Names like Gen. Elly Tumwine, Maj. Gen. (Rtd) Matayo Kyaligonza, Mwesigwa Rukutana, Sam Kutesa, members of the First Family, Maj. Gen. Kasirye Gwanga often pop up in the media.
They are cited in cases of corruption, land grabbing, street brawls, and abuse of office. And President Yoweri Museveni appears unable to beat them into line. They are untouchable. Although many enjoy their untouchable status with civility, others act with impunity.
They swagger in the corridors of government. They run others off the road in their monster SUVs with heavily armed escorts and sirens blazing. When required to appear before parliament or judges, they disregard rules of procedure. They are contemptuous of anyone who questions their authority.
Many are either in cabinet, in the army as generals, and occupy cushy vague but powerful positions in Museveni’s state machinery. Some use the “we fought” refrain. Others simply dismiss compliance with the law, practices, and civil decorum because they hold too much sway in the workings of government.
In some cases, their “untouchable” status appears to depend on their closeness to Museveni but in others, it appears Museveni also cannot touch them.
It has not always been this way. In 1988 Otafiire resigned as minister of Internal Affairs after he pointed a gun at a woman during an argument in a bar. The woman was the wife of Sam Kutesa. At the time Kutesa was not in Museveni’s government since he had defeated Museveni in the Mbarara North parliamentary election of 1980 and was between 1985 and 86 the Attorney General in the Gen. Tito Okello government that Museveni overran in 1986.
An Associated Press story that reported it on November 02, 1988 said President Museveni accepted Otafiire’s resignation ″because the National Resistance Movement government will not tolerate any indiscipline displayed by anybody regardless of his position, such as shown by Otafiire.″
Museveni’s statement was broadcast on the state-owned Radio Uganda.
Later, Otafiire said he felt resigning was the right thing.
“When I pulled a gun at a lady in a bar, it was not a corruption case, but I resigned. I came out and said as a senior officer of the army, I don’t know what I am doing,” Otafiire said in 2008.
Today, Kahinda Otafiire is minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs and Sam Kutesa is minister of Foreign Affairs. Mwesigwa Rukutana is the deputy Attorney General, Gen. Elly Tumwine is the minister for Security, and Maj. Gen. (Rtd) Matayo Kyaligonza is Uganda’s envoy to Burundi and head of the ruling NRM party in western Uganda. It is not clear if any of them, or any other big shots in government close to the First Family, could apologise or resign over anything.
Museveni enabler or hostage?
Kawempe North MP Abdulatif Sebaggala says the untouchables behave the way they do because the President is their chief enabler. He says Museveni prefers to look the other way.
“They have that arrogance because the President is their godfather,” he says. “You saw the way Gen. Tumwine behaved in our committee of Human Rights; the President is hostage to these people.”
Kyaligonza sparked public condemnation first when he was in January this year caught on camera assaulting a police officer, Sgt. Esther Namaganda, who flagged down the car he was riding in for making a prohibited a U-turn in the middle of a busy highway. Kyaligonza attacked Namaganda together with his two escorts in Seeta, Mukono.
Namaganda filed a case of assault with the police. Mukono Chief Magistrate’s Court issued criminal summons for Kyaligonza but he has never showed up.
Despite condemnation Kyaligonza was unapologetic. At one point he called MPs “stupid” for saying he should be recalled from his diplomatic posting.
Deputy Attorney General Mwesigwa Rukutana hit headlines over a spat when he appeared before the commission in February. He had a heated exchange with the Commission Chair, Justice Catherine Bamugemereire. Rukutana refused to testify saying he wanted 30 days to prepare. The Commission objected saying his plea was not commensurate with the commission’s terms of reference, which is time bound. Bamugemereire accused Rukutana of disrespecting her and threatened to take the matter to Museveni. Matters crested when Rukutana told off the judge in no uncertain terms.
“I don’t give a damn. Let her tell the president, she can even report me to God,” Rukutana told journalists as he left the venue of the inquiry.
His behavior elicited mixed reactions from the public. Some said if Rukutana had been a deputy attorney general in another country and behaved in that manner he would have been punished for it. But others said the Land Commission was high handed on the minister and deserved what they got.
Rukutana was also one of three ministers accused of swindling Shs14 billion CHOGM money. The other ministers were Sam Kutesa and John Nasasira. The Anti-Corruption Court acquitted them in November 2012 after the prosecution case collapsed.
When a photo of Rukutana with an AK47 slung over his shoulder went viral on social media in 2018, there was animated discussion by the public on how a custodian of the law such as the deputy attorney general can openly brandish a gun at a time when Uganda was dealing with rampant gun violence.
