A legislator lying frail on a hospital bed after a long detention. UP to 32 political prisoners were charged in the General Court Martial. Thousands unaccounted for after abductions. A tough law against homosexuality. An American couple getting fined Shs100m for torturing a child.
The state of human rights in Uganda has never been uplifting but it appears to be sinking to a record low, according to speakers at the Human Rights Convention held on Nov.15 in Kampala. Being the first convention since the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020 ensured there was a lot to talk about regarding human rights in Uganda. Speaker after speaker raised the same issues of torture, illegal detention and the cruelty of Uganda’s criminal justice system.
Norbert Mao, the Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, who spoke at the event had some concessions to make.
“It’s not my duty to come here and sanitise the human rights situation in Uganda. I am disgusted by it myself,” he said and he was not done.
“I want to tell you there is no more image to protect. The government in terms of human rights is stark naked.”
Mao added that he would not be defending the government on any abuse it commits but those in the audience felt the minister was speaking to himself.
Mao has found himself at a crossroads as, in his new job, he has to work with security agencies like the Police and Army who have routinely arrested and abducted persons for being members of the political opposition.
The organisers of the Human Rights Convention; Chapter Four Uganda, which is a human rights NGO, have themselves borne the brunt of repression from the state.
Chapter Four Offices have routinely been raided, computers confiscated and staff arrested by security operatives and the office closed for months.
“What the state is doing to NGOs in Uganda is not good at all,” said Anthony Masake, the Programs Manager at Chapter Four. “The criminal justice system has been misused and abused in Uganda,” he added.
The founder of Chapter Four, Nicholas Opiyo, has faced intimidation from the state himself and in 2020 was whisked away by security and later charged with money laundering for hundreds of thousands of dollars allegedly sent to Chapter Four from abroad. The charges were later dropped but the run-ins Opiyo and Chapter Four have had with the state capture the environment human rights NGOs operating in Uganda.
Chapter Four hosted the Human Rights Convention in conjunction with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) Uganda under the theme ‘Migration and the Quest for Peaceful and Inclusive Societies’. Discussions at the convention focused on the state of laws, regulatory enforcement, civic space freedoms, access to justice and accountability.
Former Kenya Attorney General Prof. Githu Muigai, who is a former judge of the African Court of Human and Peoples Rights, led the lawyer-packed panel of distinguished speakers. Also on the panel were lawyers Busingye Kabumba, Executive Director of the Human Rights and Peace Centre (HURIPEC); a semi-autonomous department under the School of Law at Makerere University Kampala.
Others were George Musisi who has represented 32 supporters of the opposition National Unity Platform (NUP) facing charges before the Army Court Martial of illegal possession of explosives, MIria Matembe. An outspoken advocate for constitutional and women’s rights, Zahara Nampewo; human rights activist and board chairperson Chapter Four, Mathias Mpuga; the Leader of Opposition in Parliament, Maria Alesi; a social justice activist, and David Mpanga; a renowned advocate.
George Musisi who has represented many political prisoners; not only those affiliated to the opposition NUP says the generally rollback of human rights in Uganda has happened swiftly.
“I think in the last two to four years there has been a degeneration of human rights in Uganda. We have seen an increase in torture, an increase in incommunicado killings,” he told The Independent.
“The rights to freedom have been wiped away. There has been an attack on our rights by the police and security agencies,” Musisi said.
He says the worsening state of rights abuse is ironic due to the passage of recent laws like the Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act and the Human Rights Enforcement Act.
He also expressed disappointment at institutions that would be advocating for rights like the Human Rights Commission in Uganda (UHRC).
“Government which is the principal duty bearer in protecting rights has been a big letdown,” Musisi said.
Headed by Mariam Wangadya, UHRC has descended into an anti-rights stance going by the statements of its leader. Wangadya wrote an op-ed in the New Vision in October calling for the “depoliticisation” of human rights to the chagrin of activists and human rights defenders.
As the discussion on human rights got underway at the conference some cases stood out such as that of John Bosco Kibalama who was disappeared by state agents on June 3, 2019. Kibalama was whisked away on Martyrs Day and he is now a political martyr whose case has been discussed in Parliament for more than a month now.
