Wednesday, May 31, 2023

KALUNDI SERUMAGA – Uganda: What Went Wrong With Human Rights Discourse?

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It may be difficult to recreate a sense of just how central human rights issues were to Ugandan politics, and therefore how instrumental they were in building and feeding the legend of the National Resistance Movement (NRM).

Between 1962 and 1986, Uganda was caught in an entrenched and mounting human rights crisis that characterized all her national life. Everything was about disappearances, detentions, bans, exiles and executions. It was our defining feature and something that, due to its very heart-rending nature, was also easily turned into media material.

This fully matured during the reign of General Amin where the combination of wholesale political exclusion, Western racism, and a mounting economic crisis led to a virtual carnival of language and imagery that really entrenched the notion of rights violations as being Uganda’s fundamental problem. The 1980-1985 anti-Obote war was merely the final point of that. Beyond the political differences, human rights violations were the struggle’s lowest common denominator: they were accessible, human, unifying.

This is where the NRM became important, because its unique selling point in Uganda politics was as being the entity that finally “found the medicine” that enabled the country to solve this problem and therefore allowed us to move on to other things. This is of course completely untrue as everyone can now see. However, the point is not that it has become untrue through some backsliding over the years; the point is that it was never true. All that has changed is people’s perception of the same things.

If we are to put it in modern terms, we would say that human rights was NRM’s “brand”; the thing that defined its public identity. So, what went wrong?

One perhaps needed to have been there, alive and aware, at the time of the NRA victory, to fully understand this.

However popular Robert Kyagulanyi is now as an inspiring insurgent figure, his popularity is nothing compared to that which a youthful and inspiring Yoweri Museveni enjoyed between 1985 and maybe 1990. This speaks to just how significant the arrival of the NRM was: Museveni, and the various smaller versions of himself to be found in his various war-hero commanders, were virtual gods.

Nothing wrong could be said about them. One risked insults, ostracism, physical violence and open ridicule for making even the most basic negative remark. And this not from the regime itself, but from ordinary members of the public. I know, because I was at the receiving end of all that throughout the 1980s and beyond (even at the extended family level). It’s what developed my interest in education issues, because it was then that I first fully realized that the Ugandan education system is designed to train people in how to not think, and therefore not reason, and that, in particular, there is nothing as manipulable as an excited [wo]man, especially one that considers themselves “educated”.

As said, the image is completely undeserved of course, despite what even some opposition and wider human rights activists say: that the regime has “started” human rights violations with the abductions and other things we now see. This is very uninformed in many cases. In other cases, it is just very intellectually dishonest.

NRM human rights violations began immediately after they took power and have never stopped. A good early example of the actual view of their leadership on the matter was the warning to “lock up [the media] under the [Milton Obote created] 1967 Detention laws, if they continue to malign the good name of the NRA” given by none other than new president Yoweri Museveni himself, on the 18th of February 1987.

NRM human rights violations began immediately after they took power and have never stopped.

The venerable journalist Tony Owana was one of the victims of the attitude back then. Other victims of the true nature of the NRM were Jacob Oulanyah who was among the students shot by the Ugandan police during a peaceful demonstration against Makerere University cost-cutting; and Charles Rwomushana, whose 1995 parliamentary ambitions were summarily crushed during the election campaigns by the violence from the supporters of his NRM big-shot rival.

As said, what has changed, in the main, is the wider public perception of the violations. So the real problem with these abductions is that the logic, framework and arguments for human rights were themselves abducted a very long time ago. And their custodians did not file any complaints at the time. Now these new victims do.

For example, Charles Rwomushana, despite his unfair treatment by the NRM (and incidentally having been, he claims, also among the aforementioned demonstrating students), went on to a long career in our famously partisan state intelligence services, and now spends his days as a media contortionist speaking for the opposition on the behalf of the government (I think. Or something).

The late Mr Oulanyah of course went on to become an NRM voice in his home area, and through them, was elevated to parliamentary speakership.

Mr Owana is a dedicated cadre of the NRM of decades. He once told me that his detention (in a military barracks) had been as a result of a news source misleading him with information. He did not seem to have an opinion on the manner of the detention itself.

Again, the point was not that human rights were not being violated back then. Rather, that the then generation of young activists that saw the violations first-hand decided that they could live with them while in pursuit of other things.

A very pertinent example is a recent tweet by veteran women’s rights activist Winnie Byanyima who began her political career as a dedicated NRM cadre, before famously falling out with it and becoming an opposition stalwart. She was commenting approvingly after an encounter with one Ms Jane Francis Abodo, Uganda’s current Director of Public Prosecutions.

“@EBBairport lucky to bump into Uganda’s Director of Public Prosecutions & introduce myself. One of many brilliant young Ugandan women in senior public roles. I don’t usually agree with the man in the hat, but on giving young women opportunity to lead I [salute emoji] him!”

Those three short sentences carry a universe of meaning in regard to the death of human rights as a constitutional concern.

Of course “the man in the hat” being referred to is President Museveni. And indeed, he was present in the form of an official portrait hanging on the wall behind the two ladies in the photo accompanying the tweet.

This suggested the VIP lounge at the airport. Which would be the logical place for two high-powered personages (Ms Byanyima is currently the head of a United Nations Agency) to be while traveling.

Ms Abodo’s office currently sits at the heart of Uganda’s mounting human rights debacle.

First, the current wave of abductions is an attempt by the regime to sidestep the legal requirement of due process in which somebody is expe