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How Museveni forgave archrival Rwakasiisi

By Andrew M. Mwenda

On June 30, President YoweriMuseveni was guest of honour at a function in Rutooma village in Kabwohe town in Sheema District – a new district that was carved out of the wider Bushenyi. The event was to celebrate the 110th birthday of Asanansio Rutimbirayo, father of Presidential Advisor on Special Duties, Cris Rwakasiisi. For those who know Uganda’s history, Rwakasiisi has been Museveni’s archrival.  In our continuing series on Museveni’s journey of reconciliation with former adversaries, we bring you the story of how the two men moved from bosom friends to bitter rivals and how they are attempting to repair their friendship.

At exactly 6.50 am on Sunday June 7, 2009, Joyce Rwakasiisi was intrigued by her cell-phone that was ringing with an unusual number – 041888888888888. When she picked, the caller said it was the switchboard at State House Nakasero and that President Yoweri Museveni wants to speak with Cris

Rwakasiisi. Joyce handed the phone to her husband.

“The President wants to speak to you,” she told him.

“The president,” Rwakasiisi answered, “Which president?”

“Yoweri Museveni,” Joyce said.

Rwakasiisi picked the phone.

“Cris Agandi,” the president’s voice boomed on line, “Ogumire?” (How are you Cris, are you well?)

“Nimarungi, Mr. President, shan’iwe?” (I am fine Mr. President, how about you?)

Rwakasiisi had been released on January 19, 2009 from Luzira Maximum Security Prison after spending 21 years on death row. He had been sentenced for murder on June 30, 1988. As he tried to absorb the shock of the telephone call, Museveni went on:

“Ninyenda tubugane nyenkyakare, oine obwire?” (I want us to meet tomorrow, do you have time?)

“Kandi obwa President nibubaasakubura?” Rwakasiisi answered (there is always time for a president).

The meeting was set for 5.30 pm the next day. After consulting with friends who have related to Museveni, Rwakasiisi was advised that whenever you go to see the President, prepare to wait for a long time – anything between four to six hours. Thus, when he entered the State House VIP waiting room at exactly 5 pm on Monday June 8, he was prepared for a long wait. Immediately upon sitting, attendants brought him a tray-full of an assortment of drinks and eats – as if he was being hosted to a feast – alone.

Although anxious about the meeting, he was also looking forward to it. Rwakasiisi, contrary to what many people think, was a very close friend to Museveni way back in 1970. In June of that year, a young Museveni had been recruited by Akena Adoko, then-head of the General Service Unit (GSU) – the civil intelligence arm of Milton Obote’s first government – to work in the State Research Bureau (SRB) in the president’s office. He was deployed in the Legal and Political Department headed by Rwakasiisi.

“We struck a friendship at first sight and immediately became close,” Rwakasiisi once told me in one of my visits to him in Luzira. “We always moved around in my car – I would drop him home in the evening or go to visit my current wife, whom I was then courting while she was still a student at Makerere University. I am told that today students call it “benching.”  So many evenings I would go benching with Museveni.”

Museveni was living in Kireka, in a middle-class housing estate in Kampala which the government had built. He was still fresh from university and did not have a car. But he had the fire of a revolutionary and the ambition of a politician, Rwakasiisi felt. At that time, the government was planning to hold elections in April 1971 under a unique electoral system called 1+3. This meant a candidate had to have a primary constituency – his or her home area – and then contest in at least one constituency in each of the other three regions of Uganda. It would be the national tally that would determine who goes to parliament. Obote had introduced this innovation to undermine candidate’s ties to their ethnic constituencies.

Rwakasiisi was not surprised when Museveni declared his intention to contest the Ankole North constituency. In fact, it was being eyed by the Vice President, John Babiiha, who wanted it to be his primary constituency. A Mutoro from Toro District at the time, Babiiha was also minister of animal husbandry and had done wonders in eliminating the Tsetse fly from most of Nyabushozi and Kazo areas. This made him feel confident to win over cattle keepers in the area. But Museveni would not hear any of that as he set out to take on a titan.

Rwakasiisi immediately became a campaign manager of sorts to the young firebrand, taking him to the area to introduce him to his father who was a Gombolola (Sub-county) chief at Kashongi. Rwakasiisi’s father offered to help Museveniby introducing him to chiefs and other influential opinion leaders in the area. This further cemented the relationship between the two so that when a few months later Idi Amin overthrew “their” government, Museveni and Rwakasiisi immediately decided to go to exile and planned to escape from the country together.