Generals can cause trouble
In Otafiire’s case, he is accused of grabbing a government research ranch. It is alleged that on Sept. 21, a gang acting on his orders raided the Njeru Stock Farm in Buikwe district and razed workshop and laboratory buildings, equipment, and machinery. They were allegedly led by one Wilberforce Muhangi. The farm has for over 70 years been run by the government’s National Animal Genetic Resource Center and Data Bank. But the Minister has recently acquired a portion of it. Otafiire is not the only one. When the farm started in 1949 it was 1066 acres big but 504 acres have been taken. Otafiire reportedly took 50 acres.
When the matter came up in parliament on Oct.31, Otafiire did not deny his role in taking over part of the government farm and sending the gang that destroyed government property.
“Government was wrongly superimposed on my land and I want Government to quit those pieces of land which I purchased, because the seller is not complaining and neither am I,” Otafiire told parliament.
But Budadiri West MP Nandala Mafabi told parliament that Otafiire acquired the land fraudulently through abuse of his office.
“Hon. Otafiire used his office as a Minister in charge of Justice and Constitutional Affairs and wrote to the Minster for Lands and Housing on the estate of the late Sir Daudi Chwa II and was given 50 acres of that land.
“Hon. Otafiire went with armed men to invade the farm yet they had been stopped by the Commission of Inquiry into Land Matters,” Mafabi said.
He added: “When you have an office and you do contrary things; that’s abuse of office which is corruption. Otafiire and Kavuma grabbed land. If someone can grab public land in the open what about money? This is what is happening in the country”.
Otafiire tabled documents to parliament that he said support his ownership and the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, said she would scrutinize them and report to the House on Nov.05. By the time of writing this, she had not.
Otafiire’s untouchable status is not new.
It was first put on show after President Museveni reshuffled his cabinet on April 5, 1999 and dropped him from being Minister of State for Local Government.
Five days later, on April 10, Otafiire did an interview published by The New Vision newspaper in which he addressed the President.
“I would want to know why he dropped me. I will ask him what happened because I just do not know what is going on,” Otafiire reportedly said in the interview published in The New Vision of April 11, 1999.
Then Otafiire reportedly added: “I have the capacity to cause trouble because I am a soldier”.
Museveni appointed Otafiire to be military advisor on Democratic Republic of Congo Affairs soon after. In 2001 Otafiire bounced back as Minister of State for Regional Cooperation. His untouchable status was now clear. Museveni has since then retained Otafiire in his cabinet, switching him between at least three ministries before appointing him minister of Justice in May 2011 to date.
Opposition politicians and observers believe that Museveni may be hesitant to act on untouchable individuals in order not to antagonise longstanding ties or simply for political or other considerations. Some played important roles the guerilla war that brought Museveni to power in 1986.
The untouchable status may depend on one’s standing with the President at a given time. Until recently, former Inspector General of Police, Gen. Kale Kayihura, was regarded as an untouchable. Then in March 2018 Museveni sacked him and locked him up in a military jail.
Another famous example is former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi. He had been in the Museveni inner circle and cabinet for over 40 years but Museveni sacked him in September 2014. A few months later in June 2015, Mbabazi announced he would challenge Museveni for the presidency in 2016. He did and lost.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a renowned Ugandan political scholar who has studied the subject of impunity in the government blames Museveni.
In a paper titled `Collapse, war and reconstruction in Uganda: An analytical narrative on state-making’ and sponsored by the Crisis States Research Centre and London School of Economics, Golooba-Mutebi says ”that the regime is able to act in this way with impunity or with minimal restraint points to how state organisations and institutions have fared under its watch.”
He describes how the army remains strongly allied to Museveni and how other security agencies and the police operate under the military, parliament is a rubber stamp and the government does not always respect the decisions of the courts.
“These and other recent developments pointing to deterioration in the government’s record raise questions about whether the days of turmoil and instability are over,” Golooba-Mutebi writes.
Paulson Semakula Luttamaguzi, MP (Nakaseke South) says the behaviour of untouchables shows Museveni is weakening.
“Look at Gen. Tumwine; he is supposed to pay Nommo Gallery billions of shillings but the weakening leadership of Museveni gives them leeway.” He says. “They just feel they cannot be punished.”
Nommo Gallery is owned by the Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC) and Speaker Kadaga has severally ordered Tumwine to pay arrears of over Shs1billion to the gallery and to vacate it. Tumwine’s company, Creations Limited, has occupied Nommo Gallery since 1998.
In 2013 when Gen. Tumwine, also an artist, was involved in a showdown with Pius Bigirimana, then Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, he said he is part of a group of artists who jointly own the Gallery. Bigirimana and the ministry of Gender, which supervises UNCC, refuted the General’s account and asked him to close shop and pay up.
Luttamaguzi says Tumwine and his ilk behave like princes in a kingdom of their own making. “The way he refused to pay debts shows they are just like princes in a kingdom where the king is just looking on. They all have a history of similar offences.”
