned for unclear reasons but relating to the Speaker, and journalist Moses Mugalula, also imprisoned for several days for reasons also relating to the Speaker. Not to forget social media user, John Ssentamu, aka Kerry Slender, who did a stint at Luzira prison for tweeting something the Speaker didn’t like when she visited Pope Francis.
However, perhaps there is no one who has paid a heavier price than political activist Habib Buwembo for challenging Among. Between 2022 and 2023, Buwembo has been in prison twice, for a collective total of 157 days.
In 2022, he was initially arrested for speaking out against the Speaker after she allegedly downplayed the prevalence of torture in Uganda. During her congratulatory message to MP Zaake for winning gold in the East African Parliamentary games, Among said he had achieved this victory despite enduring torture.
Zaake had been walking with a cane for several months due to multiple beatings by security forces. Buwembo, along with other activists, organised a press conference to demand an apology from Among within seven days for her insensitivity towards torture victims. However, before the press conference, which was scheduled at Pope Paul Memorial hotel Ndeeba, could conclude, the police surrounded the venue.
Many, including Bu-wembo, managed to escape and evade arrest. Two days later, other activists, using crutches, demonstrated outside the Speaker’s Nakasero residence, reiterating their call for her to apologize. They also symbolically threw a pig painted yellow with red lipstick at the parliament building to express their discontent.
It’s worth noting that Buwembo didn’t participate in these two demonstrations, but despite this, the police arrested him for his involvement in the earlier press conference.
“My home was surrounded by plainclothes men, and they eventually arrested me. They confiscated my two phones and my laptop before forcing me into their double-cabin vehicle, which was later joined by three other police patrol vehicles. I was then driven from my residence in Busega directly to the Kibuli CID headquarters,” Buwembo recounts.
Upon arrival at Kibuli, he was subjected to interrogation in the office of Charles Twine, who served as the spokesperson of the Criminal Investigation Directorate of the police until May 2022. Twine has since been transferred to the police CID at the parliament.
“Twine picked up his phone and made a call, saying they had apprehended me. Then he said, ‘Yes, sir, IGP.’ Following their conversation, he ushered me into another office and inquired, ‘What is the issue between you and the Speaker of Parliament?’ He played videos of our statements from the press conference and asked if it was me, to which I confirmed. However, I questioned how that could be considered illegal,” recalls Buwembo.
According to Buwembo, Twine then informed him that the Speaker had lodged a complaint with the Inspector General of Police (IGP), alleging that he (Buwnembo) was leading the groups trailing her. A few days earlier, Among had informed parliament that there were individuals seeking to harm her, although she didn’t specify their identities.
“I explained to him that the Speaker is a public servant paid by taxpayers, and as a taxpayer myself, I have the right to express my dissatisfaction if she isn’t fulfilling her duties properly. However, I emphasized that I was not involved with anyone intending harm to her,” Buwembo states.
Following the interrogation, he was transported to Jinja Road police station, where he spent a night. The next day, without legal representation or notifying his relatives, he was brought before Buganda Road court. There, he faced charges of computer misuse. On February 24, 2022, he was remanded to Luzira prison for a period of three weeks.
He applied for bail, but the application was not heard until after the initial three weeks had passed.
What was particularly unusual was that the magistrate requested an additional two weeks to deliver her ruling on the bail application.
“After the two weeks,” Buwembo recounted, “the ruling stated that I had only presented relatives and friends as sureties. However, as a politician, I couldn’t be compelled to rely solely on friends and relatives. They requested that I provide fellow politicians as sureties, and I was further remanded for an additional two weeks.”
Yet, on the day he was scheduled to appear in court once more, the state prosecutors were attending a seminar, causing the court proceedings to be postponed again. Consequently, he was remanded for another two weeks. Upon his return after the two weeks, Buwembo encountered a situation where the magistrate was unavailable to address the matter, resulting in his being further remanded for an additional two weeks.
This extended detention period, now totaling twelve weeks, took a toll on him. Frustrated by the continuous delays, he instructed his lawyers to file a bail application in the High court. He felt that the lower court was engaging in protracted legal proceedings.