On October 13, Kibalama’s wife, Monica Kibalama, told journalists that she has been to several police stations, CMI offices and other security agencies. She said she was shocked to see the Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja narrate on television how Kibalama was being held for allegedly killing police officers last year yet he had disappeared three years ago.
The other case is that of Kawempe North MP Mohammed Ssegirinya who is bed-ridden after to an eighteen month detention where he was allegedly subjected to torture. Ssegirinya is currently at Nsambya Hospital receiving treatment.
Ssegirinya with Makindye West MP Alan Sewanyana were charged alongside four others with three counts of murder and one of attempted murder allegedly committed on Aug. 23 in Masaka district. The MPs appeared confounded by the accusations levelled against them. From September when they were detained to February this year, they were repeatedly tortured from Kitalya to Kigo Bay prisons, denied bail and endured bouts of sickness.
Another case was that of Lowena, who was reportedly shot by Police and KCCA enforcement officers in an operation on Kampala’s streets. Lowena lost seven teeth, was left with a split jaw, damaged nerves, bullet wounds and walks with difficulty. Her case has dominated Twitter discussions with the hashtag #JusticeForLowena.
The law that was passed early this year provoked marked another sharp turn in the human rights crusade in Uganda. The law prescribes arrest for landlords, hotels and anyone who according to the law “abet” homosexuality. Under the new legislation, anyone who engages in same-sex activity or identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LBGTQ) could face up to 10 years of imprisonment. It also criminalises what it calls the “promotion” of homosexuality and “conspiring” to engage in same-sex relations.
In addition, a person who is convicted of grooming or trafficking children for purposes of engaging them in homosexual activities faces life in prison while individuals or institutions which support or fund LGBTQ rights activities or organisations or publish, broadcast and distribute pro-gay media material and literature, also face prosecution and imprisonment.
In this regard, journalists and publishers face prosecution and imprisonment for publishing, broadcasting or distributing any content that advocates for gay rights. As a way of mitigating the damage, the Director of Public Prosecutions issued guidelines for prosecuting cases of homosexuality.
The proposed law also advocates for the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” This includes sexual abuse against a child, a person with a disability or vulnerable people or in cases where a victim of homosexual assault is infected with a lifelong illness. Property owners, too, face the risk of being jailed if their premises are used as a “brothel” for homosexual acts or any other sexual minorities’ rights activity.
Ugandans have petitioned the court to have the law annulled. Leading the fight is Nicholas Opiyo and is joined by Fox Odoi with whom they challenged the same law in 2014. The Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023 has earned some senior Ugandans sanctions like the Speaker of Parliament Anita Among and had the World Bank suspending loans to the country.
Appeals to the West
As the human rights situation in Uganda turns futile with delayed court processes and unyielding institutions like the UHRC, some opposition actors and activists are turning to major powers like the US and EU to stop funding President Museveni’s government. NUP leader and former presidential candidate Bobi Wine has consistently urged the two entities to defund the Ugandan government.
This was the message from Bobi Wine when he addressed the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium last year. “The torture in my country does not just need EU to issue a statement but to do more…,” read his speech said in part.
“We long to see international partnerships with African States not being abettors of crime and supporting the abuse of human rights but rather standing with victim of torture and bad leaders.”
However Andrew Karamagi, a lawyer and human rights activist told The Independent that Western donors keep Museveni in power so appealing to them may not help matters. “Uganda’s development partners provide the Museveni Establishment with military aid in the form of materiel (equipment), training exercises, and funding. It is now beyond the pale of doubt that this support is leveraged by the regime to manage political questions.
He said the donor community, particularly the United States, and other members of the industrialised West have not only a moral but legal obligation to halt their largesse to a regime that has lost its legitimacy and has demonstrated a readiness to stop at nothing in its quest for the life presidency of its leader. “Only then shall we know that development partners are serious; statements of condemnation are a slap on the wrist.
Karamagi said it is also critical that the West understands that they cannot safeguard their own economic and military interests in an unstable Uganda and Great Lakes region. “It is also in their self-interest to ensure an open, free, and democratic society in which the rights and liberties of all citizens are upheld.”