Luttamaguzi said that it is the reason they are disrespectful of government institutions. Luttamaguzi tells The Independent that matters are not helped by a powerless parliament.
“Parliament is a castrated bull. Whatever we discuss, it cannot get implemented. There is no way other institutions can bring these people to order, if parliament has failed?” he says.
Tumwine, a former Chairman of the General Court Martial, the army court, once slapped Jacob Oulanyah, before the latter became deputy speaker, in parliament after a disagreement in the early 2000s. MPs like Kira Municipality’s Ibrahim Semujju often cite the incident whenever there is a discussion of errant behavior among UPDF high ranking officers.
Officials fear the untouchables
Ruth Nankabirwa is the Government Chief Whip supposed to handle errant members of the cabinet. But when The Independent spoke to her about the untouchable, she excused herself.
“I cannot make new rules. You forget that we have a leader of government business. He is my boss,” she said, “You can’t lump everything on the Government Chief Whip.”
She said the cabinet had set up a sub-committee headed by Gen. Moses Ali, the First Deputy Prime Minister, to enforce proper conduct among ministers.
“The cabinet was concerned in making sure that we all behave appropriately,” she said, “We will call anybody.”
On the case of Tumwine, Nankabirwa told The Independent the rules of parliament are sufficient.
“A whole General appeared before the committee (of Rules),” she said.
Tumwine was in August in the spotlight for allegedly questioning the powers of parliament and directives made by the Speaker Rebecca Kadaga. In the ensuing debate, Dokolo Woman MP Cecilia Ogwal accused Tumwine of assaulting her in the corridors of parliament. She said Tumwine drew a gun on her. In his defence, Tumwine said the accusations against him by Ogwal and other MPs were in bad faith. But Parliament’s Rules, Privileges and Discipline Committee found him guilty of assault and recommended that he be reprimanded. No punishment has been imposed at the time of writing this story. The chairperson of the committee Clement Ongalo-Obote could not be reached for comment.
Tumwine is currently the Minister of Security. He fired the first shot in the guerilla war that brought Museveni to power in 1986. Tumwine’s critics say his behavior likely started from this incident which made its way into history books.
Tumwine has been under fire in recent months over safe houses where torture is allegedly inflicted on the detainees in the ungazetted cells scattered across the country. MPs raised the concerns on the floor of Parliament. Tumwine has denied claims that safe houses are used as detention and torture facilities by security agencies. He told the Human Rights Committee of Parliament on Sept. 4 that safe houses owned by government are used for intelligence purposes and for providing safety to insecure individuals. But when MPs insisted on entering to examine some of the safe houses, Tumwine and other security bosses blocked them.
Talk and no action
It is possible to take actions on people like Kyaligonza, according to Abbas Agaba, MP for Kitagwenda County but he says that there are always intervening factors.
“Whenever there’s an opportunity to take action, there are negotiations on how the action is stopped,” he told The Independent.
Agaba cited the 2012 case in which the Constitutional Court ruled that the office of the Inspectorate of Government does not have powers to prosecute suspects implicated for corruption and abuse of office until it is fully constituted. Three ministers asked to step aside; Sam Kutesa, John Nasasira, and Mwesigwa Rukutana had challenged their trial by the IGG for corruption and causing financial loss to government.
He also cited the case of Minister of Finance Matia Kasaija who was supposed to appear before the Rules Committee for allegations he made about MPs being corrupt but it never happened due to “influence peddling”.
“You see at the start people are breathing fire and when it comes to interrogation, people are cooling down and the steam condenses into water,” he said.
On the Kyaligonza case, Agaba says MPs acted out of agitation.
“MPs wanted him recalled (from his diplomatic post) but is that provided for in the law? We should have asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to handle that matter.
“Parliament is not powerless but we should take action based on procedures not emotions,” he told The Independent.
Agaba says Museveni should take action as the appointing authority.
“Maybe he is keeping an eye on him and he has an explanation.”
But President Museveni has all but let the matter fade away. He only spoke about the incident on March 7 at a meeting of Great Lakes region ministers in charge of refugees.
“Recently, we had a retired General slapping a police woman and everyone shouted. Now, that General is facing the law because you are not allowed to slap and bark at people. He continued “If you are angry and aggressive, you can ask for permission and we deploy you to Somalia where aggressive services are needed.”
In May, three months after the incident, Museveni was seen in Hoima happily schmoozing with Kyaligonza.
According to analysts, this was Museveni’s way of ‘dealing’ with the incident since he always sides with troubled comrades.
Luttamaguzi says the presidency of Museveni abets the behavior of the untouchables.
“They are motivated by historical behavior in the Bush War. They thought they captured all state institutions when they captured power including parliament.
“You saw how Gen. Otafiire reacted when the Speaker tasked him to explain how he grabbed that land in Njeru,” Luttamaguzi told The Independent.
Credit: Independent Magazine