However, the High court declined to hear the case and referred it back to the Buganda Road chief magistrate. Even there, it took a significant amount of time before the case could be heard and determined. In total, Buwembo spent 104 days in prison before finally being granted bail.
During this time, the charges against him shifted from computer misuse to threatening the life of Anita Among, the deputy Speaker of Parliament. Buwembo continued to attend court hearings until June 2023, when the case was ultimately dismissed due to lack of prosecution.
The complainant, Anita Among, never appeared in court, nor did she present any witnesses. Following the dismissal, Buwembo calculated the cost of his imprisonment and subsequently filed a case in the High court in July, alleging malicious imprisonment and prosecution.
LOSSES AND DAMAGES
“However, to this day, the matter has never been scheduled for a hearing. This compelled me to file a civil suit in September, enumerating the losses and damages I suffered, which amounted to Shs 10 billion,” Buwembo explains. “I then decided to make this known to the public. On September 22, I invited the press to my office in Nalukolongo, which is how the police became aware of it.”
Unlike the press conference he successfully held in February 2022, this time the police prevented him from proceeding. They surrounded his home, his office, and even his wife’s workplace. Buwembo received numerous phone calls ordering him not to discuss the Speaker if he wanted to avoid trouble.
However, he remained determined to hold the press conference and was arrested shortly after arriving at his office, where the press conference was scheduled to take place. He was then taken to Nateete police station, where he was questioned about his actions, as they were receiving orders from their superiors to ensure his arrest.
Subsequently, he was transported from Nateete to Kibuye police station and then to the Crime Intelligence office at Kololo.
“A detective then reviewed my file and noticed that I had been charged with unlawful assembly. He considered it a minor offense that couldn’t be dealt with there. Instead, he suggested that I should be taken back to Nateete police station. I spent four days at Nateete police station. On the fourth day, during the parade, I made it clear that I wouldn’t willingly return to prison. I insisted that if they intended to use force, they should go ahead, as I had already spent the mandatory 48 hours in detention as per the law. I told them that they either needed to take me to court or release me on bond. They assured me that they were working on my case,” Buwembo recalls.
On that very day, he was brought to City Hall court, where he was charged with malicious communication for referring to “the Rt Hon. Speaker Anita Annet Among as a Karamoja iron sheet thief, well aware that this was unlawful and intended to harm and ridicule the reputation of the Speaker.”
Subsequently, Buwembo was remanded to Luzira prison until October 10th. Upon returning to court, he found himself remanded once again, this time for an additional two weeks, with his next appearance set for the 25th of the same month. When he returned for his bail application, the magistrate requested an additional two weeks, extending the process until November 10 to deliver his ruling.
Finally, he was granted bail, consisting of a three million cash bail and Shs 10 million non-cash bail for his two sureties. However, even on the day of the bail hearing, he wasn’t released immediately because, by the time they completed the payment process, the magistrate had already left.
Consequently, he was only released on November 13th, after spending one month and 23 days in detention. Among the conditions for his release was the requirement to refrain from engaging in social media campaigns involving the Speaker of Parliament. Failure to adhere to this condition could result in the cancellation of his bail.
“The Speaker has silenced everyone. I encountered five young men in prison who were arrested on allegations of trespassing at the Speaker’s residence. They accused me of engaging in malicious communication, and I’m eagerly awaiting the commencement of that case to present the evidence that she indeed stole Karamoja iron sheets. Initially, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) had opted not to charge the Speaker for the Karamoja iron sheets, but now she has initiated the case herself, and I’m committed to seeing it through to its conclusion,” Buwembo asserted.
When approached for comment regarding what appears to be a stringent response to criticism by Speaker Anita Among, Chris Obore, the director of Communication at Parliament, emphasized the importance of distinguishing between legitimate criticism and blackmail.
“The Speaker has never declared immunity to criticism, but the individuals you mentioned were arrested due to their violation
of existing laws. Is blackmail synonymous with constructive criticism? Is The Observer newspaper advocating for blackmail and hate speech as a means of survival? Criticism is a tool for intelligent and well-intentioned individuals, whereas blackmail is employed by deceitful individuals,” Obore remarked.