The Tyrant of Uganda

The Tyrant of Uganda

They surely are a mixed bunch at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting this week at Kigali, Rwanda. But one vaunted favourite of British officialdom, well known to me, stands out as having grotesquely outlived his reputation and his 37 years in power: Yoweri Museveni, Mister Seven, of Uganda.

            His handling of one issue on the western (Congo) border of his country involving one million of his subjects tragically exemplifies his style of settling issues which he sees as potential threats to his authority and prospects of eternal glory. I speak of the Bakonzo tribe of the Ruwenzori Mountains, my Bakonzo.

            When you’ve been intimately involved in the fate of a tribe of fellow men and women in a remote region of equatorial Africa for sixty-eight years, you stick with them through hell or high water to your last breath or, one might say, to theirs . . . in that the loved and honoured King of their constitutionally recognised Uganda Kingdom is wasting away, locked up in a small house in Kampala with his wife and children, losing his sight and strength by the day with advancing diabetes. He has been thus isolated for the past five and a half years, without charge or (of course) conviction, on a spurious accusation of treason at the whim of President Museveni. Likewise locked up for the same period, but in appalling prisons, are scores of his fellow tribesmen, likewise without trial or conviction, flouting Uganda’s constitutional habeas corpus.

            I’ve known Charles Wesley Mumbere, Obusinga Bwa-Rwenzururu, since he was two, and I twenty-four. He is King of the Bakonzo inhabiting the western, Uganda side of the Ruwenzori range, dubbed the Mountains of the Moon by ancient Greece after Aeschylus – picking up an Athenian rumour – had written of the Nile being “watered by the snows of Africa”. So indeed is the White Nile sourced for a third of its waters – with Lake Victoria, 250 miles to the west, providing two-thirds.

            The persecutor of my King and his people is one of the pin-ups of the recently re-constructed FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office). Museveni of Uganda is a substantial beneficiary of the largesse of DFID (Department for International Development). Our generously funded DFID describes him glowingly as “an important partner [with the UK] in tackling poverty and regional instability. We have mutual security interests [Somalia and South Sudan]. Uganda’s growth and stability is firmly in our national interest.”

            Museveni started so promisingly, back in 1985, with his Castro-style guerrilla campaign finally sweeping aside the flawed Obote reinstalled soon after the flamboyant misrule of Idi Amin. Confronting the national blight of aids, Museveni plastered the walls of Kampala urging his male subjects to use a condom when making love. Retaining a quasi-Parliament, he created a one-party state allowing for a supposed choice of opinions on how to govern under his National Resistance Movement, a name echoing his long student-hood as a Marxist.

            As President, he would be allowed two parliamentary terms in office. Aware of the power of tribal allegiance, he soon restored the traditional Kingdoms that gave the country its name and its raison d’être as a governable colony in the late 1880s: Buganda, Busoga, Bunyoro, Toro and his own Ankole which, however, he excluded from “Kingdom” restoration since he saw himself as the implicit leader of his tribal folk. Yet he’d already begun to mess around with the constitution to allow him further terms in power.

            From the start, he had relentlessly hounded those he deemed his enemies, having them thrown into one pitiless Ugandan jail or another, and even organising a kidnap abroad of one presumed enemy. He built up his own armed forces with the senior ranks filled by fellow Tutsis of his own blood, first to confront the rebellion by a terrorist movement in the north with a mesmeric leader and religious delusions, the Lord’s Resistance Army. Thereafter – in Uganda – his army was on hand to boost his own so-called “security”. The US backed him with weaponry in support of the South Sudanese to counter the Islamist regime in Khartoum.

            Successive UK governments gave him the benefit of every doubt. No voices were raised as Museveni repeatedly skewed the constitution to allow him to stay right there in the seat of power, ultimately awarding himself the Presidency for life. Meanwhile, out went freedom of the press. He flagrantly rigged successive Parliamentary elections with unashamed ruthlessness as his popularity shrivelled. At the most recent electoral campaign (2021) he unleashed his “security” forces to shoot dead at a rally  no less than 54 of his opponent’s supporters. Not a voice of criticism was heard from DFID. Uganda slid ever lower in the bottom quarter of the Governmental Transparency Register. I’ve watched one of his most trusted Ministers in reach of the country’s funds building his clandestine property portfolio in Norway.

            Power-addict Museveni  now clings to his office as Mugabe did after ruining Zimbabwe or the ultimately absurd nonagenarian Hastings Banda did in Malawi, none of them aware of the loathing of their impoverished people. Despite all its aid from the UK taxpayer and latterly China, Uganda remains endemically poor.

