By Obed K Katureebe
Since Mr Chris Rutimbirayo Rwakasisi walked out of Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Kampala on January 20, speculation has been rife as why President Yoweri Museveni pardoned the man who spent 20 years on death row.
Rwakasisi, who was the minister for security in the late former President Milton Obote II government, was arrested during the 1985 coup of the late Gen. Tito Okello Lutwa. He was on June 30, 1988 convicted on six counts of kidnap with intent to murder. He was sentenced to death.
According to very reliable sources, Rwakasisi owes his freedom not to Museveni’s magnanimity but to the complicated politics of Bushenyi district come 2011.
Bushenyi is a power-house of Uganda’s politics. Prominent NRM politicians from Bushenyi include Local Government minister, Kahinda Otafiire, Disaster Preparedness minister Tarsis Kabwegyere, State minister for Industry Ephraim Kamuntu, Supreme Court judge Bart Katureebe, ex-NRM minister Richard Kaijuka and ex-East African Community secretary general Amanya Mushega.
During Obote II era, Bushenyi had prominent politicians like Yona Kanyomozi, Adonia Tiberondwa, and Edward Rurangaranga.
Bushenyi residents gave Obote his famous pet name; Nyamurunga, or pure white bird after he set up the ‘Uganda Village’ in Ishaka where pilgrims would flock every May 27 for the so-called ‘Heroes Day’.
Before the 2006 presidential election, Museveni sought to counter that by donating over 100 exotic cattle to peasants in Ruharo, Bumbaire sub-county to set up a model firm.Under Museveni, Bushenyi has become the ‘model district’ in the model region of western Uganda. In return, Bushenyi consistently voted massively for President Museveni in every election.
But Museveni never takes chances with Bushenyi. ‘Museveni’s politics has always been a battle against Obote and Bushenyi the battlefield,’ a prominent citizen told The Independent.’ ‘Rwakasisi’s pardon is Museveni’s latest ploy to ensure that he doesn’t lose Bushenyi in 2011.’
It all started with the success of something called Ebiganiiro, the ‘let’s-sit-and-talk’ sessions modelled on old Ankole culture and organised by Bushenyi politicians opposed to Museveni’s continued rule. In February last year, he visited the area when talk of Ebiganiiro first surfaced and started his own grassroots rallies under the guise of his Bona bagagawale (Prosperity for All) programme.
It was during this visit that he made the now famous remark about: ‘I hunted and killed my animal, now they want me to go, where should I go?’
At a rally at Mungonya village in Kyeizooba-Igara, Museveni said in Runyankole: ‘Niinye nahiigire enyamaishwa yangye nkagiita, mbwenu ngu ngyende, nzehi?’
|‘ The Rwakasisi I know|
|I was very close to Rwakasisi when we were in government. As the in-charge of party affairs at the headquarters, I saw that he was a peace maker and a great mobiliser for the party.’ He looks strong and healthy which is a manifestation of strong will. As you know he is a born-again Christian like myself so he has the spirit to move through great challenges.
Miria Obote, UPC president
Rwakasisi was one of our ministers. He was involved in the struggle to remove Amin. He was also the one who prevailed on my late husband to leave the country when the coup happened. He said ‘look you have got to leave now’. He was in Parliament at the time where he just left like that without even reaching home. Am very grateful to Rwakasisi because if he did not do so, may be my late husband could have died at that time.
Rwakasisi is a very strong person, because we did not know what to expect when we went to receive him from prison; we were a little apprehensive at first. But we were encouraged to find a very strong person more than some of us, very cheerful. I am grateful that he has been pardoned.
Yonah Kanyomozi, ex-minister
The three sentences to describe Rwakasisi are that; He is consistent; He is a dynamic person; He is unbwogable(literally meaning he is unstoppable). You see all these in the way he conducts himself.
John Ssebaana Kizito, DP president
He was in charge of security in the times of Obote terror. He was very much feared by everybody during the time he was minister. All over the country he was feared. Rwakasisi was in charge of a gang of crooks and his men were responsible for the terror and killing of many people around the country.
In December last year, President Museveni rushed to Bushenyi again reportedly after his research team told him the Mushega-Kaijuka ekiganiiro group was eroding his support. It is symbolic for Museveni to win in Bushenyi, highly placed sources in State House said. ‘With the Mushegas and Kaijukas quitting NRM, the source said, ‘Museveni hopes to bolster his position by getting the old UPC on his side.’ That is how Rwakasisi’s pardon comes in. According to the source, Museveni kept Rwakasisi in prison as his ‘reserve card’.
Initially, Museveni had vowed never to sign Rwakasisi’s execution order or his release certificate. But as Museveni campaigned in Bushenyi late last year literally visiting every household trying to neutralise the opposition, prominent NRM elders led by Ezra Kikuri, a presidential adviser, Bushenyi former LCV chairman Yowasi Makaaru and former’ UPC diehard but now NRM zealot Yorokamu Bashaasha convinced him to release Rwakasisi.
They argued the act would portray Museveni as a magnanimous president devoid of vindictiveness. They told him that much as Rwakasisi was still unrepentant, Museveni would score big among the former UPC followers in western Uganda if he released him. It was also designed to disarm some opposition politicians campaigning on tribal and ethnic sentiments in this fragile region.
