By: Charles Onyango-Obbo
If I were a betting man, I would have lost big money this week. When a few days ago President Yoweri Museveni offered a fudgy apology for National Resistance Army (now UPDF) atrocities (in the east and north) after he took power, it was more than enough to raise eyebrows. He also said he would institute probe into the abuses.
Some Ugandan commentators suggested to me “it was about [exiled former Coordinator of Intelligence Services and presidential adviser Gen David ‘Tinyefuza’] Sejusa”, now turned Museveni critic.
Because Sejusa has been in international media listing the ‘crimes’ and atrocities against Ugandans in the past that lead to Museveni’s doorstep (and there are murmurs about some of them ending up at the International Criminal Court), they argued that the inquiry would examine Sejusa’s role in past atrocities and discredit him.
These things always come back to bite you, and Sejusa’s very controversial and, let’s admit it, bloody attempt to put down the northern rebellion with the infamous “Operation North” is an episode in Uganda’s history that was never going to go away. One of the commentators asked if I was willing to bet against it becoming an issue in the days to come, and I didn’t bite the bait.
Now the opposition Forum for Democracy (FDC) has charged that the probe is a political ploy to tar Sejusa, beat other restless army officers in line, and possibly to discredit its leader Gen Muntu Mugisha, who was Army Commander then, ahead of the elections in 2016.
That is likely, but the matter of NRA atrocities is not that straight forward. To begin with, it is not true, as suggested by the President, that people didn’t come forward with most of the information on these atrocities in early years. They did, but there were concerted efforts to suppress them in the media, and to isolate the journalists and newspapers that persisted in covering them.
I should know. The Monitor, that I was editing, and its journalists paid a high price for persisting in covering these stories, and it was very stressful having to report atrocities in the late Weekly Topic.
Still, even without waiting for the findings of a probe, just dredging up what was reported in other deceased titles like MUNNO, The Star, The People, The Shariat, The Citizen, The Digest, (Francis Odida’s) Sunday Review, to name a few, would shock grown-up people today who were not of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But beyond the narrow political calculations, the probe raises issues that reach deeper. The NRA campaign and its alleged atrocities didn’t happen in a vacuum. Following on two and half decades of so-called “Northern Rule”, most of it painful for the political south – including the mass killings in Luweero by the UNLF – the atrocities were some kind of therapeutic payback.
The south saw the killings in the north and east as a kind of “equalisation” of suffering. That period came along with its villains, like notorious Luweero Obote II UPC chairman Haji Sebirumbi during the NRA war. It was inevitable that he would be found guilty when he went on trial. And that he would be hanged when he was sentenced to death.
But Uganda has moved on, and many unthinkable things have happened. A southern regime turned the cane and brutality on the south too, so outlooks have changed. There is a sense of shared suffering that unites sections of Ugandans across the board today, the only difference being who the tormentor was. And while Sebirumbi was hanged, when Obote died in 2005, his body was brought back from exile in Zambia and lay in Parliament. And he got a watered down state burial—still remarkable for a man who Museveni once, in a fit of anger, said he would have done in on sight if he returned to Uganda.
Any probe would awaken all sorts of ghosts, and guilt – especially in parts of the south where NRA was cheered during that terrible period in the life of the north. And it will also lead to awkward questions about why the work done by the Justice Oder Human Rights Commission resulted in so few prosecutions, especially of the big fish, and why several of those fingered as perpetrators of against humanity even thrived in the NRM system.
The reason for that is that it was never the intention of the chiefs in the NRM to try human rights violators irrespective of who they are, as a principle. It would be a surprise therefore if a probe, should it come to pass, was open to the media.
Still, terrible things have happened in this country. And whatever little can be uncovered, however selectively and cynically, is worth it. It’s still too soon. We should not be allowed to forget so easily.