            This very week he will have been welcomed in Kigali, Rwanda, as one of Africa’s elder statesmen. Our Prince Charles will have formally opened the show in Kigali on Thursday, with Boris Johnson ion attendance. None of Museveni’s fellow Heads of Government except (I guess) his Rwandan host and one-time protégé, Paul Kagame, will have an inkling as to Museveni’s secret ambitions. For he has in view a dynastic rulership which will see him and his descendants, beginning with his eldest son already thus groomed, as suzerain over a Tutsi empire comprising Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and at least the southern mineral-rich half of Kivu province across in Congo where the writ from Kinshasa, the capital, scarcely runs.   

            It was this very dream of vast power that triggered Museveni’s appalling persecution of my Bakonzo whose Kingdom of Rwenzururu Museveni’s Parliament voted for, and he himself recognised in the King’s tribal palace –­ with me in attendance – in 2009. Rwenzururu had come alongside Buganda and the rest as a constitutional member of the clutch of tribal kingdoms giving mission-founded Uganda its presence on the post-colonial map.

             Then on the afternoon of Sunday November 27, 2016, all terrifyingly changed.

            In the hour following the dignified arrest of Rwenzururu’s King, Obusingha Charles Wesley Mumbere,  63 so-called Bakonzo “loyalists” seeking shelter in his palace compound in Kasese, the regional capital, were assaulted in cold blood by Museveni’s soldiery and slaughtered to the last man. The sacred traditional buildings of wattle and thatch, with all their treasures, regalia and drums, were burned to the ground. The photographs of the dead are horrific.

            Simultaneously, that very weekend, several score of the tribe either disappeared, their bodies never to be found, or were swept into prison as treasonable tribal “loyalists”, to remain there without trial or (of course) conviction. Not a line would appear in the public press or news media internationally.

            Now, just six weeks earlier, I myself had been present in those traditional buildings attending ritual ceremonies of clan allegiance, in the presence of the King and his entourage in the darkened assembly house. I know beyond doubt that any pretext for the devastating November assault was spurious and contrived. There was no conspiracy afoot, no whispered “treasonous” plot. I am a trusted insider. My ear is sharp. During the six brief years since Rwenzururu’s recognition as a Kingdom, the only change was the forfeiture of Museveni’s Bakonzo parliamentary support.

             He supposed his recognition of kingdomhood had been misjudged. He sought a crude reversal. A pretext for the massacre had to be fabricated, namely that young Bakonzo “loyalists”, or Royal Guards, had in mind to create a Bantu federation of the mountain people with their four million ethnic fellows across the border in the Congo, in the form of a new self-standing territorial entity. Such could obstruct Museveni’s Tutsi ambition.

            This was the fanciful scenario which, in the preceding months, had been put about among headstrong young “loyalists”. They were worked upon by what smarter members of the tribe perceived as an agent provacateur, planted there to play upon Museveni’s fears for his planned destiny and supposedly justify the physical destruction of the Kingdom’s headquarters and silencing its leadership. (It would alas be injudicious for me to name the malign genius here at work, one of obsessive hostility to the existence of the mountain people’s Kingdom. He is a confidant of Museveni, and I know him well.)

            The scale of suffering engendered by that November’s assault remains vast and enduring, and  Museveni’s acceptance of it not less than shaming. It has been assessed in detail by a structure of devoted Bakonzo researchers working with York University’s Centre for Applied Human Rights, the International Centre for Traditional Justice, the National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders Uganda, Civil Society Coalition Against Violent Extremism, and other Ugandan structures of worthy intention. The findings demonstrate the lofty indifference of Uganda’s President to the ongoing consequences of the gratuitous and unprovoked assault he ordered.

            Well over 400 dependants remain of 87 “royal guards” still languish in prison after five and a half years without trial or prospect of release – in defiance of Uganda’s constitution. A total of 797 children were orphaned by those killed in the Kasese massacre of November 2016 or made to disappear; over a hundred other have been orphaned by those who have died untried in prison. Many families of the imprisoned have lost their properties or seen their marriage collapse, hundreds of children have been taken out of school for non-payment of fees.

            Overriding all is the loss to the Bakonzo people of the distinction that Kingdomhood brought them in Uganda, and the virtual erasure of their King. Obusingha Charles, a devout Ugandan subject, is deeply committed to his role, a commitment he will have passed on to his son Nyamutswa, 13 in September and his sole successor, since the Obusingha is the single legitimate son of the Kingdom’s founder, Isaya Mukirane. King Charles has the overwhelming allegiance of his mountain people, which I have repeatedly witnessed.

            Uganda’s vaunted “stability”, ascribed to its tyrannical President by the UK’s fawning government, can be justifiably claimed only by the immediate release of the Mountains of the Moon’s rightful king from lock-up in his modest house in Kampala and the freeing of all his imprisoned supporters. God knows it’s high time the British government ceased to give its endorsement to Uganda’s ruthless oppressor and tormentor of the people I have known and loved for a lifetime.

Tom Stacey