After Obote

As fate would have it, Rwakasiisi showed up at the rendezvous where they were supposed to meet but Museveni did not. Apparently, Museveni had left earlier for Tanzania to launch the anti-Amin struggle. However, when Museveni later formed the Front for National Salvation (FRONASA), he went to Nairobi to interest Rwakasiisi in joining it. Rwakasiisi was not willing to shift from the Uganda Peoples’ Congress because he had gotten so close to its leader, Obote, that he felt such an act would tantamount to betrayal. However, Museveni and Rwakasiisi remained close to the point that when Museveni was doing a fundraising drive for FRONASA in Nairobi at another date, Rwakasiisi, then a successful businessman in Kenya, contributed generously.

All these thoughts were going through Rwakasiisi’s mind when at exactly 5.30pm as agreed on phone, a State House protocol officer came and told him politely: “His Excellency is waiting for you.” Used to protocol, Rwakasiisi wondered why the protocol officer did not say “His Excellency is ready to see you.”

When he was ushered into the meeting room, he found the President sitting at the head of a long table. Instead of waiting for him to approach the table and wave him to take a seat without even shaking his hand, a common Museveni practice, the President this time walked from his chair and met his old friend half way through the room – again a very uncommon thing by the President.

As the two men embraced (hugged) – again something that Museveni rarely does with anyone – the President said in Kinyankore: “Buhooro, Buhooro-gye?” (Are you fine, very fine?) In Kinyankore culture, it is an elder that says buhooro, and the young party simply answers yes. It is discourteous for someone younger (in age and or status) to tell the elder party “buhooro.” So in the middle of the greeting, Museveni asked Rwakasiisi: “Baitu nyowe niiwe arukukira ondi noha?” (Who is the elder between the two of us?”).To which Rwakasiisi answered: Tinyembwenu! (It is of course me). Then Museveni asked Rwakasiisi to restart the greeting by him taking the lead of saying “buhooro.” And the entire greeting was now repeated.

After the “buhooro” greeting, Museveni said: “kurikayo omukihome” (welcome back from jail) to which Rwakasiisi answered: kurikayo omukishaka (welcome back from the bush struggle). When Rwakasiisi referred to Museveni as “Mr. President,” the president said that was inappropriate. They both agreed to refer to each other by the first names: Rwakasiisi would call Museveni, Yoweri while the president would refer to him as Cris.

Rwakasiisi’s case

For Museveni and Rwakasiisi, these few sentences meant a lot. Throughout all the times I visited him in jail, Rwakasiisi pleaded innocence to the crime for which he was sent on death row. He believed that his tragedy was largely a political matter. He once told me: “Museveni and I are professional security officers. We had a political disagreement that resulted into a military confrontation between us. I lost, he won. Professionally, we should meet and I congratulate him for winning and it ends there. Why does he keep me in jail when he knows I committed no wrong?”

For Museveni, although he (perhaps for partisan reasons) had always felt that there was a chance Rwakasiisi had committed the crime, he also had a lingering suspicion that there may be more to the story than most people had said. So his first question to Rwakasiisi was: “I have always wanted to know the truth about your case. Can you please explain it to me?”

Rwakasiisi went through the entire genesis of the story. Briefly, Rwakasiisi was the minister in the office of the president in charge of security during the Obote II administration. Military intelligence had reported that Museveni was hiding in a particular home in Mbarara. The Vice President and minister of defence, Paulo Muwanga, ordered the arrest of the people reported to be involved in the ring of hiding Museveni. The family members petitioned Rwakasiisi who asked Muwanga to release them. Muwanga did not. The family members then petitioned Obote through Rwakasiisi and the president ordered their release. When this was communicated to Muwanga, he instead moved fast and killed all of them in cold blood the next day.

Museveni listened to all this in complete silence keeping his eyes keenly glued on Rwakasiisi’s – perhaps to detect any lies through body language. After Rwakasiisi was done, Museveni breathed a big sigh of relief.