Religious leaders, especially the bishops from the Anglican and Catholic denominations from the Ankole region also pleaded with Museveni to release Rwakasisi.’ But Museveni kept telling them that he would look into their demands.’
Museveni was at crossroads. First, he had to convince the families of the people Rwakasisi was convicted of kidnapping to bury the hatchet and not to feel betrayed.’ Museveni reportedly held several meetings with them.
But Minister Ephraim Kamuntu dismissed talk of politicking around Rwakasisi’s pardon. Asked if the president was not responding to the recent reports that both Mushega and Kaijuka were taking away most of the NRM supporters in Bushenyi area through the ebiganiiro gatherings, Kamuntu said that it cannot be true. ‘Kaijuka brought Besigye to Bushenyi in 2006 and people rejected him in broad daylight,’ he said, ‘My brother, that theory is not true at all.’
Kamuntu further defended Rwakisisi on the numerous allegations that he killed several people. ‘What is very important is that as countrymen, we should avoid conditions that bring civil wars in this country. Otherwise brothers will kill brothers, parents will kill their sons,’ Kamuntu said rather philosophically.
Rwakasisi is a legend in western Uganda. Tales, both true and false, are told about him. A popular one is about the day Mbarara High Court judge Ignatius Mukanza sentenced him to be hanged. Rwakasisi reportedly requested for one moment to say something. Rwakasisi reportedly said he was grateful that he was to die rather than live under the regime of President Museveni. Everybody in the courtroom was shocked except those who knew Rwakasisi well.
Apparently, that was a consistent Rwakasisi line. During his time as minister, Rwakasisi, while addressing residents of Rubindi, Kashari in Mbarara district in early 1981, assured them that if Museveni and his supporters were not careful, he was going to finish them off such that the coming generation would ask what they looked like. ‘Mugambire ka Museveni na beene wabo ngu nitwiija kukashanga Luwero tukatsigyeyo’‘ ‘ literally translated to mean, Tell this Museveni and his kinsmen that we will follow him in Luwero and kill him.
The pandagari epoch
While serving as minister of state for security in whose docket fell the dreaded National Security Agency (NASA), Rwakasisi oversaw the operations against Museveni’s NRA rebels. NASA operatives often descended on ethnic communities in western Uganda believed to support Museveni and many people disappeared. Tales abound about a Nazi-like torture chamber at Kamukuzi near Mbarara town where hundreds of alleged Museveni supporters were horded for torture before being transferred to Kampala where many were murdered. The NASA command post was at Nile Mansions, now Kampala Serena Hotel, and Kireka barracks, now Rapid Response Unit headquarters.
Rwakasisi belonged to the radical group of UPC of Dr John Luwuliza-Kirunda from the Busoga region, Masette Kuya from Mbale, Peter Otai from Teso, Rurangaranga and the late Hajji Musa Sebirumbi from Luwero. Sebirumbi was hanged on April 28, 1999 for participating in the murder of one Edidian Luttamaguzi, a Museveni collaborator during the 1980s bush war in Luwero.’ ‘
Believing that Rwandan Tutsi, who comprised both the Rwandan refugees and the indigenous ones, were covertly supporting Museveni, Rwakasisi told Parliament Rwandans in Uganda be sent back to Rwanda.
His motion was opposed but NASA went on to expel the Rwandans in a brutal campaign against those suspected of supporting Museveni. Homes were torched in broad daylight without any notice and hundreds of thousands of families lost their property including their cattle to UPC youth-wingers.
A story is told about how, while chairing the council meeting at Kamukuzi Hall in Mbarara for the UPC youth wingers who had gathered for the final briefing on how to expel Rwandans, one of the attendants sought clarification on how to handle the exercise since not all Rwandans were refugees. He highlighted the issue of the indigenous Ugandan Rwandans who were born here over a hundred years ago.
Rwakasisi reportedly said: ‘Let me ask you. When a dog litters puppies in a cows’ kraal, do the puppies turn into calves?’
The UPC youth brigade descended on the helpless Rwandans and reigned havoc with the help of the Special Force soldiers.
This move turned out to be a real boomerang. The expelled Rwandan youths who had lost everything chose to run to the bush and reinforced the Museveni guerillas. In fact, Museveni’s fighting force grew after the 1982 Rwandan expulsion.
Rwakasisi used his powerful oratory skills to instill fear among those who sought to oppose the UPC regime. His NASA boys were the most resourced security apparatus during the Obote II regime. They moved around in black Mercedes Benz – Cross Country and had lots of money to spend. He was the only minister who had female escorts and very beautiful female drivers chauffeuring him across the country. While addressing rallies across the country, he would pull out a huge cigar, dip it in a big glass of whisky and then would light it and begin puffing away. He would assure his listeners that not even God could remove Obote and UPC from office.
‘One time Rwakasisi blocked us from taking shelter during a hailstorm just because we could not leave Dr Obote speaking at a rally at Ishaka grounds,’ said Justus Muhanguzi a resident of Bushenyi.’ ‘Are you made of clay that can be dissolved by rain?’ Rwakasisi reportedly asked.
He would subject all able-bodied residents of Bushenyi to forced labour at the famous Bushenyi Village ahead of the annual UPC pilgrimage. With such memories, it is unclear what impact Museveni’s pardoning of Rwakasisi might have on his political fortunes in Bushenyi.