“Cris,” he said, “I am not a good Christian. However, I fear God. When they brought me your death warrant, I raised my hand to sign it three times… and three times something told me I should not sign it. I went to that corner over there (pointing to the right hand side of the room) and I prayed to God who told me that I should not sign your death warrant.”

The president then told Rwakasiisi that he had wanted to release him much earlier but had been under intense pressure “from many quarters.” He then asked Rwakasiisi if he was willing to meet the families of the victims who were killed and he tells them the true story. Rwakasiisi agreed.

Museveni also wanted to know how one of his colleagues, Sam Katabarwa, had died. Apparently, there had been a debate in the bushes of Luwero on a peace deal with the government. Katabarwa had led the forces that had supported talks. Also, Museveni had been in touch with Muwanga about talks. The two agreed that such an effort merited a try. Katabarwa was, therefore, sent as an emissary to begin the initial contact.

Rwakasiisi told Museveni that Katabarwa was supposed to meet with Captain Kagata Namiti at an agreed place in Wandegeya. However, Namiti had shared this information with the battalion commander of Bombo. The commanding officer instead decided to arrest Katabarwa. Rwakasiisi told Museveni that he suspects the Bombo commander killed Katabarwa.

However, the truth was unknown to Rwakasiisi. The last person to see Katabarwa was actually a UPC functionary called Yoga Adhola. Adhola had been in FRONASA with Museveni, heading its publicity wing. The military had tried to use torture to extract information from Katabarwa without much success. It was decided that it was better to engage him intellectually than kill him. In pursuit of this objective, the government felt that for an intellectually astute person like Katabarwa, they need an intellectual of equal excellence to engage him. His friend Adhola was brought as the person to play this role. Adhola told me he last saw Katabarwa on the night of July 26, 1985; the Obote government fell the next day. He suspects that the soldiers may have killed him as they cleaned house in the last hours before escape.

When he looked at the clock, Museveni noticed that two hours had passed since he and Rwakasiisi began talking. He had not even noticed that time was passing so fast. The meeting was therefore a combination of two things: old friends reuniting after a long time during which each one of them went through an odyssey; but it would also be a meeting of two bitter rivals in Uganda’s ugly contest for power. How had these two former friends become bitter rivals willing to kill each other?

Fighting Amin

Museveni’s parting with Rwakasiisi was actually shaped by the latter’s friendship with Obote. In December 1979, Obote had called Rwakasiisi from Nairobi saying that then-Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere, wanted to see him. Rwakasiisi went to stay at Obote’s residence in Musasani, Dar es Salaam where Nyerere came to visit on December 28 and talked to Rwakasiisi.

At the time, Tanzanian troops were deep inside Uganda supported by two Ugandan military groups: FRONASA under Museveni taking the Western Axis (Mbarara to Masindi) and KikosiMaalumu, a pro-Obote unit under Col. Oyite Ojok taking the Central Axis through Masaka to Kampala.

It seems Obote had convinced Nyerere that Museveni did not have much support in western Uganda as he had told the Tanzanian president. Thus, at the meeting, Nyerere asked Rwakasiisi to go to the Western Axis to build another Ugandan force there. This, it seems, is what set the stage for the bitter rivalry that was to emerge between Museveni and Rwakasiisi.

This initial conflict was later made worse when Rwakasiisi became the all-powerful minister for security in Obote’spost-1980 government, a factor that placed him in direct charge of security operations against Museveni who had launched a post-election rebel movement. By the time Obote’sgovernment  fell and Museveni took over power, Rwakasiisi was the most feared, hated and reviled actor in Obote’s inner circle.

It appears this bitter political rivalry did not extinguish their once shared friendship. Obote once told me that during the struggle in Luwero, he had ordered Rwakasiisi to take care of Museveni’s parents, a duty Rwakasiisi must have executed well since none of Museveni’s parents was killed. Perhaps it was because of this that when Rwakasiisi was diagnosed with diabetes in December 1995, Museveni sent him his personal legal secretaries – Fox Adoi and Mike J. Chibita – to visit him. After they reported back to the President, Museveni again sent Rwakasiisi his personal doctor to examine him. From then, the government of Uganda would buy all the drugs Rwakasiisi needed for his treatment – drugs that were very expensive. That is how the mending of fences, which culminated in Museveni attending the 110th birthday celebrations of Rwakasiisi’s father on June 30, started.

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